Eliot After The Waste Land by Robert Crawford — Book Review

by Paul Krause

“On a wintry day in the late 1950s, around the time of his second marriage, T.S. Eliot came downstairs from his publishing-house office in London’s Russell Square and noticed a restless baby in a pram. The little daughter of Frank and Patricia Herrmann had been left in the office foyer, close to the receptionist, and had kicked off her blankets. When the Hermanns returned, seeing no pram, they began to panic.” Eliot had taken the young baby to comfort it as it cried. The Hermanns later believed that this touching little episode, despite the panic it caused them, was ‘a vicarious substitute for unfulfilled parenthood’” on Eliot’s part. This little episode is quintessential Eliot late in his life, a man now totally different from his younger self.

T.S. Eliot stands in the pantheon of the great twentieth century English poets as the greatest and most important. But the American-turned-British poet extraordinaire was more than a soul governed by lyricism, prose, and intellect. He was a deeply troubled soul, and, as Robert Crawford reveals in the conclusion of his two-part biography of Eliot, those troubles inspired and influenced the great works and the conversion of Eliot’s later life.

Tom Eliot, as his friends knew him, is the man whom Crawford presents to us in Eliot After The Waste Land. Back in 2015, Crawford gave to the world the young Tom Eliot, Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land. There, Tom was an avant-garde modernist, enticing, and energetic. As a young man he was restless, and the world seemed open to him in an era of rapid change before the horror of World War I shattered many dreams. Having now grown older and stuck in an unhappy marriage with his wife Vivien, the young rebel who soared to fame came back down to earth but was baptized in new waters and reemerged a new man and a new poet for the better.

A World and Soul in Transformation

Although Tom disliked the theories of Sigmund Freud, which have now long since been discredited in professional psychology, Crawford’s book reads like a Freudian psychoanalysis into Tom’s life and poetry. Early on we read, “By the end of 1922, Tom left with an unforgettable ‘taste of ashes’ after his experience with adultery, wished the matter suppressed as completely as the ‘Fresca’ passage that had been excised from The Waste Land. In the version of the poem published in 1922 he had, however, embedded references to other people, places, and scenes, including (‘almost for a word’) Marie von Mortiz with whom he had conversed and taken ‘walks’ in Munich in 1911 – and, more tellingly Emily Hale.”

Emily Hale looms large in Crawford’s biography of Tom. The recent public release of the letters between Emily and Tom serve as a substantial window into Tom’s later life which Crawford relies heavily on. Like Beatrice to Dante, Emily was, in many ways, Tom’s muse and true love left unconsummated. Though she was a Unitarian and Tom now an Anglican following his 1927 conversion and reception into the Church of England (in part to also cement his British citizenship and adopted identity) and despite Tom’s embrace of the theological ideals of saintly celibacy, the two remained separated lovers agonizing over the fate that had ripped them apart from one other’s gaze and arms. Emily as Tom’s spiritual muse, however, influenced much of the poet’s later poetry.

The chaos that Tom faced in his personal life also coincides with the chaos that the world was facing during the late 1920s up until his death in 1965. The Great Depression would soon shatter the illusion of the American Dream and impact the rest of the world. The rise of Hitler in Germany would bring the world to war. Then, after the defeat of Nazism and fascism in 1945, the world would be plunged into the tensions of nuclear armageddon during the Cold War and the victorious allied powers of 1945, principally Britain and France, would experience the eclipse of their global power and prestige as the United States and Soviet Union battled for global supremacy.

In the midst of this maelstrom, Tom found himself confronting the restlessness of his own soul and the restlessness of the world that was tearing itself apart all around him. It is during this rapturous time that the Tom so many know, the poet of The Hollow Men, Ash-Wednesday, After Strange Gods, Little Gidding, and “The Idea of a Christian Society” was (re)born. The perennial struggle between order and chaos, beauty and ugliness, life and death, had already been occurring in the humanities and among the leading poets a generation prior. But Tom entered the fray, deeply influenced by the same struggles faced by Matthew Arnold, ultimately rejecting Arnold’s secular deification of poetry: “Tom sought to oppose chaos with a view of culture, politics and religion as bound together. If there was an Arnoldian tinge to this (Arnold too had written on ‘The Function of Criticism’), then Tom went further and deeper than the Victorian sage whose religious faith had receded.” Tom turned to Christianity as the answer to modernity’s many problems.

Embracing Christianity

Eliot After The Waste Land isn’t necessarily a spiritual biography of Tom, but Crawford does make Tom’s wrestling with, and embrace of, Christianity a central focus in the book.

Tom’s unromantic relationship with his wife, Vivien, who suffered from illness and ailment, compounded his chaotic struggles leading to his conversion. Vivien was offput by Tom’s embrace of Anglicanism. It wouldn’t be much longer until they were, for all practical purposes, separated though never divorced (owing to Tom’s high view of Anglo-Catholic sacramental theology). Throughout Crawford’s penetrating narrative into Tom’s personal life and struggles, we learn that those struggles with Vivien were a leading cause to his conversion. He found the love and stability he lacked with Vivien in, and through, Christian spiritual practice.

