How Paris transformed T.S. Eliot

O, to be a young poet in Paris

A year that Eliot scholars have overlooked.
A year that Eliot scholars have overlooked.

T.S. Eliot fell head over heels in love with Paris at an age when the city's cultural riches were never more tantalizing: as a young man of 22, visiting from Harvard during the academic year of 1910-11. Nancy Hargrove's book documents his encounters with this veritable cultural explosion and captures some of the zest and fun of being there.

In some 275 succinct text pages of graceful and engaging prose, Hargrove covers plenty of ground while recreating a time when Paris was the world's intellectual and cultural center. Until now, Eliot scholars overlooked the year covered by this book. Remember, this was fully a decade before Eliot wrote The Waste Land, now widely considered the 20th Century's most influential poetic work. But Hargrove carefully shows how a myriad of Parisian influences served as life-long inspiration for Eliot's poetry, plays, and criticism.

I especially liked her forays into theater and opera. In a typically brief but meaty chapter, Hargrove begins with an overview of the sheer number and variety of offerings in the flourishing Parisian theater scene, the richness of which included classic French dramas (Racine, Corneille, Molière), classical Greek tragedies (Oedipus Rex, Électre, Hécube), Shakespeare (Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Romeo and Juliet with beautiful music by Berlioz), and plays by Ibsen, Claudel, and the son of Leo Tolstoy, not to mention 18 completely new works.

Hargrove showcases four plays that were special sensations of the day: Racine's Iphigénie en Aulide (which provoked the "Affaire Fauchois" controversy), Maurice Maeterlinck's much talked about L'Oiseau bleu, an adaptation of Dostoevsky's Les Frères Karamazov, and a spectacular medieval mystery play, Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien. Hargrove is at her very best in showing how this last play directly influenced Eliot's poetry. Quotations from contemporary review periodicals lend her pages an exciting sense of being there on opening night.

I recommend the book as a good way to get a sense of the era that inspired the forthcoming Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts (April 7-May 1), a 25-day extravaganza that seeks to replicate the sort of year-long cultural ferment that dazzled Eliot in Paris. With luck, Philadelphia's festival will have better weather: Elliot's annus mirabilis in Paris, inspiring as it as, was plagued by persistent rain, cold and fog.


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