Title: T.S.Eliot: An Imperfect Life
Author: Lyndall Gordon
Publisher: Vintage, Random House (December 1998)
ISBN: 0 09 974221 7
Price: A$19.95 (paperback) 721 pages

Reviewed by Ann Skea (http://ann.skea.com)

“… he devised his own biography, enlarging in poem after poem on the character of a man who conceives of life as a spiritual quest… ”

T.S.Eliot, during his lifetime, refused to allow anyone to write an official biography. He was an intensely reserved and private individual. And he was especially secretive about his thirty-year friendship with Emily Hale, who believed that he loved her and would eventually marry her. The friendship survived Eliot’s refusal to marry Emily when his first wife, Vivienne, died in 1947. But he broke off all ties with her in 1956 when she gave her letters from him to Princeton University Library. He required them to be sealed until fifty years after the death of the survivor (they become available in 2019), and it is thought that, at the same time, he destroyed all the letters Emily had written to him. Few people knew about this until Lyndall Gordon began her research into Eliot’s life.

Others who believed themselves to be close friends, like Mary Trevelyan and John Hayward, his “two closest friends from the late forties to the mid-fifties”, also came to realise how little they really knew Eliot. Yet, Lyndall Gordon, using Eliot’s poetry and plays as her guide and consulting as many primary sources as she could discover, has done a superb job of writing a biography of this secretive, difficult, imperfect and driven man.

Gordon began her research in 1970. Her first book, Eliot’s Early Years, was published in 1977 and its sequel, Eliot’s New Life, in 1988. This present book is the result of further research and new information (much of which came to the author in response to her earlier publications), including new access to Eliot manuscripts; confidential letters regarding Eliot written by Emily Hale to close friends; Mary Trevelyan’s unpublished memoir of her close friendship with Eliot; and a bundle of Eliot’s letters which were rescued from an English pig farmer who was about to destroy them.

I did not read Lyndall Gordon’s earlier books, so, much of this book was new to me. I am consumed with admiration and envy at the superb job she has done in recording Eliot’s life through his poetry and plays in an easily readable, knowledgeable, sensitive and objective style. It helps if the reader knows Eliot’s poetry fairly well, but this is not essential and in many cases Gordon’s comments elucidate Eliot’s meaning and make his poetry more accessible to the general reader.

Gordon points to two seminal moments in Eliot’s life as the source of his lifelong quest: a moment of silence in a Boston street in 1910, when he was suddenly convinced that “life is justified”; and a similar moment years later in the Rose Garden at Burnt Norton. These fleeting apprehensions of something beyond the chaotic flux of daily life, working on a man whose ancestry, upbringing and education had fostered the religious and philosophical side of his character, came to dominate his life. Through his poetry, he struggled for understanding, for humility and for blessedness. And his Puritanical zeal – his distaste for worldly things – made him a sharp commentator on the specific ills of the twentieth century. For many who bought his poetry, and it was amazingly popular, his was a prophetic voice decrying the evils which surrounded them.

Gordon makes no bones of Eliot’s anti-Semitism. She comments that “biographers, of all people, know it is naive to expect the great to be good”. And she points out that, although anti-Semitism is often considered to be “a commonplace of the time”, other writers of Eliot’s milieu “countered it in different ways”. She points, also, to his misogyny, his lack of sensitivity to the feelings of others, and to his single-minded dedication to achieving his own salvation.

In his dealings with women, and often in his depiction of them in his work, Eliot is easy to fault. Yet Gordon disposes of some myths surrounding his relationship with his first wife, Vivienne, showing her to be a strong influence on his work but a neurotic character. Her eventual incarceration in a mental asylum, some time after Eliot had left her, was the responsibility of her brother, although Eliot did nothing to oppose it.

Gordon’s attribution of specific identities to some of the women in ‘The Waste Land’ is more controversial. Ted Hughes, for one, saw all these women as one woman – the “essential female”; the desecrated “sacred feminine source of Love”; the feminine aspect of Tiresius who, according to Eliot, is “the most important figure in the poem” and in whose voice he specifically notes that the women meet (Hughes, A Dancer to God, Faber, 1992).

Gordon began, perhaps, by taking up Helen Gardner’s suggestions, in The Art of T.S.Eliot (Faber, 1949), that elements of Eliot’s poetry recall episodes in his life, and that Eliot was a confessional and visionary poet. Gordon elaborates these views with great skill, in great detail, and with meticulous care to stay close to her primary sources. She is acute in showing the persistence of Eliot’s American origins both in his efforts to “make his life conform to the pilgrim pattern”, and in the echoes of place and voice which occur in his poetry. It was fascinating to read, for example, that Ezra Pound noted the rhythms of the Bay State Hymn Book of early Massachusetts settlers in Eliot’s early poetic quatrains.

Half-way through Gordon’s book, I began to doubt some attributions of specific biographical identities and events to parts of ‘Four Quartets’, and I turned to Helen Gardner for another point of view. Gordon notes that Eliot once “confided to Helen Gardner that hers was the only criticism of his work that he could recommend to anybody”. Certainly there are differences in interpretation, and I like Gardner’s statement that “the poem is not an allegory” and that “precise annotation” may “destroy the imaginative power”. But time and again I found that Lyndall Gordon was sensitive to the dangers of reading Eliot’s work as an allegory, and that she backed up her claims so well with Eliot’s own comments or with quotations from his other work, that her claims were valid. Her source references are collected at the end of the text and arranged according to page-numbers, which has the advantage that the reader is not distracted by them but the disadvantage that, like me, readers may not discover them until they are well into the book.

Altogether, this is an interesting, informative and very readable biography. Gordon does not claim to have fully understood Eliot, only to have traced in his work some dominant aspects of his character – to have followed “the trials of a searcher whose flaws and doubts speak to all of us whose lives are imperfect”. It goes some way towards explaining how T.S.Eliot came to be so popular that in 1956 he attracted 13,700 people to a basketball stadium in Minneapolis to hear him speak. And it confirms the belief that for Eliot, as for all the greatest poets perhaps, his art was an essential part of the attempt to resolve a deep inner conflict which ruled his life.

© Ann Skea 2006. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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