T.S. ELIOT by Lyndall Gordon


An Imperfect Life
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Veteran biographer Gordon ballasts Eliot’s listing reputation with a weighty volume that combines—with heavy revisions and some new additions—her well-received partial biographies Eliot’s Early Years (1977) and Eliot’s New Life (1988). Eliot’s decision to frustrate biographers hampered Gordon’s first two books (as well as Peter Ackroyd’s incisive complete life in 1984). Since then, Eliot’s early correspondence and the apprentice poems Inventions of the March Hare have been published, and Gordon has assiduously tracked down correspondence and manuscripts that the Eliot estate has not put under embargo. Her thesis, first stated in Eliot’s Early Years, that his poetic output, from the Modernist despair of The Waste Land to the sacred quests of Four Quartets, should be interpreted as an essentially coherent spiritual biography is reinforced in this newest volume. Delving into Eliot’s reading, from Jules Laforgue’s submerged religious obsessiveness to Lancelot Andrewes’s sermons, Gordon puts Eliot’s religious conversion to an idiosyncratically Puritanical Anglo-Catholicism in the context of his family’s Bostonian Unitarian tradition and New England Calvinism, although she also believes his search for saintliness was a failure. For what she calls a “public hermit,” the difficulty of mapping an inner life is further complicated by Eliot’s loathing of self-revelation, in both his private and public existence. Gordon also deals with his flaws: anti-Semitism, misogyny, and a penchant for scatological verse are among the most glaring. As Gordon laid out in her second volume, one of Eliot’s worst personal failures was his inability to commit to a shared life with Emily Hale, whom he had known since 1913. Despite Gordon’s painstaking reconstruction of this crucial relationship here, much remains unsaid: Eliot had Hale’s letters to him destroyed, and his to her are sealed until 2019. Whatever Eliot’s biographic blanks, An Imperfect Life intelligently charts his lifelong “escape from personality.” (b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-393-04728-8
Page count: 672pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1999


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