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. Eliot, T. S., London, England, 1956, photograph. AP Images.
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 19101911 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.
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.
Conrad Aiken (1889-1973): American poet and close friend of Eliot at Harvard. Aiken edited Emily Dickinson's Selected Poems (1924), which helped establish her literary reputation posthumously.
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 Mathematics.
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 Pruftock’’ 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.’’
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.
Siddhartha (1922), a novel by Hermann Hesse. This book is a fictionalized version of the story of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.
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.
Responses to Literature
1. Read the poem ‘‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Pruffock.’’ 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.
2. Write a short review describing which of the Four Quartets you think is best and why.
3. With a partner, find references to Alice in Wonderland and the Bible in Four Quartets. Discuss why Eliot would use these allusions.
4. 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.
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Aiken, Conrad. A Reviewer’s ABC: The Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present. New York: Meridian, 1958.
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 Western Philosophy. 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.