Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land

Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land

by Robert Crawford


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A groundbreaking new biography of one of the twentieth century's most important poets

On the fiftieth anniversary of the death of T. S. Eliot, the award-winning biographer Robert Crawford presents us with the first volume of a comprehensive account of this poetic genius. Young Eliot traces the life of the twentieth century's most important poet from his childhood in St. Louis to the publication of his revolutionary poem The Waste Land. Crawford provides readers with a new understanding of some of the most widely read poems in the English language through his depiction of Eliot's childhood—laced with tragedy and shaped by an idealistic, bookish family in which knowledge of saints and martyrs was taken for granted—as well as through his exploration of Eliot's marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, a woman who believed that she loved Eliot "in a way that destroys us both."

Quoting extensively from Eliot's poetry and prose as well as drawing on new interviews, archives, and previously undisclosed memoirs, Crawford shows how the poet's background in Missouri, Massachusetts, and Paris made him a lightning rod for modernity. Most impressively, Young Eliot reveals the way Eliot accessed his inner life—his anguishes and his fears—and blended them with his omnivorous reading to create his masterpieces "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and The Waste Land. At last, we experience T. S. Eliot in all his tender complexity, as student and lover, penitent and provocateur, banker and philosopher—but most of all, Young Eliot shows us an epoch-shaping poet struggling to make art among personal disasters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374536053
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Robert Crawford is the author of Scotland's Books and the coeditor of The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse. A fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy, he is the Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews. The Bard, his biography of Robert Burns, was named the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year in 2009. Crawford's seven poetry collections include Testament and Full Volume, which was short-listed for the T. S. Eliot Prize. He lives in Scotland.

Read an Excerpt

Young Eliot

From St. Louis to the Waste Land

By Robert Crawford

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Robert Crawford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5176-0



Before he was T. S. he was Tom. That was what his prosperous parents and his four elder sisters called him. In the summer of 1890 his only brother, Henry, wrote from Boston, Massachusetts, to hard-working Papa Eliot at home in industrial St Louis, Missouri. Henry's holiday news was that baby 'Tom' (then aged two) had just been weighed: 30 pounds. Henry, almost a teenager, seems not to have resented the arrival of another male Eliot. He looks happy photographed beside his alert little brother. Indeed, before long Henry, a bookish boy who liked to go to the Boston Athenaeum to look at the magazines, was taking his own photographs of Tom.

All the baby's surviving siblings were considerably older. When Tom was born, Ada was nineteen, Margaret was seventeen, Charlotte fourteen, Marion eleven and Henry nine. Ada could easily have been mistaken for his mother; she would sit beside him on the stairs at the well-appointed family home, 2635 Locust Street, St Louis, responding to him in a kind of shared vocal game. Later, she told Tom how 'When you were a tiny boy, learning to talk, you used to sound the rhythm of sentences without shaping words – the ups and downs of the thing you were trying to say. I used to answer you in kind, saying nothing yet conversing with you.'

Ada left home while Tom was still little, but he always felt attuned to her. From his early years a mixture of separation and closeness characterised his sense of family. He was loved and happy. He and his mother Lottie treasured memories of his earliest infancy; in adulthood he assured her he still cherished her singing him a song, 'The Little Tailor', while the firelight made patterns on the ceiling of his childhood home. Yet, years later, Tom suggested to Henry that their parents 'in spite of the strength of their affection' had been 'lonely people'. A sense of familial, shared fondness, tradition and values was unusually strong among the Eliots: Tom inherited it; but he also inherited, and worked hard to counter, a sense of isolation in himself.

When he was born in St Louis in 1888, both his parents were forty-five. Lottie – Charlotte Champe Eliot – gave birth around 7.45 a.m. on Wednesday 26 September. Anxiety mingled with jubilation. Three years earlier Lottie's daughter Theodora had been born severely deformed. Her frail physique had failed to develop. Relatives outside the immediate family worried about how Theodora had so 'wound herself' round her parents' hearts during the sixteen months of her short, stricken life, that they transferred to baby Tom a morbid sense of trepidation that later conditioned his boyhood.

