T.S. Eliot and Uncritical Biography

Over the course of two books totaling well over a thousand pages, Robert Crawford never once shows any intellectual, philosophical, religious or aesthetic appreciation for Eliot’s work. And that’s just one of many flaws in his biographical work.

(Images of Robert Crawford books: us.macmillan.com; 1934 b/w photo of T.S. Eliot: Lady Ottoline Morrell/WIkipedia)

I

The other day, I was reading Eugenio Montale’s introduction to Allen Mandlebaum’s translation of The Divine Comedy and I was struck by the wisdom of something the modern Italian poet said, and it was this: “That true poetry is always in the nature of a gift, and that it therefore presupposes the dignity of the recipient is perhaps the greatest lesson Dante has left us.”

One indispensable gift that any good poet bestows is the gift of his voice, and it is a gift that has redounded to the dignity of those who read poetry from time immemorial. As schoolchildren, we might have been told in the textbooks we were made to read of the invention of sound recording but there is nothing in all the history of sound recording as faithful to the beauty of the human voice as Sir Thomas Wyatt’s “Forget not yet.” Listen:

Forget not yet the great assays,
The cruel wrong, the scornful ways;
The painful patience in denays,
Forget not yet.

Forget not yet, forget not this,
How long ago hath been and is
The mind that never meant amiss;
Forget not yet.

Forget not then thine own approved,
The which so long hath thee so loved,
Whose steadfast faith yet never moved;
Forget not this.

Of course, this is the voice of contrition, the voice not only of special but sincere pleading. It is the voice of table-turning, yes, something at which guilt makes us all adept. Yet it is also the voice of love, imperfect, human love. It is also a particular poet’s voice, a poet who obviously went to a fair amount of prosodic trouble to make the reader hear his voice. Hearing his voice, we can know something of Henry VIII’s ambassador to Spain with which no biographer or mere chronicler can compete. This is a highly polished, sophisticated, stylish voice. It is the voice of a diplomat of consummate art but also of a man who knows that treachery is not trifling, loyalty is not trifling.

In other words, the life of the man is in his voice, and to pass over or, worse, to try to paraphrase the voice is to miss the life in its truest essence, the irreplicable life.

And yet literary biographers do this all the time, which brings me to Robert Crawford’s 2-volume biography of T.S. Eliot, about which I should like to make a few critical remarks.

II

Most of the reviewers of Crawford’s biography had fairly favorable things to say about it. In the Wall Street Journal, the old Amherst English professor William Pritchard wrote:

As Mr. Crawford surveys Eliot’s life after the publication of “The Waste Land” (1922), he wisely doesn’t aim at new “readings” of Eliot’s poems, although he is careful not to neglect any one of them. Often his method is to put together life and work.

Yet Crawford does not “put together life and work.” He only makes the most perfunctory comments about Eliot’s creative work. For him all of the poems are simply romans à clef. When Crawford has told his reader that this or that poem was inspired – putatively inspired – by this or that person, his work is done. He refuses to see the poetry on its own terms. Apropos the line, “I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach,’ Crawford exhibits something of the full fatuity of his method when he remarks: “Anyone with an interest in… [the] young poet may be tempted to recall photographs in which… he appears to be wearing white flannel trousers.”

His quoting here, however, is unusual. In a biography of over 1,000 pages there are less than half a dozen snippets quoted from the poetry, and not much more from the critical prose. Eliot’s supple, exacting voice is rarely present.

Was the Scottish academic unwilling or unable to fork over permission fees for quotations? Or did he omit to pay any critical attention to the poetry and prose out of indifference? Or impudence? After all, his decision to address his subject as ‘Tom’ displays an oafish familiarity. Perhaps the remorseless chronicler in Crawford simply imagines he knows too much about ‘Tom’ and his skeletons to bother with the poetry.

