This was an impulse borrowing from my local library. It’s not bad and the fact that it’s reasonably short adds to the appeal for anyone looking to learn a little more about Eliot’s life but who doesn’t want to get too in-depth (and as a lot of Eliot’s life was quite a troubled affair that can be no bad thing). As a basic primer on Eliot’s life, and as a means of shedding light on the circumstances surrounding the composition of his key works, it’s quite a useful volume.
Several years ago I read Peter Ackroyd’s 1980’s biography of the poet, which notably cites none of the poems since permission was not granted by Eliot’s widow and executor Valerie. Nonetheless, that remains a superb biography and I can heartily recommend that if you want to put gentility aside and ‘dig deep’. Worthen’s book, by contrast, quotes liberally from the poems but is shorter and more limited in scope. What Worthen seems to do is to quote the poems as a means of trying to explore how the poems reflect Eliot’s life and key preoccupations at the times of composition. Of course he also touches on some of the wider themes present in the poems, but for the most part this is quite a traditional literary biography in that it doesn’t get too technical in its exploration of the verses, and assesses them for the most part in terms of the basic context of the author’s life.
Along the way he touches on several of the controversies that inevitably crop up when discussing Eliot’s life, work and ideas. Just how bad was his first marriage? Unsurprisingly Worthen concludes that it was a disaster all round, but like others he contends that Eliot’s torrid marriage acted as a catalyst for some of his greatest work. Was Eliot gay? Worthen concludes that he doesn’t think so because there’s not enough evidence to prove it. Was Eliot an anti-Semite? Yes, he undoubtedly some poems whose tone is anti-semitic, and yes he was anti-semitic to a degree, but, he contends, that doesn’t mar the whole Eliot canon or make it as over-archingly anti-semitic as others say it is.
After reading Worthen’s book I went back to the poems once more and quickly realised that, as far as I am concerned, there’s far, far, far more to a poem as vast as-say- The Waste Land than we can account for by inferring what was going on in Eliot’s head and heart at the time of its composition. I guess it is possible for the literary equivalent of a detective or psychologist to relate most if not all of it to what we know of Eliot and his life. But for me that is to place a limit on what the poem is capable of expressing. So on one level it is one man’s ‘rhythmical grumbling’ (to use Eliot’s phrase). But on so many other levels it is so much more. Take lines like these: “On Margate sands./ I can connect nothing with nothing.” Alright, so for some it might conjure the image of a sad Eliot in a deckchair in said seaside town trying to get his head together, but that is only one of many possible meanings that these rich lines spark in the mind.
To his credit a writer as good as Worthen knows this. As Eliot himself also stated (which is a fact he seemed to revel in) no-one, least of all the poet himself, can possibly account for the sum total of a poem’s meanings. So a decent little primer on Eliot then, but like al criticism it’s certainly not the last word on the poems themselves. Instead it serves as a good inspiration to go back to the works themselves.