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Peter Ackroyd

T.S. Eliot: A Life ***

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Within his lifetime T.S. Eliot came to be considered the greatest poet of his generation and perhaps the most important poet of this century. Two decades after his death, his reputation, unlike that of many of his contemporaries, remains as secure as ever. His influence has been profound: virtually every poet writing in English in the last fifty years owes a debt to him. Eliot achieved great success during his life. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was an influential magazine and book editor, he spoke widely on religion and social issues. But he was also a very private man who remained something of a mystery even to his closest friends. This is only one of a number of paradoxes in Eliot's life. Perhaps chief among them, as this biography demonstrates, was Eliot's insistence on the impersonality of great poetry while at the same time his own work was suffused with his experience and personality. In fact, as Peter Ackroyd points out, "His private choices and obsessions became emblematic of, and in some sense determined our understanding of, the twentieth-century tradition." Eliot insisted on the importance of literary tradition, yet he had no real predecessors or successors. Along with Pound, Joyce, and Woolf, he helped give birth to modernism in literature, but then later in his career he abandoned it. From this biography -- the first authoritative, comprehensive life of Eliot ever published -- we can at last understand the relationship of Eliot's life and work, the better to appreciate his artistic achievement. With this book we now have the first detailed account of Eliot's deeply troubled first marriage, as well as reliable descriptions of the solitude and misery of his middle years and the fulfillment and joy he found late in life in his second marriage. Scrupulously researched, elegantly written and insightful, T.S. Eliot is an accomplished portrait of an extraordinary figure. It will be an essential book for anyone who wants to understand one of the most important writers of the century.