Thomas Stearns Eliot, OM (September 26, 1888 – January 4, 1965), was a poet, dramatist, and literary critic. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Among his most famous writings are the poems The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, The Hollow Men, Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets; the plays Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party; and the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent".
Eliot was born in the United States, moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 (at age 25), and became a British subject in 1927 at the age of 39. Of his nationality and its role in his work, T.S. Eliot said: "[My poetry] wouldn’t be what it is if I’d been born in England, and it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d stayed in America. It’s a combination of things. But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.
From 1898 to 1905, Eliot was a day student at Smith Academy, a preparatory school for Washington University. At the academy, Eliot studied Latin, Greek, French, and German. Upon graduation, he could have gone to Harvard University, but his parents sent him to Milton Academy (in Milton, Massachusetts, near Boston) for a preparatory year. There he met Scofield Thayer, who would later publish The Waste Land. He studied at Harvard, where he earned a B.A., from 1906 to 1909. During this time, he read Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature, where, by his own admission, he first came across Laforgue, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. The Harvard Advocate published some of his poems, and he became lifelong friends with Conrad Aiken. The next year, he earned a master's degree at Harvard. In the 1910–1911 school year, Eliot lived in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and touring the continent.
Returning to Harvard in 1911 as a doctoral student in philosophy, Eliot studied the writings of F. H. Bradley, Buddhism and Indic philology (learning Sanskrit and Pāli to read some of the religious texts). He was awarded a scholarship to attend Merton College, Oxford, in 1914, and, before settling there, he visited Marburg, Germany, where he planned to take a summer program in philosophy. When the First World War broke out, however, he went to London and then to Oxford. In a letter to Aiken late in December 1914, Eliot, aged 26, wrote "I am very dependent upon women (I mean female society)" and then added a complaint that he was still a virgin. Less than four months later, he was introduced by Thayer, then also at Oxford, to Cambridge governess Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Eliot was not happy at Merton and declined a second year there. Instead, on 26 June 1915, he married Vivienne in a register office. After a short visit, alone, to the U. S. to see his family, he returned to London and took a few teaching jobs such as lecturing at Birkbeck College, University of London. He continued to work on his dissertation and, in the spring of 1916, sent it to Harvard, which accepted it. Because he did not appear in person to defend his dissertation, however, he was not awarded his PhD. (In 1964, the dissertation was published as Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley.) During Eliot's university career, he studied with George Santayana, Irving Babbitt, Henri Bergson, C. R. Lanman, Josiah Royce, Bertrand Russell, and Harold Joachim.
Bertrand Russell took an interest in Vivien (the spelling she preferred) while the newlyweds stayed in his flat. Some scholars have suggested that Vivien and Russell had an affair (see Carole Seymour-Jones, Painted Shadow), but these allegations have never been confirmed. Eliot, in a private paper, written in his sixties, confessed: "I came to persuade myself that I was in love with Vivienne simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.
After leaving Merton, Eliot worked as a schoolteacher, most notably at Highgate School where he taught the young John Betjeman, and later at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe. To earn extra money, he wrote book reviews and lectured at evening extension courses. In 1917, he took a position at Lloyds Bank in London, where he worked on foreign accounts. In August 1920, Eliot met James Joyce on a trip to Paris, accompanied by Wyndham Lewis. After the meeting, Eliot said he found Joyce arrogant (Joyce doubted Eliot's ability as a poet at the time), but the two soon became friends with Eliot visiting Joyce whenever he was in Paris. In 1925, Eliot left Lloyds to join the publishing firm Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), where he remained for the rest of his career, becoming a director of the firm. Wyndham Lewis and Eliot became close friends, a friendship leading to the well-known painting produced in 1938.
By 1932, Eliot had been contemplating a separation from his wife for some time. When Harvard University offered him the Charles Eliot Norton professorship for the 1932-1933 academic year, he accepted, leaving Vivien in England. Upon his return in 1933, Eliot officially separated from Vivien. He avoided all but one meeting with his wife between his leaving for America in 1932 and her death in 1947. (Vivien died at Northumberland House, a mental hospital north of London, where she was committed in 1938, without ever having been visited by Eliot, who was still her husband.)
From 1946 to 1957, Eliot shared a flat with his friend, John Davy Hayward, who gathered and archived Eliot's papers and styled himself Keeper of the Eliot Archive. He also collected Eliot's pre-"Prufrock" verse, commercially published after Eliot's death as Poems Written in Early Youth. When Eliot and Hayward separated their household in 1957, Hayward retained his collection of Eliot's papers, which he bequeathed to King's College, Cambridge in 1965.
