Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land by Robert Crawford

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Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land by Robert Crawford

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Charlie Pullen
Reviewed by Charlie Pullen
Summary: A fine biography of the twentieth century's great poet – as a child and a young man.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: January 2015
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0224093880

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Did T.S. Eliot like ice-cream? I should really be asking, of course, whether Tom liked ice-cream, since Robert Crawford in his marvellous biography insists on bringing us into intimate and personal contact with this so closed and impersonal of poets. For many of us, to wonder what this literary giant's favourite flavour of ice-cream was seems a somehow unsuitable curiosity – irreverent or frivolous even – as if to think about his taste for such ordinary pleasures would distract from the appreciation for his very momentous achievements in poetry. It is, however, Crawford's aim to make these kinds of commonplace aspects of T.S. Eliot's life and personality much more familiar to us, as he draws our attention to the poet's childhood years and youth.

In Young Eliot Robert Crawford takes us from St Louis to The Waste Land, offering a detailed and affection description of the early life that formed the twentieth century's greatest English-language poet. Eliot's magnum opus is, perhaps, his long poem from 1922, The Waste Land, which arrived in a year when literature appeared to change irrevocably (1922 also marked the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses and Jacob's Room by Virginia Woolf), but Crawford only leads us to the front door of this literary revolution. Young Eliot gives us an idea of how someone could come to write such a poem.

The first poet we encounter is actually Eliot's mother, and the early portions of the book are a genuinely fascinating account of Eliot's peculiar family. It was an austere and prim childhood. He was castigated for using vulgar phrases like 'o.k.' and was raised never to commit a selfish or gluttonous act, however small (buying sweets to eat alone was not permitted). Eliot's father was a man who welcomed Syphilis as a punishment for sexual debauchery. Though strict, it was equally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, a bookish childhood as well. Eliot's mother, Lottie, did indeed write poetry, and we get the impression that he could only follow in her footsteps – poetry was with him before he was even born, as Lottie would write verse about Easter during her pregnancy with him.

Eliot was a precocious child, but a shy one, too. Crawford tells us of Fireside, the magazine Eliot produced at the age of ten, on which first appeared those famous initials. With this magazine, 'written in the dark of winter, Tom became T.S. Eliot.' Eliot packed Fireside with jokes and fake gossip columns, an early indication of his creative talents and humour, but Crawford also presses how Eliot's young life was not all a laughing matter. Making repeated references to his large ears, Crawford suggests how insecure Eliot was growing up, making it only too clear how this nervous adolescent would turn into a literary figure perceived to be reticent and withdrawn.

Robert Crawford is himself a poet and also professor of poetry at St Andrews, with a long career and list of publications on figures like Robert Burns and, of course, T.S. Eliot. His interest in T.S. Eliot is academic, with his first book being a study of Eliot and savagery from 1988, but Young Eliot is not an academic book as such. I should think it would be indispensible for students and scholars of Eliot's work, but my feeling is that the book comes out of a less scholarly appreciation for Eliot's writing. The fact that Crawford has enjoyed reading Eliot since he was a young man is evident, I think, and so is the sense that he really finds this man's life a fascinating story. Even though the book comes in at almost five-hundred pages, Crawford's sentences are a pleasure to read, and the fine selection of photographs is a welcome and illuminating addition to his great writing.

For anyone familiar with Eliot, maybe through school or university, the image of the dry poet may be the dominant association. This is, in part, due to the fact that biographers have been restricted legally in what they could write about Eliot. Crawford, however, emphasises some more surprising elements of this boy's time growing up: scenes of playing with pals and many, many tales of 'mischief'. This, of course, only goes to show how strange it is that we forget even the greatest writers enjoyed such ordinary and simple pleasures. A particular gem from this trove is the information we learn about Eliot's grades, which are not as outstanding as you might expect. Nor, in fact, is his spelling. Crawford's achievement is to build up a more rounded and human profile of the poet that includes all his foibles and weaknesses – that is, the stuff we all have.

The Bard: Robert Burns – a Biography is a sound choice for anyone interested in poets more generally or for any reader particularly taken by the author's writing; and Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee tells the story of a very different but no less celebrated American writer.

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Buy Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land by Robert Crawford at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land by Robert Crawford at


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