Pritchard never explains why it should be wise for a literary biographer not to read the life of his subject through new readings of his work. Is not the point of literary biography to arrive at some new reading, some new assessment of the work? Why else do we confer classic status on Ian Ker’s critical biography on Newman, Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson, or Max Saunders’ of Ford Madox Ford? What else justifies the very enterprise of biography? Well, for Pritchard, one justification for the enterprise is that it dredges up new gossip, new grounds for prurience, new grounds for titillating speculation. And here he gives us a perfect example:

Mr. Crawford’s biographical net is a wide one, and I was more than once surprised and touched by something new that enriches the “unpleasant” Mr. Eliot into something other—richer and more strange. This is felt nowhere more strongly than in two references to him by Virginia Woolf. In one, she describes him as “a religious soul: an unhappy man, a lonely very sensitive man, all wrapt up in fibres of self torture, doubt, conceit, desire for warmth & intimacy. And I’m very fond of him—like him in some of my reserves & subterfuges.” Even more revealingly, she wrote to her sister about “Tom Eliot, whom I love, or could have loved, had we both been in the prime and not in the sere; how necessary do you think copulation is to friendship?”

Here, at least, we have one possible justification for Crawford’s exhaustive chronology: it reveals something of Virginia Woolf’s relation to the poet. For Pritchard, this is what makes Eliot “richer and more strange:” Virginia Woolf wondered whether her friendship with the poet might require her to laugh and lie down with him, though, one has to say, the thought of T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf actually copulating is rather macabre.

There is another bit from Virginia Woolf quoted in Crawford’s biography, however, that is more revelatory of Crawford’s understanding of his charge as Eliot’s biographer, which Pritchard omits to share with his readers. After learning that her friend had converted, Virginia Woolf wrote a letter to her sister Vanessa Bell.

I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.

Of course, that Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set disdained anything to do with Christianity is not news. The biographer Hermione Lee tells us that Virginia Woolf hated the faith so intensely that she might actually have been sent round the bend during the Blitz not by the Luftwaffe’s bombs but by the tolling of church bells. Yet what is striking about Crawford’s book is that he should so thoroughly share Bloomsbury’s disdain. If judicious sympathy is the lifeblood of any good critical biography, Crawford cannot be said to possess this sine qua non.

Indeed, on page after page of the biography, he never loses an opportunity to sneer at or mock Eliot’s faith. At times, one almost has the sense that Crawford has put himself to school to Virginia Woolf’s friend, Lytton Strachey, whose Eminent Victorians teems with mockery of the Christian religion that meant so much to Cardinal Manning, Cardinal Newman, Dr. Arnold, and General Gordon. Here is a good example of the sort of thing I mean. Speaking of a devotional book that helped Eliot after he had converted, The Life of Prayer in the World by Father Francis Underhill, Crawford says:

Underhill emphasized that ‘punctuality’ was especially ‘valuable’ in the ‘spiritual life.’ ‘Getting up at a FIXED TIME’ mattered as did regular religious observation both in private and in public worship: “Happy are those who are near their church.’ Tom’s church was only about 200 yards away.

The note of Stracheyan derision here is unmistakable. Crawford will not enter into the discipline of the devout life, the discipline on which St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis de Sale and so many other saints expatiated so brilliantly: he will restrict himself to making fun of it.

When it comes to the spiritual writings to which Eliot turned for spiritual strength and guidance, Crawford has all he can do merely to record their names. Indeed, for him, they are only names. In one passage, describing Eliot’s parish priest, Father Humphrey Whitby of St Mary the Virgin in Graham Street, he says: “Whitby led a congregation used to high-level discourse” including “George Herbert and Nicholas Ferrar, the theology of Baron Friedrich von Hügel… and St. Thomas Aquinas. Though more than familiar with all those names, Tom was initially undecided what to make of his parish priest…”

Eliot read not only Aquinas but Newman and Maritain fairly closely but there is not a page in the book in which he delves into any of their theological significance for the convert. It is true that he has a sentence about St Ignatius, in which he says that Eliot recommended that a friend read the “Spiritual Exercises,” but he says nothing beyond that. The omission put me in mind of what Newman once said of Ignatius in one of his sermons, which surely calls Eliot to mind.

