Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Eliot After ‘The Waste Land’
by robert crawford
farrar, straus and giroux, 624 pages, $40

When T. S. Eliot gave a lecture on “The Frontiers of Criticism” on April 30, 1956, in the Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota—the largest basketball arena in America at the time—­nearly fourteen thousand people showed up. A front-page column for the Minneapolis Morning Tribune reported that requests for tickets “had come throughout Minnesota, from all adjacent states and from as far away as Montana, Nebraska and three Canadian provinces.” The entire text of Eliot’s lecture was printed in the paper the following day, and a recording was broadcast that evening on KUOM. Eliot told the ­audience “that I have never before in my life seen so many people facing my direction—for the moment, at least.”

Eliot had won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1948, but unlike other winners, he was by that time already a global phenomenon. When he traveled to the United States in 1932—his first visit since leaving the country in 1914—to give the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard, Paul Elmer More had called him “the most distinguished man of letters today in the English-­speaking world.” Wallace Fowlie remembered that students at Harvard would follow him around campus “to see where he walked, where he ate, what he ate. If he went into the Coop, what did he buy?” When Eliot traveled to his hometown of St. ­Louis to give a lecture at Washington University shortly after Christmas, he thought he would be speaking only to the English department. Instead, nine hundred people showed up. Before returning to England, he delivered the Turnbull Lectures at Johns Hopkins and the Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia, and accepted an honorary doctorate from Columbia.

In retrospect, it is somewhat surprising that the shy and formal ­Eliot, who had neither the ­charisma of Hermann Hesse (who won the Nobel in 1946) nor the passion of François Mauriac (who won the ­Nobel in 1952 and produced far more cultural commentary than Eliot did) would become not only “a symbol. . . of the significance of poetry,” as he told the Swedish Academy in 1948, but a symbol of culture itself. How did Eliot come to be regarded as the greatest living man of letters during his lifetime? Why is he now regarded as merely a symbol of the past? And what is his importance today, almost sixty years after his death?

Robert Crawford’s excellent Eliot After ʻThe Waste Land,ʼ the second and final volume of his biography of the poet, provides a few answers. Crawford’s goal in Eliot After ʻThe Waste Landʼ is the same as it was in Young Eliot: to “humanize” the poet. He calls Eliot “Tom” throughout and writes about his boyish predilection for practical jokes. (Eliot once set off fireworks at a tea party and gave guests chocolate mixed with soap.) “Tom” was devoted to his mother, loved risqué verse, and enjoyed dressing up. (On a cruise to Cape Town, “he attended the ship’s fancy dress party as ­Sherlock Holmes.”)

Eliot also loved boozy lunches and hard-drinking evenings with his Criterion colleagues. He downed “no less than five gins” at a lunch with Aldous Huxley, drank half a bottle of Booth’s Gin after church (but before lunch) one Sunday while writing “Journey of the Magi,” and confessed to drinking all his host’s whiskey on a visit to Cambridge. His friends complained that he was often drunk. During his unhappy marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, Virginia Woolf told her sister that she had come to dislike visiting ­Eliot and Vivien, in part because Eliot “will, no doubt, be sick in the back room” and “we shall all feel ashamed of our species.” He had a temper and could be cruel to those he disliked. Lady Ottoline Morrell, who funded Eliot’s Criterion ­magazine for several years, told an American visitor that he was “1/8 devil.”

To many, he was a tragic figure, who spent his days either caring for a wife who suffered from paranoia and bouts of inexplicable illness or holed up in his office at the bank or at Faber & Faber. He had few close friends and hid the turmoil in his life behind a mask of formality. When Humbert Wolfe saw him in 1928, he remarked that he was “pale, cold and speaking slowly with his soft persuasive voice like a white kid glove.”

The Waste Land took the literary world by storm when it was published in late 1922. James Joyce’s Ulysses was also published in 1922, as was Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. The first English translations of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time were published in 1922. But The Waste Land, more than any of these, captured the feeling that the West was in crisis and that “everybody is in a hell of a fix,” as the poet John Peale Bishop put it.

