Thomas Stearns Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965), American-English author, was one of the most influential poets writing in English in the 20th century, one of the most seminal critics, an interesting playwright, and an editor and publisher.
On Sept. 26, 1888, T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Mo., a member of the third generation of a New England family that had come to St. Louis in 1834. Eliot's grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, Unitarian minister and founder of schools, a university, a learned society, and charities, was the family patriarch. While carrying on a tradition of public service, the Eliots never forgot their New England ties. T. S. Eliot claimed that he was a child of both the Southwest and New England. In Massachusetts he missed Missouri's dark river, cardinal birds, and lush vegetation. In Missouri he missed the fir trees, song sparrows, red granite shores, and blue sea of Massachusetts.
Henry Ware Eliot, the father of T. S. Eliot, became chairman of the board of a brick company and served the cultural institutions his father had helped found, as well as others. He married an intellectual New Englander, Charlotte Champ. After having six children, she turned her energies to education and legal safeguards for the young. She also wrote a biography, some religious poems, and a dramatic poem (1926), with a preface by her already widely respected youngest child, Thomas.
Eliot grew up within the family's tradition of service to religion, community, and education. Years later he declared, "Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any part of the world." The Eliots also spent summers on Cape Ann, Mass. These places appear in Eliot's early poetry, but in the Four Quartets of his maturity his affection for them is most explicit.
Education of a Poet
In St. Louis young Eliot received a classical education privately and at Smith Academy, originally named Eliot Academy. He composed and read the valedictory poem for his graduation in 1905. After a year at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, he went to Harvard in 1906. He was shy, correct in dress, and intellectually independent. He studied under such versatile men as William James, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, and Irving Babbitt. He discovered Dante and heard talk of reviving poetic drama. Among such student personalities as Walter Lippmann, Heywood Broun, Conrad Aiken, and E. E. Cummings, Eliot made a modest impression as a contributor and editor of the Harvard Advocate. He was quietly completing his bachelor of arts degree in 3 years and was hard on the track of a new poetic voice. In 1908 he discovered Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature, and through it the French poet Jules Laforgue. From the example of Laforgue, other French symbolists, and late Elizabethan dramatists, he began to develop the offhand eloquence, the pastiches and discordant juxta-positions, the rhythmic versatility, and the concern masked by evasive irony and wit that would soon dominate the American-British renascence in poetry.
Eliot's stay at Harvard to earn a master of arts in philosophy was interrupted by a year at the Sorbonne. He returned to Harvard in 1911 but in 1914 he went abroad again on a Harvard fellowship to study in Germany. When World War I broke out, he transferred to Merton College, Oxford, and studied with a disciple of F. H. Bradley, who became the subject of Eliot's dissertation. Ezra Pound, the young American poet, discovered Eliot at Oxford. Though they were quite different, they shared a devotion to learning and poetry. After Oxford, Eliot decided to stay in England and in 1915 married a vivacious Englishwoman, Vivienne Haigh Haigh-Wood. He taught at Highgate Junior School for boys near London (1915-1916) and then worked for Lloyd's Bank. While teaching, he completed his dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley. The dissertation was accepted, but Eliot did not return to America to defend it so as to receive his doctorate. His study of Bradley, however, contributed to his thought and prose style.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Eliot tried to join the U.S. Navy but was rejected for physical reasons. That year his first volume of verse, Prufrock and Other Observations, appeared and almost immediately became the focus for discussion and controversy. Eliot's abruptly varied rhythms and his mixtures of precision and discontinuity, contemporary references and echoes of the past, and immediate experience and haunting leitmotifs spoke to the distraction and alienation that World War I had intensified in Western civilization. This quality was most effective in the ironically titled poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," in which the Victorian dramatic monologue is turned inward and wedded to witty disillusion and psychic privacies to present a dilettante character fearful of disturbing or being disturbed by anything in the universe. Prufrock moves through a dehumanized city of dispirited common men on an empty round of elegant but uncommunicative chitchat. The many voices within him, speaking in approximations of blank verse and in catchy couplets, contribute to what Hugh Kenner, the American critic, called an "eloquence of inadequacy."
Critic and Editor
As literary editor of the Egoist, a feminist magazine, from 1917 to 1919, Eliot began the editorial and critical careers that would continue until his death. The back pages of the Egoist were entrusted to a succession of young poet-editors, and here, with the aid of Ezra Pound, the new poetry and criticism got a hearing. Eliot was also writing anonymous reviews for the London Times and publishing essays that announced the appearance of a sometimes pontifical but illuminating critic. In 1919 two of his most influential pieces appeared. "Tradition and the Individual Talent" advocated the "depersonalization" of poetry and a redirection of interest away from the poet's personality to the poem, the process, and the tradition to which the poem belonged. "Hamlet and His Problems" defined "objective correlative," a term soon to achieve wide currency, as a particular object, act, sequence, or situation which the poet infuses with a particular feeling in order to be able to call it up economically by mere mention of the thing or event. In this essay Eliot demonstrated the need to cut through received opinion to the literary work itself. He declared that the "primary problem" in Hamlet is not the character but the play, because the character has to bear the burden of an "inexpressible" emotion "in excess of the facts as they appear."
