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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Interest in Eliot’s life has become very strong recently, culminating in Michael Hastings’ play Tom and Viv, staged in London in 1984. The play is about Eliot’s first, tragic marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood; prolonged correspondence about the play was published in the Times Literary Supplement and other British periodicals, debating its demerits and merits. The biography of Peter Ackroyd, too, is a sign of this new interest; perhaps it had to wait for Eliot’s critical doctrine of impersonality—his view that poetry is an “escape from personality” rather than an expression of it—to lose its force. Eliot’s own reticence when he was alive (he died in 1965) also served to hold this interest in check. Eliot left instructions in his will that there should be no official biography, and his estate has consistently refused permission to quote from his unpublished correspondence—this permission was refused to Peter Ackroyd, among others. It is known that still, at the present date, much information is being withheld; for example, some two thousand letters exchanged between Eliot and Emily Hale will not be available until the year 2020. Inevitably, both the public and the critics have come to think that much of Eliot’s fascination lies in his concealments. This attitude has greatly increased in the two decades since Eliot’s death. Part of the interest has been gossipy and perverse, as in Tom and Viv and other biographies of Eliot (by Robert Sencourt, T. S. Matthews, and James E. Miller, Jr.). On the other hand, with the passage of time, an understanding has grown that Eliot’s life was important, even very important—and this being the case, why should it be ignored when readers try to understand his difficult poetry? Indeed, is it possible to understand his poetry without knowing more about his life?

Ackroyd’s biography of Eliot is not gossipy or perverse in any way. It makes use of all of the published material about Eliot’s life, which is considerable; Eliot was one of the strongest literary influences in the English-speaking world during the period from 1920 to 1960, and the sheer bulk of the materials about Eliot—his poetry, criticism, drama, and his life—is both voluminous and intimidating. Ackroyd’s account is sober and largely sympathetic to his subject. The account of Eliot’s first marriage is judicious and seems relatively complete: A broad variety of sources are quoted, ranging from the acutely psychological to the medical, from friends of Eliot to members of Vivien’s family. By page 200 of Ackroyd’s book, when Eliot has finally separated from his increasingly insane wife, some readers may well wonder why this did not happen earlier. The year of this event was 1933, relatively early in Eliot’s life, yet the apparently disproportionate amount of space devoted to the relationship is probably justified. Most of Eliot’s important poetry and his most innovative criticism had been written before the break, and if a...

(The entire section is 2,165 words.)