Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land review – an impressive monograph of Old Possum’s early years

The first official biography of TS Eliot, covering his life up to The Waste Land, is both compelling and revelatory

Young Eliot marks both a milestone and a turning point. First, it coincides with the 50th anniversary of his death. Old Possum still dominates Parnassus as the greatest English or American poet of the last century, an achievement that adds to the impossible grandeur of Eliot’s artistic posterity. The maintenance of this reputation has been the self-motivated duty of the poet’s estate, represented by his second wife, Valerie, a heady cocktail of Ophelia and Mistress Quickly with a splash of White Witch, the archetype of the literary widow.

Which brings us to the turning point. Since Valerie Eliot’s death in November 2012, there has been a great thaw in Narnia. Once upon a time, there could never be an authorised life, not even by the late Richard Ellmann. Now the estate has bestowed its blessing on his protege, Robert Crawford, a seasoned Eliot scholar.

This passport to Eldorado offers less of a bonanza than expected. Eliot’s suppression of his own biography was ruthless. Between 1905, for instance, and the winter of 1910, just one postcard survives. Letters to his parents and almost all his correspondence with his first wife were also destroyed. Crawford has not been cowed by this Great Repression. Indeed, he rebukes Eliot’s ghost. Biography, he challenges, makes “an artistic narrative that averts caricature and illuminates both poet and poetry”.

Previous unauthorised biographers, frozen out by the estate, were forced to cover these crucial first 21 years in about 21 pages. Crawford, by contrast, has dug deep, excavating Eliot’s life, from childhood in the ragtime city of St Louis, to The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, to the 1922 publication of The Waste Land.

The estate, having taken a chance on a poet known for his life of Burns, will be delighted with its experiment. Despite misguidedly naming its subject “Tom” throughout, Young Eliot is judicious, sympathetic, meticulous and sometimes plodding, but it can hardly fail. The story it tells of a great poet’s early life is enthralling.

Crawford’s portrait of the midwesterner who left home at the first opportunity, defied his parents, and committed himself to an English exile during the great war, reveals a shy, brilliant and deeply wounded young man, tormented by a prolonged struggle to reconcile his public and private face. The upshot was a kind of premature senescence, in which he became “Old Possum”, the “pope of Russell Square”, and (for Ted Hughes) “the Guru-in-Chief”.

“I grow old, I grow old…” From Prufrock’s first appearance, Eliot was always putting his youth behind him. He was, as Crawford says, “never young” but disguised a mischievous youthfulness, the “Tom” that Valerie championed. Born in 1888, the same year as Raymond Chandler, his childhood was shaped by three handicaps: elderly parents, a posh pedigree, and a truss.

Henry (Hal) and Charlotte (Lottie) Eliot, both 45 at their son’s birth, were minor American aristocracy with family connections to Melville, Hawthorne and president John Adams. Lottie was a frustrated poet and antisemite with, in her own words, “an instinctive antipathy to Jews”. Hal was a high-minded, cold and repressive businessman for whom syphilis was “God’s punishment” and sex a “nastiness”.

Adored by his parents, and embarrassed by his sticking-out ears, young Eliot had another reason to feel singular. Born with a congenital double hernia, he wore a truss from childhood. With his masculinity cosseted and his natural shyness nurtured by Lottie’s “mother-love”, but blessed with an extraordinary ear for the music of words, the boy took refuge in books and writers, with a special fondness for Conan Doyle. Throughout this early life, there are also some covert intimations of homosexuality which Crawford grapples with sporadically. He also cordons off that other, notorious parental legacy – Eliot’s antisemitism – as part of his “early conditioning”.

With such antecedents, it’s no surprise that, consciously or not, the boy should rebel and then break loose. Adolescent transgression came in the form of his bawdy King Bolo and Columbo poems. Once his Harvard career was over, Eliot was crossing to Paris, Germany and England.

Eliot’s “Oxford year” (1914-15) is decisive. It’s now that he encounters Ezra Pound. Soon after, perhaps betrayed by his “genius for dancing”, he met and married his first wife, Vivien(ne) Haigh-Wood. This self-inflicted wound, by Crawford’s account, holds the key to The Waste Land and also to the ageing of TS Eliot. “All I wanted of Vivien,” he later wrote, cruelly, “was a flirtation.” He persuaded himself he was in love, “because I wanted to burn my boats” and stay in England with Pound.

young eliot review robert crawford
TS Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood with Virginia Woolf (centre). Photograph: CSU Archv/Everett/Rex Features

The marriage was a write-off from the first night. To his frustrated wife, tricked out in black silk, Eliot became “dearest Wonkypenky”, suggesting sexual difficulties. Vivien turned to Bertrand Russell, the champion of free love, for comfort. By mid-1915, “Bertie”, a lethal mix of feminist and libertine, was “all over” Mrs Eliot, finding her “a little vulgar, adventurous and full of life”. Eliot, he decided, was “ashamed of his marriage”.

