Lyndall Gordon’s previous volumes on T. S. Eliot, Eliot’s Early Years (1977) and Eliot’s New Life (1988), were hailed as a significant advance in the understanding of his life and work. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life does not merely combine the earlier volumes; rather it is a rewriting of Gordon’s understanding of Eliot, which takes advantage of new material (especially letters) that was not previously available. The result is a reconceived biography that probes the poet’s character and his poetry even more deeply than did the earlier volumes.
Subtitles to biographies can be neutral (“a life”) or provocative (“the untold story”) or descriptive (“early years”). Gordon’s choice of “an imperfect life” is both provocative and descriptive. It might also be deemed redundant. What life is not imperfect? In Eliot’s case, however, the subtitle is apt. He was obsessed with his life, with all human life, as imperfection. He aspired to the rank of saint. He deplored his fallibility and the fact that he never attained a mystical vision of God, never experienced beatitude except in the most fleeting instances. Eliot found it difficult to tolerate his fellow men and women, to accept the world as it is with all its imperfections. As man and poet he strove to transcend time, to focus his imagination on the eternal. Life, in many ways, was a torment for him because it was so imperfect.
Eliot grew up in St. Louis, but he thought of New England as his spiritual home. The Eliot family had, in fact, a dark and distinguished history in Massachusetts. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Eliot was related to one of the judges at the Salem witchcraft trials. Like Hawthorne, Eliot grew up keenly aware of the ambiguity of human actions and distrusted the sincerity of human motivations. If anything, Eliot retained more of his Puritan background than Hawthorne did. As a young man, he regretted his family’s decline (as he saw it) from the strict religious and moral code of Puritanism to a more relaxed and tepid Unitarianism. Gordon shows that Eliot’s decision to join the Church of England was almost an inevitable outgrowth of his journey back to the seventeenth century, in which the religious imperative structured an individual’s life. Indeed, the Church of England was not always structured enough for Eliot, who spent many years in a London flat saying the rosary each night.
Gordon’s biography reveals how misunderstood Eliot was as a poet. Although he wrote in the modernist tradition, he was not a modernist who turned conservative. Rather his concern with modernity was always essentially religious. He was using modernist techniques such as stream of consciousness to expose the contemporary world as a wasteland filled with hollow men. He despised writers like H. G. Wells (1866-1946) and D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) who celebrated human love and looked toward a future centered on the development of human consciousness alone. Man was incapable of creating utopias—sexual, political, or of any other kind—Eliot emphasized. As he wrote his first successful play, Murder in the Cathedral (1935), he thought of the characters called the evil tempters as writers like Wells and Lawrence.
The first part of Gordon’s biography is a little congested with her analyses of Eliot’s early verse. There is very little narrative drive until she enters upon his years in England. As soon as he meets and marries Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the biography takes on a verve and bite that is quite engrossing. Gordon presents a very detailed and moving portrait of Vivienne. A nervous woman, she was a talented writer who contributed excellent work to Eliot’s journal, Criterion. Eliot often said that if not for Vivienne, he would have returned to Harvard, defended his Ph.D. dissertation, become an academic, and given up poetry. Vivienne, however, had faith in Eliot as a poet and convinced him that his future lay in the literary world in England.
Yet the marriage was not a success. Vivienne could not settle down, and the couple were not sexually compatible. Eliot seemed to cringe from the sexual act. It reminded him too much of his mortality and his imperfections. It distracted him from his quest for eternal truths. At the same time, he was hardly a prude. He wrote a good deal of dirty poetry, some of it racist and misogynistic, not to mention anti-Semitic. Gordon does not mince words about this deplorable side of Eliot.
(The entire section is 1832 words.)