In his early critical essays, collected as The Sacred Wood (1920), Homage to John Dryden (1924), Selected Essays: 1917-1932 (1932), and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), Eliot pointed to the poets, critics, and cultural figures who had been helpful to him and might assist others in adjusting 20th-century experience to literary and cultural tradition. Eliot was drawn to precision and concreteness in language, seeking "to purify the dialect of the tribe," as he later put it. He called attention to thematic or musical structure for communicating complex psychological experience, to past mergers of thought and feeling that could counteract the modern "dissociation of sensibility," and to the "mythical method" of James Joyce's novel Ulysses and of his own poetry—a method that contrasts the balance and sanity of masterpieces and the ages that produced them with the contemporary deracination that isolates individuals culturally and psychologically. With learned understatement he also assessed critics from Aristotle to his Harvard teacher Irving Babbitt. He found creative guides in 19th-century French symbolists; the 17th-century man of letters John Dryden and his predecessor John Donne; the Jacobean dramatists; and beyond them Dante, a bitter exile who created a serene masterpiece.
A rising poet and critic, Eliot made his way into elite British circles. The Bloomsbury group led by Leonard and Virginia Woolf welcomed him; as a somewhat British American, both conservative and liberal leaders could accept him; and young writers on both sides of the Atlantic offered respect and affection. When restless Pound left London for Paris in 1920, Eliot quietly assumed the leadership of England's young intelligentsia.
In "Gerontion" (1920) Eliot offered a shorter, less fragmented perspective on Prufrock's unfocused world, resorting again to the interior monologue, this time spoken by a despairing old man who did not believe or act passionately in youth and now regrets the spiritual waste of his life.
The Waste Land
While convalescing from exhaustion in 1921, Eliot advanced his diagnosis of war-enervated, spiritually moribund Europe with a draft of The Waste Land. This was to become, after publication in 1922, the most influential and controversial poem of the century. Eliot corresponded with Pound about the poem, and Pound's drastic editing compressed it, no doubt unifying and sharpening it. Eliot acknowledged Pound's help by dedicating the poem to him in Dante's words as "il miglior fabbro," the better maker.
In The Waste Land Eliot defines alienation and also indicates a remedy. Voices such as Prufrock's and Gerontion's are still heard, but Eliot's spokesman is now a mild Jeremiah, a lonely prophet or pilgrim who seeks spiritual regeneration in person and in thought throughout a corrupt city and across a disoriented continent. Spring is no longer the joyous season of renewal: "April is the cruelest month," for it calls unwilling people to physical and spiritual regeneration, to leave off unsacramental sex and materialistic busy-ness. Eliot had intensified and extended the varied rhythms and montages of his earlier interior monologues and now organized them in a five-part structure deriving from Beethoven's late quarters. While sordid and distracted images still abound, hopeful ones have increased, and a greater tension exists between the two. Social disintegration is equated with a shattered wasteland, but the poem's central consciousness is nevertheless alert to the possibility of recreating personal and communal wholes out of the present and the past, of fertility rites, Christianity, Indian philosophy, and Western literature and art: "These fragments I have shored against my ruin."
Also in 1922 Eliot founded the Criterion, an influential little magazine that appeared until 1939, when he discontinued its publication. In it he stressed learning, discipline, and the constant renewal of tradition in literature. The magazine also reflected his growing religiousness and his devotion to the idea of a culture stratified by class and unified by Christianity.
As author of The Waste Land and editor of the Criterion, Eliot assumed a dominant role in literature in America and in Great Britain. He left Lloyd's Bank in 1925 and joined Faber and Faber, Ltd., a publisher, eventually rising to a directorship there.
Meanwhile Eliot was crossing a divide in his career. He ended his preoccupation with one kind of alienation in "The Hollow Men" (1925), where the will-less subjects of the poem cluster in a dead land, waiting like effigies for a galvanic revelation that does not come. They comment on their lot in a spastic chorus that includes a children's game song, a fragment of the Lord's Prayer, and a parody of "world without end" and other expressions from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
"The Hollow Men," "Gerontion," and The Waste Land compose a triptych that delineates the estrangement of the self in a society fallen into secularism, with the central panel, The Waste Land, suggesting the possibility of salvaging the self by reconstituting culture out of its scattered parts.
Religious and Cultural Views
In 1927 Eliot became an Anglo-Catholic and a British citizen. With the heightened social consciousness of the worldwide economic depression, a reaction set in against his conservatism. It grew more difficult to explain away on literary grounds the anti-Semitic references in several of his poems. In After Strange Gods (1934) Eliot took the literary ideas of his "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and made them apply to culture. He also declared that too many freethinking Jews would be a detriment to the kind of organic Christian culture he proposed. This work, along with The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes toward a Definition of Culture (1948), indicated Eliot's stand against the pluralistic society of most Western democracies. Without a reconstruction of Christendom, the alternative, he felt, was paganism.
With Ash Wednesday (1930), while the literary tide was flowing Leftward, Eliot emerged as the sole orthodox Christian among important Anglo-American poets. The title of this six-part poem refers to the beginning of Lent, the most intense season of penitence and self-denial in the Christian year. The poem's central consciousness is an aging penitent closer to the convert Eliot than his spokesman in any previous major poem. Like his antecedents, the penitent is alienated—but from God, not from society or nature; and following the precedents of Dante and St. John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish mystic, he sets out to draw near the divine presence. The poem is his interior monologue narrating his progress and praying for guidance. The tone of unbroken sincerity and passionate yearning, of anxiety and some joy is new for Eliot. The penitent desires to abandon ambition, his fading powers of expression, the enticements of the world, and all that may prevent his mounting the turning stairs toward salvation. Though his longing for the vision of God known in childhood is not fulfilled, he progresses toward it, and he will persist. American critic F. O. Matthiessen remarked how Eliot with "paradoxical precision in vagueness" used wonderfully concrete images to convey the mystery of a spiritual experience.