Tom’s political theology, if we can call it that, was influenced by the tradition of pastoral Anglicanism. It was the small town, the countryside, and the commune that provided true identity and meaning to life and not the universalizing and homogenizing abstracts offered by liberalism, socialism, nationalism, or fascism—the political spirits that had gripped and enslaved much of the world. Though a supporter of the established church, he was always weary of a national church becoming a “nationalist church” instead working toward nurturing and sustaining a local identity and being the oasis for a common identity and common good open to all. Furthermore, as Crawford notes, “[Tom] saw his religion as a bastion against fascism.” Tom also personally wrote that he believed Christianity and fascism were ‘wholly opposed.’” Tom’s Christian politics was centered on a local and human scale.

In this struggle of politics, church, marriage, and his longing for Emily (as Crawford constantly reminds us), Tom produced some of his most critically acclaimed works. None as successful as the play Murder in the Cathedral. Though a drama of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Beckett, the play had a certain contemporary salience in the 1930s. Released in 1935, the drama was a smashing success and garnered Tom high praise as “the leading poet of his era.” It was also a commercial success, “At the height of its run, [Tom] earned nearly £40 a week.” With his earlier success having made him an internationally renowned poet, Murder in the Cathedral catapulted him into the pantheon of immortality in which he surpassed William Butler Yeats as the greatest poet of the still young twentieth century. He was now the leading modernist writer, poet and dramatist.

The play, however, can equally be read as Tom’s own struggles vicariously relayed through the saintly archbishop. The struggles between saintly celibacy and worldly temptation, church and state, and encroaching death reveal Tom’s hand as much as it does faithfully dramatize the life of one of Christianity’s most famous saints, and arguably the most famous English saint.

The life of an archbishop, or any priest, though communal, is also very lonely. Here, Tom’s own loneliness in drifting away from his loveless marriage with Vivien, the illness and death of his mother, and faraway Emily come cascading into the storm that fueled Tom’s dramatic and poetic imagination. “Tom aligned his own loneliness with that of fellow male writers, and with Christ. Self-involved, he paid considerably more attention here to his own predicament and standing than to those Emily, to whom he was trying to explain why he could not divorce. She wanted him to divorce. She wanted a less abnormal relationship with him, whereas he sought now to ‘sing a new song’ and ‘arrange’ his ‘life as it is to be to the end,’ desiring ‘self-directed austerity’ instead of torment.’ He argued with her that his course was right.”

Again and again, during the highs and lows of Tom’s latter life, Crawford reveals the personal letters and writings of Tom to Emily and how they inspired his creative spirit. She was his muse. But it was a romance that could never consummate in the flesh, only in the spirit. Even Emily came to accept this disappointment, going as far as taking communion at a local Episcopal Church instead of Sunday service with her native Unitarian church just to be spiritually closer to Tom. This, of course, brought great distress to Tom who believed Emily was jeopardizing her soul by taking communion at a church whose teachings on Christ, the Trinity, and the Eucharist were radically different from Unitarianism (we mustn’t forget that Tom was born and nominally raised in the Unitarian church back in America).

The Enduring Relevance of Tom Eliot

The 1930s is when Tom’s life began anew as Crawford’s work brilliantly reveals. Though today’s establishment generally dislikes the Tom of Christianity, the Tom of Christianity has an enduring life in the flourishing classical and humanities schools spreading throughout the United States. It’s not hard to see why.

Until very recently, art and the poetic imagination was shepherded by Christians and Christianity. In Tom’s age when all the energies of Christianity were being sapped in confronting fascism and Nazism, or, in some places, cozying up to the dark forces controlling Europe at the time, Tom sought “to bring new life to Christian imagination.” This is the goal of many Christians reviving Tom in the twenty-first century. As Crawford positively notes, “Tom’s ability to combine intuitive word-music and imagery with his powerful analytical imagination’s architectural power remained a strength.” What we learn from Crawford is that power and strength was owed to Tom’s readings and appropriation of the great Christian theologians and artists he was now finding nourishment in.

From Crawford’s magisterial portrait of the human Tom Eliot, we learn that it wasn’t just towering genius and intellect that produced the great writings that still inspire millions of souls today. “Tom’s poetry emerged from a stratum of his life which kept suppressed.” Thankfully, Robert Crawford peals back the veil and reveals what Tom kept suppressed and has given to the world a very fine and admirable biography of Tom, T.S., Eliot.

“If Tom had worried [Little Gidding] lacked deep personal underpinning, his worry was unnecessary. Though transfigured, his sense of his life’s mistakes, of hurts he had inflicted, of struggles to articulate poetry, and of his wartime experience in a fire-ravaged city nourished the poem.” Rereading Little Gidding, indeed, all of Tom’s later poetry and writings, in light of Crawford’s biography sheds new light on the man the world generally knows as T.S. Eliot but whom friends knew as Tom and whom we get to know as Tom in Eliot After The Waste Land. “Ultimately the poet’s Christianity points towards his belief, even at wartime’s height, in a deep, unifying faith.” Let us conclude with Tom’s own words illuminated by the flame of Crawford’s biography: “When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.”

Paul Krause is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView and the author of Finding Arcadia: Wisdom, Truth, and Love in the Classics (Academica Press, 2023) and The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books (Wipf and Stock, 2021).

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