When the old rude age of the world was just ended, and an age which is called light and civilization had begun—I mean in the 16th century—the Providence of Almighty God raised up two saints. One came from Florence, and the other came from Spain, and they met together in Rome. They were as unlike each other as any two men could be, unlike in their history, in their character, in the religious institutes, which ultimately, by God’s all-directing grace they were prospered in founding. The Spaniard had been a soldier—his history was exciting. He had been tossed about the world, and, after his conversion he founded a company of spiritual knights or cavaliers, as they may be called, who were bound to a sort of military service to the Holy See. The Florentine had been a saint from a boy, perhaps he never committed a mortal sin, and he was a stationary, home saint. For sixty years he lived in Rome and never left it. St. Philip Neri is the Florentine, and St. Ignatius is the Spaniard. These two saints, so different from each other, were both great masters in their own persons of the grace of abstinence and fasting. Their own personal asceticism was wonderful, and yet these two great lights, though so different from each other, and so mortified themselves, agreed in this—not to impose bodily afflictions to any great extent on their disciples, but mortification of the spirit, of the will, of the affections, of the tastes, of the judgement, of the reason. They were divinely enlightened to see that the coming age, at the beginning of which they stood, required more than anything else, not mortification of the body (though it needed that too, of course,) but… mortification of the reason and the will.

When it comes to Eliot’s personal asceticism, Crawford is, if anything, even more dismissive. He notes that the poet joked to A.L. Rowse, the fellow of All Souls, that “an editor’s existence was very ascetic,” before noting how for his fast on Ash Wednesday Eliot restricted himself to dried Haddock. For Crawford, such self-sacrifice is not only risible but hypocritical, especially since Eliot’s Christian asceticism was “much modified by alcohol and cigarettes.” Thus, we can safely ignore, if not laugh at whatever meaning asceticism had for the author of “East Coker.” Naturally, one does not find these lines quoted in the book, lines which capture not only the force of asceticism for the poet but the gift of his prophetic voice:

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

When it comes to explicating how Eliot’s religious preoccupations informed his poetry, Crawford is more dismissive still. Apropos Ash-Wednesday, for instance, which he contrives to see as little more than Eliot’s religiose valentine to his American friend Emily Hale, he says:

Where Whitby beatified his Belgravia church of the Virgin, Tom made in Ash-Wednesday a tribute to his ‘Lady,’ who was part Holy Virgin, part Emily. To him this made an obsessive kind of sense. …But Emily, a flesh-and-blood woman in her late thirties, striving to make a living from insecure academic employment and bemused by her strange, distant admirer, was scarcely ready to be confined within a poetic religious reliquary.

Putting aside Crawford’s penchant for treating poems as though they were little more than hooks on which to hang the poet’s relations with friends and loved ones, one has to ask on what evidence he bases this characterization of Hale’s reaction to the poem. Did she say somewhere in her letters or journals that she regarded it as confining her within what Crawford oddly calls a “poetic religious reliquary?” Did she share Crawford’s ignorance of the meaning of the word “reliquary?” Did she follow Crawford in seeing Eliot’s poetry as nothing more than coded autobiography? Crawford does not say because he cannot say. He makes up this characterization of Hale’s sentiments out of thin air.

A reliquary, by the by, as we all know, is what the OED says it is: “a small box, casket, shrine, or other receptable in which a relic or relics are kept.” Eliot’s poem, “Ash-Wednesday” has nothing to do with relics or the receptacles in which the faithful store them.