Few mothers in their mid-forties who had recently watched a baby die would not have worried at a subsequent birth, even if they were, like Lottie, of 'unusual character'. The new baby's father Hal – Henry Ware Eliot – sent a telegram immediately to relatives in Oregon: 'Lottie and Little Thomas are well.' Thomas Stearns Eliot's name was chosen with care. Stearns had been Lottie's maiden name. Having called their first son Henry Ware Eliot Junior, after his father, the couple gave their new son the first name of Hal's elder brother, the Oregon-based Reverend Thomas Lamb Eliot, a minister in the Unitarian Church that meant so much to all these Eliots.

A year or so before Tom's birth, Hal, with his customary taste for kith and kin, had subscribed to A Sketch of the Eliot Family (1887). He has a short entry in it as Eliot 'No. 163', and close family members feature in its 'Index of Eliots'. Familiar to him and to Lottie, surnames such as Adams, Cranch, Greenleaf, Peabody, Stearns, Stetson and Thayer populate its 'Index of Other Names'. Tom, who later spotted this book in his 'father's library', grew up with a strong, sometimes constricting sense that the world, like this book's indexes, could be divided into Eliots and non-Eliots. Certainly his family tree, was formidable. A distant ancestor, Andrew Eliot, had emigrated from East Coker in Somerset, England, to Beverly in Massachusetts around 1670. Through him the St Louis Eliots could claim kinship with a substantially Unitarian New England elite. The scholar Eric Sigg has pointed out that through his tangled family tree baby Tom was related, distantly, to poets John Greenleaf Whittier and James Russell Lowell; to novelists Henry Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne; to memoirist Henry Adams; and to the second and sixth presidents of the United States, John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Few squealing infants have had quite so much to live up to.

Worried or not at the time of his birth, the new baby's parents were both strong characters. They treasured their sense of familial inheritance; yet in each there was also something unfulfilled or repressed. Active in local women's clubs and religious as well as cultural societies, Charlotte cared deeply about education and social welfare. She campaigned for the rights of children in the courts. Her passions encompassed poetry, philosophy and religion; but her own education had not included university study, and the poetry she wrote found only limited outlets, often in Unitarian journals where she had links to the editors. Educated at Washington University in St Louis, her businessman husband had been expected to follow his elder brother and their father into the Unitarian ministry. Hal's father was the Harvard-educated Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot – Eliot 'No. 161' – founder of Washington University, pillar of Unitarianism, writer, 'unflinching supporter of the temperance cause', advocate of 'woman suffrage' and 'helper of the colored race'. Yet Hal had not become a minister: 'too much pudding choked the dog' as he put it; he simply 'gagged'. Nevertheless, Hal, whose cursory short entry in the Sketch of the Eliot Family was dwarfed by the Reverend W. G.'s magisterial three pages, 'gave as a layman' to his church 'the kind of service that ministers rarely find', becoming 'a living stone of its spiritual structure and usefulness. His face bore the stamp of real spirituality.' Tom was shaped by his parents' hopes and histories; what he became was guided and abraded by what they had accomplished; and, sometimes, by what they had not.

Partially deaf by the time of Tom's childhood, his father had once been an eager musician, artist and poet. Hal's Pocket Diary and Almanac from 1864, when he was twenty-one, records purchases of books including Thomas Hood's Poems. He strummed the guitar, sang, played the flute. In his diary a poem, 'Life', dated 'April 27 '64', begins, 'Must I suffer ere my spirit, / Shall attain the highest goal'. To his liking for spiritual verse, Hal added a taste for popular song. That same year, the second last of Abraham Lincoln's presidency and while the Civil War still raged, he wrote down lines from 'Lorena', a lyric of loss and regret sung by many during a time when perhaps a million Americans were killed.

We loved each other then Lorena
More than we ever dared to tell
And what we might have been Lorena
Had but our loving prospered well ...

Much later, Ezra Pound wrote of meeting in Venice a woman who remembered a young Hal Eliot in St Louis writing poetry and not appearing at all like a businessman.

