T. S. ELIOT: A Life by Peter Ackroyd
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T. S. ELIOT: A Life

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Eliot brought the anguish of his difficult and divided nature to the surface of his poetry. . . His genius lay in his ability to resist the subversive tendencies of his personality by fashioning them into something larger than himself."" That is the unsurprising thesis of this reasonable but oddly uncommanding life-and-work--which lacks the focus and psychological sharpness that Lyndall Gordon brought to a very similar thesis in Eliot's Early Years (1977). Like Gordon, Ackroyd points to the fervent Unitarianism in Eliot's St. Louis background: ""the father drew cats, and the mother wrote poetry on themes of prophecy and martyrdom."" From the beginning, Tom would suffer internal conflict--emotional/sexual feeling vs. the need for order, skepticism vs. faith--and would find (inspired by Laforgue) a release in the adoption of dramatic voices, in the obsession with form. His one impulsive plunge from prim reserve into ""real life"" was a ""terrible disaster"": his 1915 marriage to Vivien, which soured almost immediately (""both of them ill at ease or unenergetic in sexual relations"") and turned into an expensive, draining 20-year ordeal as Vivien became increasingly unstable. And so the Anglo-Catholic conversion at age 38 was an almost inevitable culmination: ""He wanted an object for his intense feelings which was not human, in order to heal a personality which threatened to shatter apart."" All this is more cogently dramatized in the Gordon study. (Both writers must often turn to Vivien's diaries and speculation.) But Ackroyd provides a chattier, slightly less demanding narrative--along with serviceable treatment of the poetry, the literary colleague-ships. (On The Waste Land: ""Pound mistook or refused to recognize Eliot's original schema and as a result rescued the poetry."") And he goes on to cover, in less detail, Eliot's later years: Murder in the Cathedral (""an obsessive presentation of guilt, uncleanness and the 'void' ""); his move away from modernism to his public, Christian ""common style"" (Four Quartets); his uneasy efforts at popular playwrighting; his anti-Semitism (about which Ackroyd is slightly defensive); and his apparent happiness in marriage at 68 to 30-year-old secretary Valerie. Depressing and undramatic reading for the most part--but the fullest account yet, solidly assembled, even if Eliot stubbornly remains a masked, unappealing figure.

Pub Date: Nov. 21st, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster