Young Eliot by Robert Crawford, abridged by Katrin Williams

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Young Eliot by Robert Crawford, abridged by Katrin Williams. Prod. Duncan Minshull. Perf. Tom Mannion. BBC Radio 4, 2-6 February 2015. BBCiPlayer to 8 March 2015.

Some biographies are fascinating not so much for what they say about their subjects, but rather in the way they are constructed.

Robert Crawford's new work on T. S. Eliot, published to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the poet's death, consciously suggests that the poet's entire upbringing, from his privileged beginnings in St. Louis, his education at Harvard, his gradual assumption of positions of responsibility within the university, his migration to Europe, his marriage and so on, could be seen as a means of formulating his poetic imagination that found its most obvious expression in The Waste Land (1922).

I do not want to speculate on the validity of Crawford's arguments: the biography contains a lot of research that was well presented and entertainingly read in this Book of the Week production by Tom Mannion. What I do question, however, is the book's teleological argument; that there appeared to be some kind of logical progression in Eliot's life, a building up of experiences and evidence over the years that "caused" the creation of his greatest poetic work. Such a view overlooks the power of the imagination to transform experiences spontaneously; it takes advantage of the moment to produce new and exciting formulations. What I am trying to say is that Crawford's biography tries to explain the inexplicable; no one knows how and why a work of art is created. It just happens, and no amount of biographical (or autobiographical) speculation can account for it.

A recent book "Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity" (Crown, 2014) uses early Chinese thought to argue how human beings create great work through understanding their ways of being (wu-wei) rather than through careful reasoning and conscious planning. This is the source of all success in life, and artists (in particular) have developed various creative strategies for getting it and hanging on to it. The Waste Land seems to me a good example of this process at work: Eliot transforms daily experiences into something extraordinary, a personal response to the postwar world.

Nonetheless, we can enjoy Crawford's biography as a chronicle of the poet's early life, explaining how and why Eliot acquired such a vast breadth of humanistic knowledge that went into the creation of his poem, and how he acquired a wanderlust that took him away from his American roots and into the maelstrom of early twentieth century Europe.