What Pritchard makes of such proceedings in a biography which he actually characterizes as “definitive” we never learn. He makes no mention whatever of Crawford’s patent ignorance of the Christian religion. Instead, he accepts such ignorance as perfectly acceptable. For him, as for Crawford, Eliot’s Christian religion is merely an invitation to neurosis. And he thus applauds Crawford for putting up with his subject’s spiritual difficulties. Why? “Mr. Crawford is… more than respectful to Eliot when the fibers of ‘self-torture’ relax a bit,” he says,

as they did during the bombing of London in 1940, when Eliot, a new and scrupulous air-raid warden, vouchsafed some valuable advice to his friend John Hayward: ‘The first thing to do, when you hear the Syrens, or the gun fire preliminary, is to have a good Piss: after that you are ready for the Jerry.’

For Pritchard, the biographer of the folksy Robert Frost, this is a quote of tremendous significance. It may not occur to him to regard Crawford’s contempt for Eliot’s Christianity as remarkable but here he finds something truly worth singling out. “For all his self-refashioning as a model Englishman,” Pritchard says, “Eliot’s advice here seems to me very much in the American grain and strikes a note quite distinct from that of his august contemporaries. We should keep reading him with that note in mind.”

Reading this, one has to wonder who edits The Wall Street Journal these days. Since Rupert Murdoch’s defense attorneys took over the editorial helm certain niceties of fact go overlooked. Clearly, they saw nothing awry about their reviewer claiming that Eliot had somehow turned himself into a “model Englishman.” And this despite the well-known fact that Eliot always considered himself a resident alien in England, a metic, as he put it. Certainly, Bloomsbury, the City and the London publishing world would have been astonished to learn that the peculiar Yankee in their midst was a “model Englishman.” Yet Pritchard continues:

When “Eliot After ‘The Waste Land” was published in England two months ago, Philip Hensher took the occasion in the Spectator to discern “cracks” in Eliot’s once “unassailable reputation.” He devoted the bulk of his review to an account of Eliot’s “anti-Semitism”—one example, a small but telling one, being Eliot’s remark, after a friend had adopted a refugee child, that the child was “not at all objectionably Jewish to look at.” The reviewer ends by wondering whether his reputation will survive “the undeniable bad smell of remarks made in passing.”

Hensher finds the slurs against Jews that Crawford quotes from Eliot’s correspondence properly objectionable. Whether they rise to the level of anti-Semitism, however, is another question, as is whether an artist’s bigotry per se disqualifies his work as art. Virginia Woolf was guilty of the most blatant anti-Christian bigotry imaginable, but no one would suggest that this precludes our entering into the artistry of her fiction or non-fiction. Moreover, no work of literature abounds more in slurs against Jews than the Old Testament, the Jewish prophets of which excoriate their co-religionists repeatedly. Should we cancel the Jewish prophets? The notion that the only artistic work entitled to favorable consideration is the work of artists found morally acceptable by the woke gestapo is, of course, preposterous, though this is precisely the notion that wokery has revived and enforces through the cancel culture. The notion has certainly influenced Pritchard and Hensher. Indeed, for those readers who may simply wish to join Hensher and have done with Eliot’s poetry, Pritchard offers a helpful rationale, one which may arise from the fraught Jewish issue but entirely sidesteps any explicit reference to it. “A more useful and not often considered question arises when the survival of Eliot’s poems is measured against those of his contemporaries,” Pritchard argues,

the British and American poets who overlapped him in the first half of the 20th century: Hardy, Yeats, Frost, Wallace Stevens, to name four outstanding ones whose oeuvre is capacious. By contrast, Eliot’s poems… take up a fairly slender volume. The most enduring are, arguably, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets.” Yet after rereading and thoroughly assimilating them, we find that there is not that much more to discover, at least when compared with the fat volumes of the other poets, which continue to yield discoveries in the form of poems previously overlooked. The upshot is that, rather than reading, say, “The Waste Land” once more, we may turn increasingly to Eliot’s essays, criticism and letters… with enlarged apprehension and pleasure. Frequently these prose items are also full of the humorousness, the sly turnings of a speaking voice, that is absent from most of the poems.

