For much of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot’s pronouncements on literature and culture had the force of a royal command. “In the seventeenth century,” he wrote, “a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered.” Probably no such separation of thought from feeling ever occurred, but sober historians analyzed it as if were as real as the Industrial Revolution. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion,” Eliot wrote, “but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Two generations of critics worked to do his bidding by banishing from the canon poets like Shelley whom Eliot had judged insufficiently impersonal.
Eliot’s prose borrowed its sober and severe authority from the intensity and power of his poetry. His long poems The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943), like many of his shorter ones, evoked a synthesizing vision of public and private disorder: the emotional and erotic failures of individual persons and the chaotic anomie of contemporary Europe, individuals and societies both thirsty for life-giving waters, both waiting for the transforming commandments that, in The Waste Land, “the thunder said.” No other modern writer had his power to portray, simultaneously and in sharp focus, the disasters of both the inner world and the outer one.
When Eliot died in 1965 much of his authority died with him. Academic and journalistic opinion agreed that he had hoped public disorder could be resolved by imposing the kind of order favored by authoritarians; that, as a WASP from an old New England family, he felt superior to Jews and other outsiders to the high culture he embodied; that he held repugnant attitudes about women and sex. His detractors wrote entire books setting out the evidence against him, while his defenders replied with books that denied the evidence or explained it away.
Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot, the first volume of a two-part biography, and The Poems of T.S. Eliot, edited and massively annotated by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, make it possible to see more deeply than before into Eliot’s inner life, to perceive its order and complexity in new ways, and to recognize that his detractors and his defenders were responding to attitudes that Eliot condemned in himself and to beliefs that his poems simultaneously expressed and rebuked.
The first sixteen years of Eliot’s life, from his birth in St. Louis in 1888 until the year he attended Milton Academy near Boston before entering Harvard, are almost entirely undocumented. All that survive are two letters and a few…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.