As this anniversary year of the publication of The Waste Land draws to a close (and the year approaches in which—it is expected—the letters of T.S. Eliot to Emily Hale will be published), I am bothered by a question that refuses to be ignored: must we, from now on, defend Eliot from an excess of biographical criticism (along with a not-unrelated application of trigger-warnings)? Are our idol’s clay feet so fragile as to topple him, at last, from his position as Modernist Extraordinaire?
Consider this: as much as we have idolized (yes, that extreme verb) Eliot as the poet of intellect and objectivity, we have nevertheless understood him to be the voice that speaks the words of remorse, regret, grief, sorrow, and loss (as well as all their opposites) that we ourselves have experienced, but not have had the talent to express. In other words, we have known all along that he felt what we did, that he was awash with human emotions, and in our gratitude for and/or appreciation of his ability, we have allowed him his (self-deluding?) pronouncements of an objective correlative, of the necessity for impersonality, of the assertion that poetry is science. Why not? Have those of us who so admire his poetry already allowed him his expressions of anti-Semitism, of misogyny, of reactionary politics, the infrequent intrusions of the personality into the poetry? So, as much as we admire him, we have also not been blind to his flaws. We have decided, instead, to accept them: they are the man, not the poem.
And is not ‘acceptance’ an acknowledgement, even if sparingly, of the idea that no literature can be—or should be—scrubbed of all traces of its author; i.e., of biographical elements? In Eliot’s case, we now ask how much do we need to know about his life in order to interact with his poetry? One “public” piece of biography that we are assured of is that he did not want his life to be read relentlessly into (or out of) his poetry. His poetry demonstrates a reverence for words, at the same time understanding that words are inadequate representations of ideas; it is this contradiction that continues to engage readers with his poetry: we feel that we are at the very edge of understanding his meaning, and teetering on that uncertainty is delicious.
With deep respect to biographers like Robert Crawford and Lyndall Gordon (and even to Matthew Hollis’ ‘biography’ of The Waste Land), we must admit an irony: without their work, there is much in Eliot’s poetry that now carries even greater meaning because of its biographical element. Yet—yet—sometimes we must feel a loss of connection that once held us like a magnet to his words, for it wasn’t what happened to Eliot, or what Eliot himself did (or did not do, in his Prufrockian way) that made so much of his poetry not just memorable but livable (that is, capable of sustaining us during emotional states). More often than not, it was not what Eliot’s poetic personae were expressing about themselves (and what the biographical critics insist was about Eliot himself) but what sympathetic chords were struck in us, the readers. Who, for example, has not trembled with understanding when Prufrock says, “In short, I was afraid”? Was that Eliot speaking? Does that at all matter?
We will not deny that biographical criticism has uncovered some worthwhile and instructive facts about the interconnectedness of Eliot’s life with his poetry. What we decry is the implication that such criticism should be or is ‘the final word’ on the matter. We hope that this critical approach takes its rightful place (after the long stranglehold of formalism) as one methodology for analyzing and appreciating Eliot. That the Eliot letters to Emily Hale have been the latest source of information about him and his work should give biographical criticism its moment in the sun, but only a moment, and not a reason to throw shade on all other forms of criticism.
Finally, we believe that without the current elevation/dominance of biographical criticism, the practice of “trigger warning” would not be so readily considered, particularly relevant to male authors. This is a topic too complex to be treated fairly here; suffice it to say that we assert that if applied to Eliot’s poetic output, it would do nothing but diminish (and perhaps unfairly demolish) his meaning and significance. It is not a question of sensitivity; it is an indication of inadequate readers.
We close with what Eliot himself said in a letter about The Waste Land to Claude Colleer Abbott in 1927 (with clearly ironic thanks to biographers!):
. . . the only legitimate meaning of a poem is the meaning which it has for any reader, not a meaning which it has primarily for the author.
Please read the rest of the comment; it is quite illuminating. So each of us approach and leave Eliot with our own understanding, our own sense of kinship and, hopefully, peace. As a friend (and wise fellow) said, “To me, the hyacinth girl of the poem will always be the hyacinth girl.”