THOMAS STEARNS ELIOT did not want the intimate details of his life made fodder for biographers and literary critics, no matter how sympathetic. To insure his privacy, friends were asked not to divulge what they knew of his personal life, and depositories of letters had strict regulations. Eliot, with his conception of the depersonalized poet, felt that the poetry alone was important as a cultural legacy.
Yet Lyndall Gordon has been able, with the help of Eliot's early unpublished poems and notebooks, his mother's poems, and his first wife's diaries, to construct a biography of Eliot's early life, from his birth to his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1928, which even Eliot might have tolerated.
Gordon's interest is not in chronicling the minutiae of the poet's everyday life, but in tracing through his life and his poetry, published and unpublished, the overriding concerns of a man who conceived of his life "as a religious quest despite the anti-religious mood of his age and the distracting claims of women, friends, and alternative careers." Her book is, in effect, a modern-day spiritual biography.
Gordon traces Eliot's forebears, upright New England Unitarians strongly tinged by Puritanism. His mother was a poet of deep religious conviction who "mapped out the states of being between loss and recovery of grace, a map her son redrew in his poetry with vivid, ingenious, twentieth-century touches."
As a student in Boston, the young Elliot began to feel oppressed by America and longed to escape it. Harvard (expect for a few teachers like Irving Babbitt) had left him relatively untouched; and although he knew well the drawing rooms of Beacon Hill and Back Bay, he found the Boston Brahmin society superficial. He demanded for himself a stronger sense of reality, a meaning, a purpose to life. He devoured books on philosophy, theology, world religions, and avidly read the late 19th-century French poets, especially Laforgue, whose alien world resembled his own. He would wander away from the rarefied, protected atmospheres of Harvard and Beacon Hill on solitary walks through the squalor of North Cambridge and Roxbury which became part of the backdrop of "Prufrock" and the "Preludes."
Once, during his school years, Eliot has a quasi-religious experience when the streets of Boston suddenly appeared to him to shrink and divide - a moment of timelessness in time. By 1914, the end of his academic career, according to Gordon, Eliot was primed for a passionate assent to Christianity - his unpublished poetry of 1910-14 dwells almost obsessively on religious fantasies - yet he was still too full of self-doubt, too caustious to make the leap into faith. Other enemies of his idea of perfection hounded him his overwhelming sense of mortality, of time's decay, and his fear of women (Gordon is especially perceptive and sensitive in her analysis of Eliot's attitude towards women). Like his spiritual mentors, St. Augustine and Dante, Eliot still needed the purgation of the spirit, the dark night of the soul, to reach his beatific vision.
That refining fire, his experience of the real, everday world, came with his life as an alien in London, where he became friends with Ezra Pound, Bertrand Russell and later the Bloomsbury group, especially Virginia Woolf, and with his all too hasty marriage, after a two-month courtship, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. The marriage was a disaster from every point of view (Eliot finally left her in 1933); its significance lies, as Gordon says, in Eliot's attempt "to fling himself inescapably into the 'real' world - where people made love and took care of each other and worried about money." Burdened by the enormous financial responsibility for Vivienne's continual illnesses - many of which brought her near to death - and her gradual mental deterioration, overwhelmed by a sense of guilt for their utter unhappiness, and, like Prufrock, squeamish about the physical side of marriage, Eliot himself suffered a nervous collapse. It was mainly during his convalescence in Lausanne that he found the time to write and to assemble and rework earlier fragments into a poem he had thought about for some time, "The Waste Land."
Gordon's discussion of the composition of "The Waste Land" is ofgreat interest to both the general reader and scholar. Dating various fragments by the type of paper used, Gordon shows that many sections existed much earlier, some going as far back as Eliot's Harvard days. Also, what was edited out of the poem's drafts by Pound, who was unsympathetic to religious views, gives a rough indication of Eliot's original conception of the poem: namely, that salvation lay in silence and opposition to a decayed civilization; that despite the poem's fatalistic view, there was a possibility, albeit faint, of redemption. Eliot's subservience to Pound's editing, however, made the poem a one-sided condemnation of the temporal world, and Eliot was later disappointed when critics found the poem devoid of belief.
The wast land of his personal life continued, and by 1925 Eliot felt the need to make a final leap into faith. In 1926 he asked to be admitted privately to the Anglican community; in 1927 he formally converted to Anglo-Catholicism and in 1928 made his first confession. His contemporaries did not understand his actions, especially since he coupled his religious conversion with conversion to royalism and classicism (he had also renounced his America citizenship).
Eliot's Early Years is not only a compelling account of the struggle of a young poet to come to terms with himself and his experience in his search for what he called, in "Burnt Norton," "the still point of the turning world," but also a very suggestive interpretation of Eliot's poetry. Gordon is a scrupulous, sensitive and intelligent interpreter of Eliot's life and work. While avoiding the obvious danger of bending the subject to fit the theme, her spiritual biography of T. S. Eliot illuminates at once the spirit of the man and his poetry.