Eliot's second marriage was happy but short. On 10 January 1957, he married Esmé Valerie Fletcher, to whom he was introduced by Collin Brooks. In sharp contrast to his first marriage, Eliot knew Miss Fletcher well, as she had been his secretary at Faber and Faber since August 1949. Like his marriage to Vivien, the wedding was kept a secret to preserve his privacy. The ceremony was held in a church at 6.15 a.m. with virtually no one other than his wife's parents in attendance. Valerie was 37 years younger than her husband. Since Eliot's death she has dedicated her time to preserving his legacy; she has edited and annotated The Letters of T. S. Eliot and a facsimile of the draft of The Waste Land.
Eliot died of emphysema in London on 4 January 1965. For many years, he had health problems owing to his heavy smoking, often being laid low with bronchitis or tachycardia. His body was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and, according to Eliot's wishes, the ashes taken to St Michael's Church in East Coker, the village from which Eliot's ancestors emigrated to America. There, a simple wall plaque commemorates him with a quote from his poem, "East Coker": "In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning." On the second anniversary of his death, a large stone placed on the floor of Poets' Corner in London's Westminster Abbey was dedicated to Eliot. This commemoration contains his name, an indication that he had received the Order of Merit, dates, and a quotation from his poem, "Little Gidding": "the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / the language of the living."
Typically, Eliot first published his poems in periodicals or in small books or pamphlets consisting of a single poem (e.g., the Ariel poems) and then adding them to collections. His first collection was Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). In 1920 Eliot published more poems in Ara Vos Prec (London) and Poems: 1920 (New York). These had the same poems (in a different order) except that "Ode" in the British edition was replaced with "Hysteria" in the American edition. In 1925 Eliot collected The Waste Land and the poems in Prufrock and Poems into one volume and added "The Hollow Men" to form Poems: 1909–1925. From then on he updated this work (as Collected Poems). Exceptions are:
In 1915, Ezra Pound, overseas editor of Poetry magazine, recommended to Harriet Monroe, the magazine's founder, that she publish "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". Although Prufrock seems to be middle-aged, Eliot wrote most of the poem when he was only 22. Its now-famous opening lines, comparing the evening sky to "a patient etherised upon a table," were considered shocking and offensive, especially at a time when the poetry of the Georgians was hailed for its derivations of the 19th century Romantic Poets. The poem then follows the conscious experience of a man, Prufrock (relayed in the "stream of consciousness" form indicative of the Modernists), lamenting his physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and lack of spiritual progress, with the recurrent theme of carnal love unattained. Critical opinion is divided as to whether the narrator even leaves his own residence during the course of the narration. The locations described can be interpreted either as actual physical experiences, mental recollections or even as symbolic images from the sub-conscious mind, as, for example, in the refrain "In the room the women come and go."
Its mainstream reception can be gauged from a review in The Times Literary Supplement on 21 June 1917: "The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry…
The poem's structure was heavily influenced by Eliot's extensive reading of Dante Alighieri (in the Italian). References to Shakespeare's Hamlet and other literary works are present in the poem: this technique of allusion and quotation was developed in Eliot's subsequent poetry.
In October 1922, Eliot published The Waste Land in The Criterion. Composed during a period of personal difficulty for Eliot—his marriage was failing, and both he and Vivien suffered from disordered nerves —The Waste Land is often read as a representation of the disillusionment of the post-war generation. Even before The Waste Land had been published as a book (December 1922), Eliot distanced himself from the poem's vision of despair: "As for The Waste Land, that is a thing of the past so far as I am concerned and I am now feeling toward a new form and style" he wrote to Richard Aldington on 15 November 1922. Despite the alleged obscurity of the poem—its slippage between satire and prophecy; its abrupt changes of speaker, location, and time; its elegiac but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures--it has become a touchstone of modern literature, a poetic counterpart to a novel published in the same year, James Joyce's Ulysses. Among its famous phrases are "April is the cruellest month"; "I will show you fear in a handful of dust"; and "Shantih shantih shantih," the utterance in Sanskrit which closes the poem.
Allen Tate, reviewing the 1926 volume, perceived a shift in Eliot’s method and noted that, ‘'The mythologies disappear altogether in The Hollow Men’--a striking claim for a poem as indebted to Dante as anything else in Eliot’s early work, to say little of the modern English mythology -- the ‘Old Guy [Fawkes]’ of the Gunpowder Plot--or the colonial and agrarian mythos of Conrad and Frazer, which, at least for reasons of textual history, echoes The Waste Land. The ‘continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity’ that is so characteristic of his mythical method remains in fine form.
