(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will that there should be no official biography, and his estate has consistently refused permission to quote from his unpublished correspondence—this permission was refused to Peter Ackroyd, among others.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 “life” of an author is relevant to an author’s work, then it would be Eliot’s life prior to 1933.

Curiously, despite the many virtues of this biography, a surprising number of professional critics have been dissatisfied with it. Few have faulted its scholarship, the thoroughness of its research, or its objectivity. The notes are abundant, accurate, and usually quite apt; they reflect a broader range of sources than do most critical books. Although it is natural that critics should disagree with some of Ackroyd’s often tentative interpretations, the problem seems to lie elsewhere. One critic, for example—Barbara Everett—has been unwilling to accept the subtitle of this book for what it is—“A Life,” arguing at length that the book does not formulate adequate criticisms of Eliot’s work. Ackroyd is modest and consistent; he never claims that he is giving readers more than he does, that is, “A Life,” and the work should not be confused with a critical study. It will be of great value to all those interested in Eliot, just as lives of other great figures—artists, politicians, or generals—are important. They are not a substitute for an analysis of works or deeds, but they can contribute much else to aid readers in their understanding: a knowledge of historical background, of family influence, and the very concrete, specific social and professional milieux in which the subject lived and worked. The striking quotations of perceptions of Eliot by his friends, many of whom were highly articulate writers such as Virginia Woolf, Osbert Sitwell, and Aldous Huxley, help to provide a full, three-dimensional sense of Eliot the living and breathing man, with all his shyness and reticence. True, Eliot wrote that poetry “is an escape from personality.” A good biography, however, such as this one, can help readers to understand why he made the statement, and readers can understand more clearly the nature of the man who held this doctrine and why he held it. Eliot had good reasons for his belief, which was by no means defensive: It was part of a highly ambitious aim to embrace the world in its objective reality. Thus, Eliot was not contradicting himself when he also wrote that the critic should be a master of fact, and facts include biographical information about a writer, and that “we also understand the...

(The entire section is 2165 words.)