The poem remains the cornerstone of Eliot’s literary reputation, but Crawford argues convincingly that Eliot’s religious verse play Murder in the Cathedral, about the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, was almost as important. First performed in 1935, it showed that Eliot was capable of writing in a completely different tenor, and it was an enormous success, running in London until early 1938 and performed shortly afterward in New York and Dublin. A 1945 French translation ran for 150 performances, making Eliot all the rage in France. With the play’s success, Crawford writes, Eliot “achieved what no other English-speaking ­poet has ever ­managed: having become recognized as arguably the leading poet of his era, he gained almost immediate international success as a popular dramatist.”

The mid-century West was infatuated with artistic celebrity. Marc Chagall was commissioned to provide canvases for Lincoln Center, New York’s gleaming monument to high art. To intone Picasso’s name was to evoke artistic genius. ­Leonard Bernstein hosted popular TV performances and composed the Broadway hit West Side Story. Ernest Hemingway was among the most famous Americans of his generation, on a par with movie stars. Eliot was part of this larger phenomenon. In the popular mind, he represented the summit of poetic achievement.

His religious conversion in 1927 “shocked” Virginia Woolf. She wrote to her sister that he “may be called dead to us all from this day forward. . . . I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.” But for others, it added to his aura. I. A. Richards remembers Eliot visiting Cambridge at the time carrying “a large new, and to us awe-inspiring, Prayer Book.”

Christianity also gave Eliot what he had longed for since at least his first years in England: hope, order (he received Communion three times a week), meaning in suffering, and a foundation for art. He told a friend that “only Christianity helps reconcile me to life, which is otherwise disgusting,” and he began to express in his lectures and his increasingly frequent BBC broadcasts that there could be no civilization without religious belief. With a self-­assurance inherited from a long line of ­influential (and very religious) ­Eliots, he wrote authoritatively on the need for Europe to return to a Christian order in The Idea of a Christian Society. This book was published in 1939, at the same time as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Unpopular as it was with some of his friends, Idea struck a chord. As Hitler’s armies conquered Europe, thinking people in the West wanted to know what had gone wrong. Eliot had an answer: Germany, like the rest of Europe, had given itself over to atheist materialism. The humanism of the West rests on Christian foundations, and the only way to regain a culture oriented to “virtue and well-being in community” is to return to “a Christian organization of society.” Idea sold more rapidly than Cats.

Four Quartets, published in the United States in 1943 and England in 1944, was a commercial and critical success, and solidified Eliot’s position as one of the best living poets, if not the best, even if it would be his last work of serious poetry. It can be read as a response to The Waste Land in which Eliot turns from the empty movement of desire to a love that redeems time and space through suffering. “Love is itself unmoving,” Eliot writes, “Only the cause and end of movement.” Four Quartets is one of the few modern masterpieces—painted on a large canvas—that risks a holistic and essentially redemptive vision of life.

Still, Eliot might not have become what he was—the embodiment of culture itself—if he had not had the good luck to be hired by Geoffrey Faber in 1925 as an editorial director of his publishing firm. At Faber, which also financed his Criterion magazine, Eliot slowly developed one of the best poetry lists in the English language, publishing W. H. Auden, Stephen ­Spender, ­Louis MacNeice, Ezra Pound, and many others. He was “a staunchly reliable colleague,” Crawford writes, and took a paternal interest in younger writers, to whom “he could seem intimidating, but also shrewdly and dutifully attentive.” “‘Come & lunch’ was his frequent suggestion,” and come and lunch many did—and not just younger writers, but a wide range of writers and intellectuals, from C. K. Ogden to Edwin Muir.

Eliot was dedicated, meticulous, and diplomatic—and he quickly came to be seen as a “canny metropolitan publisher” with an increasingly wide range of acquaintances and professional contacts. He managed his image carefully through his letters and public appearances. His lectures took on an increasingly authoritative tone, but his position as one of the leading publishers of modern literature, combined with the ­influence of his own poetry and the mass appeal of his verse dramas, made, Crawford writes, “his eminence . . . ­unassailable.”

