Writing without support from the Eliot Estate, this book makes up for it by being gannet-like in its use of memoirs, letters and biographies of artistic contemporaries. It has Eliot as alienated, sensitive, aloof, snobbish, detached, intellectual, arrogant and cold. He was over-protected as a child. His sexuality was repressed; his marriage was unhappy. But he also liked practical jokes, the music hall and sailing. He could be ironically humorous. He had a strong work ethic. He liked order and organisation, but felt that his own life was a mess. He was tall and handsome but had a congenital hernia, for which he always wore a truss. Ackroyd alleges that Eliot was unhappy for most of his adult life, but that this helped inspire his poetry. He thought that literature helps us to understand the wider culture and was a way of disciplining private feelings and experience.
Regarding his work, Peter Ackroyd praises Eliot's `unerring' understanding of individual writers, but is savage, in his factually authoritative but mild-mannered way, about Eliot's magisterially-expressed general critical judgements. He says Eliot's justifications often vague or inconsistent, and Eliot often, "and with ease" contradicts himself. (The fact that we learn the essays were written and published under pressure provides some mitigation.) Self-obsessed, Eliot "found himself everywhere, transforming dull or inexplicable lines into plangent mirrors of his own preoccupations." To learn that `Prufrock' was originally `fragments' helps explain its (lack of) structure. Ackroyd also explains how its `unpoetic' subject matter and lack of a single tone confused contemporaries. And how many other people (especially Aitken, Pound and Eliot's first wife Vivien) contributed to the early poems' final forms.
Ackroyd dismisses `facile' correspondences between life and work. He talks at length about how difficult such correspondences are given Eliot's character. At the end, though, we still get a full-blown: "Eliot proclaimed the impersonality of great poetry, and yet his own personality and experience are branded in letters of fire upon his work." But that's literary biography for you. I thought it was a fascinating read.