When it comes to writers and artists, biography plays a provocative role—yielding insight into both artistic influences and origins. This is especially true with the modernists, in particular T.S. Eliot. After graduating from Harvard University in 1910, the young Eliot spent a year in Paris, a year that had a lasting and profound effect upon his work that has gone largely unexamined until now.
In her riveting intellectual biography, T.S. Eliot’s Parisian Year, Nancy Duvall Hargrove, the William L. Giles Distinguished Professor Emerita of English at Mississippi State University, revisits that single year in the poet’s life to mine it for later influences.
While this period is often interpreted to be typical of the early 20th century post-graduate foreign study experience, Hargrove invites us view it as extra-ordinary. Linking Eliot’s work to the Ballets Russes, the music of Stravinsky and the intellectual tension of La Nouvelle Revue Française, she demonstrates the rare coming together of an artist and the art of his time to form “un present parfait.”
It was a year that influenced not only his poetry but also his prose. As Hargrove writes, the theater Eliot encountered while in Paris “may have been the inspiration for the difficult dramatic goal which Eliot later set for himself: to write verse drama in an age conditioned to prose and to write of spiritual and moral concerns in an age largely devoid of and unsympathetic to them.”
But perhaps most impressive- especially to any lover of Paris- is Hargrove’s meticulous recreation of the city as it was then. Through chapters on sport, popular entertainment, transportation, etc., she elegantly situates the young poet amid a city so alive it seems to strain against the page. The end result is a book that leaves the reader longing for both the poetry and Paris.