Book Reviews by S.T. Lake

T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life

By Lyndall Gordon (Norton, $24.50)

Biographers have given us many T .S. Eliots in recent years: Eliot, the avatar of high modernity, Eliot, the expatriate prodigal son, and, most recently, Eliot, the anti-Semite. In "T .S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life," Lyndall Gordon gives us Eliot the spiritual pilgrim and would-be saint, a man who "would have worn hair shirts, if (he) could have found (them)."
Born the grandson of a famous Southern minister , with roots that traced back to Puritan New England (his ancestors participated in the Salem witch trials), Gordon's Eliot is a religious quester first, a reader and writer of literature second. For Gordon, Eliot's epochal poem "The Waste Land" matters less for its radical formal innovations than for its similarities to St. Augustine's Confessions.
By framing Eliot's life solely in terms of his progress towards salvation Gordon is able to trace a coherent development in Eliot's poetry from the admission of a need for faith in "The Waste Land," through an attempt at con. version in "The Hollow Men" and " Ash Wednesday," to final submission to divine authority in "The Four Quartets."
This spiritual quest is neatly reflected through the three significant loves of his life - from the Inferno of his early years with his fIrst wife, Vivienne (she is eventually committed to an asylum), to the Purgartorio of his long, unconsummated friendship with Emily Hale, to the Paradiso of his final happy marriage to Valerie Fletcher.
At times Eliot the man becomes lost amidst Gordon's high-minded theological speculations. It comes as welcome relief to learn that this self-lacerating ascetic was also afraid of heights, that he liked Groucho Marx, and that he so dreaded making idle conversation that he would often hide in the bathroom at Faber and Faber instead of walking out with a colleague.
"An Imperfect Life" is not without flaws. Poems which do not neatly reflect Eliot's spiritual journey are mostly ignored. The early quatrains, for example, written when Eliot was trying to imitate French poet, Theophile de Gautier, are quickly passed over, while "The Death of St. Narcissus," an unpublished fragment, is treated in depth. His criticism, among the most formidable and lasting of the 2Oth century, also goes neglected.
Still, the intense focus on Eliot's spiritual journey offers many rewards. Gordon has given us an unforgettable portrait of a relentless mind engaged in an overwhelming struggle with a world it saw as both sterile and depraved. That this conflict resulted in some of the century's most powerful poetry is certainly no coincidence, but neither was it as crucial, either for Eliot or Gordon, as what the struggle ultimately yielded - forgiveness and, for a time, happiness.
- Tim Lake, a playwright, is a free-lance writer and Turkish oil wrestler.

T.S. Eliot Poems      Home