Adam Ash

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Bookplanet: TS Eliot as a young buck in Boston

The artist as a young mandarin
Before Paris, before London, a young T.S. Eliot discovered the salons and streets of bohemian Boston in the early 1910s. The effects are still with us.
By David Barber

WILL WE EVER make our peace with T.S. Eliot? For all the ink spilled on sequencing the DNA of ''The Waste Land" and ''Four Quartets," the circumspect closing passage of the New York Times obituary that ran 40 years ago last January almost might have been written yesterday: ''Although Eliot's influence began to wane in the last decade of his life, we are still too close to the light he shed to take his measure accurately.... If we judge a man by the vacancy that his absence from his time would have caused, T.S. Eliot was a giant."

And a giant no doubt he remains-though of late one more closely resembling a monument in glorious ruins, or perhaps something in the mold of an Easter Island monolith, a crumbling outsized totem of an impossibly bygone age. In what distant civilization could such an archly enigmatic poet command such exalted influence and authority? Whatever became of the republic of letters where his oracular utterances and pharaonic pronouncements were the coin of the realm?

Any diligent student of writerly posterity-and none was more diligent than Eliot himself-might have seen it coming. Giants must be cut down to size; icons must be toppled. In Eliot's case, the literary-industrial complex that sprang up in order to explain him now seems to exist largely to vivisect him, intent on exposing him as all too human.

The long knives have been out for a good long while, and they've kept busy. Eliot's principal biographer, Lyndall Gordon, having produced two copiously researched volumes over the previous decades, combined them into a single tome in 1998 under the conspicuously damning title, ''T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life." Michael Hastings's 1985 play, ''Tom & Viv," made hay with the dirty linen of Eliot's grisly first marriage, spawning a prurient Hollywood biopic of the same name. ''It is now our unsparing obligation to disclaim the reactionary Eliot," Cynthia Ozick declared in a 1989 New Yorker essay; in 1995 the British barrister Anthony Julius followed suit with a prosecutorial opus indicting the poet on long-bruited charges of malignant anti-Semitism. Reviewing the recently published ''Annotated Waste Land" this summer, Christopher Hitchens not only caught a distinct whiff of fascism in Eliot's makeup but took the opportunity to bash the masterwork under discussion as ''certainly the most overrated poem in the Anglo-American canon."

Even Eliot's stoutest partisans at times seem overmatched by the blowback. In 1996, when BU professor Christopher Ricks put out his lavish annotated edition of Eliot's youthful poetry, ''Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917," much of the immediate attention fixated on a clutch of scabrous verses that had never seen the light of print. Never mind that Ricks's archeological reconstruction of Eliot's early drafts and notebooks yielded up a landmark work of textual criticism. For naysayers on the warpath, the paper trail once again seemed to point straight to the heart of darkness.

As usual, one doesn't have to look far for an Eliot line that seems tailor-made for the occasion: After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Only time will tell, but now comes a painstaking new study that's useful in reminding us why Eliot mattered so much to so many in the first place.

James E. Miller Jr.'s ''T.S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet" (Penn State) is a sympathetic if overly stenographic ''biographical interpretation" of Eliot's life and work leading up to the publication of ''The Waste Land" in 1922, and it has a decidedly local angle: Drawing extensively on Ricks's forensic scholarship and historian Douglass Shand-Tucci's books on fin de siecle Boston bohemia, Miller proceeds to cement the evidence that the Hub served as the incubator for the decisions and revisions that led Eliot to jettison a promising career in academic philosophy in pursuit of the poetic life. The upshot is a guided tour of the primal origins of Eliot's mature poetry that homes in on what other biographers tend to brush over in passing-an indelible portrait of the artist as a young mandarin.
. . .

The dandified 19-year-old Harvard undergrad gazing from the cover of Miller's book (photo at right) already seems well on his way to fashioning his shape-shifting persona: dapper, tousled, precociously world-weary, Huck Finn morphing into Dorian Gray. If those traces of a Cheshire Cat smile hint that he's onto something, that's because he is. Eliot had recently begun writing his first French symbolist knockoff verses, and he was only a couple of years away from scribbling the first drafts of the poem that would become ''The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the fabled opening stave of which would invite his generation into the mean streets of modern disenchantment-"Let us go then, you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table." Miller's aim is to show us that by the time Eliot departed Harvard for Europe in 1914 the spade work was all but complete.

None of this is exactly late-breaking news, but the prime draw of Miller's account is how assiduously he fills in the deep background and connects the dots. Cambridge in the early teens turned out to be the right place at the right time for an apprenticeship in the sorcery of a new kind of poetry-at least so long as you were preternaturally attuned to the crackling wavelengths of the zeitgeist.

