Lyndall Gordon's 'T.S. Eliot' -- the mystery is in the poetry

August 15, 1999|By Clarinda Harriss | By Clarinda Harriss,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life," by Lyndall Gordon. W. W. Norton. 721 pages. $35.

Make no mistake: T. S. Eliot was an American, a New Englander and a Puritan. Lyndall Gordon's 1999 biography -- subsuming her separate books about his early and later life -- lays to rest several popular misconceptions about Eliot, including his complete morphing from American to Brit. Eliot the proper English gentleman was pure artifice.

The real Eliot, more complex than any spatted Prufrock, created a double to play the lead in his life's performance. Makeup helped: a club-buddy remarked that Eliot often applied "a bit of slap [stage makeup]," and another acquaintance noted his use of green face powder for that cadaverous look. Luckily for readers of poetry, Eliot's creation couldn't contain the whole man; luckily for reader of biography, Gordon's new book comes close to doing so.

"T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life" manages to be definitive but not dogmatic, sympathetic without taking sides, doorstop-thick without seeming too long. It horrifies and fascinates like re-runs of a train wreck. Its voice rings with authority.

Looking at Eliot's work in the context of American Puritan tradition, Gordon shows that Eliot was a would-be saint in the tradition of English Puritan John Milton; seeking perfection, Eliot "would have worn a hair shirt if he could." But, as an American, he wore his self-mortification with a difference. The sea-sluts who wouldn't bother to solicit Prufrock lolled on New England coasts.

Eliot's puritanical father convinced pubescent Tom that sex was the worst form of "nastiness." Sexual revulsion lay at the heart of Eliot's belief system -- much as the Salem witch trials, with some of Eliot's forebears as prosecutors, grew from prurience.

Gordon quotes passages in which Eliot excoriates lust; she quotes also from the repellently obscene verses Eliot wrote for chums. She makes a case for the popular theory that Eliot married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, fey young English writer, just to get laid. Yet, as Gordon shows, Eliot's life-level obscenities provide a useful context for the beatifically pure Lady of "Ash Wednesday."

Like other Puritans, Eliot was monstrously cruel in the pursuit of virtue. By contrast, the virtue Eliot pursued was personal: spiritual and artistic. It had little to do with societal good -- despite Eliot's Jeremiads against society -- and nothing to do with the general good; Gordon's Eliot is the snob, misogynist and anti-Semite critics recoil from. Instead of hanging witches, Eliot merely destroyed two women.

But destroy them he did. His treatment of Vivienne was appalling, even though Vivienne was an appalling wife. The horrors visited on this sick woman once he decided to abandon her permanently (and fled to New England to be with his purer "Lady," the faithful and fairly-soon-to-be-dumped Emily Hale) are agony to read -- the more so for approaching slapstick comedy.

When pleading to see Eliot one more time failed, Vivienne set up dozens of schemes to get a glimpse of him, including hiding in their attorney's closet when Eliot was to visit his office. She saw her husband for the last time as he walked to the podium to give a public lecture. Not long after, she was committed to a mental institution for the rest of her life.

To New England actress, theater director and college teacher Emily Hale, Eliot also brought ruin. This strong and talented woman, credited by Gordon with the pivotal role in Eliot's emotional and artistic recovery from his years with Vivienne, got ditched by Eliot four times: first for young Viv, then for the Anglican Church, then at Viv's death (when Emily expected Tom to marry her at last), and finally for Valerie, the youthful wife of Eliot's "lovable" old age. When Eliot finally finds true "natural" love in the arms of Valerie, readers will pity Emily rather than congratulate Tom.

No wonder self-disgust breathes so rankly from Eliot's poetry. But poet Stevie Smith wrote that Eliot "enjoys feeling disgust and indulges this feeling with the best of his poetry." The pleasures of disgust forge a bond with Robert Lowell, Eliot's fellow New England Brahmin, and the other U.S. confessional poets whose stars were ascending.

Gordon documents Eliot's own insistence on being regarded as a confessional poet, in the sense that his poetry exposed his inner darkness. Gordon invites the reader to "play Watson" to Eliot's Sherlock in unraveling Eliot's mystery.

Since the mystery and the poems are one and the same, Gordon's book goes far beyond "life and times" to provide invaluable insights to the poetry, especially the poetry of Eliot's plays.

Gordon's compelling bio-critical scrutiny makes a strong case for regarding "Murder in the Cathedral," not "The Wasteland," as Eliot's "signature performance." The whole book moves fluidly between biography and critical analysis.

While not everybody will assent to every connection, the fact that the poetry is always there, carefully examined, is what makes this biography essential to Eliot's serious readers. The mystery of Eliot's music -- how its beauty grew from couplet-rhymed clods -- still awaits its Sherlock.

Clarinda Harriss, chair of the Towson University English Department, has published three collections of poetry and contributed two scholarly works on poetry. Her work appears in many U.S. magazines including Touching Fire: Erotic Writing by Women. She edits and directs BrickHouse Books Inc., Maryland's oldest continuously publishing small press.

Michael Pakenham's column will return August 22.

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