Soon, the newlyweds were living in Russell’s spare bedroom and Vivien, when not flirting with Bertie, was racked with the afflictions that dominated her marriage: nerves, hysteria, colitis, neuralgia, stomach cramps and migraines. Too late, Eliot discovered that his wife was “extraordinarily underdeveloped, almost childish”, and seems to have become enraged by it.

Life chez Tom and Viv was certainly no picnic. To Lady Ottoline Morrell, who dominated the circles in which the newlyweds were moving, Eliot was “the Undertaker”. His poem Gerontion speaks of “a chilled delirium”.

In extremis emotionally, while struggling professionally to make ends meet, Eliot began to compose the lines that would morph into a long poem with the working title “He Do The Police in Different Voices”. Vivien continued to sleep, off and on, with Bertie while Tom slogged away at Lloyds Bank and moonlighted on the Egoist and the Criterion. “Glad this awful year is over,” wrote Vivien at the end of 1919. “Next probably worse.” Eliot, almost as fragile as his wife, took himself off to Lausanne to consult a therapist. It was here that he wrote the haunting last verses of his work-in-progress as if “in a trance”.

In this tragedy, there was one last act to come. Throughout 1922, while her semi-estranged husband wrestled with the final draft of The Waste Land, Vivien was undergoing a new treatment, Ovarian Opocaps, from “the glands of animals”, plus a starvation diet. The result was the same-old same-old: colitis, high temperatures, insomnia and migraine.

She was descending into madness. He was “playing dead” as “Old Possum”. He was also becoming rather English, and would later dismiss The Waste Land as “a piece of rhythmical grumbling” by the elderly figure named TS Eliot. It was as if, concludes Crawford at the climax of this impressive monograph, “he had never been young”.

Young Eliot is published by Jonathan Cape (£25). Click here to order it for £20


Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Young Eliot: From St Louis to the Waste Land by Robert Crawford – review
A strait-laced upbringing and a disastrous marriage taught the young TS Eliot to camouflage his emotions

Sarah Churchwell

11, Feb, 2015 @7:30 AM

Article image
The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis – genesis of a masterpiece
Hollis brilliantly sifts through the tendrils of TS Eliot’s unhappiness and shows how, with help from friends, he broke through his tortured silence to create an era-defining poem

Tim Adams

09, Oct, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land by Robert Crawford – digested read
John Crace condenses the biography of the dancing, smiling, velocipede-riding future poet to a more rhythmic 700 words

John Crace

01, Feb, 2015 @5:00 PM

Article image
The 100 best nonfiction books: No 46 – The Waste Land by TS Eliot (1922)
TS Eliot’s long poem, written in extremis, came to embody the spirit of the years following the first world war

Robert McCrum

12, Dec, 2016 @5:45 AM

Article image
The Letters of TS Eliot Volume 3: 1926-1927 edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden – review

The latest volume of TS Eliot's letters shows him dogged by his wife's madness and accusations of racism, writes Craig Raine

Craig Raine

30, Jun, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
The Letters of TS Eliot: Volume 4, 1928-1929 – review
Old Possum reveals his weaselly side in a volume of letters that concentrates on TS Eliot's work at the Criterion magazine, says Adam Mars-Jones

Adam Mars-Jones

10, Jan, 2013 @11:00 AM

Article image
David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet by Thomas Dilworth review – tale of a troubled genius
The story of the eccentric and exceptionally talented David Jones, who couldn’t wait to go off to the trenches, makes fascinating reading

Rachel Cooke

11, Apr, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Review: TS Eliot by Craig Raine

Craig Raine's new study of TS Eliot attempts to disinter the poet's buried life, but only really succeeds in the appendix, says Tom Paulin.

Tom Paulin

07, Jan, 2007 @12:02 AM

Article image
The Professor of Poetry by Grace McCleen – review
Grace McCleen's second novel is a deft campus romance between an aloof poetry professor and her one-time mentor, writes Hephzibah Anderson

Hephzibah Anderson

28, Jul, 2013 @7:30 AM

Article image
Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou; Walking Home by Simon Armitage – review
Tim Dee falls in step with Nick Papadimitriou and Simon Armitage as they embark on revelatory treks through the English landscape

Tim Dee

30, Jun, 2012 @11:05 PM