In 1934 Eliot published After Strange Gods and also brought his religious and dramatic interests together in The Rock. This pageant mingles narrative prose with poetic dialogue and choruses as part of a campaign to raise funds to restore London's churches. Eliot's speakers ask for visible gathering places, where the "Invisible Light" can do its work.
In 1935 Murder in the Cathedral, perhaps Eliot's best play, was produced at Canterbury Cathedral. It has to do with Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was assassinated before the altar there in 1170. Its theme is the historical competition between church and state for the allegiance of the individual. Its poetry suggests blank verse with deviations. Becket prepares, like the penitent in Ash Wednesday, to accept God's will, knowing that "humanity cannot bear much reality." After his death, the chorus, speaking for humanity, confesses that "in life there is not time to grieve long," even for a martyr.
In 1936 Eliot concluded his Poems 1909-1935 with "Burnt Norton," the first of what became the Four Quartets, an extended work that proved to be his poetic viaticum. "Burnt Norton," in which Eliot makes vivid use of his recurring rose-garden symbolism, grew out of a visit to a deserted Gloucestershire mansion. This poem engendered three others, each associated with a place. "East Coker" (1940) is set in the village of Eliot's Massachusetts ancestors. The last two quartets appeared with the publication of Four Quartets (1943). The third, "The Dry Salvages," named for three small islands off the Massachusetts coast where Eliot vacationed in his youth, draws on his American experiences; and the fourth, "Little Gidding," derives from a visit to the site of a religious community, now an Anglican shrine, where the British king Charles I paused before he surrendered and went to his death. Here Eliot asks forgiveness for a lifetime of mistakes, which no doubt includes his possible anti-Semitism of the years before the war. Each of the quartets is a separate whole but related to the others. All employ the thematic structure of music and the five movements of The Waste Land. The theme, developed differently, is the same in each: a penitential Eliot seeks the eternal in and through the temporal, the still dynamic center of the turning world. One may seek or wait in any place at any time, for God is in all places at all times. The theme and method continue those of Ash Wednesday, but the feeling in Four Quartets is less passionately personal, more compassionate and reconciled. The verse is serene, poised, and sparsely graceful.
Midway in his composition of Four Quartets, Eliot published Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939). Here Eliot the fabulist appeared, and the humorist and wit resurfaced.
The Family Reunion, the first of Eliot's four plays for the professional stage, appeared in 1939. He later observed that its hero was a prig but its poetry the best in any of his plays. This play, like the other three, employs the familiar conventions of drawing-room comedy to encase religious matters. The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party (1940) both involve analogs with classical Greek dramas. The Confidential Clerk (1954) and The Elder Statesman (1959) even employ potentially melodramatic situations, although they are not developed popularly, for Eliot is preoccupied with individual religiousness and the self-revelations and mutual understandings it effects within families. In fact, The Elder Statesman, the last and simplest of his plays, contending that true love is beyond verbal expression, is dedicated to his second wife, Valerie.
The most successful of these plays, The Cocktail Party, enjoyed respectable runs and revivals in London and New York. It puts the tension between the temporal and the eternal in more effective dramatic terms than do the other plays. By means of the familiar, a cocktail party, Eliot involves the audience in the unbelievable, a modern martyrdom. He contrasts lives oriented to the natural with that of a martyred missionary devoted to the supernatural. At the same time he parallels a Greek drama more subtly than he did in The Family Reunion.
Eliot's drawing-room plays, however, have only a limited appeal. The poetry in the last three is unobtrusively effective, carried by voices moving naturally along the hazy border between poetry and prose. They are not so much powerful plays as suggestive ones.
Honor and Old Age
Following World War II there were important changes in Eliot's life and literary activities. In 1947 his first wife died. Suffering from nervous debilities, she had been institutionalized for years, and Eliot had visited her every Sunday and kept his suffering and deprivation private. In 1948 he received the Nobel Prize and the British Order of Merit, and the list of his honors continued to grow. Publishing no important poetry after the Four Quartets, he devoted himself to the poetic drama, the revitalization of culture, some new criticism in On Poetry and Poets (1957), the readjustment of earlier critical judgments, and the editing of collections of his poetry and plays. In 1957 he married his private secretary, Valerie Fischer, and enjoyed a felicitous marriage until he died on Jan. 4, 1965, in London. In accordance with earlier arrangements his ashes were deposited in St. Michael's Church, East Coker, his ancestral village, on April 17, 1965.
Many poets and artists paid final tribute to Eliot, including Pound: "A grand poet and brotherly friend"; W. H. Auden: "A great poet and a great man"; Allen Tate: "Mr. Eliot was the greatest poet in English of the 20th century"; Robert Lowell: "He was a dear personal friend. Our American literature has had no greater poet or critic"; Robert Penn Warren: "He is the key figure of our century in America and England, the most powerful single influence." Avowedly Christian in a secular age, Eliot tried to revitalize the religious roots of Western culture. His career recalls the versatile man of letters of the 18th century.
An edition of Eliot's work is The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot (1969). Donald C. Gallup, T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (1952), lists Eliot's writings through 1951.
The literature on Eliot is extensive. Herbert Howarth, Notes on Some Figures behind T. S. Eliot (1964), provides biographical information. Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot (1959), is probably the standard work on Eliot. Francis O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (1935; 3d ed. 1958), provides a balanced introduction. Russell H. Robbins, The T. S. Eliot Myth (1951), primarily because of Eliot's conservatism, offers a negative view. Other studies include Elizabeth A. Drew, T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry (1949); Helen L. Gardner, The Art of T. S. Eliot (1949); and D. E. S. Maxwell, The Poetry of T. S. Eliot (1952). George Williamson, A Reader's Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem-by-Poem Analysis (1953; 2d ed. 1966), is a helpful reference work.