Putting aside whether there is “Not that much more to discover” in Eliot’s poetry and whether his work can stand up to that of Hardy, Yeats, Frost and Stevens, a question as invidious as it is idle, one has to wonder about the judgment of a reviewer who praises a biography of a poet that actually shows no real interest in the poet’s poetry. Of course, we may turn to the eight-volume set of Eliot’s complete prose that Ronald Schuchard put together for John Hopkins but Crawford ignores most of the pieces collected in that superb edition, and those he mentions he does so only in passing and without any interest in their critical import.

III

Biographers may eschew critical biography for different reasons –they have failed to secure the right to quote from their subject’s work, as was the celebrated case with Ian Hamilton and J.D. Salinger; they or their publishers cannot afford to pay the permission fees for the use of work under copyright; they have no critical wherewithal and steer clear of what would only expose their critical incapacity; their publisher simply has not extended them enough space to write a critical biography.

Some of these factors may have played some part in Crawford’s eschewing critical biography, especially his poor critical capabilities. About The Waste Land (1922), for example, all he can bring himself to say is that it “can be heard as a lasting cry, giving voice to a darkness deep in the human psyche.” For Crawford, “The poem’s universality is astonishingly powerful; its resonances seem to expand forever.” He is even more vapid about Four Quartets: “Ultimately,” the biographer says, “the poem’s Christianity points towards his belief, even at wartime’s height, in a deep, unifying faith. …What mattered was facing up to whatever the ultimate meaning of life and love might be.”

A lazy undergraduate avid to bluff his way through his weekly tutorial essay might hope against hope to get away with such inanities but it is surprising to see such twaddle in a biography with Crawford’s pretensions – a book which Michael Dirda actually hails as “magisterial in its minutiae.” Reading Crawford’s few comments on the poetry, such as they are, one has the abiding sense that he might have confined himself to cradle-to-grave chronology, to restricting himself to the retailing of gossip, correspondence and lunches for no other reason than that he finds these more interesting than the work itself. Indeed, the work actually seems to bore him, as it bores the man from Amherst, though this does not stop Prof. Andrew Epstein saying of the book in The New York Times that it “gives us a keenly nuanced, three-dimensional portrait of Eliot,” a peculiarly shameless bit of log rolling even for a careerist academic.  At least Dirda admits that “Crawford’s concentration on Eliot’s private life results in a partial picture, one that shifts the poet’s intellectual and artistic accomplishments to the background.”

When the suggestible Philip Hensher concluded after reading the biography that he could now be done with Eliot, after accepting all of Crawford’s strictures against the poet’s charity, he was taking away from the biography what one suspects Crawford intended the reader should take away. Crawford treats his subject not as a great poet and a great critic but as an object of woke opprobrium. After all, the politically correct consensus nowadays is that no one capable of such deplorable bigotry as T.S. Eliot is entitled to any aesthetic consideration, and this despite the fact that had the poet been a choir boy we would never have had the brilliant work he left behind. What got Eliot up in the morning was remorse for sin, not the sort of pharisaical knuckle-rapping in which Crawford delights. It is true that Crawford gives his hero a happy ending of sorts when Eliot marries his young secretary, Valerie Fletcher, after years of the most harrowing suffering with his first wife Vivienne, who finally dies in the hat factory, but this is after producing a dossier against the poet that leaves him more at the mercy of his detractors than ever. The most one can say for Eliot, to judge from Crawford’s assessment, is that he was a man tortured by an irrational and hypocritical fixation on something called Christianity who happened to write unforgettable poetry.

Even if we could bring ourselves to agree with Crawford’s simple-minded estimate of the life, would it invalidate the power and appeal of the poetry? Crawford never says: he is too busy pandering to the cancel culture. In one instance he even goes so far as to take poor Eliot to task for suggesting that his fellow Faber directors consider finding a man to write good crime mysteries to help offset the less profitable authors on the firm’s list. Why? For Crawford, Eliot’s suggestion is riddled with gender bias: he should have told the directors to seek out a lady writer of crime mysteries as well.

