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An Imperfect Life
By Lyndall Gordon
721 pages, $35

Lyndall Gordon, whose work includes biographies of Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf and Henry James, has outdone herself with this biography of arguably the 20th century's greatest poet. "T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life" includes material from Eliot's newly discovered letters to Emily Hale, the love of his life, and from an unpublished memoir of Mary Trevelyan, Eliot's companion between his two marriages, that inform and complement Gordon's studies, "Eliot's Early Years" and "Eliot's New Life."

"An Imperfect Life" is just that, a spiritual biography detailing Eliot's "hunt for signs" that would lead him to perfection and sainthood. The biography also details his anti-Semitism and misogyny. Gordon tells us that "Eliot had the mind to conceive a perfect life, and he also had the honesty to admit that he could not meet it."

The remainder of this very long but wonderful book demonstrates what all good biographers already know: that "it is naive to expect the great to be good." Eliot's troubles intermixed with his strength: his upbringing. He was a New England puritan who couldn't reconcile his sexuality, and an attendant disgust with the flesh, with what he took to be the higher-order intellectual refinements of the mind.

More than 40 years ago the accepted view was that Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1966) was a bit of a stick, a plaster saint. Eliot began and perpetuated this view with "his celebrated theory of impersonality, which, he once admitted, was a bluff. As more is known of Eliot's life, the clearer it becomes that the 'impersonal' facade of his poetry -- the multiple faces and voices -- masks an often quite literal reworking of personal experience." Toward the end of his life, Gordon tells us, Eliot "came to see his poetry as more American than English: 'In its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.' "

Gordon writes that Eliot said he was bought up to believe there were "Eliots, non-Eliots and foreigners" (his was a cousinage that included distant relations to John Greenleaf Whittier, Noah Webster, Herman Melville and Louisa May Alcott). With such forebears, Eliot thought, therefore, that one must be a credit to the family. His father, Henry Ware Eliot Sr., whose money came from selling bricks, was a refined man with interests in art and music. His mother, Charlotte Champe Stearns, "taught her children to perfect themselves each day, 'to make the best of every faculty and control every tendency to evil.' "

Though he was born in St. Louis, Eliot went to his parents' home territory, Boston, as a young man, to Harvard (where an uncle, Charles, was president from 1869 to 1909), and thence to London as a graduate scholar. There, Eliot fell in with another American expatriate artist, Ezra Pound, who helped him -- and used him. Pound wouldn't expend an ounce of energy justifying Eliot's private interests, but he was interested in selling the young poet's work, "Prufrock" and later revising and promoting "The Waste Land."

In the meantime, Eliot -- "Tsetse," as he was called by intimates -- married Vivienne Haighwood, a vivacious young woman with a flair for the theater. Vivienne's name gives the appearance of wealth, but she was brought up otherwise. Eliot did his share to make things worse. He realized the error of their intimacy but did the manly thing: He proposed and they were married.

The marriage in June 1915 turned out to be disastrous. Gordon says, "There's no getting to the bottom of Vivienne -- at this distance in time, truth and untruth lie so close that it is almost impossible to sort them." Eliot and Vivienne were in their late 20s and might have known better. But instead they lived a hectoring, penitential life, mismatched sexually and psychologically. Eliot endured eventually, writing great poetry from his conservative yet bawdy gut, while Vivienne grew more ill, mentally and physically.

Eliot did his best. It wasn't enough. He stood his share of the blame for the tragedy that ensued. At least the poetry that he made -- partially of their spiritual shambles -- gave some redemption value to the marriage.

(This story is reminiscent of W.B. Yeats, another naif when it came to women, having similar psychosexual difficulty two years later. In 1917, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees, who was a student with him in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the many daffy groups Yeats joined in his effort to decipher the universe. There was talk of Yeats' impotence until he was helped by Georgie's "automatic writing," where she would go into a trance and relay messages from the spirit world dealing with sexual technique for Yeats. Forthwith, his poetry was given over to what Julia O'Faolain called the juxtaposition of "the sublime with the base: 'love' with 'excrement' and 'moonlit spire' with 'fury and mire.' " Yeats' mixing of the sublime with the perfidious was matched to a degree by Eliot's doing the same thing.)

There is much more here. Gordon is an impartial, acute critic who analyzes surgically, with care and acuity. She doesn't blink at Eliot's flaws, "the way he made easy targets of pimply youths and women and, of course, Jews." Gordon looks it all in the face.

"The difficulty," she says, "if we are to see a complete picture, is to admit that flaws . . . can co-exist with moral urgency and poetic greatness." Gordon has done this beautifully in her new work, ranking her among the very best of this century's biographers.

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