Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land

by Robert Crawford

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“ Eliot’s life was no neat progress towards literary canonisation, towards a form of sainthood or simply towards a Nobel Prize. It was much rawer than that, more jagged, frayed and damaged.”

This is a marvellous biography of Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of my all time favourite poets.

Eliot was born in 1888 in St Louis, Missouri into a loving and privileged family. Although affectionate, his parents were very morally strict and religious. This atmosphere, as well as his own reserved, shy manner and precocious intellect, served to isolate young Tom from his peers and from life really.

Born with a congenital hernia, Eliot wore a truss for many years well into his teens.  Sexually, he was totally inexperienced and even repelled by the idea of sex. His strait-laced upbringing didn’t help. Eliot’s father described syphilis as “God’s punishment for nastiness” and hoped a cure wouldn’t be found or “it will be necessary to emasculate our children to keep them clean”. Ouch!

Eliot discovered Paris and French Symbolist poetry, specially that of Jules Laforgue at the age of 19, and this passion unleashed in him a new way of writing poetry and a way to express his torments, if not to surmount them. It also helped to find a way of thinking and feeling aeons away from his parents’ straitened lives.  Eliot might have been timid in life, but not in his writing where everything was on the table.

“Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherised upon a table;”

opening lines to “ The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

For anyone not familiar with Eliot’s poetry I would recommend reading the Prufrock poem which can be googled. Written in 1910 when Eliot was only 22, it still astonishes in its use of language and its powerful imagery.

Eliot married at 28 and was still a virgin at his wedding. Both he and his wife Vivian were totally unsuited to each other and made each other’s life a misery. It was from the disaster of this marriage, which led to Eliot having a nervous breakdown, and his wife to descend into mental illness, that “The Waste Land” was born, one of the most powerful poems of the twentieth century. The last and perhaps most powerful section of the poem “What the Thunder Said” was written in Lausanne, Switzerland, where Eliot had gone to recuperate.

It really is amazing that someone so emotionally awkward and sheltered from the many realities of life, should have produced such a powerful body of poetry. I think that his poetry became a substitute for life. Language and the power of its imagery and assonance, was for Eliot a means of understanding and escaping emotional distress .

This biography was written in 2015 to commemorate 50 years since Eliot’s death and it is the first one allowed to quote extensively from Eliot’s writing and letters, as well as describing various anecdotes from his childhood and youth.

The book has been superbly researched and written by Crawford, who is himself a poet as well as long time student of Eliot’s work, and Professor of Poetry at St Andrews University, Scotland.

I really enjoyed discovering so much new information about Eliot’s early years. It has certainly made me look at Eliot with new eyes, and to see the high price he and his first wife paid for their ill-fated marriage . This volume ends in 1922, when Eliot has just published The Waste Land. The second volume is being worked on currently.

Recommended for Eliot fans.  5 🌟

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