Collections of critical estimates of Eliot are Balachandra Rajan, ed., T. S. Eliot: A Study of His Writings by Several Hands (1947); Richard March and M. J. Tambimuttu, eds., T. S. Eliot: A Symposium (1948); Leonard Unger, ed., T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique (1948); and Neville Braybrooke, ed., T. S. Eliot: A Symposium for His Seventieth Birthday (1958). Studies of particular works include Raymond Preston, " Four Quarters" Rehearsed (1946), and Robert E. Knoll, ed., Storm over the Waste Land (1964). □
Eliot, T. S.
T. S. Eliot
BORN: 1888, St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.
DIED: 1965, London, England
NATIONALITY: American, British
GENRE: Poetry, drama, nonfiction
Prufrock, and Other Observations (1917)
The Waste Land (1922)
Journey of the Magi (1927)
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939)
Four Quartets (1943)
T. S. Eliot, the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of the giants of modern literature, highly distinguished as a poet, literary critic, dramatist, and editor/publisher. Eliot articulated distinctly modern themes in forms that were a marked departure from those of nineteenth-century poetry. Among his best-known works were “Gerontion” (1920), and within a couple of years, one of the most famous and influential poems of the century, The Waste Land (1922).
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Midwestern Born, but New England Bred Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26, 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the second son and seventh child of Charlotte Champe Stearns and Henry Ware Eliot, members of a distinguished Massachusetts family recently transplanted to Missouri and fiercely loyal to their New England roots. Eliot's family tree includes settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, prominent clergymen and educators, a president of Harvard University (Charles William Eliot), and three presidents of the United States (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Rutherford B. Hayes). His father was the president of a local company in St. Louis, and his mother was educated at the city's Smith Academy. He completed his preparations for college by attending the Massachusetts-based Milton Academy.
Early Poems Published While at Harvard Entering Harvard in 1906, Eliot studied with some of the most distinguished philosophers of the century, including George Santayana, Josiah Royce, and Bertrand Russell. He focused on the religion of India and idealist philosophy (especially Immanuel Kant), with further work in ethics and psychology. His studies, which included two years of Sanskrit and Indian philosophy, influenced his perspective and provided a more comprehensive context for his understanding of culture. Later, these Eastern materials entered his poetry. Eliot also joined the staff of the Harvard Advocate, the university's literary magazine, where several of his earliest poems were first published.
A Move to England Between the poems of 1910–1911 and The Waste Land (1922), Eliot lived through several experiences that are crucial in understanding his development as a poet—he moved to England and eventually became naturalized as a British subject, married Vivienne Haighwood, and became a member of the Anglican Church. While in London, Eliot called on the poet Ezra Pound, and Pound immediately adopted him as a cause, promoting his poetry and introducing him to William Butler Yeats and other artists. In 1915, at a time when Eliot was close to giving up on poetry, Pound arranged for the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Poetry magazine. Pound continued to play a central role in Eliot's life and work through the early 1920s. He influenced the form and content of Eliot's next group of poems, the quatrains in Poems (1919), and more famously, he changed the shape of The Waste Land by urging Eliot to cut several long passages.
In addition to Pound's influence, Eliot's poetry was also affected by his marriage to Vivienne Haighwood. Their relationship was troubled by her neurotic disorders, and the element of despair is evident in his poetry from 1915 through the 1920s. To support himself and his chronically ill wife, Eliot took several jobs to help cover medical expenses. Working from 1916 to 1920 under great pressure (a fifteen-hour workday was common for him), he wrote essays, published in 1920 as The Sacred Wood, that reshaped literary history.
Illness Sparks Creativity The years of anxiety in Eliot's personal life took its toll, and in 1921, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he sought treatment in a sanatorium in Switzerland. (A sanatorium is a medical facility for long-term care or for those recovering from illness.) In this protected environment, he completed “The Waste Land.” The poem was extensively edited by Pound, at Eliot's request, and in 1922, The Waste Land was published in the first issue of the Criterion, a literary review edited by Eliot.
The Waste Land, considered a masterwork of high modernism, was a direct response to the despair and destruction wreaked in all areas of European society by World War I. The Great War, as it is also called, started as a skirmish between Austria-Hungary and Serbia after Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Serbia by a member of a Bosnian nationalist group. Because of long-standing tensions and entangling alliances, nearly the whole of Europe became involved in the war, including Great Britain, and later the United States. Of the estimated 30 million military casualties, nearly 2.5 million were British soldiers. Almost a million were killed.
Success and Later Years In 1927, Eliot was baptized in the Anglican Church and became naturalized as a British subject. As Europe again inched toward war amidst a worldwide economic downturn known as the Great Depression in the 1930s, Eliot's major poetic achievement was “Burnt Norton,” composed in 1935. It was the first of four comparable works that together are known as Four Quartets. They are usually considered his masterpiece, and Eliot himself thought Four Quartets his greatest achievement and “Little Gidding” his best poem.
Eliot lived through World War II, a conflict in which Great Britain came close to being overrun by Adolf Hitler– led Nazi Germany as the rest of Europe had been. While Britain remained free and survived to triumph over the Nazis by the war's end, Eliot experienced marked changes in his personal life in the post-war period beginning in 1947. His wife, Vivenne, died, after having spent several years in an institution. In 1948, Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature, augmenting his stature as a celebrated literary figure. Then in 1957, he married Valerie Fletcher. T. S. Eliot's last years, though happy, were darkened by illness. He died of emphysema in London on January 4, 1965.
