T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style by Ronald Bush

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

In his T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style, Ronald Bush provides several valuable services to Eliot scholarship. The first is as organizer and synthesizer of a tremendous amount of primary material and received opinion about T. S. Eliot and the general outline of his career. In this capacity, Bush’s work is not strikingly original. His overall view of both Eliot’s life and the nature and merit of individual poems is largely consistent with and indebted to existing scholarship. The value of Bush’s book lies in his thoroughness, his grasp of the wholeness of Eliot’s diverse efforts (Bush skillfully uses Eliot’s criticism, for example, to enlighten both his poetry and temperament), and in the most complete attempt to date to illuminate the link between the psychological contours of Eliot’s life and his changing poetic style.

Bush’s subtitle indicates the primary focus of his work. His approach is largely a combination of psychological biography and close reading of individual poems, though he does just enough deconstructionist criticism to show that he is up-to-date. Eliot’s reticence about making public the details of his life, reflected in his refusal to authorize a biography and the many restrictions on his existing private papers, has hindered attempts to explore fully relationships between his life and work—relationships that, in Eliot’s case, are unusually significant. In the past, one had to be content with the reminiscences of friends and acquaintances and the generalities of scholars. Recent books such as Lyndall Gordon’s Eliot’s Early Years (1977) have begun to correct that situation, and Bush’s efforts are another significant step in that direction.

The basic picture Bush presents of Eliot is not a new one, but it is rendered in greater detail and made to serve new ends—an exploration and explanation of the changing course of Eliot’s style. Eliot is seen as the archetypally reflective person, struggling all of his life with the conflicting romantic and classic sides of his nature, the former having the upper hand up to the time of The Waste Land (1922) and the latter thereafter, but with the tension between them never fully resolved at any time. Bush’s treatment is much more subtle than this, but it is essentially an elaboration of a common view of the tenor of Eliot’s life.

What is uncommon is the attention Bush pays to the relationship between Eliot’s life and the style of his writing. It has long been observed that Eliot’s poetry after The Waste Land is more discursive, philosophical, and less concrete than before (see, for example, Floyd C. Watkins’ The Flesh and the Word: Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, 1971), but Bush both develops this notion in greater depth than before and ties it more intimately to the spiritual and psychological struggles of Eliot’s life.

Bush portrays the changes in Eliot’s style as a reflection of his ongoing battle between the desire to make contact with and express a deeper self that was more authentic and energizing than the conventional self and the impulse to control and order the potentially destructive and egotistic nature of that deeper self. Ezra Pound’s Imagism and the increasing spareness and directness of William Butler Yeats reinforced the young Eliot’s own deep suspicion of rhetoric and convention in favor of a poetry that eschewed eloquence for presentation of concrete images charged with emotional power.

Bush follows Gordon and others in portraying the early Eliot struggling with the contradictory forces of self-denial, service of others, emotional and intellectual control, the need to succeed, and so on that were the legacy of his patrician American upbringing, and the fear that all of this was artificial, constrictive, and life-denying. Eliot was equally unnerved by the prospect of being a Prufrock or Gerontion on the one hand, trapped in a web of social and rhetorical convention, unable to express and perhaps even feel genuine emotion,...

(The entire section is 1,677 words.)