Hal's father was recalled as 'one of the staunchest supporters of the Union in a city in which it was doubted, for a time, whether it would go with the Union or the Rebellion'. In the early 1860s, to his family's alarm, Hal had followed his elder brother Thomas in volunteering to serve on the Union side in the Hallek Guard, mustered to defend St Louis against attack by Confederate forces which had earlier been driven out of Missouri. Yet by the late 1880s when his last child was born, those days were long gone. True, Hal still enjoyed drawing humorous sketches – not least of cats – and Tom remembered in adulthood 'a wonderful set of comic animals that he drew long ago, and were kept in an album together – I think he did them for a fair'. By Tom's childhood, however, Hal the clean-shaven, sometimes nervous-looking young poet had been repressed and replaced by Henry Ware Eliot, Sr, the bearded, chess-playing businessman who had moved through several commercial jobs to become a prominent figure in the management of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company of St Louis.

Aspects of Hal's well-read, older self survived. Having studied Classics in his youth, 'Papa', as his children called him, liked to quote Latin tags around the house, peppering his conversation, Tom observed, with occasional phrases such as 'quam celerrime', and retaining into old age a taste for bow ties and ancient Greek oratory, which, in his disciplined retirement, he reread in the original. He lived surrounded by books – the Bible, Latin and Greek texts, Americana from the age of Emerson and before – and retained a love of American history and political anecdotes. Tom remembered his father advising both his sons 'not to take up his own business'. To the outside world, however, Hal was not a literary man but principally a sound, successful commercial manager. He helped found a local association of building material dealers. He looked after financial matters for his extended family. He rose, eventually, to become president of his firm and a director of several other brick companies.

In Lottie Eliot the vein of poetry was not repressed. Three months pregnant with Tom, she wrote, as she often did at the advent of spring, a poem celebrating Easter. Lent and Easter were important points in the Unitarian calendar, and often involved concerts at the Eliots' church. While Lottie's verse advocates the eschewing of 'wanton pleasures', she liked to celebrate how 'Spring returns with joy and mirth'. During the second year of Tom's life she wrote 'An Easter Song', and in 1891 'An Easter Hymn'. Much, though not all, of her verse was religious in tenor; liking to read theology and the Bible itself before she wrote, she had a high sense of artistic mission: 'The artist's soul must expression find / And give of its riches to all mankind, / Their vision to complete.' As a girl she had studied 'Mental Philosophy'; as an adult she 'sometimes read Philosophy as a preparation for writing'.

Steeped in high-mindedness, Lottie Eliot's poetry invokes a divine 'Infinite Mind' (a term favoured by Unitarians). Its topics range from 'The Raising of Lazarus' and 'Force and God' (1887) to biblical paraphrases and poems dealing with episodes in the lives of saints and martyrs. She transcribed in Latin and English Fortunatus' medieval hymn in honour of the Holy Cross, with its details of crucified palms and 'wound on wound'; she wrote her own verse 'Vision of St Francis' seen 'Rapt in the ecstasy of his devotion'. Sometimes, as in 'Raphael's "Ste. Marguerite"', she took inspiration from paintings. Tom's mother hung reproductions of religious pictures in her bedroom alongside ancestral portraits and pictures of her children. Martyrdom and scenes of violent self-discipline fascinated her. Tom's brother Henry remembered from his earliest infancy an engraving in her room of the Emperor Theodosius and St Ambrose, about which she wrote a poem. Her accompanying prose gloss explains to less learned readers that,

By the order of Theodosius, Emperor of the East, in reprisal for the murder of one of his generals, thousands of innocent people were slain at the circus in Thessalonica. On account of this cruel and unjustifiable deed the Emperor was refused admission to the Cathedral, by St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, and not allowed to partake of the Communion until after eight months of penitence and humiliation.

Lottie's emperor prostrates himself before Ambrose who represents the 'Authority' of the Church:

      On the marble floor
    Kneels Theodosius to implore
    From heaven, mercy. Day by day
    Upon the ground he prostrate lay,
    Till months had passed. And many came,
    With him to weep and share his shame,
    Till fierce desires, and passions rude
    He had within his soul subdued.

