Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land
Jonathan Cape, 512pp, £25
Eliot’s first marriage, says Robert Crawford in the introduction to this very good biography, “helped hurt him into further poetry”. The phrase neatly weaves together the three great canonical English-language poets of the first half of the 20th century, echoing Auden’s poem on the death of Yeats (“Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry”). And it directs our minds to the most intractable question about Eliot: how did he become not only a poet, but the kind of poet he turned out to be, early and late?
One of the things Crawford brings out is how relatively late a developer Eliot was as a poet, and how deeply significant it was for him as a student at Harvard to encounter in 1909 the work of the French symbolist poet Jules Laforgue, which offered him not simply a poetic model, but an entire poetic geography: the world of empty streets under dim lamps with wind blowing the rubbish, of pallid and isolated wanderers, acknowledging the scale of their human failure, of fractured images of religiosity and eccentrically focused sexual excitement and frustration. Eliot made this completely his own, with extraordinary rapidity, having written nothing much to suggest an exceptional poetic sensibility before the age of 20 – a great difference from, say, Auden, who in his first year as an undergraduate was pontificating cheerfully about what was and wasn’t poetry. Eliot’s voice was decisively liberated by immersing himself in another language and another imagination; quite an irony, given his later deep concern for cultural identities and roots.