The Ideal Husband

T.S. Eliot: A Life

by Peter Ackroyd
Simon and Schuster, 400 pp., $24.95

The private life of a dead poet, T.S. Eliot wrote in 1956, is not sacred ground; indeed, “any critic seriously concerned with a man’s work should be expected to know something about the man’s life.” “Nor is there any reason why biographies of poets should not be written. Furthermore, the biographer of an author should possess some critical ability; he should be a man of taste and judgment, appreciative of the work of the man whose biography he undertakes.” In this biography Peter Ackroyd admirably fulfills that criterion; time and again, with the lightest possible touch, he illuminates Eliot’s poetry and criticism more acutely than many a ponderous academic volume. Though he is debarred from the correspondence, he makes absorbing reading out of Eliot’s rather quiet life; and at the same time provides brief asides on the work that are themselves a skeleton framework for assessing the entire corpus (an excellent title for a detective story, Eliot once said).

In the same essay, though, Eliot goes on to warn against overestimating psychology, taking as examples two critiques of Wordsworth that successively made his love affair in France and his feeling for his sister the “explanation” of the poetry’s rise and decline. Either may well be true, Eliot argues, and are relevant if we only want to understand the man; but for understanding the poetry, too much knowledge may be withering—and irrelevant. In all great poetry, he continues, there is something that remains unaccountable despite all biographical information, and this is probably what is most important about it:

When the poem has been made, something new has happened, something that cannot be wholly explained by anything that went before. That, I believe, is what we mean by “creation.”

This is very clearly shown by Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot. Ackroyd does not shy away from modest psychological interpretation. (Eliot’s paper was written nearly thirty years ago, and all biography is to some extent psychobiography now.) The picture of Eliot himself makes clear sense; time and again he is described in the same sort of terms by people who met him. And certainly there is what might be called an Eliotic mood or stance which is recognizable both in the life and the poetry. All the same—“something new happened,” in Eliot’s words. Somehow this stiff, sad, inhibited man—“poor Tom,” as he was so patronizingly called by the Bloomsbury set—lit a fuse with his early poetry that blew a dead tradition apart. As Pound wrote in a letter, Eliot “actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.” He wrote that the task of poetry was to make the unpoetic poetic—and for his time, at the tail end of romanticism, it was true. Paradoxically, though he so hated and distrusted the modern world, the virtue of the poetry was to milk beauty out of modern desolation. But just how this came about eludes biography; the gap between the man and the work remains satisfactorily mysterious.

As a person Eliot was always…

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