Works in Literary Context
Eliot's first volume of poetry, Prufrock, and Other Observations, established him as an important new voice in American and English poetry. Its poems encapsulate the
distinctive techniques Eliot uses throughout his career. Many critics noticed the influence of French symbolists in the poems, notably Jules Laforgue and Charles Baudelaire. These poets had impressed Eliot with their realistic portrayals of urban landscapes and their bold use of irony and symbolism. Eliot's earlier poems feature similar qualities. They are characterized by their sardonic tone, strong rhythms achieved by blending formal and informal language, and vivid, startling metaphors.
Isolation Eliot's early poems present a metaphorical view of the modern world as dry, desolate, barren, and spiritually empty. The isolation is social, religious, and (because Eliot is a poet) vocational. In “Portrait of a Lady,” other people and perhaps God exist, but they are unreachable; in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” they exist only as aspects of the thinker's mind. In The Waste Land, Eliot reveals his position that modern society had lost its spirituality to secularism.
Failure of Communication Another theme commonly found in Eliot's poems is the failure of communication, of a positive relationship, between a man and a woman. It is found in the other early poems “Hysteria” and “La Figlia che Piange,” and appears early in The Waste Land with the image of the “hyacinth girl.” Over time, the failure of communication becomes related to other emerging themes, especially to religious meanings, for example, in the symbolic imagery of the “rose-garden,” which appears in Ash Wednesday, Four Quartets, The Family Reunion, and The Confidential Clerk.
Influence As an eminent poet, critic, and playwright, Eliot has maintained an influence upon literature that some critics claim is unequaled by any other twentieth-century writer. His poetry and prose are frequently cited as having helped inaugurate the modern period in English and American letters. His influence could be felt on poetry until the end of the century and beyond.
Works in Critical Context
Largely considered one of the greatest modern poets, Eliot has maintained an influence on literature that some critics claim is unequaled by any other twentieth-century writer. In the 1920s, Eliot's densely allusive style gained him an international reputation on the order of Albert Einstein's, but his fondness for European models and subjects prompted some of his compatriots to regard him as a turncoat to his country and to the artistic tradition of the new it had come to represent. Beginning in the 1950s, new experimental techniques in poetry, the revival of the Romantic belief in the primacy of the individual, and the emergence of personal or “confessional” poetry led to a decline in Eliot's authority and popularity. Most recent critics, however, while expressing occasional reservations about Eliot's personal ideology, agree that his profoundly innovative, erudite approach to poetry and criticism has had a permanent impact on literature.
The Waste Land Among the most innovative, influential, and controversial poems of the twentieth century, The Waste Land challenged conventional definitions of poetry upon its publication in 1922. The five sections of this book-length poem are composed of apparently random, disconnected images and scenes and are spoken by several different voices that blend together. The meaning of The Waste Land is a subject of much debate, but scholars generally agree that it presents a metaphorical portrait of the modern world as dry and desolate and of humanity as emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually empty. Acknowledging its complexity, Hugh Kenner contended that the poem's imposing structure invites imaginative readings: “The Waste Land is suffused with a functional obscurity … embracing the fragmented present and reaching back to that ‘vanished mind of which our mind is a continuum.’”
Four Quartets Eliot told Donald Hall in 1959 that he considered Four Quartets to be his best work, “and,” he added, “I'd like to feel that they get better as they go on. The second is better than the first, the third is better than the second, and the fourth is the best of all. At any rate, that's the way I flatter myself.” Neville Braybrooke writes: “It is … generally agreed … that in his Four Quartets [Eliot] attempted … to achieve a poetry so transparent that in concentrating on it attention would not fall so much on the words, but on what the words pointed to. And in his rigorous stripping away of the poetic, such a pure poetry is sustained.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Eliot's famous contemporaries include:
Ezra Pound (1885–1972): American modern poet who suggested that poets “make it new.” Pound helped Eliot edit and publish his works.
James Joyce (1882–1941): Irish writer best known for the modernist novel Ulysses.
Bertrand Russell (1872–1970): British philosopher and Nobel Prize winner who was known for being politically outspoken and anti-imperialistic. He was the coauthor of Principia Mathematica.
Responses to Literature
- Read the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In groups, prepare answers to the following questions: Why will the mermaids not sing to Prufrock at the end of the poem? Do you think Prufrock is actually talking to a real woman? Is this indeed a love song? Explain.
- Write a short review describing which of the Four Quartets you think is best and why.
- With a partner, find references to Alice in Wonderland and the Bible in Four Quartets. Discuss why Eliot would use these allusions.
- With a partner, choose one of the sections from The Waste Land and prepare an oral reading for the class that emphasizes an aspect of the poem such as theme or subject matter.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In his later years, Eliot wrote more about spiritual issues than personal ones. He knew about many religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism, and referred to them symbolically and literally in his texts, particularly in Four Quartets. Here are some other works that emphasize spiritual and religious concerns:
“The Second Coming” (1920), a poem by William Butler Yeats. In this famous poem, the speaker worries that the end of the world may be coming, and that instead of Jesus Christ, someone or something else might be in control.
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, this film is an epic but controversial look at the last days of Jesus Christ on earth.
The Life of Pi (2001), a novel by Yann Martel. The book is the story of a shipwrecked Indian boy who contemplates the nature of God while stranded on a raft with a live tiger.
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon &Schuster, 1984.
