With “Eliot After ‘The Waste Land,’ ” Robert Crawford completes his monumental life of T.S. Eliot. The first volume, “Young Eliot,” was published in 2015. All told, we now have more than 1,000 pages of scholarly and critical commentary, as well as a deeply informed biographical narrative that offers fresh insights into one of the 20th century’s premier poets.
Mr. Crawford is the first Eliot biographer, though surely not the last, to benefit from the trove of letters that Eliot wrote to Emily Hale over the course of a passionate but ultimately unhappy relationship. Hale, a friend of friends, gifted in music and the theater, met Eliot in 1912 in Cambridge, Mass., when he was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard and soon to take up a year’s fellowship at Oxford. Their correspondence grew intense after Eliot separated from his first wife, Vivien, in 1933. Emily looked forward to a marriage that was not to be. In Mr. Crawford’s words, their lovemaking remained “excitedly epistolary” until, over the years, it died down, and Eliot, at age 68—Vivien had died a decade before—did the surprising thing of marrying his 30-year-old secretary, Valerie Fletcher.
The letters to Emily, long archived at Princeton’s library, were finally made available in 2020. (Eliot burned her letters to him.) Although a further account of Emily’s life will be found in Lyndall Gordon’s forthcoming book “The Hyacinth Girl,” it’s safe to say that even the most committed student of Eliot will feel that, in Mr. Crawford’s telling, both he and Emily have received sympathetic and sufficient biographical treatment.
After Vivien’s death, Eliot had written to Emily that he was shocked “to discover that I recoiled violently from the prospect of marriage.” Wrestling with the issue he declares: “I cannot, cannot, start life again, and adapt myself . . . to any other person. I do not think that I could survive it, as a person; I cannot bear the company of any one person for very long without extreme irritation and suppression.” As if that were not conclusive enough to put paid to any hope Emily might hold out for marriage, he sums it up: “This is what we have to face. I am afraid, my dear, that the cataclysm is a much greater upheaval than your kind and patient and sympathetic words show any realization of. Physical intimacy without entire spiritual intimacy would be a nightmare.” Poignant and unsettling is the way “my dear” nestles among these bleak declarations. Perhaps one may be forgiven for remembering the first line of the Edward Lear-like light verse that Eliot classified as one of his “minor poems”: “How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot! / With his features of clerical cut, / And his brow so grim / And his mouth so prim.”