A Yuletide Modernist

Enthusiasts of the poet and critic T.S. Eliot will find their Christmas stockings over-stuffed this year. Recently both Lyndall Gordon and Robert Crawford have added a few volumes to the biography shelf, and just days before Christmas W.W. Norton will issue another biography of sorts — of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” by Matthew Hollis. In part, this is no doubt to leap upon the very recent release of over a thousand of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, Eliot’s longtime friend and, in many ways, poetic muse.

In The New York Times, Katie Roiphe has already had at Gordon’s The Hyacinth Girl, in a fair-enough review. Fair enough, I suppose, in that she doesn’t outright call Eliot an unrepentant misogynist; Gordon’s biography focuses on Eliot’s relationships with the women in his life, including Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Mary Trevelyan, and Hale, and it’s been no secret that Eliot’s attitude towards women was highly-fraught at best. “It’s hard, at times, not to be repelled by the poet,” Roiphe muses, and she also gets a dig in at Eliot’s antisemitic leanings (common-enough knowledge by now not to generate headlines like the publication of letters to a lover might).

I’m of two minds about The Hyacinth Girl myself, because, having been indocrinated into the New Criticism during my college years, my initial response is to steer away from relying too heavily on biography as an approach to art. (In the early 1980s, undergraduate literature study was still grounded in New Critical principles; graduate literature study was an entirely different story, which I found to my chagrin and, ultimately, amusement.) Besides which, I still think reading somebody else’s mail, even that of the long dead, is unforgivably rude.

I say this as somebody who admires Gordon’s T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. Never has a book been so aptly subtitled — so aptly, I suspect, that any biography could bear it. It’s especially apt in that Eliot, flying high for nearly half a century as perhaps the 20th century’s pre-eminent Modernist poet and critic, has had his wings severely clipped since the 1970s, both for his obscurity and for those imperfections (not particularly obscure) that became public knowledge in the years after his death. For a while, Pound’s reputation overshadowed Eliot’s until the fascist label rendered Pound persona non grata in the seminar room too; Joyce quickly became TL;DR as our attention spans shortened through the 1980s and cable television and the internet began their dominance over every hour of our days and nights. Nowadays, so far as I can tell, readers who like their Modernism neat tend to take up Virginia Woolf, safely a woman, safely proto-feminist, safely rather dull.

Whether or not these new books spark a resurgence of interest in Eliot’s work is of course an open question. Hope springs eternal, but for me so does skepticism. I myself revisited Eliot’s poetry a few years ago not because of a biography but because of William Gaddis, whose five novels taken together constitute a kind of encyclopaedic post-war “Waste Land” of their own. Gaddis was so indebted to Eliot that he “at one point in the composition [of The Recognitions] intended to weave each line of Four Quartets into the text of his novel, such was his affiliation with Eliot’s vision and ethos,” Gaddis’s biographer Joseph Tabbi writes. This sent me right on to the Four Quartets and to “The Waste Land” again — both of which affected me more profoundly in my fifties than they did in my twenties.

That is a theme for another post. In the meantime, I also looked back to Eliot criticism, finding the best of it still in his earlier explicators, especially F.O. Matthiessen and Helen Gardner. Unlike Gordon and Crawford, Matthiessen and Gardner knew Eliot personally, so had access to the man before he was planted in the ground, sprouting biographies. Nonetheless, they shunned the approach. While Matthiessen was speaking of critics and not biographers, I think he hit on something in the preface to his 1935 study of Eliot’s poetry:

The most widespread error in contemporary criticism is to neglect form and to concern itself entirely with content. The romantic critic is generally not interested in the poet’s work, but in finding the man behind it. The humanistic critic and the sociological critic have in common that both tend to ignore the evaluation of specific poems in their preoccupation with the ideological background from which the poets spring. All these concerns can have value in expert hands, but only if it is realized that they are not criticism of poetry. … The most fatal approach to a poem is to focus merely on what it seems to state, to try to isolate its ideas from their context in order to approve or disapprove of them before having really grasped their implications in the poem itself.

F.O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T.S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry, 1958 edition, Oxford University Press, vii.

It may or may not be pertinent to note here that Matthiessen was himself a socialist, even by some lights a political radical, in contrast to Eliot’s monarchistic, conservative Anglo-Catholicism; he was also homosexual and Episcopalian. He committed suicide in 1950, leaving behind a note that read in part, “I am depressed over world conditions. I am a Christian and a Socialist. I am against any order which interferes with that objective.”

Matthiessen’s concern was with the relationship of form and content, but I think there’s something here about the contemporary trend to read poems, to listen to music, to look at art not only according to its ideological background but from a specific ideological perspective as well. So long as this continues, Eliot will remain a bird with clipped wings, I’m afraid, no matter how many biographies are published about him. And God help the rest of us too.