One can only imagine what Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie and Lord Peter Wimsey’s creator would have made of such unctuousness. Yet what this censorious, unimaginative, pettifogging man naturally overlooks in thus attempting to endear himself to the woke police is something Eliot told Richard Hoggart about the BBC in 1961: “Those who claim to give the public what they want begin by underestimating the public taste; they end by debauching it.”

A good deal of this essay has been given over to Pritchard’s uncritical praise of Crawford’s uncritical biography. In fairness, however, I should single out one reviewer who recognizes the vitality of proper critical biography and it is the young James Marriott, who wrote in his review of the book in the London Times:

East Coker, the greatest poem of Eliot’s late masterpiece Four Quartets, is efficiently dispatched as a “powerfully metaphorical meditation on emptiness and terror”, which “emerges from his reactions to a crisis in Western civilisation”. This is hard to disagree with, but doesn’t tell us much about the poem. Or why something so beautiful and mysterious emerged from this particular socially awkward former banker.

No, it most assuredly does not, and that is precisely why we must have critical biographers, not half-baked chroniclers. Another exception to the bad reviewing that has appeared in response to the book is a piece entitled “The Portrait of an Artist as a Grown Man” by Anthony Domestico in an online paper called “The Baffler,” in which he astutely writes that the “sustained attention” of “one critic responding to the music of another, is largely absent from this second volume” of Crawford’s biography.

Partly this is because, after Four Quartets was published in 1943, Eliot was essentially done as a poet. He still wrote some very good verse drama and occasional verse but no serious lyrics. Still, Crawford dispatches with the new, more abstracted sounds of “Burnt Norton” (“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past”) in a few pages. He notes biographical echoes in “The Dry Salvages”: the title refers to Cape Ann, Massachusetts, where the young Eliot sailed during summers. But he doesn’t spend much time with that poem’s claim that all our epiphanic experiences—“the moment in and out of time,” when “music [is] heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts”—are but echoes of and pointers towards “the Incarnation.”

Indeed, they are “echoes and pointers towards the Incarnation” and Domestico’s response to Crawford’s treatment of the poem goes to the heart of why uncritical biography can have nothing to say of the poet for whom the life is ostensibly being written. And here Domestico gives a brilliant example:

Throughout Four Quartets, Eliot considers, often obliquely but always seriously, the Incarnation—God taking on human flesh in the form of Jesus Christ—and how this event might change our understanding of time, embodiment, beauty, language. Yet the word “Incarnation” appears not once in Crawford’s reading of the sequence. He notes that we can hear World War II in Eliot’s description of language as “a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling.” But he doesn’t spell out how these lines are also about apophatic theology: the inability of language to capture the real, which for a believing Christian like Eliot means God and grace.

IV

Whether the drubbing I have subjected Crawford to here is fair is a fair question. But to those who incline to imagine that my drubbing of the man and his uncritical book is unfair, I would say the following. Crawford never once shows any intellectual, philosophical, religious or aesthetic appreciation for Eliot’s work. He shows the man himself only the most fitful sympathy. He makes no good use of John Heffenden’s magnificent edition of the letters or the equally fine critical edition of the poems that Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue edited. He demonstrates no proof that he has benefited from Schuchard’s heroic labors. Taking into account these grave defects, and Crawford’s pretentions, and critics like Pritchard, Hensher, Epstein and Dirda crediting such pretensions, I would say my drubbing is not unfair.

