T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life

by Lyndall Gordon

Paperback, 1999




W. W. Norton & Company (1999), Edition: Reprint, 754 pages


"In T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, Gordon brings fascinating new material together in one volume with the best of her earlier work. She draws on scores of recently discovered letters, and addresses in full the issue of Eliot's anti-Semitism as well as the less-noted issue of his misogyny, his "disgust with the flesh in conflict with repressed desires." She also provides an unparalleled portrait of Eliot's first wife, Vivienne, and a compelling exploration of the participation of other women in his work."--Jacket.

User reviews

LibraryThing member carolcarter
I finally finished the Eliot project, except for a couple of plays I had not known about. Have to wait for them to get here. Prior to this biography I didn't know much about Eliot's life. I know quite a bit now and have a much greater understanding of his poetry.

Ms. Gordon's very thorough book does
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not present Eliot in a sympathetic light, hence the title I suppose. His relationship with his first wife, Vivienne, was lacerating and I can sympathize with his behavior but I don't think many others would. In the early 20th Century there was little understanding of mental illness. Vivienne was given opium and several other addictive and personality altering drugs for her ailments. I have to feel sorry for both Tom and Vivienne. What I have no sympathy for is his treatment of Emily Hale.

It would seem that Eliot loved Emily before he left for Europe. It is not clear what made him marry Vivienne but Emily waited in the background for decades until Vivienne died. Then Eliot decided not to marry Emily after all. I daresay there is much between them that will never be known and rightly so but it appears more than coldhearted, especially when ten years later he married another. I will be waiting impatiently for the release of the Emily Hale letters in 2020.

After Vivienne's death and his repudiation of Emily, Eliot set himself on a religious path of penitence. Only he knows what for as it is not obvious to me. After ten years of this he surfaces and finds himself in love with his secretary and they marry. Valerie Eliot is apparently still alive and may be sitting on biographical information that will explain the man a little better. Not that any of them owe us an explanation.

The best part of the book for me was the in-depth examination of the poems. Ms. Gordon traces the major poems through their many permutations and explains the personal metaphors therein. I had studied Eliot in college but there is a trove of information on the work in Ms. Gordon's book and for that alone I enjoyed the book immensely.

Along with the biography I got out the collected works and reread everything several times as the events of Eliot's life caused alteration as he went along. I had forgotten how many lines from his major works have now entered the English canon.

The sole complaint I have with this book is the lack of explanation or even mention of the cat poems. They seem so unusual when seen alongside the other poetry but Ms. Gordon says nary a word about them. I know they are not important but I would have liked them put into perspective.

If you wish a greater understanding of Thomas Stearns Eliot you cannot do better than this book.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
I'm very surprised by the positive reviews, and just a bit dismayed by the critical ones. Dear readers, if you're going to be shocked that people were anti-semitic before the war, or that men raised in basically Victorian values wouldn't be progressive feminists, you might like to restrict yourself
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to reading about people who are still alive. If they're anti-semitic and misogynistic, they deserve your scorn. Gordon does a good job of the "these opinions are odious; they don't negate everything Eliot ever did" tap-dance, but even she somehow overstates his misogyny and understates his own sense of shame at his anti-semitism. There must be some safe middle ground between this and the ludicrously exculpatory last volume of Moody's Pound biography.

But enough; there are plenty of us who are interested in reading about people who are 'imperfect,' or even quite revolting. For those people, this is still not the right biography. By the time she wrote this, Gordon had already written multiple books about Eliot's life, so the new discoveries take on an outsized importance. I now know a surprising amount about Emily Hale's amateur theatrical career, but this book tells you almost nothing about, say, Ezra Pound. In terms of research, that makes sense, because the Hale stuff was new (and I believe there's more coming). In terms of a book written for the public, it does not make sense.

One day, someone will be able to write a biography of Eliot that combines the strengths of this book (the tap-dancing, mostly) with a more coherent biographical narrative. That, I assume, wasn't Gordon's intent here. Of course the publishers have sold it like that, though, because lots of us want to read biographies of famous, important, good poets. Not many people want to read archival material on the same.
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