This new biography makes TS Eliot’s life incredibly dark

The excellent second volume of Robert Crawford’s biography of TS Eliot fits perfectly into the continuity of the first, Young Eliot from 2015. Meet the editor, clubman, committee member, adopted Englishman, international literary operator and winner of the Nobel Prize. Here too, the reaffirmation of religious faith in bespoke Anglo-Catholic form, and the composition of major poems from ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) to Four Quartets (1943), alongside his now unread verse pieces . Full of voices, friendships and conflicts, Crawford’s book is rich and dense like a Christmas cake.

But as Eliot intoned, “Life is very long,” with no time off for good behavior. He worked, as always, too hard – by day as an analyst at Lloyds Bank, by night as editor of The Criterion, funded by Lady Rothermere. After The Waste Land, the poems did not come. And her marriage was torture. He and Vivien Haigh-Wood have trapped themselves in a nightmare. He still loved Emily Hale, whom he had met in 1912; after Vivien’s affair with the predator Bertrand Russell, Eliot became entangled with Nancy Cunard. No one, especially Eliot, seems to have had fun: for him, revulsion seems to have been the reward. No wonder he considered art to be “an escape from personality”.

It took many years to escape Vivien, who went mad. The letters to Emily Hale, meanwhile, unsealed in 2020, suggest a depth of feeling that he was lately inclined to treat as a nostalgic illusion. Over time, and their direct encounters became fewer, her tenderness was replaced by a legalistic exactness, a setting of boundaries that must have been heartbreaking for Hale.

There is also the shadow of a degrading prejudice. His friend Leonard Woolf said Eliot would sincerely deny he was an anti-Semite, but it is clear that, like his family, he was marinated in infection. In his smooth dealings with Lord Rothermere, a potential employer, he praised his newspapers’ enthusiastic articles on “fascism”. In time, Eliot saw Hitler clearly, but when news of the extermination of European Jews emerged, he argued, “To suggest that the Jewish problem could be simplified because so many people will have been killed is meaningless: a few generations security and there are as many of them as ever.

One could object that Eliot was of his time, and not alone, and that it is not historical to subject him to the moral orthodoxies of the present. But just as we must not distort history by imposing on it a model of our own design, we are also required, as human beings, to respond to the feelings of our fellow human beings. As Crawford reads, Eliot was in many ways an unappetizing figure. Yet he suffered and sought to repent.

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