Alvarez, Al. Stewards of Excellence: Studies in Modern English and American Poets. New York: Scribner, 1958.
Baybrooke, Neville, ed. T. S. Eliot: A Symposium for His Seventieth Birthday. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1958.
Bradbrook, Muriel. T. S. Eliot. Rev. ed. London:Longmans, Green, 1963.
Gray, Piers. T. S. Eliot's Intellectual and Poetic Development, 1909–1922. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982.
Habid, M. A. R. The Early T. S. Eliot and WesternPhilosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Hay, Eloise Knapp. T. S. Eliot's Negative Way. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982.
Hughes, Ted. A Dancer to God: Tributes to T. S. Eliot. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992.
Sharpe, Tony. T. S. Eliot: A Literary Life. New York: St.Martin's, 1991.
Gardner, Helen. “The ‘Aged Eagle' Spreads His Wings: A 70th Birthday Talk with T. S. Eliot.” Sunday Times (London), September 21, 1958, p. 8.
Eliot, T. S.
T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot, American-English author, was one of the most significant poets writing in English in the twentieth century, as well as one of the most influential critics, an interesting playwright, editor, and publisher.
On September 26, 1888, Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, a member of the third generation of a New England family that had come to St. Louis in 1834. Eliot's grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, Unitarian minister and founder of schools, a university, and charities, was the family patriarch, or leader. While carrying on a tradition of public service, the Eliots never forgot their New England ties. T. S. Eliot claimed that he was a child of both the Southwest and New England. In Massachusetts he missed Missouri's dark river, cardinal birds, and lush vegetation. In Missouri he missed the fir trees, song sparrows, red granite shores, and blue sea of Massachusetts.
Henry Ware Eliot, the father of T. S. Eliot, became chairman of the board of a brick company and served the schools and charities his father had helped found, as well as others. He married a New Englander, Charlotte Champ. After having six children, she focused her energy on education and legal protection for the young. She also wrote a biography, some religious poems, and a dramatic poem (1926).
Eliot grew up within the family's tradition of service to religion, community, and education. Years later he declared, "Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any part of the world." The Eliots spent summers on Cape Ann, Massachusetts.
Education of a poet
In St. Louis young Eliot received a classical education privately and at Smith Academy, originally named Eliot Academy. He composed and read the valedictory (something that involves a farewell) poem for his graduation in 1905. After a year at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, he went to Harvard University in 1906. Eliot was shy and independent and he made a good impression as a contributor and editor of the Harvard Advocate. He completed his bachelor of arts degree in three years.
Eliot's stay at Harvard to earn a master of arts in philosophy (the study of knowledge) was interrupted by a year at the Sorbonne (The University of Paris) in Paris, France. He returned to Harvard in 1911 but in 1914 he went overseas again on a Harvard scholarship to study in Germany. When World War I (1914–18; a war fought between the German-led Central powers and the Allies: England, the United States, and France, among other nations) broke out, he transferred to Merton College, Oxford. Ezra Pound (1885–1972), the young American poet, discovered Eliot at Oxford. They shared a commitment to learning and poetry. After Oxford, Eliot decided to stay in England and in 1915 married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. He taught at Highgate Junior School for boys near London (1915–1916) and then worked for Lloyd's Bank. While teaching, he completed his dissertation (a writing on a subject that is required for a doctorate degree), Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley. The dissertation was accepted, but Eliot did not return to the United States to defend it and therefore did not receive his doctorate.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Eliot tried to join the U.S. Navy but was rejected for physical reasons. That year his first volume of poetry, Prufrock and Other Observations, appeared and almost immediately became the focus for discussion and debate. Eliot's writing style spoke to the confusion and bad feelings that World War I had created in European and American societies. This was most effective in the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
Critic and editor
Eliot served as literary editor of the Egoist, a feminist (in support of equality for women) magazine, from 1917 to 1919. The back pages of the Egoist were written by a series of young poet-editors, and here, with the aid of Ezra Pound, the new poetry and commentary was written. Eliot was also writing anonymous (a work where no name is given to the creator) reviews for the London Times and publishing essays. In 1919 two of his most influential pieces appeared. "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and "Hamlet and His Problems." Some of his early critical essays were The Sacred Wood (1920), Homage to John Dryden (1924), Selected Essays: 1917–1932 (1932), and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933).
The Waste Land
While recovering from exhaustion in 1921, Eliot wrote The Waste Land, one of the most influential and debated poems of the century. In The Waste Land, the weakening of society is compared with a shattered wasteland. The poem proposes solutions for recreating personal and caring communities through a variety of methods and with the joining of different religious beliefs.
Also in 1922 Eliot founded the Criterion, a small magazine that appeared until 1939. As author of The Waste Land and editor of the Criterion, Eliot assumed an important role in literature in America and in Great Britain. He left Lloyd's Bank in 1925 and joined Faber and Faber, Ltd., a publisher, eventually rising to a position of leadership there.
Religious and cultural views
In 1927 Eliot became an Anglo-Catholic and a British citizen. In After Strange Gods (1934) Eliot took the literary ideas of his "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and demonstrated how they could apply to society. He also declared that too many freethinking Jews would damage the kind of Christian culture he proposed. This work, along with The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes toward a Definition ofCulture (1948), indicated Eliot's stand against the pluralistic society (a society that allows freedom of religion) of most Western democracies.
Ash Wednesday (1930) is the title of this six-part poem that refers to the beginning of Lent. The poem focuses on a person who is isolated from God and who sets out to find Him. The poem shows the prayer and progress of this person. The tone of sincerity and passionate yearning, of anxiety and some joy, was new for Eliot.
