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Within the bosom of every old man, said the philosopher William James, there is a dead young poet. TS Eliot, as Robert Crawford suggests in his opening sentence, “was never young”. He’s the Benjamin Button of poets. His first mature work, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”, was written when he was 22. It contains the couplet:

I grow old . . . I grow old . . . 
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

A later poem, “Gerontion” (in Greek, “wizened old man”), opens:

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.

The author was barely 30 at the time but already “Old Possum”. Crawford’s endeavour, brilliantly achieved, is to disinter the dead young poet buried in the prematurely aged TS Eliot.

When Eliot died in January 1965 it was, for the literate classes, a passing of the same magnitude as Winston Churchill’s, three weeks later. One genuflected, humble in the face of literary greatness. But Eliot’s reputation, over the next half-century, was to become sadly chipped.

The charge-sheet against him falls under three heads: marital cruelty, anti-Semitism and sexual duplicity. Eliot married young and impulsively. His first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, was unstable, artistic without talent and, a few months after marriage, flagrantly adulterous. Nonetheless, she loved “Tom” madly. She would eventually be institutionalised. A blazing defence of Vivienne, and concomitant attack on her husband, was launched by Carole Seymour-Jones in Painted Shadow (2001). Eliot does not emerge well from it. The anti-Semitism is laid out with lawyerly precision in Anthony Julius’s TS Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (1995), while Eliot’s covert, and perhaps active, homosexuality (criminal until two years after his death) was first speculated on at length by James E Miller in TS Eliot’s Personal Waste Land (1977), and since by many others. Eliot’s alleged furtiveness on the matter has denied him any status as a gay hero — if, of course, he were gay.

Crawford takes a wholly unexcited line. Eliot, a virgin until he married aged 26, was regularly subject to “nervous sexual attacks” — lusts. His carnal purity, and disinclination to find the conventional relief of young men of his class, was probably fortified by his father’s stern view that syphilis was God’s punishment for sexual nastiness. The marriage with Vivienne was a mistake; he certainly came to regret it. But it began as a love-match for which Eliot was willing to surrender a comfortably funded lifestyle. His disapproving father (for whom Vivienne was only a few notches higher than syphilis) cut his son’s allowance savagely. He was obliged to slave as a bank clerk and supply teacher to keep the wolf from the door. These day jobs exhausted him and obstructed the evolution of his poetry. In the early years of marriage Eliot behaved impeccably — declining even to be enraged by Bertrand Russell’s cruel cuckolding of him.

TS Eliot as a Harvard undergraduate at Eastern Point, Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1907

And yes, Crawford concedes, there are undeniably a handful of anti-Semitic lines to be found in Eliot’s poems, an approving attitude towards the racist French thinker Charles Maurras, and some echoing (particularly in letters home) of his family’s obnoxious prejudices. Crawford says, in his preface, that he will not avoid it, and nor does he. Readers are left to make their own judgments.

The friendship with the young Frenchman, Jean Verdenal, to whom the published “Prufrock” volume was dedicated, was not, Crawford concludes, homosexual. The young men were “close kindred spirits”. Eliot felt occasional homoerotic urges. But, when required, he could turn out, as a dorm-room jester, lustily bawdy verse for his college mates (a rich sample, Inventions of the March Hare, was assembled by Christopher Ricks in 1995).

Crawford’s chief interest in this book, however, lies in reconstructing what Ezra Pound called a paideuma. Specifically, he anatomises the elements, ideas, and opinions Eliot absorbed from his school and university days to form the extraordinarily well-stocked mind that gave birth to The Waste Land (1922).

To this end Crawford follows, in atomic detail (the index is swollen with the names of briefly mentioned classmates), Eliot’s educational career from a richly literary and prosperous home environment (he produced his first, domestically circulated journal before he was 10), to his prep school in St Louis, where he spoke with a southern drawl, to Harvard, where he transmuted into a New England brahmin. There followed a gap year in France, when he was a Baudelairian flâneur. Finally he was “finished” at Merton College, Oxford where, chameleon-like, he was a black-gowned, demurely reticent English scholar.

At Harvard Eliot leaned towards philosophy. “Dr Eliot” moved, after 10 years of higher education, into the London literary world, with its networks of sets and coteries — “supple as an eel”, Virginia Woolf tartly observed. And masterminding these crowning learning years was il miglior fabbro, the “greater craftsman” of The Waste Land’s dedication, Ezra Pound.

With immense labour, Crawford has tracked the detailed content of the courses young Eliot took, along with his grades (“C” for Greek Composition, “B+” for Chaucer, etc) and the gradual emergence of the best-educated poet of his age. Crawford is himself a university teacher who has nurtured the growth of student minds. He applies that professional skill here very ably.

And how did all the elements fuse into the most important poem of the 20th century? Personal crisis supplied the necessary incandescence, Crawford suggests. Eliot famously decreed that the man who suffers must be kept separate from the mind which creates. But that suffering is necessary for literary creation. For Eliot, personal breakdown enabled the breaking through represented by his great work, published in his 34th year.

Crawford has performed a valuable service to all readers with an interest in Eliot. One looks forward, eagerly, to his promised next volume.

Young Eliot: From St Louis to ‘The Waste Land’, by Robert Crawford, Jonathan Cape, RRP£25, 512 pages

John Sutherland is author of ‘How to Be Well Read’ (Random House)

Photograph: King’s College Archive, Cambridge/TS Eliot Estate

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