T.S. Eliot

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Thomas Stearns Eliot (26 September 1888 – 4 January 1965) was a British-American poet and literary critic. Born in St. Louis Missouri to a prosperous family and educated at Harvard and Oxford. He converted to Anglicanism and became a British subject. Eliot was married twice, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood from 1915 to 1947, and to Valerie Fletcher from 1957 until his death.

Eliot produced most of his poetic output early in his career, making a strong mark on English-language modernist literature with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and The Hollow Men (1926). A decade later, Eliot began publishing his next major work, The Four Quartets (published in four parts, from 1936 to 1942). Besides these major works, though, the rest of Eliot's poetic output is rather small. In addition to his poetic works, Eliot wrote several plays and an influential body of literary criticism.

Life

T. S. Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888. His parents were Yankees from New England and Unitarian in religion; they were related to many famous writers, but this seems not to have influenced young Eliot. His father was a successful businessman and his mother a social worker who also wrote verse. He graduated Harvard College in 1910, where he discovered the French poetry of the late 19th century, including the works of Laforgue and Rimbaud. He started to write poems which appeared in the Harvard Advocate. In 1910 he went to Europe, spending a year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris and travelling. In Paris he fell under the influence of Henri Bergson at the Collège de France who taught a theory of the progressive evolution of consciousness. He returned to Harvard, studying philosophy for three years and finishing a PhD on the philosophy of neo-idealist critic F. H. Bradley.[1] Among his teachers at Harvard were the philosophers George Santayana and Bertrand Russell and the critic Irving Babbitt. He won a travelling scholarship which enabled him to spend a year taking his philosophy studies further at Oxford University, England. The poet Ezra Pound persuaded him to stay in England and in 1915 he settled in London, where he took some teaching posts. In 1915 he married Vivien Haigh-Wood (she preferred the spelling "Vivien" to "Vivienne").

He continued teaching - including at Highgate School where one of his pupils was the poet John Betjeman - and supplemented his income by writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement. In 1917 he took a job with Lloyds Bank, which he held until 1927 when he became a director of the publishing firm Faber & Gwyer, which later became Faber & Faber - a firm which had a strong poetry list, and he encouraged many younger poets. The same year he became an Anglican and took up United Kingdom citizenship. From 1922 to 1939 (when it ceased publication) he edited a quarterly review called The Criterion, whose contents represented a very broad spectrum of opinion - for example, in it appeared articles defending both fascism and Marxism.

In 1927 Eliot was baptised into the Church of England, became a subject of the king, published essays by conservative thinkers, and proclaimed himself, "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion." He became deeply involed in Church affairs and wrote a religious drama, "Murder in the Cathedral," which was first performed in the chapter house of Canterbury Cathedral in June 1935.

From 1932 to 1933 he visited Harvard as Charles Eliot Norton professor, leaving his wife behind him. The following year he and Vivien formally separated. He never saw her again. In 1938 she was committed to a mental hospital, and she died in 1947. In 1957 Eliot married his secretary at Faber & Faber, Esmé Valerie Fletcher, who was much younger than him. On 4 January 1965 he died of emphysema in London; his ashes were taken to St Michael's Church in East Coker, the place from which his ancestors had emigrated to America. Two years after his death a plaque to his memory was placed in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.

T S Eliot was recognised in his lifetime as a major poet, and in 1948 he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

His widow edited his letters and also a facsimile edition of The Waste Land which was published in 1974.

Early Poetry

It was Ezra Pound who first promoted Eliot's poetry and helped to secure the publication of his first volume of verse in 1917, Prufrock and Other Observations. The title poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, shows the influence of the French poet Laforgue, and ironically depicts someone too hesitant timid to break out of a world of genteel ritual. In his next volume, entitled simply Poems (1919, published in 1920 in the USA) the most well-known poem is probably Gerontion, in which Eliot powerfully describes the musings of an old man. The poem, however, contains hints of a degree of anti-semitism which is also to be found in some other poems in the volume, such as Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar.

The Waste Land

In 1922 appeared The Waste Land, a work very much in the modernist tradition which spoke powerfully to a generation shocked by the slaughter of the First World War. It was written partly during a period of rest from his work at Lloyds Bank to recover from a nervous disability, and portrays a world of disillusion and collapse. The title refers to the legend of the Holy Grail in which the Fisher King is wounded and his lands become desolate: Eliot said that he owed the title to a book on the Grail by Jessie Weston, From Ritual to Romance. The poem is in five parts, the first four of which relate to the traditional four elements of, respectively, earth, air, fire and water:

  • The Burial of the Dead
  • A Game of Chess
  • The Fire Sermon
  • Death by Water
  • What the Thunder said.

