Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land
Jonathan Cape, $69.99 hb, 512 pp, 9780224093880
This long-anticipated first volume of Robert Crawford's biography of T.S. Eliot, the first with permission from the Eliot estate to quote the poet's correspondence and unpublished work, highlights the Young Eliot as – not least in the achievement of his poetry – always an Old Eliot. And yet the picture of Eliot as a child and adolescent is detailed. In Young Eliot we get masses of information, much of it new, about Eliot's childhood in St Louis and his life and education at Harvard. Crawford describes a world teeming with potential influences, from the ragtime rhythms of downtown St Louis to the coastal landscapes of New England; from a curriculum crammed with Shakespeare and French to dancing lessons with the local jeunesse dorée.
Always with one eye on the poems, Crawford draws our attention to the creep of yellow fogs, to the annihilating storms of 1896 when the thunder spoke and devastation followed, and to young Tom's well-thumbed handbook of North American birds, where the song of the hermit-thrush is particularly praised.
Crawford offers many connections like this, but speculatively, without insistence. Refreshingly, he is less interested in hunting down the original of the hyacinth girl than in tracing in outline through incident and situation the shape of Eliot's poetic temperament.
A biography, then, of style.