The Hollow Men contains some of Eliot's most famous lines, most notably its conclusion:
Sometimes referred to as Eliot's "conversion poem", Ash Wednesday, with a base of Dante's Purgatorio, is richly but ambiguously allusive and deals with the aspiration to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation. The style is different from his poetry which predates his conversion. Ash Wednesday and the poems that followed had a more casual, melodic, and contemplative method.
Many critics were "particularly enthusiastic concerning Ash Wednesday. Edwin Muir maintained that "Ash Wednesday is one of the most moving poems he has written, and perhaps the most perfect. while in other quarters it was not well received. The poem's groundwork of orthodox Christianity did discomfit many of the more secular literati.
Burnt Norton asks what it means to consider things that might have been. We see the shell of an abandoned house, and Eliot toys with the idea that all these "merely possible" realities are present together, but invisible to us: All the possible ways people might walk across a courtyard add up to a vast dance we can't see; children who aren't there are hiding in the bushes.
East Coker continues the examination of time and meaning, focusing in a famous passage on the nature of language and poetry. Out of darkness Eliot continues to reassert a solution ("I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope").
The Dry Salvages treats the element of water, via images of river and sea. It again strives to contain opposites ("…the past and future/Are conquered, and reconciled").
Little Gidding (the element of fire) is the most anthologized of the Quartets. Eliot's own experiences as an air raid warden in The Blitz power the poem, and he imagines meeting Dante during the German bombing. The beginning of the Quartets ("Houses…/Are removed, destroyed") had become a violent everyday experience; this creates an animation, where for the first time he talks of Love—as the driving force behind all experience. From this background, the Quartets end with an affirmation of Julian of Norwich "all shall be well and/All manner of thing shall be well".
The Four Quartets cannot be understood without reference to Christian thought, traditions, and history. Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich. The "deeper communion" sought in East Coker, the "hints" and whispers of children, the sickness that must grow worse in order to find healing, and the exploration which inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim's path along the road of sanctification.
After writing The Waste Land (1922) Eliot wrote that he was "now feeling toward a new form and style." One item he had in mind was writing a play in verse with a jazz tempo with a character that appeared in a number of his poems, Sweeney. Eliot did not finish it. He did publish two pieces of what he had separately. The two, "Fragment of a Prologue" (1926) and "Fragment of an Agon" (1927) were published together in 1932 as Sweeney Agonistes. Although noted that this was not intended to be a one-act play, it is sometimes performed as one.
In 1934 a pageant play called The Rock that Eliot authored was performed. This was a benefit for churches in the Diocese of London. Much of the work was a collaborative effort and Eliot only accepted authorship of one scene and the choruses. The pageant would have a sympathetic audience but one largely consisting of the common churchman, a new audience for Eliot who had to modify his style, often called "erudite."
George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, who was instrumental in getting Eliot to work as writer with producer E. Martin Browne in producing the pageant play The Rock asked Eliot to write another play for the Canterbury Festival in 1935. This play, Murder in the Cathedral, was more under Eliot's control.
Murder in the Cathedral is about the death of Thomas Becket. Eliot admitted being influenced by, among others, the works of 17th century preacher Lancelot Andrewes. Murder in the Cathedral has been a standard choice for Anglican and Roman Catholic curricula for many years.
Following his ecclesiastical plays Eliot worked on commercial plays for more general audiences. These were The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958).
The dramatic works of Eliot are less well known than his poems.
In his critical essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot argues that art must be understood not in a vacuum, but in the context of previous pieces of art: “In a peculiar sense [an artist or poet]… must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past.” This essay was one of the most important works of the school of New Criticism. Specifically, it introduced the idea that the value of one work of art must be viewed in the context of all previous work—a “simultaneous order” or works. It has also been argued that "Tradition and the Individual Talent" served to keep out the public at large from engaging in literature (or having literature in engage in them): "T. S. Eliot’s insistence in essays such as 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1917) that the young poet need only assimilate the (all-male) canon of established authors contributed to public definitions of literary modernism that would exclude mass culture." Conversely, Eliot's work regarding music—particularly his article "Marie Lloyd"—may have actually helped lead to the idea that popular culture could be the subject of criticism.
Also extremely important to New Criticism was the idea—as articulated in Eliot’s essay "Hamlet and His Problems”—of an “objective correlative,” which posits a connection among the words of the text and events, states of mind, and experiences. This notion concedes that a poem means what it says, but suggests that there can be a non-subjective judgment based on different readers’ different—but perhaps corollary—interpretations of a work.
More generally, New Critics took a cue from Eliot in regards to his “‘classical’ ideals and his religious thought; his attention to the poetry and drama of the early seventeenth century; his deprecation of the Romantics, especially Shelley; his proposition that good poems constitute ‘not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion; and his insistence that ‘poets…at present must be difficult.’”