The style of the poem is very varied. It includes satire and parody, dramatic monologues, imagism, travel description, slang, and language reminiscent of Old Testament prophecy. The work is full of quotations and allusions to literature, the tarot and mythology, and the Inferno of Dante lies behind much of it. Eliot draws also on nursery rhyme, the music-hall and the style of jazz lyric. Appended are a set of explanatory notes, some extremely obscure: some critics believe these were written tongue-in-cheek.

The initial critical reception of the poem was mixed, but it rapidly became one of the most influential twentieth-century poems in English.

When the facsimile edition of The Waste Land was published in 1974, it revealed how much the final version of the poem was influenced by Ezra Pound, who persuaded Eliot to excise parts of his original version, and to sharpen up what was left.

Other Poems

In 1925 appeared The Hollow Men, another poem conveying the disillusion of the period. Ash Wednesday describes, in at times almost incantatory language, the struggle of someone coming to terms with the acceptance of Christian beliefs.

He wrote a handful of Ariel Poems which were published by Faber in a series of poetry pamphlets of this name:

  • Journey of the Magi (1927), a much-anthologised poem about the search of the Magi for the infant Jesus and their return home, in the form of a monologue by one of the Magi
  • A Song for Simeon (1928), inspired by the Nunc Dimittis, the words Simeon spoke when shown the baby Jesus
  • Animula (1929), another poem with a strong religious content
  • Marina (1930), inspired by the play Pericles by William Shakespeare
  • The Cultivation of Christmas Trees (1954), a late pendant to the series.

Two unfinished poems were Sweeney Agonistes (1926), which shows the influence of vaudeville, and Coriolan, inspired by Shakespeare's Coriolanus.

Other minor poems include Landscapes, a set of five evocative descriptions.

Four Quartets

Between 1935 and 1942 Eliot completed Four Quartets, a series of four long poetic meditations whose common theme is consideration of the nature of time and memory. Each of them is in five parts, starting with a description of a particular place, and moving onto an attempt to convey religious and philosophical insights. As with The Waste Land, Eliot uses the four traditional elements The four poems are:

  • Burnt Norton (1935), whose title refers to a country house in Gloucestershire whose rose garden features centrally in the poem. The element in this poem is air.
  • East Coker (1940), the title being the name of the place from which Eliot's ancestors emigrated to America. The element in this poem is earth.
  • The Dry Salvages (1941), the title referring to a group of rocks off Cape Ann, Massachusetts. The element in this poem is water.
  • Little Gidding (1942), the name of a village in Huntingdonshire where there was a religious community in the first half of the seventeenth century. The element in this poem is fire.

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

Although often seen as something of a "grand old man" of English letters, Eliot was capable of writing poetry in a lighter vein. In 1939 appeared Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, reprinted many times since. This is a series of light-hearted poems about cats, and was the basis for the musical Cats by Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

Plays

Eliot was a major figure in the attempt to revive verse drama in England in the middle of the twentieth century. His first play was The Rock (1934), a religious drama choruses from which appear in his Collected Poems. The next year followed his most successful full-length play, Murder in the Cathedral, about the murder of Becket in 1170: this had its premiere in 1935 at Canterbury Cathedral.

His other plays were written more with an eye to commercial production in London. They are:

  • The Family Reunion (1939)
  • The Cocktail Party (1950)
  • The Confidential Clerk (1954)
  • The Elder Statesman (1958).

Criticism

T S Eliot was an influential literary and cultural critic, and his criticism contributed substantially to the revival of interest in playwrights contemporary to Shakespeare, in the Metaphysical Poets, and in the writings of the Elizabethan and Jacobean prelate Lancelot Andrewes.

Further reading

for a detailed guide see the Bibliography subpage

  • Ackroyd, Peter. T.S. Eliot: A Life (1984), a standard scholarly biography
  • Bush, Ronald. "Eliot, Thomas Stearns (1888–1965)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2007
  • Calder, Angus. T.S. Eliot (1987), 184pp; short interpretive biography online edition
  • Gordon, Lyndall. T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (1999) excerpt and text search
  • Moody, A. David. The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot (1995) excerpt and text search
  • Tate, Allen, ed. T. S. Eliot: the man and his work (1967)
  • Williamson, George. A Reader's Guide to T.S. Eliot: A Poem-By-Poem Analysis (1998) excerpt and text search


Online resources

notes

  1. Eliot finished the dissertation on "Experience and the objects of knowledge in the philosophy of F. H. Bradley" in 1916 but never received the PhD degree because he was unable to appear in a personal defense.