By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
T. S. Eliot is not the sort of poet you can understand in isolation. True, we can read the poetry and get a great deal from it, but our appreciation of, say, The Waste Land or ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is intensified and improved with the assistance of a trusty literary guide, such as a good critic or biographer. Here are our five recommendations of some of the best books that have been written about T. S. Eliot’s life and work.
Helen Gardner, The Art of T.S. Eliot.
Helen Gardner is one of the most sensitive and astute critics of Eliot’s work out there. She was also one of the first critics to champion Eliot’s last great cycle of poems, Four Quartets (1943), in her 1949 book The Art of T. S. Eliot, in which she argues that Eliot’s earlier work was preparing him for the ‘masterpiece’ that is Four Quartets. Although published nearly 70 years ago, it remains an important book of Eliot criticism.
Christopher Ricks, T. S. Eliot and Prejudice.
Christopher Ricks is not only a fine critic of Eliot’s work, but the editor of both his early poems, Inventions of the March Hare: T.S. Eliot Poems, 1909-1917, and, published in 2015, the two volumes of (thoroughly annotated) complete poems: The Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems and The Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume II: Practical Cats and Further Verses, which he co-edited with Jim McCue.
In this 1988 book, Ricks considered Eliot’s work in relation to the theme of prejudice, including the debate surrounding Eliot’s alleged antisemitism.
Ricks is a wonderful writer of literary criticism and is especially attuned to the nuances of Eliot’s language, the role allusion plays in Eliot’s poetry, and the ways in which Eliot manipulates punctuation and syntax to create unusual effects. A must-read: it ranges far more widely than a simple consideration of prejudice in Eliot’s writing.
Hugh Kenner, The invisible poet: T.S.Eliot.
Kenner was a pioneering figure in Eliot criticism (and criticism of modernist literature in general: he also wrote insightfully about James Joyce and Ezra Pound), and this book, from 1959, shows Kenner examining Eliot’s poetry and the role of personality (or, rather, impersonality) in his work.
Lyndall Gordon, The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot.
There have been a number of biographies of T. S. Eliot, but this one, from 2012, is the best, in our opinion. (It’s actually an updated version of several earlier biographies of Eliot Gordon had written.) Gordon shows how the life and the work fit together, especially when it comes to Eliot’s plays written later in his career.
Gordon is also especially good on the role that Eliot’s first marriage, and his friendships with other women such as Emily Hale, played in the formation of his poetry.
Allen Tate, T. S. Eliot: the man and his work.
This collection of essays and memoirs is a bumper volume for the Eliot fan: it contains contributions from Eliot’s closest friends (offering recollections and anecdotes) as well as some literary criticism which helps to illuminate his poetry. There’s something for everyone, so it’s a great place to pursue more information about T. S. Eliot – both his life and his work.
If you’re an avid reader of T. S. Eliot’s work, are there any great books about Eliot that you’d add to this list?