Cover image for T.S. Eliot : an imperfect life
T.S. Eliot : an imperfect life
Gordon, Lyndall.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.

Physical Description:
xv, 721 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Originally published: London : Vintage, 1998.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3509.L43 Z6794 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PS3509.L43 Z6794 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
PS3509.L43 Z6794 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Lyndall Gordon's biographical work on T. S. Eliot has won many dramatic accolades. In this "nuanced, discerning account of a life famously flawed in its search for perfection" (The New Yorker), Gordon captures Eliot's "complex spiritual and artistic history . . . with tact, diligence, and subtlety" (Boston Globe). Drawing on recently discovered letters, she addresses in full the issue of Eliot's anti-Semitism as well as the less-noted issue of his misogyny. Her account "rescues both the poet and the man from the simplifying abstractions that have always been applied to him" (New York Times), and is "definitive but not dogmatic, sympathetic without taking sides. . . . Its voice rings with authority" (Baltimore Sun).

Praised by Cynthia Ozick as "daring, strong, psychologically brilliant", Gordon's study remains true to the mysteries of art as she chronicles the poet's "insistent search for salvation".

Author Notes

Lyndall Gordon is the prize-winning author of, most recently, "T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life" & "A Private Life of Henry James".

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The most-acclaimed English-speaking poet of the twentieth century, T. S. Eliot also ranks as one of the era's severest critics, condemning his age for the pettiness of its pursuits, the barrenness of its metaphysics. As one of Eliot's most acute biographers, Gordon understands that both Eliot's daring prosody and his unrelenting censoriousness reflect his intimation of an ideal of spiritual perfection that he could neither achieve nor abandon. His yearning to attain this ideal impelled him toward Christian orthodoxy on the one hand and toward artistic innovation on the other. Balancing sympathy and judgment, Gordon plumbs the gap separating Eliot's vision of an otherworldly Absolute from his decidedly terrestrial social views (including his notorious anti-Semitism and his less well known misogyny) and his often callously self-absorbed conduct. Whether in dealing with his neurotic wife or with long-time friends, Eliot fell well short of sainthood. But it is precisely in the poet's self-mortifying awareness of his fallibility that Gordon locates the psychological crucible in which personal failure metamorphosed into penetrating verse. And by attracting the woman who became his second wife, the poetry born of self-laceration made possible, ironically, a late-life flowering of feeling in which personal emotion and imaginative aspiration were at last united. No mere abridgment or revision of Gordon's earlier two-volume Eliot biography, this work offers a wealth of new material and fresh insights. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

Remaining in awe of Eliot's literary greatness, Gordon (A Private Life of Henry James) has rewritten her slim but influential Eliot's Early Years (1977) and her somewhat overlapping Eliot's New Life (1988) into a new biography that concedes the man's serious flaws. Yet Gordon finds "no adequate explanation" for the fact that a writer "of his sensibilities" was an anti-Semite, revelations of which caused a stir in the mid-'90s, and a misogynist (excepting toward his worshipful second wife, who cosseted him in his last, failing years). Although Eliot set himself up as a lofty moral and spiritual authority, Gordon reluctantly acknowledges that he is an "idol... made in part from certain waste products of his century." Gordon sees Eliot struggling constantly with his "two almost antithetical selves," and as "a loner in the American tradition of cranky loners." While publication of his early letters and suppressed early verse has now made it possible for quotations to replace paraphrase, crucial correspondences remains under embargo. Eliot, Gordon concludes, consciously pared down his experiences to reflect the "life of a man of genius," whatever the impact upon his intimates. "To be a genius does not preclude common faults," Gordon writes, but she forcefully demonstrates Eliot's faults to be uncommon, a fact that limits her sympathies and almost jeopardizes her efforts at presenting a balanced view. Still, Gordon's book is the most authoritative life of Eliot thus far, and is certain to spark new controversies. 41 b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Though the century's most influential English-language poet championed the impersonality of art, British literary biographer Gordon (The Private Life of Henry James) demonstrates that Eliot greatly influenced works that are far more personal than traditionally believed. In Eliot, Gordon delineates a dual personality struggling with the flaws in his nature, a devout Christian who nonetheless could be anti-Semitic and misogynistic. The present volume combines material from Gordon's previous award-winning works, Eliot's Early Years and Eliot's New Life, with extensive additional research. Subjects covered in depth include Eliot's complex relationships with women and the American-ness of his work despite his near-obsession with things British. Eliot scholarship has been hampered by the poet's ban on any official biography; the best previous work was Peter Ackroyd's T.S. Eliot: A Life (LJ 11/15/84). Gordon's superb study is thoroughly researched and documented. Of particular interest to scholars is her lengthy section on sources, with specifics on accessing unpublished items. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/98.]√ĄDenise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Gordon writes with passionate sensitivity, a love for good language and style, and a remarkable mix of objectivity and shrewd criticism. Her first two books on Eliot--Eliot's Early Years (CH, Jul'77) and Eliot's New Life (1988)--were widely acclaimed, and in this single-volume study she explores a wide range of new material and expands and refocuses the insights of the previous works. This book is truly a significant addition to Eliot scholarship, particularly in its exceptional ability to look simultaneously at the greatness of his art and at his turbulent and sometimes repugnant interior and private life. Gordon does not flinch in recounting details of Eliot's antisemitism, misogyny, and obscene poetry, but she also consistently maintains a sympathy for and wise understanding of the degree to which a great spiritual quest informed his interior life and gave coherence to his entire career. The book is especially valuable for its careful and in the end quite moving account of the women in Eliot's life: his mother, Charlotte Stearns, and four with whom he had such strikingly different relationships--Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Emily Hale, Mary Trevelyan, and Valerie Fletcher. Recommended for all academic and large public collections. R. J. Lee; St. Olaf College

Table of Contents

Forewordp. ix
Illustrationsp. xiii
1 Early Modelsp. 1
2 A New England Studentp. 23
3 Beyond Philosophyp. 51
4 Eliot's Ordealsp. 95
5 'The horror! the horror!"p. 147
6 Conversionp. 192
7 Enter Beatricep. 233
8 The Mystery of Sinp. 283
9 Enter the Furiesp. 312
10 The Perfect Lifep. 338
11 Lady of Silencesp. 392
12 Fame and Friendsp. 436
13 A Prophet's Missionp. 472
14 Love: the Unfamiliar Namep. 496
I Eliot's Reading in Mysticismp. 537
II Dating the Waste Land Fragmentsp. 539
III The Waste Land and Ulyssesp. 545
IV 'Bellegarde' and Murder in the Cathedralp. 548
V The History of The Family Reunionp. 551
Abbreviationsp. 554
Notesp. 557
Acknowledgementsp. 671
Biographical Sourcesp. 677
Indexp. 699