Young Eliot takes T. S. Eliot from his childhood in St. Louis right up to the publication of The Waste Land in 1922. This book gives a much fuller account of Eliot’s life than ever before, and shows just how intensely the life shaped the poetry. In writing this unofficial biography, Robert Crawford is the first biographer who has been allowed to quote extensively from Eliot’s published and unpublished writings. For U.S. and U.K. copyright reasons, links to texts are not provided: Eliot was a canny publisher.
Since Eliot was restlessly intelligent, produced in The Waste Land a work of endless hypertext, and enjoyed pictures of cats, he might well have relished the Internet. However, he studied some pretty alarming advanced mathematics courses, and might have been unforgiving if this top 10 had turned out to be an 11. This is a pity, since I’d have liked to cram in “Burnt Norton” as well: freighted with memory and desire, its sense of “the passage which we did not take” makes it a moving counterpart to Frost’s equally middle-aged “The Road Not Taken.”
1. “Marina” - “Marina” is Eliot’s most beautiful poem. Read it aloud. Its music is full of longing, and tidal in its ebbs and flows. Drawing on all the small-boat sailing Eliot had done off the New England coast in his youth, it’s wonderfully echoic, and contains daring technical devices that fascinate the ear: Eliot rhymes, for instance, not just across the breaks between verse paragraphs but also repeatedly within the lines. The breaks in the verse signal separation, the rhymes connection: the whole poem operates in the tension between connectedness and separation. It may be a religious poem, but it’s also a poem about longing for a child. The title, suggesting boats and the sea, is also the name of a lost daughter in Shakespeare’s Pericles: that particular Marina is presumed drowned, but then she’s discovered alive; the epigraph comes from a play by Seneca in which a father finds his children have been killed. Is the daughter in Eliot’s “Marina” real or only imagined? The poem was written at a difficult time when the poet was coming to terms with his own childlessness.
2. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” - First published in the Chicago magazine Poetry 100 years ago, in the summer of 1915 when its author got married, but written earlier when Eliot was twenty-two and living in Paris and Munich, this is the disconcerting work that opened Eliot’s first book of poems in 1917. Its opening words, “Let us go then, you and I”, set the tone. The first line would be so much more assertive if it began not with “Let us go” but with “Let’s go”. That difference in phrasing tells you almost all you need to know about J. Alfred Prufrock. The name Prufrock came from the poet’s boyhood St Louis and was particularly associated with, ahem, bedding. More than any other poem in the English language, this one marked the arrival of Modernism in literature. Several early readers thought it mad.
3. “Macavity: the Mystery Cat” - One of the nimblest of all poems for children, written by a poet who, when he was a ten-year-old boy in Missouri, delighted in the recently published writings of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. Like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, it shows a poet who shared with his father a liking for depicting cats. In Massachusetts Eliot went to high school with a boy called Ronald A. MacAvity; like Lear and Carroll, Eliot had a genius for collecting resonant names. A lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes, as a graduate student Eliot had written a PhD on “Appearance and Reality”: Macavity as “master criminal” and feline Moriarty is surely real but, as far as the police are concerned, never puts in an appearance (“Macavity’s not there!”). Best known now through the musical, Cats, which uses the poems from Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Macavity was dreamed up by a poet whose imagination was nourished by vaudeville and music-hall songs.
4. The Waste Land - “O O O O that Shakespeherian rag …” The masterpiece of a poet from the great city of ragtime music, St Louis, The Waste Land is the most famous poem of the twentieth century. You can hear why. Its music – sometimes obsessively echoic, often jaggedly fragmented – is impossible to forget. Written after a nervous breakdown and edited with the help of fellow American poet in Europe, Ezra Pound (who had recently written of World War I’s ‘wastage as never before’), The Waste Land sounded the music and articulated the anxieties of a generation, then of a whole century. But for Eliot it came from personal torment. So many of his poems are love poems, but poems of love gone wrong. The Waste Land, substantially a product of his first marriage, is a sculpted cry of pain.
5. “The Boston Evening Transcript” - More than any other poem, this one reveals just why the young Eliot who went to Paris, then eventually settled in London, wanted to get out of the decorous New England milieu in which he could so easily have become immured. If only he had stayed in the world where people read that Massachusetts newspaper which was an arbiter of polite taste, The Boston Evening Transcript, then instead of being regarded by many people around the world as the twentieth century’s greatest poet Eliot could have become a quite good Harvard philosopher.
6. “Little Gidding” - Written out of Eliot’s experience as a firewatcher on the rooftops of London during the Blitz, this is arguably the finest English-language poem of World War II. Like the other poems of Four Quartets, it’s written out of a sense of sheer persistence: having to go on when everything seems lost. When Eliot wrote “The Dry Salvages” (his American Quartet) it seemed Britain would lose the war; the Blitz emblematized the destruction of civilization. “Little Gidding” is self-lacerating, pained, and unflinching. It’s also, like the other Quartets, a great poem about ageing, regret, and trying to find a way forward.
7. “Journey of the Magi” - A superb poem about Christmas, written in an era when million after million of Christmas cards had made the topic almost impossible to handle in a way that wasn’t dripping with schmaltz. Originally designed to go on a card, this poem imagines a grumpy, unsettled Wise Man whose whole life is painfully shaken by what he witnesses. It presents ‘birth’ as disconcertingly similar to ‘death’, and vice versa. In many ways it’s stubbornly unChristmassy. That’s why it works.
8. “The Hollow Men” - What makes Eliot one of the greatest of all religious poets is how close he comes to despair, and how he both fights and accepts his way through that. ‘The Hollow Men’, like a lot of his poems, is given some of its kick by popular culture. Like The Waste Land, it makes very, very telling use of nursery rhyme. An etiolated and corrupted version of the Lord’s Prayer leads to what’s probably the best known line in all twentieth-century poetry, grafted on to a nursery rhyme: “Not with a bang but a whimper.” Eliot learned a number of poems by heart as a child in St Louis, and the word ‘whimper’ comes from one of these. You don’t have to learn that line, “Not with a bang but a whimper”. It just stays with you forever.
9. “Rannoch, by Glencoe” - This is Eliot’s only published Scottish poem. Dating from the 1930s and alluding to massacre and failed rebellion, it sees Scottish culture as inescapably fragmented and broken. As a younger man, Eliot had published a book review headed “Was There a Scottish Literature?” In that piece he surveyed Scottish literature without ever mentioning Robert Burns or Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson; so his view of Scotland can seem as odd as his view of America. Some Scots, like some Americans, find it hard to come to terms with this poet who wrote (in “Little Gidding”) “History is now and England.” Like his relationship with England, Eliot’s relationships with Scotland and with America are multi-faceted. Arguably it’s his relationship with France that was most straightforwardly a love affair.
10. Sweeney Agonistes - Patterned on anthropological interpretations of obscene ancient Greek comedy, this work in verse (really fragments of an abandoned play) show Eliot at his wildest. Jumpy, jagged, and jazz-age in its rhythms, it confronts sexual torment, nightmare, and male violence towards women. Sweeney Agonistes may feature American visitors in London, but its percussive restlessness articulates most of all a psychological drama that plays out disturbingly inside each reader’s head.