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Embattled artist's portrait

"T.S. Eliot," is a scholarly work about one of the great poets of the 20th century. It is the eighth volume in the Oxford's Lives and Legacies Series, characterized by the publisher itself as "brief, erudite, and inviting. . . offering a fresh look at some of the greatest minds in politics, the arts, and science." Based upon Raine's effort, the series promises that and more.

Craig Raine, a fellow and tutor in English at New College, Oxford University, wrote this wonderful little book for lovers of the poetry and person of Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888 -- 1965). It is not an easy read about the Nobel Prize winner, but it has huge rewards.

Readers will remember that Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Mo. He entered Harvard University in 1906 where his uncle, Charles William Eliot, was finishing four decades of his presidency there.

In 1911, Eliot went overseas, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, traveled the continent and wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" when he was 23. In 1915, Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood. Eliot's father discontinued his allowance that same year and, after Eliot completing his doctoral thesis, he began work at Lloyd's Bank in London. (The poet was turned down by the U.S. Navy for health reasons at the start of the First World War.) In 1920, Knopf published his first book of poetry and Eliot followed this with the essay collection "The Sacred Wood" and, in 1922, "The Waste Land."

Eliot was on his way to acclaim at age 33. In 1924, Vivien became seriously ill. (She was eventually committed by her brother to a mental hospital in 1938, where she died in 1947.) In 1927, Eliot converted to the Church of England. He became a naturalized British citizen that same year.

In 1933, Eliot requested that his solicitor pursue a legal separation for him from Vivien. After that, he avoided his wife, who cuckolded him with his former teacher, Bertrand Russell.

According to the author, Eliot lived a "buried life." He seems to have had reason. Eliot himself borrowed the phrase from an earlier English writer he was aggravated by, but admired: Matthew Arnold.

"For Arnold, the buried life describes our failure to realize our emotional potential -- essentially because the business of living supplants the cultivation of the inner life."

This impulse should make T.S. Eliot sympathetic to the reader, because each of us has such a life -- if we put aside the distractions of the day and look for it. Intellectually, Eliot was a man at a crossroads. He recognized the essential value of emotion. However, he was skeptical of its overly strong influence upon his life.

Eliot was a modernist with a classicist's heart. The classicist sorts out emotions with a "tragicomic wariness." It is an intense sort of living in itself -- Jamesian, but with nominal rewards in this world.

Eliot's brand of modernism, a new way of seeing the world, is described best by Joseph Conrad in "Lord Jim": "very few of us have the will or the capacity to look consciously under the surface of familiar emotions." This is what the poet did and what he described in his essay, "Religion and Literature" in 1935: "[Knowing what we like] means knowing what we really feel: very few know that."

The reader knows it better now, thanks to T. S. Eliot.

There is scattered evidence of what could be construed as anti-Semitism in Eliot's work. Craig Raine puts the best construction on what Eliot thought and wrote, although he does not hide evidence of what some critics consider his bias. Eliot maintained "I am not an anti-Semite and never have been." To his benefit, Eliot spoke out against anti-Semitism in 1941, in the Christian Newsletter.

However, in 1958 he appeared evasive in his non-reply to the charge of anti-Semitism to a young Times Literary Supplement Reviewer, Burns Singer. Raine thinks the reason that Eliot acted this way was that he felt that there was no "proof", no case to answer. There were instead a grouping together of scattered references in his work over many years, bunched together to appear "malicious."

The poem, "Little Gidding" is one example. The offending poetry expresses sorrow for "things ill done and done to others' harm/Which once you took for exercise of virtue." This instance is hardly persuasive.

A second illustration is Eliot's reference to "Free-thinking Jews" in "After Strange Gods." He wrote, "and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable."

Raine calls this an "unfortunate collocation." I agree.

A final example is a footnote in his essay "Notes Towards The Definition of Culture." A constant critic, George Steiner, thinks that Eliot placed the blame for the Holocaust upon the Jews themselves. Raine calls this interpretation "stupid." He writes, "Only someone begging for trouble would, in 1948, imply the Holocaust was the fault of the Jews." This seems sensible. But George Steiner is not a dimwit.

In the end, the author's position about Eliot's covert anti-Semitism remains reserved. Raine says, "We do not have all the evidence. There may be things in the correspondence. Eliot's sense of his own innocence may be vivid, but no one can remember his whole life."

Agreed.

In the end, Eliot was a consummate artist. His life seems to have been a cautious one, regretful in some respects, not too different from the rest of us. If Eliot made moral errors in the fog of daily living and in times different from our own, who will pick up the first stone?

Some have already done so. But it is rough justice here below.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent reviewer of English literary biography.

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T.S. Eliot

By Craig Raine

Oxford University Press, 202 pages, $21

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