Fascinated by ascetic figures from the sufferings of Catholicism, Mrs Eliot was also alert to the liberal theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Unitarian New England-inflected writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing. She published verse in the Unitarian Christian Register, pasting her printed poems carefully into scrapbooks. Tom's younger cousin Abigail Eliot thought his mother 'wasn't much interested in babies', but she cherished her children as well as her verse, and grew to love her poet son with particular intensity. She went on writing throughout her life, but never published a book-length collection, and her poetry underwent almost no development. It was, however, hugely important to her; and in her husband, the St Louis businessman who had once written, into his own diary, verses with the epigraph 'Perfect through Suffering (Saul)', she found a staunch life's partner.

Tom grew up in an idealistic, bookish household where knowledge of saints and martyrdoms was readily taken for granted, even when it came to the punchlines of old jokes. He recalled being told a political anecdote by his father, who remembered the days of the debates over slavery in 1858 between the Republican Abraham Lincoln and the Democrat Stephen Douglas, famed for his political oratory. Mr Eliot enjoyed telling his son how, after Douglas had given one of his best speeches and received thunderous applause, Lincoln then stood up, took off his coat, rolled up his cuffs and said, '"We will now proceed to stone Stephen."'

Though their home was St Louis, both Lottie, who had been raised in Massachusetts, and Hal (a confirmed Republican in politics) shared a mutual pride in their New England ancestors. 'We tended to cling to places and associations as long as possible,' Tom recalled. His parents had first met in St Louis, but had married in a historic house, the Old Reed home, in Lexington, Massachusetts, on 27 October 1868. As a present for Lottie's thirty-ninth birthday in 1882 Hal, who had spent most of his life in Missouri, had gone to some trouble to buy and bring to St Louis an antique grandfather clock said to have been one of a batch shipped to America from Falmouth, England, in the 1760s. Nathan Reed, soon to be part of a company of Minute Men led by Captain Parker who faced the British at the Battle of Lexington on 19 April 1775, had bought the clock in 1770. One of Lottie's distant ancestors, Samuel Dawes, had ridden at the same time as Paul Revere to warn the rebels at Lexington that the British were coming. The clock Hal presented to his wife and which was a feature of Tom's boyhood home in St Louis had stood in the old Reed home at Lexington for many decades. In Tom's childhood the hall clock told not just the present-day time but the story of the American Revolution. As a boy, Tom's brother relished the heroism of Paul Revere; among Tom's earliest surviving boyhood writings is a short, illustrated account of George Washington. Like most American children, Henry and Tom learned about these national heroes at school; but, thanks to their hall clock, their books, pictures and ancestral stories, such history was also part of the fabric of their home. Hal passed to his younger son an edition of Jefferson's writings; and so it was that Tom came to feel that the early history of the United States was somehow 'a family extension'.

In thriving St Louis the family lived in some style. Running southwards through the grid-planned city for well over a mile past the Eliots' house in the direction of the Mississippi, Locust Street was named, like nearby Olive, Pine and Chestnut Streets, after a familiar American tree. Inside the Eliots' substantial four-storey, brick-built home with its heavy, dark wood furniture and elaborately patterned carpets hung treasured familial pictures. The walls of several rooms were a three-dimensional family album. A collection of portraits belonging to Tom's parents and his grandmother Abigail Adams Eliot (née Cranch), who lived nearby, included those of President John Adams and his Secretary of State John Marshall, as well as many ancestors with the surname Eliot, Stearns, Cranch, Blood or Dawes. Above and to the right of the fireplace in his mother's bedroom were at least fifteen pictures, including a Madonna and child, as well as head-and-shoulders photographic portraits. Photographed for the parental gallery, Tom grew up among a rich clutter of familial collectanea: a bronze Japanese vase, brass candlesticks, the gold-headed cane which had belonged to his formidable Grandfather Eliot.


Excerpted from Young Eliot by Robert Crawford. Copyright © 2015 Robert Crawford. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

List of Plates xiii

Introduction 1

1 Tom 11

2 Hi, Kid, Let's Dance 36

2 Schoolings 59

4 A Full-Fledged Harvard Man 79

5 A Rose 101

6 Secret Knowledge 122

7 Voyages 140

8 A Philosopher and Actor Falls in Love 165

9 The Oxford Year 201

10 V. S. Eliot 232

11 Observations 260

12 American 290

13 Old Man 312

14 Professional 344

15 To Lausanne 367

16 The Waste Land 400

Abbreviations 425

Notes 427

Index 479

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