Eliot’s essays were also a major factor in the revival of interest in the metaphysical poets. Eliot was particularly favorable to the metaphysical poets' ability to show experience as both psychological and sensual, while at the same time infusing this portrayal with—in Eliot's view—wit and uniqueness. Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets,” along with giving new significance and attention to metaphysical poetry, introduced his now well known definition of “unified sensibility,” which is considered by some to mean the same thing as the term "metaphysical.
Some have argued that Eliot can be best understood as critic through his poetry—that one reflects the other and that Eliot has a unique perspective as a poet-critic. In his “Four Quartets,” a series of poems, is self-aware in a way that “open the poem up to modern critical movements in which understanding is made contingent on the perspective in which it is installed.” Eliot’s self-examination through poetry reflects his belief in the objective correlative. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land—which at the time of its publication, many critics believed to be a joke or hoax—also can be better understood in light of his work as a critic. Eliot had argued that a poet must write “programmatic criticism”—or the idea that a poet should write to advance his own interests than to advance “historical scholarship". Viewed from Eliot's own critical lens, The Waste Land likely shows his personal distaste for World War I rather than an objective historical understanding of it.
Some have argued that late in his career, Eliot recanted much of his earlier work as a critic. However, this is disputed. At that time, Eliot stressed the importance of every poet creating his or her own unique personality through his work.
In 1958 the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed Eliot to a commission which resulted in "The Revised Psalter" (1963). A harsh critic of Eliot's, C. S. Lewis, was also a member of the commission but their antagonism turned into a friendship.
Canadian academic Robert Ian Scott pointed out that the title of The Waste Land and some of the images had previously appeared in the work of a minor Kentucky poet, Madison Cawein (1865–1914). Bevis Hillier compared Cawein's lines "… come and go/Around its ancient portico" with Eliot's "… come and go/talking of Michelangelo". (This line actually appears in Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", and not in The Waste Land.) Cawein's "Waste Land" had appeared in the January 1913 issue of Chicago magazine Poetry (which contained an article by Ezra Pound on London poets). But scholars are continually finding new sources for Eliot's Waste Land, often in odd places.
Many famous fellow writers and critics have paid tribute to Eliot. According to the poet Ted Hughes, "Each year Eliot's presence reasserts itself at a deeper level, to an audience that is surprised to find itself more chastened, more astonished, more humble." Hugh Kenner commented, "He has been the most gifted and influential literary critic in English in the twentieth century." However, other writers have not supported this view. In one of his criticisms,Samuel Beckett suggests that Eliot's work belongs in what the reverse of "T. Eliot" spells.
C. S. Lewis, however, thought his literary criticism "superficial and unscholarly". In a 1935 letter to a mutual friend of theirs, Paul Elmer Moore, Lewis wrote that he considered the work of Eliot to be "a very great evil". Although, in a letter to Eliot written in 1943, Lewis showed an admiration for Eliot along with his antagonism toward his views when he wrote: "I hope the fact that I find myself often contradicting you in print gives no offence; it is a kind of tribute to you—whenever I fall foul of some widespread contemporary view about literature I always seem to find that you have expressed it most clearly. One aims at the officers first in meeting an attack!"
In a series of lectures given at the University of Virginia in 1933 and later published under the title "After Strange Gods" (1934), Eliot said, regarding a homogeneity of culture (and implying a traditional Christian community), "What is still more important is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. The philosopher George Boas, who had previously been on friendly terms with Eliot, wrote to him that, "I can at least rid you of the company of one." Eliot did not reply. In later years Eliot disavowed the book, and refused to allow any part to be reprinted.
Eliot also wrote a letter to the Daily Mail in January 1932 which congratulated the paper for a series of laudatory articles on the rise of Mussolini. In The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) he says "…totalitarianism can retain the terms 'freedom' and 'democracy' and give them its own meaning: and its right to them is not so easily disproved as minds inflamed by passion suppose." In the same book, written before World War II, he says of J. F. C. Fuller, who worked for the Policy Directorate in the British Union of Fascists:
Fuller… believes that Britain "must swim with the out-flowing tide of this great political change". From my point of view, General Fuller has as good a title to call himself a "believer in democracy" as anyone else. …I do not think I am unfair to [the report that a ban against married women Civil Servants should be removed because it embodied Nazism], in finding the implication that what is Nazi is wrong, and need not be discussed on its own merits.
In 2003, Professor Ronald Schuchard of Emory University published details of a previously unknown cache of letters from Eliot to Horace Kallen, which reveal that in the early 1940s Eliot was actively helping Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria to re-settle in Britain and America. In letters written after the war, Eliot also voiced support for modern Israel.