Soon he was in demand across Europe. The British Council sent him to Sweden in 1942 for a five-week tour on which he was swarmed by writers, journalists, and publishers. Honorary doctorates and prestigious invitations rained down on him. He became a member of Rome’s Accademia dei Lincei in late 1947 and the Légion d’honneur in the summer of 1948. When he learned that he had won the Nobel Prize in late 1948, he complained to Marianne Moore that his travel plans had been “completely disarranged by this misfortune.”

When he died in 1965, he was feted around the world—but his star had already begun to fall. Why?

One reason is that there was no place for him to go but down, and younger poets, anxious to free themselves of Eliot’s influence, were quick to minimize his accomplishment. In a talk at New York’s The Club in 1952, Frank O’Hara criticized Richard Wilbur for writing poems “based on . . . the dross of such important writers as T. S. Eliot.” In 1956, ­Kenneth Koch wrote in “Fresh Air”: “Is Eliot a great poet? no one knows.”

There is something about Eliot’s tone, too, that grates. The Waste Land seems too serious when compared to William Carlos Williams’s funning in Al Que Quiere! (“You exquisite chunk of mud / Kathleen—just like / any other chunk of mud!”) or Ezra Pound’s crazy-eyed ventriloquism in The Cantos. Eliot clears his throat for pages in his cultural ­criticism—carefully telling us what he won’t say, what he will say, and why what he will say needs to be said. Today’s readers want the flavor, and they want it now. His double-breasted suits on the beach, his faux-English accent, his pronouncements that popular authors “write for an illiterate and uncritical mob”—they all seem so elitist, bigoted, fake.

But his tone is not the real reason Eliot has fallen out of favor, at least as a thinker. We live in partisan times, and Eliot was not a partisan man. He was political, of course, but his politics (and aesthetics) have never followed party lines.

Given the choice between “the cooked” and “the raw”—fixity and flux, tradition and invention—Eliot chose both. He loved Dante and was a defender of D. H. Lawrence’s erotic novels. He tried twice to publish Joyce’s Ulysses at Faber, but the firm determined that the legal risks were too great. He was a medievalist and a modernist, who had a soft spot for vaudeville and hated what he called “the Surrealist racket.”

He was no fan of liberalism, which he defined as “a movement . . . away from, rather than towards, something definite,” which dissolved society “into individual constituents.” But he nevertheless argued that it was a “necessary negative element” of society. It goes wrong when it is “made to serve the purpose of a positive.” “We are always faced,” he writes, “both with the question ‘what must be destroyed?’ and with the question ‘what must be preserved?’”

Eliot matters today because he attempted to answer both questions. That is, he matters not only for his portrait of the animalistic loneliness of a secular society devoted to “unlimited industrialism,” as damning as that portrait is, but also (perhaps more so) for his attempt to articulate an opposing vision of life and art—one that is oriented toward virtue and beauty, community and order. He is a modern man with answers for modern men, and as ex cathedra as those answers might sound at times, they were rooted in a lifelong practical concern with building a culture that might sustain the religious and irreligious alike. This is the Eliot captured in Crawford’s Eliot After ʻThe Waste Land.ʼ

Because Crawford’s goal is to provide the definitive life of Eliot, this second volume of the biography can read a little like a list of prizes and publications. But it is, overall, engaging enough and scrupulously nuanced. Crawford is a sensitive reader of Eliot’s work, particularly when it comes to shorter and less discussed poems like “Marina,” and he provides a careful and useful account of the personal sources of the Four Quartets (as he did with The Waste Land in Young Eliot). One can hope that Eliot After ʻThe Waste Land,ʼ along with Young Eliot, will lead to a renewed interest in Eliot as a thinker and a poet. Old Possum ain’t dead yet.

Micah Mattix is poetry editor at First Things.

Image by Picryl via Creative Commons. Image cropped.