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4.3 out of 5 stars
The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot
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on 15 December 2016
Gordon, Lyndall. The Imperfect Life of TS Eliot

The revised edition of Lyndall Gordon’s biography (2012) is a comprehensive account of Eliot’s life, dealing mainly with his life in England, and including five appendices plus a profusion of Notes. It is however a fascinating insight into the mind and art of Eliot, his many masks and his difficulties with women, especially those whom he served badly. The book reads rather like a mystery-thriller, the ‘real’ Eliot being kept under wraps until the end. The ‘Imperfect’ of the title reflects on Eliot’s conception of himself and the world he lived in, especially his ‘Waste Land’ experience of London as a young man.

Eliot preserved for the outside world a smooth and cultured exterior, behind which, however, raged a tormented soul, steeped in New England Puritanism. Gordon relates his early life in Boston and Havard to his adoption of England as the only civilised place to live. Early on she introduces us to Emily Hale, a major player in Eliot’s life until suddenly, after years of close friendship in England and the States she becomes for Eliot a non-person. Eliot, who fell in love with Emily as a fellow student and continued covertly to visit her in Chipping Campden, then dropped her completely. She had served her purpose as a loving companion, but closer ontact was damnation for Eliot, whose exacting moral code embraced chastity, austerity, humility and sanctity. Something similar happened to his decade of friendship with Mary Trevelyan, an independent English woman who became his confidante in his frantic marriage with Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Eliot was afraid of women, Gordon asserts, and only at the very end of his life did he find happiness - with his former secretary, Valerie.

For those interested in Eliot’s crises of conscience and for addicts of English writers, such as Auden, Spender, and the Woolfs, not to mention Americans like Lowell, Hawthorne, Emerson and Ezra Pound this book is a gold-mine. Hence one who despised biography (and forbade any during his life) has, thanks to this informed and lively tome, posthumously provided material for an insightful book you’ll not easily put down.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 June 2018
A very interesting biography, greatly influenced by her work on Henry James (she mentions him many times). I didn't know much about Eliot's life, and this book told his tale in an entertaining manner. It's a sad life, and I felt that Ms Gordon didn't underscore the sadness enough. It's not the definitive biography, and that one remains to be written. (I believe some letters of his will be unsealed in the very near future that may shed light on certain aspects of his life, allowing the definitive biography to be written.)
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on 8 March 2015
Gordon gives the reader a lengthy but insightful perspective on understanding Eliot's achievement. For her his personality can only be understood by reference to the whole body of his poetry.
She interprets Eliot as striving towards modern sainthood. A person who hid his true spiritual inner self behind a mask of congeniality and English gentlemanly manners.
But saints can be hard to live with. He spent most of his lifetime regretting an impulsive marriage, unable to console his first wife or to acknowledge her illness. He was incapable of visiting her in the asylum where she had been locked away. He idealised another woman but when the opportunity finally arrived found he had no real desire to consummate the relationship. He finally came to a happy second marriage to a much younger woman who was a disciple as much as a wife.
Gordon is convincing in showing us how his poetry was influenced by these relationships. She explains though how it ultimately transcended them, in a way that speaks to poetry lovers for all time not just to Eliot's contemporaries.
The book makes no concessions to the general reader; getting to grips with it involves having to learn about the literature of New England and Puritan America. But if the reader perseveres they will get a valuable insight into the mindset behind some of the greatest literature of the twentieth century.
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on 28 March 2014
I have only read a few chapters but the incredible detail only goes to illuminate and explain the complexity of Eliot as a person which is manifestly obvious in his poetry. He didn't want people to know about his life, just his work, but the two are inseparable. This book is quite a revelation. No wonder he wanted to keep his imperfect life a secret.
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on 9 February 2014
I bought this after attending a lecture by Lyndall Gorden at the 2013 T S Eliot Festival at Little Gidding. She is a very impressive speaker and her biography I found to be very insightful about a complex man.
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on 12 January 2018
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on 24 January 2018
Far too clever for my 'imperfect' brain
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on 21 November 2013
Greatly enjoyed and gave me some real insights into a man I new little about.
I had read a book about his first wife, but that made him seem to me a rather dark character. Also some insights into his poetry, I'll be looking to buy some books of his poetry in the near future.
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on 13 May 2014
Book reasonably priced and in perfect condition. Delivered promptly.I have the original two volumes, but this rewrite included much new material.
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on 26 October 2013
...and, glory be, what a wonderful book it is. Prof Gordon is a penetrating, fascinating and infinitely helpful guide to this tremendous figure, so appalling most of the time as a man, so endlessly rewarding as a poet. Perhaps a shame to call it the imperfect life of...which would be suitable for virtually everyone: what perfect life would ever produce poetry worth reading? Here, she portrays him mainly in relation to the three most important women in his life - plus the fourth who nips in briskly at the last moment just in time to, ah, safeguard his heritage, so to speak - and the suffering they underwent to various degrees, poor loves - only the bottomless generosity of the female heart can explain a desire to offer it to such a pernickety and unpromising recipient. The descriptions of his composition of his two era-warping masterpieces are seriously absorbing, so by the time he's flexing his muscles to get to grips with Little Gidding it's rather like reading a thriller: have Xanax within easy reach. All in all, brilliantly readable, beautifully written, absolutely recommended.
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