T.S. Eliot was never young: Robert Crawford on the celebrated poet

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It has been 50 years since T. S. Eliot, American ex-patriate and one of the twentieth century’s most revered poets, died in London. The anniversary’s timing is opportune for Professor Robert Crawford of the School of English, whose recently published biography, Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land, provides an in-depth examination of the poet’s often overlooked early life.

The introduction to Crawford’s book begins with a bold statement: “T. S. Eliot was never young.” At least, that’s the impression Eliot conveys to many who read his work. “He wanted to conceal a lot about his early life,” said Crawford in an interview with The Saint. “I think he felt quite damaged in some ways. He had a lot of correspondence burned, for instance, so it is difficult to find out certain things about his childhood.”

For Crawford, though, Eliot’s formative years are a crucial part of understanding his outlook. “Their childhoods, their teens, their early twenties: [these are] enormously important periods in many writers’ lives, and Eliot was no different. Yet existing biographies of Eliot tend to pass over his first twenty years in about twenty pages.” Young Eliot fills that void, exploring in depth Eliot’s Missouri background, his time spent at Harvard and Oxford, and his life leading up to The Waste Land.

Crawford’s interest in Eliot began as a teenager growing up in 1970s Glasgow, his upbringing in that large industrial city allowing him to relate to the “dingy urban images” frequently found in Eliot’s writing. What drew him most to Eliot, said Crawford, was “the music of the poetry,” a reference to a lecture Eliot gave on poetry’s style and function at Glasgow University during World War II. “It’s the soundscape that gets you. I think poetry has to work both on the page and acoustically, orally. And Eliot’s is magnificent in the way that it negotiates between the two.”

Crawford first began teaching on Eliot as a graduate student at Oxford, and has continued to teach Eliot’s works since coming to St Andrews in 1989. “I’ve always loved teaching Eliot here. I should say it’s because of the students—and certainly, yes, because of the students—but also because of the location. The sea meant an enormous amount to Eliot. If you read his poetry, it tends to always ignite when there is some mention of the sea or of sailing or of the river. He was someone who grew up aside the Mississippi.” The office Crawford inhabits in Castle House, on the Scores, offers him a clear view of St Andrews Castle and of the North Sea. “I can occasionally just say to the students, look out of the window. This is one of the best places in the world to read ‘Marina,’ or The Dry Salvages, or whatever it might be at the time.”

The possibility of writing a biography of Eliot’s life is one Crawford had pondered for years. “When I was writing my PhD thesis, which became my first book, The Savage and the City in the Work of T. S. Eliot, somebody asked me if I would be interested in writing a biography of Eliot and I said no. It was just that I didn’t think I could do it.” Since then, Crawford has published, among his other works, a biography of Robert Burns called The Bard. “When I eventually wrote the Burns biography, I’d been thinking about Burns and teaching Burns and reading Burns for decades and that helped write the book. In my own mind it was also a kind of apprenticeship to prove to myself that I could write a biography.”

The research process involved in writing Young Eliot proved arduous as well. Crawford said, “You have to decide when you write a biography: can you stand being shacked up with this person for a few years?” One major complication was that Eliot didn’t want a biography of himself written, and so destroyed many of his early letters. Crawford credits living in the digital age as a way around this. “The technology now makes it much easier [to search digitized newspapers and magazines] than it once was, though there are still a lot of records that you just have to go and burrow in the archives to get.” Eliot’s desire for privacy long outlived him, protected by his publishers and by his widow, Valerie, who died in 2012. “I had to approach Faber and I had to approach the Eliot estate to see if they would allow me to quote in this book,” said Crawford. “This was quite a long process, but eventually the answer was yes. So I’m in their debt inasmuch as they had said no to a number of other people, so they were taking a risk in a sense by letting me do that.”

As for Eliot’s later life, Crawford’s second volume will have to wait, at least for a while. “I want to go on writing poetry, so I don’t want to be utterly swamped by a prose project,” he said of what he’s looking forward to next. “Writing about Eliot is quite daunting. I’m trying to do this in a measured way.” If all goes as planned, Eliot After the Waste Land will be released in 2022, just in time for the centenary of that poem’s original publication.

Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land is now available on the Waterstones bookshelves

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