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Encyclopedia > T.S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot (September 26, 1888 - January 4, 1965), was a major Modernist Anglo-American poet, dramatist, and literary critic.


Life and work

Eliot was born into a prominent Unitarian Saint Louis, Missouri family; his fifth cousin, Tom Eliot, was Chancellor of Washington University, and his grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, was the school's founder. Eliot's major work shows few signs of St. Louis, although there was, in his youth, a Prufrock furniture store in town.


T.S. Eliot

Eliot graduated from Harvard University in 1909. Following a tour of Germany which was curtailed by the outbreak of World War I, Eliot made his life and literary career in Britain. After the war, in the 1920s, he would spend time with other great artists in the Montparnasse Quarter in Paris, France where he was photographed by Man Ray. He dabbled in the study of Sanskrit and eastern religions and was a student of G. I. Gurdjieff.

In 1915, through the assistance of Ezra Pound, Eliot was able to publish a poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which brought him to prominence. His style was noted at the time for its freshness and modernism.

In a letter to Conrad Aiken late in December 1914, Eliot complained that he was still a virgin, adding "I am very dependent upon women. I mean female society." Less than four months later he was introduced to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a Cambridge governess, by mutual friends in Oxford. At the end of the year, Eliot and Vivienne, both 27 years old, were married in register office. "Tom" did not know that she had a history of recurrent illnesses, including episodes of headaches, backaches, stomachaches, prolonged exhaustion, nervous collapse and excitability, all requiring medication with drugs, some of them morphine-based, that had become habit-forming. Nor that she was subject to excessive, over-frequent menstrual periods. Bertrand Russell soon took an interest in Vivenne.

In the 1960s, Eliot would write: "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."

In October 1922, Eliot published the long poem The Waste Land in The Criterion. Composed during a period of enormous personal difficulty for Eliot -- his ill-fated marriage was already foundering, and both he and Vivien suffered from precarious health -- The Waste Land became one of the principal examples of a new trend in English poetry and came to represent the disillusionment of the post-World War I generation. By the time The Dial republished the poem in November of 1923, Eliot had already distanced himself from the poem’s vision of despair; “My present ideas are very different” he wrote at that time.

Despite the alleged obscurity of the poem -- its slippage between satire and prophecy, its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, its elegiac but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures -- the poem has nonetheless become a familiar touchstone of modern literature. Among its famous phrases are "April is the cruellest month"; "I will show you fear in a handful of dust"; and "Shantih shantih shantih."

Eliot separated from his wife in 1933. For the last nine years of her life she was confined to a mental hospital, where Eliot did not visit. She tried many times to waylay him, but succeeded only in November 1935: holding their dog Polly and wearing the black shirt of the British Union of Fascists - which she perhaps joined to please her husband, who had on one occasion expressed some admiration for Mussolini - she was able to get close enough to him after one of his public lectures and ask when he would be coming home.

Eliot's later work, following his conversion to Anglicanism on June 29, 1927, is often but by no means exclusively religious in nature, but it also attempts to preserve historical English values which Eliot thought important. He summarised his beliefs at the time by saying, 'I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics.' This period includes such works as Ash Wednesday, The Journey of the Magi, and Four Quartets. Eliot considered Four Quartets to be his masterpiece, as it draws upon his vast knowledge of mysticism and philosophy. It consists of four poems, "Burnt Norton," "The Dry Salvages," "East Coker," and "Little Gidding." Each of these runs to several hundred lines total and is broken into five sections. Although they resist easy characterization, they have many things in common: each begins with a rumination on the geographical location of its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect--theological, historical, physical, and on its relation to the human condition. A reflective early reading suggests an inexact systematicity among them; they approach the same ideas in varying but overlapping ways, although they do not necessarily exhaust their questions.

"Burnt Norton" asks what it means to consider things that aren't the case but 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.

Eliot's plays, mostly in verse, include Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958).

Murder in the Cathedral is a frankly religious piece about the death of St Thomas Becket. He confessed to being influenced by, among others, the works of 17th century preacher, Lancelot Andrewes. Later, he was appointed to the committee formed to produce the "New English" translation of the Bible. In 1939 he published a book of poetry for children, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats ("Old Possum" being a name Pound had bestowed upon him), which after his death became the basis of the hit West End and Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats. For this Eliot won two Tony Awards.

On November 4, 1948, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry".

After his death, his body was cremated 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. A simple plaque commemorates him.

As a note of trivia, late in his life, Eliot became somewhat of a penpal with comedian Groucho Marx. Eliot even requested a portrait of the comedian, which he then proudly displayed in his home.

Popular recognition

"The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" is a greatly quoted and referenced piece. References have appeared in Hill Street Blues and The Long Goodbye by private-eye novelist Raymond Chandler. Another of his poems, "The Hollow Men" is quoted in the film Apocalypse Now (which is based on the story "Heart of Darkness", which was one of Eliot's major influences in writing the Wasteland).


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External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • Works by T.S. Eliot (http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/authrec?fk_authors=599) on Project Gutenberg
  • The T. S. Eliot Page (http://www.english.uga.edu/~232/eliot.taken.html)
  • T. S. Eliot Collection at Bartleby.com (http://www.bartleby.com/people/Eliot-Th.html)
  • Nobel prize (http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1948/index.html)
Wikisource has original works written by or about:
T. S. Eliot



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