Clearing the mists of adulation: a fresh look at Eliot

T. S. Eliot: A Life, by Peter Ackroyd. New York: Simon & Schuster. Illustrated. 400 pp. $24.95. Asked what she thought of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, the late Rebecca West declared they were two of the most ambitious young men she had ever met. She wondered (this was in the late 1970s) if the time had finally come when people were beginning to see through them.

Whatever its flaws, Peter Ackroyd's biography of Eliot has the great virtue of seeing its subject afresh. Ackroyd has not only avoided the temptation to idolize his subject, but has also steered clear of the still greater temptation to debunk this disagreeable man who was all too often idolized.

For a long time, Eliot was seen through the luminous, hazy mists of adulation. Even before winning the Nobel Prize in 1948, he was widely regarded as a kind of oracle -- the leading poet of his age and the arbiter of ages past and present. As late as the 1970s, a survey course at Yale studying the seven crucial poets of English literary history skipped directly from Wordsworth to Eliot, blithely bypassing poets of far greater achievement. (In yet another tribute to Eliot's influence, in this case as a critic, the same course included John Donne, a favorite Eliot subject, among the seven central men.)

More recently, however, an atmosphere of suspicion has come to pervade Eliot studies. To a considerable extent, this is part of a much-needed correction to the previous tendency to overestimate Eliot's accomplishment and place in literary history. Yet, as Dame Rebecca's remarks would suggest, some element of suspicion has always dogged Eliot's reception: not only among those early readers bewildered by the obscurities of ``The Waste Land,'' but even among the poet's most astute admirers. Edmund Wilson saw in Eliot an ``idealist'' and an ``operator.'' V. S. Pritchett called him ``a company of actors inside one suit, each twitting the others.''

Ackroyd believes that Eliot was, au fond, a deeply skeptical man: more than a mere role-player, to be sure, but still never quite himself in any of the roles he took it upon himself to play. A sensitive man of strong feelings, Eliot was seldom quite certain what he felt or what his feelings signified. That a collection of what he himself termed his ``rhythmical grumblings'' should have spoken as did no other poem to his generation tells us more about that generation than about the author of ``The Waste Land.'' Ackroyd suggests that Eliot had a kind of clairvoyance about the age in which he lived: ``His own need for order reflected that which existed among his generation; his own fears of fragmentation and meaninglessness . . . were also theirs.''

But, like two people who fall in love based upon mutual misconception, Eliot and his age would endure a certain amount of disappointment. Devotees of the avant-garde were puzzled, if not shocked, when the poet commonly seen as the epitome of modernism declared himself classicist, royalist, and Anglo-Catholic. But Eliot had long inclined in this direction. His keenly haunting evocations of modern times were filled with dismay at the present and longing for the past. Yet, he was still a product of his times: a prophet in the wilderness who depended on the wilderness for his denunciations.

His age needed him just as much as he needed it. It is possible, if perhaps slightly fanciful, to draw a parallel between Eliot's reputation as the Wordsworth of modernism (his pronouncements were hailed as the path-breaking equivalent of Wordsworth's ``Preface to Lyrical Ballads'') and the reputation enjoyed by the Viennese dramatist Grillparzer, whom his countrymen proudly dubbed the Austrian Goethe.

A similar brand of chauvinism clearly animates those critics who find in Melville an American Shakespeare. In the case of modernism, this becomes a chauvinism of time rather than place. What more could be expected of a movement arrogant enough to appropriate to itself the dubious privilege of owning the present tense, as if no previous age had considered itself modern, as if no age thereafter might consider itself anything?

Ackroyd's respect for Eliot's genius is unclouded by modernist chauvinism. He subjects Eliot's critical writings to sharp scrutiny. Nor does Ackroyd strain our credulity by inventing excuses for Eliot's negative qualities -- his bouts of anti-Semitism, his arrogance, his fear and dislike of women's sexuality. Eliot's sexual disgust and distrust of his own emotions, Ackroyd thinks, broadened into a curious, only half-ironic disdain for the enterprise of poetry, which depends upon emotion. Eliot wrote relatively few poems in his long career and, as Ackroyd points out, withdrew from a more revelatory mode into one of public pronouncement.

Eliot's favorite emotion, his friends observed, was misery, which he and his first wife experienced so fully as to look as though they were ``wallowing'' in it. Brigit Patmore, who knew them both, wrote: ``And pain -- he loved not only his own but the pain of others.'' Yet his firm allegiance to the ideals of Christianity and culture rendered him immune to the lethal siren song of Fascism, which enchanted his friend Pound.

Ackroyd probes the depths of Eliot's unpleasantness not to disparage him, but to render a thoughtful and thought-provoking portrait of a complex personality. Indeed, he even provides a kind of fairy-tale ending in his glowing account of how the 68-year-old smiling public man found human love and happiness at last in his second marriage, to a woman nearly 40 years his junior.

Valerie Eliot promised to heed her husband's wish that no biography of him be written. Like previous unauthorized biographers, Ackroyd faced difficulties in obtaining permission to use unpublished material. Unlike others, however, he had to cope with the additional hardship imposed by Eliot's executors, who would not allow Ackroyd to quote from Eliot's published poetry. These obstacles he has handsomely surmounted.

But for all the admiration his efforts must inspire, Ackroyd's research is less thorough than it should be in making use of available materials. Detailed and reliable accounts of incidents in Eliot's life which may be found in such unrecondite sources as T. S. Matthews's ``Great Tom'' and Robert Sencourt's ``T. S. Eliot: A Memoir'' are neglected by Ackroyd, leaving his life of Eliot still incomplete.

Was there some dark mystery, some terrible secret about himself that Eliot wished to hide? Ackroyd suspects that this hidden ``horror'' was nothing more or less than Eliot's horror of self-revelation. Somehow, with what one knows of Eliot's talent for capturing the public's attention, one cannot help wondering if his plea for secrecy was not his last attempt to keep us fascinated in him.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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