Young Tom Eliot from St. Louis got off to a bumpy start at Harvard (his dismal first-year marks landed him on probation), but after that he appears to have been in his element, thanks to his elastic ability to circulate among eclectic intellectual and social orbits. His deep New England roots probably played some part in helping him find his groove: His English ancestor, Andrew Eliot, had migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1669 (he would later serve as one of the judges at the Salem witchcraft trials), and the family summered at a cottage in Gloucester that his father built in the early 1890s.

But did he really fit in? ''Altogether impeccable in his tastes but has no vigor or life," was the verdict of his philosophy professor Bertrand Russell. Miller gives us reason to believe that this cold-blooded affect was something of a calculated pose: It's likely Russell would have formed a rather different view if he'd ever seen Eliot expertly navigate the shoals of Cape Ann in the family catboat. (''He could handle a sheet with the best in Gloucester," a friend would recall.)

Eliot's diffident, Prufrockian bearing, at any rate, proved no great obstacle to holding his own on occasion as a sport or a swell. At the prodding of an athletic pal, we learn, he even made a project of buffing up his gangly physique, taking up sculling and plugging away at boxing lessons in Boston's South End under the tutelage of a beefy pugilist who may well have been the prototype for the brutish ''Apeneck Sweeney" in the poems ''Sweeney Erect" and ''Sweeney Among the Nightingales."

Miller also makes some heavy weather over Eliot's shadier proclivities during his college days. Even as his grades were steadily climbing, Eliot was evidently cultivating a taste for night crawling, intent on furthering his education by insinuating himself into Boston's bohemian demimonde. Beyond hobnobbing on the soiree circuit along Mount Auburn Street's ''Gold Coast," he was known to frequent Isabella Stewart Gardner's Venetian-style villa hard by the Boston Fens, a magnet for assorted Pateresque aesthetes and uncloseted ''Uranians," as the period vernacular had it.

Then there was his noted Baudelairean penchant for solitary nocturnal rambles. That these clandestine excursions supplied firsthand raw material for a poet maudit in training can be attested by one of Eliot's earliest surviving poems, ''First Caprice in North Cambridge," dating from 1909:

A street-piano, garrulous and frail;
The yellow evening flung against the panes
Of dirty windows; and the distant strains
Of children's voices, ending in a wail.
Bottles and broken glass,
Trampled mud and grass;
A heap of broken barrows;
And a crowd of tattered sparrows
Delve in the gutter with sordid patience.
Oh, these minor considerations!....

You don't have to be an Eliot addict to hear the dissonant strains of ''Prufrock" and the ''Preludes" tuning up in these lines: The melancholy vibe is unmistakable, and the morbid conviction is palpable. Call it juvenilia if you will, but this stripling of 21 is clearly one quick study, already a dab hand at reconstituting the sound and sense of symbolist vers libre and cutting-edge imagism into a stripped-down American idiom that would place his stamp on the cusp of modernism.
. . .

Miller does a serviceable job of piecing together Eliot's rapid arc of development. Ten of his poems appeared in the Harvard Advocate between 1907 and 1910, and the last of them, ''Ode," was reprinted the same day (June 24, 1910) in both the Boston Evening Transcript and the Boston Evening Herald. Within two years, the ur-"Prufrock" would be set down in Eliot's notebooks upon his return to Cambridge after a year of studying in Paris. Practically on cue, Eliot was making good on Pound's epochal decree to Make It New.

And what does Eliot's early poetry tell us about his inscrutable inner life? Everything, according to Miller: His avowed modus operandi is ''to find Eliot somewhere, somehow lurking in all of his poems," and he duly labors to unmask the great sphinx of allusive modernism as an intensely personal poet whose every hieroglyphic page can be deciphered as encoded autobiography.

Of course, the proposition that Eliot's edicts on the impersonality of art and the machinations of the objective correlative constitute an elaborate apologia for the repressed emotions and tortured evasions of his own hermetically sealed poetry was hardening into critical dogma even during Eliot's lifetime. Here is how Randall Jarrell put it in a 1962 talk, crisply sizing up where Eliot studies were heading: ''Won't the future say to us in helpless astonishment, 'But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlatives, classicism, and tradition, applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions?"'

Miller sees, all right. But like many an acolyte before him, he's fallen prey to one of the occupational hazards of reading Eliot not wisely but too well, whereby the obsessive effort to deconstruct the manuscripts mutates into a quixotic campaign to demystify the man.

In trying to fathom an imagination as protean as Eliot's, however, no amount of learned conjecture can put the genius back in the bottle: One can get all the facts straight without ever getting the goods. Virtually in spite of itself, then, this latest stab at pathobiography winds up lending still greater credence to Eliot's famous axiom that ''the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates." The more we know about Eliot's imperfect life, the more perfectly astonishing his daemonic creations appear.

(David Barber is the poetry editor of The Atlantic. His new book of poems, ''Wonder Cabinet," will be published this spring.)


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