Readers in search of a proper life of Eliot must settle for the revised edition of Lyndall Gordon’s The Imperfect Life of T.S. Eliot (2012, orig. 1999), which may not turn to account all the new scholarship available on the poet but which nevertheless recognizes that “With Eliot, writing was not an offshoot of the life; the life was an offshoot of the writing.” To leave Crawford’s arid pages and return to Gordon is tonic. Here at least is a critical biographer who understands what Eliot was getting at when he said that “what you do not know is the only thing you know;” who understands that it was precisely the poet’s “struggle to subdue intellectual pride, fury and hatred” that made the poetry possible; who understands, perhaps most importantly, that with Eliot we have “the paradox of a man who wished to be saint above poet but who became all the greater as poet for his failure to attain sainthood.”

This last observation reminds us of what Eliot had to say of Charles Baudelaire in his essay on the French poet in 1930, especially if we see the Frenchman’s morbidity as not entirely dissimilar to Eliot’s “intellectual pride, fury and hatred:”

Baudelaire’s morbidity of temperament cannot be ignored… We should be misguided if we treated it as an unfortunate ailment which can be discounted or attempted to detach the sound from the unsound in his work. Without the morbidity none of his work would be possible or significant: his weaknesses can be composed into a larger whole of strength…. He rejects always the purely natural and the purely human; in other words, he is neither ‘naturalist’ nor ‘humanist.’ Either because he cannot adjust himself to the actual world he has to reject it in favour of Heaven and Hell, or because he has the perception of Heaven and Hell he rejects the present world: both ways of putting it are tenable. …His ennui may of course be explained… in psychological or pathological terms; but it is also, from the opposite point of view, a true form of acedia, arising from the unsuccessful struggle towards the spiritual life.

Here, Eliot extends to Baudelaire precisely the critical sympathy that Crawford fails to extend to Eliot himself. “Tom saw Baudelaire, regarding sex as evil,” Crawford says in his inimitably reductionist way, “as more morally astute than Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. His preoccupation with Baudelaire’s sense of man as ‘essentially bad’ chimed with his interest in Swiftian disgust…” No, it is not Baudelaire’s views of sex or his misanthropy that Eliot finds compelling: it is his recognition of the reality of sin.

Yet with misinterpretation like this on nearly every page of Crawford’s book, it is perhaps a blessing that the man chose not to undertake the critical biography that we still desperately need on the life and work of T.S. Eliot. The gift of Eliot’s voice still enchants us: we need a critical biographer to do its deeply Christian music justice.

 

Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land
by Robert Crawford
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016
Paperback, 512 pages

Eliot After “The Waste Land”
by Robert Crawford
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022
Harcover, 624 pages


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About Edward Short 32 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. He chose the poetry for The Saint Mary’s Book of Christian Verse (Gracewing, 2022), as well as an Introduction. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.

4 Comments

  1. Eliot — who manages to capture the poignancy and import of “the still pointing of the turning world” more fully than any other poet, painter, sculptor or mystic — deserves so much better.

    Thank you, Mr. Short, for your well wrought and thorough caveat emptor.

  2. Crawford opens up the question whether a non-Christian can truly understand another who is Christian – his life, his choices, his art. It is like reviewing the artistry of the stained glass windows of Sainte Chapelle while looking at them from the street outside.

  3. Reading Short’s lengthy essays is always a learning journey, here of interest, this reader’s perception of poetry as philosophy.
    Eliot on Charles Baudelaire, “He rejects always the purely natural and the purely human in favour of Heaven and Hell, or because he has the perception of Heaven and Hell he rejects the present world”. Eliot’s seeing Baudelaire asking the ultimate questions about our raison d’etre. Whether or not this was Baudelaire’s conscious thought it was Eliot’s intellectual probing that is always spiritual when addressing [inclusive of ourselves when musing alike] life’s meaning.
    After all philosophy is literally the love of wisdom, poetry the more lyrical search [love, since all desire for knowledge as such is love].

  4. A concise summary of the Eliot message–as mutilated and buried by Crawford–would be to begin with Virginia Woolf’s assessment and then to complete it as a sort of poetic couplet:

    [Woolf] “I mean there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”
    [Eliot?] Yet worse than obscene is a damned ex-person sitting IN the fire for disdaining any belief in God.”

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