In 1934 Eliot published After Strange Gods and also brought his religious and dramatic interests together in The Rock. This display combines narrative prose (a story that is told in common, nonpoetic, language) with poetic dialogue (poetry written as though the poet were speaking).
In 1935 Murder in the Cathedral, perhaps Eliot's best play, was produced at Canterbury Cathedral. It has to do with Archbishop Thomas Becket (1118–1170), who was assassinated (killed for political reasons) before the altar there in 1170. The Family Reunion, the first of Eliot's four professional plays, appeared in 1939. This was followed by The Cocktail Party (1940), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and The Elder Statesman (1959).
In 1936 Eliot concluded his Poems 1909–1935 with "Burnt Norton," the first of what became the Four Quartets. "Burnt Norton," in which Eliot makes use of his repeated rose-garden symbolism, grew out of a visit to a deserted Gloucestershire mansion. This poem brought about three others, each associated with a place. "East Coker" (1940) is set in the village of Eliot's Massachusetts ancestors. The last two quartets appeared with the publication of Four Quartets (1943). The third, "The Dry Salvages," named for three small islands off the Massachusetts coast where Eliot vacationed in his youth; and the fourth, "Little Gidding," derives from a visit to the site of a religious community, where the British King Charles I (1600–1649) paused before he surrendered and went to his death. Each of the quartets is a separate whole that also is related to the others. The theme, developed differently, is the same in each: One may seek or wait in any place at any time, for God is in all places at all times.
Eliot, midway through his composition of Four Quartets, published Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939). Here Eliot the fabulist (a writer of fables) appeared, and his humor and wit are demonstrated in this piece of work.
Honor and old age
In 1947 Eliot's first wife died. In 1948 he received the Nobel Prize and the British Order of Merit, and the list of his honors continued to grow. After the Four Quartets, he committed himself to the poetic drama with On Poetry and Poets (1957), and the editing of collections of his poetry and plays. In 1957 Eliot married his private secretary, Valerie Fischer, and remained married until his death on January 4, 1965, in London. His ashes were placed in St. Michael's Church, East Coker, his ancestral village, on April 17, 1965.
Many poets and artists paid final tribute to T. S. Eliot, including Ezra Pound: "A grand poet and brotherly friend." A committed Christian in an important age, Eliot tried to restore the religious roots of European and American culture. His career recalls the flexible writer of the eighteenth century.
For More Information
Eliot, T. S. The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Edited by Valerie Eliot. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.
Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999.
Howarth, Herbert. Notes on Some Figures behind T. S. Eliot. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1964.
Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns
ELIOT, THOMAS STEARNS
Anglo-American poet and critic; b. St. Louis, Mo., Sept. 26, 1888, d. London, Jan. 4, 1965. He was the seventh and last child of Henry Ware Eliot and Charlotte Stearns
Eliot, and the grandson of William Greenleaf Eliot, Unitarian minister and founder of Washington University, St. Louis. At Harvard, then under the presidency of his distant relative C. W. Eliot, he encountered dante, the metaphysical poets and the French symbolists and commenced writing experimental verse that borrowed its voice from Jules Laforgue and its habits of imagery from late Elizabethan drama. After receiving his bachelor's (1909) and master's (1910) degrees, he spent a year in Paris, where he wrote much of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and then returned to Harvard for graduate study in philosophy (1911–14), envisaging an academic career. Further work in Germany was cut short by World War I, and in 1914 he enrolled at Merton College, Oxford, where he read Aristotle's Posterior Analytics and commenced his doctoral thesis on Francis Herbert bradley's theory of knowledge. His marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1915 marked the termination of his academic career. He submitted the thesis to Harvard in 1916 but never took the degree. Eliot worked in the foreign exchange department at Lloyd's Bank and reviewed numerous books for small sums. These labors, added to the work of equipping himself to be a poet in the contemporary world and the strain of coping with his wife's continual emotional derangements, brought on by 1921 a comprehensive breakdown; during his recuperation at Margate and Lausanne he wrote the first major 20th-century poem in English, The Waste Land.
In September 1914 Eliot had met Ezra Pound in London. Pound secured publication of "Prufrock" in Poetry (Chicago) and during several years' close association accelerated Eliot's assimilation of models and his development of a sharp, unrhetorical, virtuosic verse technique. By 1919 Eliot had blocked out, and in large part occupied, the intellectual territory from which he meant to operate. He had arrived at a workable view of literary tradition: the past that has been deliberately assimilated, the past to the future understanding of which present work in turn, if rightly done, will make an irreversible difference. He had clarified his grasp of the tradition accessible to him, which drew vitality from the Elizabethans and the metaphysicals and from 19th-century France. But he found in Milton a "Chinese Wall"; in the Romantics, insufficient knowledge; and in the Victorians, diffuse rumination. He had perfected, in a series of poems in quatrains, an aesthetic of sinewy statement, playing against the closed form a rich syntactic variety. And he had defined the dramatic function of rhetoric: a symptom of the speaker's absorption with the figure he is cutting, and so the precise index of a mind's self-consciousness.
Key Poetry. All this knowledge is articulated in The Waste Land, in which the poet's awareness of his own plight echoes the weary self-consciousness of the postwar "mind of Europe," stored with resonant fragments and preoccupied with imaginative and spiritual drought. A tough arid eloquence pervades its mosaic of allusions. Shakespeare and St. Augustine, Buddha and Andrew Marvell, the Journey to Emmaus and the Grail-Knight's pilgrimage to a deserted chapel where to inquire after the meaning of symbols is perhaps to resurrect them, all enter a plenum in which the 20th-century imagination has ever since been learning to know its own identity. This poem (1922) and the essays in The Sacred Wood (1920) affirmed but did not for some years implement Eliot's authority as the presiding intelligence in literary London and ultimately in the English-speaking West.
