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T.S. Eliot wrote of waste and woe. His private life provided material.

Robert Crawford’s ‘Eliot After “The Waste Land”’ explores the celebrated poet’s messy, complicated personal life. Does it detract from his work?

An undated photograph of T. S. Eliot inspecting manuscripts. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” to quote the description in Robert Crawford’s mesmerizing new book, was — and is — a poem of “ruin, brokenness, pain and wastage,” but these same words could easily characterize its author’s disastrous marriage. In 1915 Eliot proposed to Vivien Haigh-Wood, partly out of desire for sexual experience, which he was too shy to seek in other ways. Following “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender/Which an age of prudence can never retract,” the young poet found himself shackled to a needy, fragile woman he grew to dislike, then pity and finally loathe. He would turn for love and sympathetic understanding elsewhere.

In “Eliot After ‘The Waste Land’” Crawford details, with remarkable scholarly evenhandedness, a life of almost soap-operatically “complex, contradictory messiness.” It follows “Young Eliot” (2015), which tracked the poet’s upper-middle-class childhood in St. Louis, education at Harvard and European travels as a philosophy student, and closes with the publication of “The Waste Land” in 1922.

T.S. Eliot may have been flawed, but a new book reminds of his greatness on the page

This second half of Crawford’s biography begins with a brief account of Eliot’s short-lived, unsatisfactory affair with the rich, notoriously promiscuous Nancy Cunard. Soon, though, this unhappy husband found his thoughts returning to the girl he had left behind in America, Emily Hale. In due course, Eliot and Hale embarked on an intense correspondence that would continue for more than 20 years. Any guise of mere friendship was soon abandoned: “I would literally give my eyesight to be able to marry you. … If I ever am free I shall ask you to marry me.” Much of Crawford’s narrative relies on this correspondence, which had been under seal until 2020.

Concurrent with epistolary dalliance, Eliot was discovering himself to be “a classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” He yearned for what he called, in his great essay on Dante, “a world of dignity, reason and order.” His eventual commitment to an exceptionally austere Anglicanism revolutionized Eliot’s later life but ruined Hale’s. The bonds of matrimony, he repeatedly told her, were sacrosanct. There could be no divorce. Nonetheless, the two would meet occasionally during the interwar years — both in America and in England — for what seem to have been afternoons of decorous yearning. Hale would long cherish the remembrance of their few kisses while Eliot memorialized, in “Burnt Norton,” their walks together and, prophetically, “the passage which we did not take/ Towards the door we never opened/ Into the rose-garden.”

Not even great poets can live off their poetry — “The Waste Land” sold only about 330 copies in its first six months — so Eliot, from the mid-1920s on, worked as a director of a new publishing firm called Faber & Faber. From its offices he would acquire manuscripts, oversee the staid cultural journal the The Criterion, and correspond with leading poets and conservative intellectuals. For the amusement of his godson, Tom Faber, he regularly sent the little boy Edward Learish nonsense verses, later repurposed for 1939’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” and, later still, the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats.”

Both Vivien and Eliot almost continually suffered from an array of illnesses. Hers included intestinal inflammation, shortness of breath, influenza, shingles, emotional and mental instability, and drastic weight loss — at one point she was down to 80 pounds — while Eliot ran his wife a respectable second with recurrent colds, bronchial trouble, seriously decayed teeth (five were extracted on one dental visit), a hernia that required a truss, surgery on his finger and frequent periods of nervous exhaustion. He also drank impressively, as many as five gin drinks during dinner.

Crawford estimates that in 1925 alone the couple spent a third of their income on doctors, medicines, and stays in hospitals or sanatoria. During the ’30s, Eliot arranged for the increasingly troubled Vivien — at one point he wondered if she might be suffering from “demonic possession” — to be cared for in various rest homes, and in 1938 he signed papers committing her to an asylum. With typical Prufrockian cowardice, he did this by letter while out of the country. He never saw her again.

T.S. Eliot’s American childhood

Eliot’s poetry often reflects these emotional and spiritual upheavals, starting with the desolation of 1925’s “The Hollow Men” (“This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper”), progressing to 1935’s sacred verse-drama about the death of Thomas a Becket, “Murder in the Cathedral (which its mystery-loving author initially called “The Archbishop Murder Case”) and culminating in the somber, religio-philosophical masterpiece “Four Quartets.” Composed between 1936 and 1942, “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker” (my favorite), “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding” draw heavily, if obliquely, on Eliot’s love for Hale, his family’s past and the poet’s experiences as an air warden during the London Blitz.

And then in 1947, Vivien died. At this point the now-free Eliot suddenly recoiled at the prospect of actually marrying Hale, to whom he wrote, “I cannot, cannot, start life again, and adapt myself (which means not merely one moment, but a perpetual adaptation for the rest of life) to any other person.” Hale was crushed but hoped he’d change his mind. In 1948, Eliot received the Nobel Prize for literature, privately calling the honor “a ticket to one’s funeral. No one has ever done anything after he got it.” He is, fundamentally, quite right. From then on, Eliot would be primarily a smiling public man, giving addresses on Christian humanism and picking up honorary degrees.

Through the late 1940s and mid-50s, this world-famous poet shared a suite of rooms with the witty, wheelchair-bound bibliophile John Hayward. (I highly recommend John Smart’s anecdote-rich biography of Hayward, “Tarantula’s Web.”) Eliot’s bedroom was flamboyantly ascetic: a single bed, an ebony crucifix, a bare lightbulb hanging from a chain. Very early one morning in 1957, though, Hayward’s “lodger” announced — without warning, through a letter — that he wouldn’t be back the next day or, indeed, ever. The 68-year-old Eliot had proposed — via letter! — to his adoring 30-year-old secretary, Valerie Fletcher, and been accepted. In due course, Hale received her own letter, disclosing this ultimate betrayal. For the final years of his life Eliot was soppily besotted with his new young bride, and the two grew inseparable. He died in 1965 at age 76.

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Before then, however, Eliot burned Hale’s letters and, learning that she was depositing his own with Princeton, typed a sniveling, churlish note declaring that he’d never loved her, that she was really just a philistine and that marrying her would have killed him as a poet. Maybe that last bit is true, but this note certainly kills one’s respect for Eliot the man.

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” Perhaps none, yet bear in mind that Crawford’s concentration on Eliot’s private life results in a partial picture, one that shifts the poet’s intellectual and artistic accomplishments to the background. So while these often harrowing revelations do grant us deeper insight into Eliot and consequently into his work, it is ultimately the poetry itself — and the criticism and drama — that we care about. After finishing “Eliot After ‘The Waste Land,’” I took a drive and put on a CD of Jeremy Irons reading “Four Quartets.” As moved and exhilarated as ever, I kept on driving until that final Dantescan line when “the fire and the rose are one.”

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for Book World, and the author of the memoir “An Open Book,” the Edgar Award-winning “On Conan Doyle” and five collections of essays: “Readings,” “Bound to Please,” “Book by Book,” “Classics for Pleasure” and “Browsings.”

Eliot After ‘The Waste Land’

By Robert Crawford

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 624 pp. $40

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