In the 100 years since Ezra Pound first urged Poetry Foundation founder Harriet Monroe to publish “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the poetry of T.S. Eliot has stood with stubborn authority atop the 20th century canonical heap. Eliot’s idiosyncratic panoramics of a civilization in crisis and the penetrating gaze he casts into the human psyche have secured him a place as both hero and antihero of modernism — a timeless presence, with a life “measured out . . . with coffee spoons.”
But despite the way Eliot’s poems plumb his own psychological depths for their emotional weight and encompass his life of learning for their allusory breadth, they couldn’t rightly be called autobiographical — that is, Eliot’s poetry reveals far more about how he is than who he is.
Eliot was not keen on his own personal biography, a fact that Robert Crawford confronts head-on in “Young Eliot.” Chronicling the early years of Eliot’s life presents a special challenge, as a great deal of his correspondence was later destroyed at the poet’s request, and Crawford laments that between the ages of 16 and 22 (the age when most of “Prufrock” was composed), only a single postcard of his remains. Still, “Young Eliot” draws from a range of interviews, memoirs, archival documents, and Eliot’s own prose and poetry in an attempt to introduce to readers an Eliot few know (even going so far as to call him “Tom” throughout).
Part of this obstructed view has to do with the way we encounter Eliot through the voice of his speakers — maudlin, droll, weary, wily, burdened by learning, life, and time. Crawford begins and ends his book with the notion (hard to contest) that Eliot, understood strictly through his poems, was “never young.” And his poems, with their vast referential reach, can sometimes seem too big to originate from one mind, let alone one that once belonged to a child. Crawford points to a reliance some readers perceive in Eliot on “recondite literary tradition,” which sends “readers off to the library and away from the poet’s biography.”
“Young Eliot” follows Tom from his childhood in St. Louis (a city “too far north to be a Southern city, and too southern in its social characteristics to be a Northern city; with all the polish and finish of an Eastern center, and yet toned by all the warmth and spirited verve of a Western metropolis”), through his travels and schooling, into his tumultuous marriage with Vivienne Haigh-Wood (which exhausted them both for different reasons), and the publication of his first major poems. It concludes with the emergence of Eliot’s own journal, the Criterion, and his stormy composition and custodianship of “The Waste Land,” a sequence which has come to be considered a poetic counterpart to the rich modernist monument of Joyce’s “Ulysses” (which Eliot greatly admired) for the way it diffuses storytelling into something more like a mythic field of what Crawford calls “infinitely expanding resonances.”
This journey can, at times, read a bit dry; Eliot’s weariness can occasionally prove contagious. But the most revelatory parts of “Young Eliot” are those glimpses we get of Tom as a boy in St. Louis, summering in Gloucester, and slowly growing more aware of the burdens of his lineage — the weight of his distinguished family line, as well as his family’s devout Unitarianism (tempered by a Calvinist streak), led Eliot to “verse that has its roots in a childhood sense of a tension between propriety and its enemies.”
Crawford’s portrayal of young Tom (who would soon enough be known fondly by Pound as “Old Possum”) shines a light on his poetry that enhances more than it answers. We see Tom — frail, shy but mischievous, big-eared, donning a truss under his clothes — clutching his stuffed dog and sneaking into the playground of the girls’ school next door on weekends.
And while that innocence is long gone by the time “Prufrock’’ shows up, the influence of his childhood homes registers throughout his work — listen in poems like “The Waste Land,” or “The Dry Salvages," or “Prufrock,” and you can hear echoes of the thunderous cyclones that struck St. Louis, or the clinking halyards of Gloucester schooners. Crawford’s account lends something special to Eliot’s poems — not just a refreshed sensory palette, but a personal presence, a bloodstream. Where so often we go to Eliot’s poems for a glimpse at humanity, Crawford helps us find something human, a man who dares to “[d]isturb the universe.”
From St. Louis to The Waste Land
By Robert Crawford
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
512 pp., illustrated, $35Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.