book cover imageT. S. Eliot, by Craig Raine (Oxford University Press, 202 pp., 2006).

“It has been a chief purpose of good poetry,” Russell Kirk wrote, “to reinterpret and vindicate the norms of human existence.” In his thorough reading of Eliot’s work, particularly his poetry, Raine argues that the norm of human experience unifying and vivifying Eliot’s thought is “the buried life,” a term coined by Matthew Arnold to express “the idea of a life not fully lived.” For Arnold as for Eliot, “the buried life describes our failure to realize our emotional potential” because of a “lack of true self-awareness” due to the burden of daily living.

Although Eliot’s interest in emotion may seem to contradict his staunch classicism, Raine cogently argues that Eliot did not oppose emotion in poetry per se; rather he rejected romanticism’s “excess of emotion” with its tendency to exaggerate and indulge in fantasy. As a modernist Eliot’s realism drew him to examine incompatible emotions, but from a standpoint of “fastidious detachment.” These two features of Eliot’s poetry, the buried life and classicism, find their synthesis in the character of J. Alfred Prufrock, whose failure to live convenes a “tortured intensity” of complex emotions. Two chapters devoted to analyses of “The Waste Land” and the “Four Quartets” also expound these themes as present in the two poems.

Raine also surveys Eliot’s drama and criticism, critiquing their flaws, but noting that the buried life also animates both genres: the former by “discovering what we really feel under the carapace of convention” and the latter by examining “the artist straining to objectify and embody his subjective inner murk.” The book closes with a frank and passionate appendix that seeks to “mitigate” charges of antisemitism against Eliot. Raine honestly concedes that Eliot possibly harbored anti-Semitic sentiments, but he impressively exposes the prejudicial readings of Eliot that have contributed to this accusation.

book cover imageBiography: A Brief History. Nigel Hamilton (Harvard University Press, 345 pp., 2007)

Biography finally gets its own life history written. In this breezily engaging book, Hamilton, the biographer of Field Marshal Montgomery and John F. Kennedy Jr., here trains his sights on the art and practice of biography itself.

Hamilton begins in prehistory, and in separate chapters takes us through the practice ofbiography in the classical world, early Christianity and the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Enlightenment, into the present day, where biography is not simply a written art form, but one that has moved into film, television and the Internet. Hamilton wants the term “biography” to include all these media, as well as to contend that “the pursuit of biography . . . is integral to the Western concept of individuality and the ideals of democracy, as opposed to dictatorship or tyranny.”

While it may be difficult, in this age of celebrity profiles and weepy confessionals, to believe that life-stories are a bulwark of liberty, Hamilton makes his case. He notes that the Christian focus on the individual soul was a breakthrough in the understanding of biography’s function. No longer the preserve of the wealthy and powerful, now each story was worthy in its own right. Hamilton does not pause to consider whether in fact it was Christianity itself, rather than its artistic expression in biography, that permitted resistance to tyranny and the rise of liberty, but no matter: This is not a work of ideological advocacy, but a call to understand the need of people to relate to others as individuals.

Biography is buttressed by excerpts from famous and influential life stories, from the Gospel of Matthew to Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, and closes with a paean to biography, given its long history and cultural prominence, as an art worthy of study in its own right.