"The Hollow Men" (1925), a dry, dead spiritual void amid which articulation is miraculously sustained, terminated what Eliot expected to be his final collection of verse. He was editing the Criterion (1922–39) and working in the publishing firm founded by Geoffrey Faber. In 1927, however, he commenced a new life, naturalized as a British subject; confirmed in the Church of England, of which he was to become his time's most eminent lay communicant; and initiating with "Journey of the Magi" (1927) a sequence of religious poems that culminated in Ash-Wednesday (1930) and bore autumnal fruit in the major work of his maturity, Four Quartets (1935–42).
The church attracted him initially by its embodiment of his idea of tradition, by its transcendental authority in a shifting time, and by its power to define as a meaningful ideal the asceticism that for the poet of The Waste Land had been only an appalled refusal of chaotic sensuality. His Magi, in the blank years when the Word on earth has not yet undertaken his ministry, have been accorded not peace but a permanent alienation from the world's satisfactions. His most conspicuously Christian poem, Ash-Wednesday, begins by not hoping to turn again (as though going back, not on, would be a good thing if one were permitted to hope for it) and closes in "the dream-crossed twilight between birth and dying," praying to learn "to care and not to care."
Murder in the Cathedral (1935) may be read as a commentary on Ash-Wednesday. In this play about the murder of St. Thomas becket, the archbishop must learn to care and not to care; for if he merely chooses not to care, and abandons himself to his destroyers, he will be a suicide rather than a martyr. Probably no drama has ever explored so subtle a moral point; but even in the extraordinary scene in which Thomas is tempted by fore-knowledge of his own beatification, Eliot's hand is sure—and a Christian drama emerges from what a merely clever writer would have turned into an intellectual puzzle; and a merely theatrical writer, into a thriller.
Out of passages not used in this play grew "Burnt Norton" (1935); out of "Burnt Norton," under the stress of the war years, grew Four Quartets, Eliot's comprehensive meditation on the meaning of his own life and that of his ancestors, the contemporary world and the past it fulfils and half disowns, the Christian revelation and the secular pleasures it incorporates, judges, and transcends. The décor, like that of Gray's Elegy, comes from the 18th-century tradition of the local meditative poem; the structure of each Quartet is drawn from that of "The Waste Land"; the images extend those of Eliot's earlier poems; the whole is quiet, steeped in tradition, and utterly modern, suggesting, as the title implies, a wordless conversation like that among stringed instruments. Only George Herbert's The Temple (1633) supplies partial analogies for the quality of feeling in this purest and most characteristic of Eliot's works, and only Rilke's Duino Elegies offers a parallel modern concern for the feel of living in time under eternal sanctions.
Popular Theater. In 1947 Mrs. Eliot died; they had long been legally separated. In 1948 Eliot received the Order of Merit and the Nobel prize for literature. In 1950, with The Cocktail Party, a play about contrasting modes of salvation, he reached a large popular audience for the first time. Two more plays for the popular theater followed, The Confidential Clerk (1954) and The Elder Statesman (1959). In 1957 T. S. Eliot's marriage to Valerie Fletcher inaugurated what were conspicuously the happiest years of his life. He wrote little, traveled much, continued on a reduced schedule his work as a partner of Faber and Faber, and enjoyed, with some irony, the esteem in which he was held as England's most eminent man of letters. His last publication was the long-suppressed 48-year-old doctoral thesis on Bradley's philosophy, which dated from the end of his academic career and the beginning of his life as a poet and man of letters. His ashes were interred in the Somerset village of East Coker, celebrated in Four Quartets, where Eliots or Elyots lived for some two centuries before the poet's ancestor Andrew Eliot emigrated in 1667 to found the American branch of the family. "East Coker" begins, "In my beginning is my end," and closes, "In my end is my beginning."
Bibliography: t. s. eliot, Collected Poems, 1909–1962 (New York 1963); Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (2d ed. New York 1950); Murder in the Cathedral (New York 1935); The Family Reunion (New York 1939); The Cocktail Party (New York 1950); The Confidential Clerk (New York 1954); The Elder Statesman (New York 1959); The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (Cambridge, Mass. 1933); The Idea of a Christian Society (New York 1940). d. c. gallup, T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (New York 1953). h. kenner, The Invisible Poet (New York 1959); ed., T. S. Eliot: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1962). n. frye, T. S. Eliot (New York 1963). g. c. smith, T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays (Chicago 1956). b. rajan, ed., T. S. Eliot: A Study of His Writings by Several Hands (New York 1948). l. unger, T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique (New York 1948). g. williamson, Reader's Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem-by-Poem Analysis (New York 1953). h. howarth, Notes on Some Figures behind T. S. Eliot (Boston 1964), contains much biog. material. r. s. kennedy, Working out Salvation with Diligence: The Plays of T. S. Eliot (Wichita, Kans.,1964). kenneth asher, T. S. Eliot and Ideology (Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995). anthony julius, T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form (Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995). caroline phillips, The Religious Quest in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot (Lewiston, N.Y., 1995). narsingh srivastava, The Poetry of T.S. Eliot: A Study in Religious Sensibility (New Delhi, 1991).
Eliot, Thomas Stearns
Eliot, T. S.