T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life by Lyndall Gordon. Norton, 721 pp., $35
August 22, 1999        

“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald is supposed to have said. Maybe; but geniuses are even more different, and few more so than T. S. Eliot, the most important English-speaking poet and critic of the 20th century. Outwardly, he was conventional to a point somewhere beyond impeccability, with his immaculate dress, precise diction, suave manners, slicked-down hair, and inscrutable countenance. As a literary arbiter, he proscribed Romantic excess and enjoined objectivity, impersonality, and fidelity to tradition. His well-known self-description as “a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion” is sometimes thought to have been ironical. It wasn’t.

But beneath the appearance of sleek imperturbability was a tormented inner life. A scion of high-minded New England Unitarianism and genteel Boston society, he nevertheless became an anguished searcher and sufferer, a frustrated mystic, a literary iconoclast. This complex spiritual and artistic history is reconstructed with tact, diligence, and subtlety in “T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life.” Lyndall Gordon, an Oxford academic and biographer of Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James, has already written two widely-praised volumes on Eliot. She has combined them here, rewritten, with much new material, particularly about the women in his life.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis in 1888, into an old and distinguished Yankee family. His grandfather was admired by Emerson; his mother wrote religious poetry. As a child, he spent summers in Gloucester, whose rocky coast and fishing fleet figure (much transformed) in some of his later poems. As a Harvard undergraduate he studied philosophy, dabbled in poetry, socialized with innumerable cousins and family friends, and – like thousands of other sensitive youths on both sides of the Atlantic in the years before World War I – quietly yearned for something more than the familiar and approved. For Eliot it came first in the form of Indian philosophy and French Symbolist poetry. There was also, in his last year of college, a mystical experience, or moment of illumination, one of several throughout his life that Gordon portrays as decisive for his artistic and intellectual development.

After graduating, Eliot spent a year in Paris, then returned to study philosophy at Harvard. In 1914 he won a travelling fellowship to England. There Ezra Pound, having read “Prufrock,” Eliot’s first important poem, persuaded him to abandon philosophy for literature. In another moment of abandon, Eliot impulsively married a talented and vivacious young Englishwoman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

This marriage was the turning point in Eliot’s life. “Disaster” would appear to be much too mild a word for it. It was a sexual failure from the outset. Eliot’s family disapproved. He had to take a job as a bank clerk to support himself. And Vivienne was constantly and mysteriously ill, both physically and emotionally. Each of them was dangerously high-strung; the combination was lethal. After a year they were both near collapse, and things only got worse thereafter.

Miraculously, Eliot kept eking out poems and essays. In 1922, after much editorial help from Pound, he published “The Waste Land” and found himself England’s leading poet. Around the same time he started an extremely influential literary journal, “The Criterion.” (Vivienne suggested the name and was a frequent, though anonymous, contributor.) A few years later he became a senior editor at a leading publishing house.

His career was flourishing (it culminated in 1948 with the Nobel Prize), but his marriage was still a torture. Perhaps in part to relieve the torture, he joined the Anglican Church in 1927. The same year, he heard for the first time since 1914 from Emily Hale, a former Boston friend. There is some evidence that they were in love before Eliot left for England; there is no doubt that they fell in love when they met again in the late 1920s. But although she inspired some of his sublimest poetry – she was, as Gordon argues at length, and persuasively, Eliot’s Beatrice – they never became lovers. Eliot would not divorce, would not commit adultery, and in fact had taken a vow of celibacy. This long and passionate but unconsummated love affair is surely one of the strangest in literary history. The evidence is still largely hidden – Eliot’s letters to Emily are sealed until 2019, and he (high-handedly, it seems to me) destroyed hers – but their relation takes on a tragic beauty in Gordon’s account. Emily Hale appears to have been an admirable, even a noble, woman, one of a long line who were badly let down by a male genius. (Gordon has told the story of two others in her recent, acclaimed “The Private Life of Henry James.”) And Eliot escapes our judgment: not because he was a great writer but because he suffered more and aspired higher than any of us, even if he usually, as Gordon devastatingly puts it, “seemed to suffer from an inability to emphathize with suffering outside his own experience.”

The strength of An Imperfect Life is the way it combines criticism and biography, especially in discussing The Waste Land,” the meditative Four Quartets, and the verse drama The Family Reunion, as well as in the use it makes of newly discovered draft versions to trace Eliot’s spiritual odyssey. Gordon is not much interested in exposé or source-hunting, two of the usual approaches to Eliot. She does bring a few new things to light, though. Vivienne’s diary shows her as witty and imaginative; one can see why Eliot hoped she would liven him up. A letter to Gordon from a friend of Vivienne’s suggests that her confinement in a mental asylum for the last eight years of her life (by then she and Eliot were separated) may have been unnecessarily strict. On the lighter side: Gordon has come across the original of “that Shakespeherian Rag” mentioned in The Waste Land and prints some of the lyrics, which are a hoot.

Eliot wrote of Pascal that he will forever speak to those “who have the mind to conceive, and the sensibility to feel, the disorder, the futility, the meaninglessness, the mystery of life and suffering.” Most of us are too busy, too comfortable, or simply too American, to conceive or feel any such thing. But to those few who do, Eliot too will always speak.