T. S. Eliot

¹Photo by E.O. Hoppe, 1919 courtesy of

This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.
by T.S. Eliot, from the poem "The Hollow Men"

Thomas Stearns Eliot, poet, critic, and editor, was born in St. Louis, Missouri on September 26, 1888, the seventh child of Henry Ware Eliot, president of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company, and Charlotte Champe Stearns, a former teacher, an energetic social work volunteer at the Humanity Club of St. Louis, and an amateur poet with a taste for Emerson. Eliot was the youngest of the seven children, born when his parents were prosperous and secure in their mid-forties. His paternal grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, had been a protégé of William Ellery Channing, the dean of American Unitarianism.

Eliot attended Smith Academy in St. Louis until he was sixteen. During his last year at Smith he visited the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and was so taken with the fair's native villages that he wrote short stories about primitive life for the Smith Academy Record. In 1905 he departed for a year at Milton Academy outside of Boston, preparatory to following his older brother Henry to Harvard.

Eliot found in the Harvard Union library a book that changed his life: Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It introduced him to the poetry of Jules Laforgue, and Laforgue's combination of ironic elegance and psychological nuance gave his juvenile literary efforts a voice. By 1909-1910 his poetic vocation had been confirmed: he joined the board and was briefly secretary of Harvard's literary magazine, the Advocate, he contributed several poems to the Harvard Advocate and started a lifelong friendship with Conrad Aiken.

In 1910, he left the United States for the Sorbonne, having earned both undergraduate and masters degrees. He lived at 151 bis rue St. Jacques, close to the Sorbonne, and struck up a warm friendship with a fellow lodger, Jean Verdenal, a medical student who later died in the battle of the Dardenelles and to whom Eliot dedicated "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." After a year in Paris, he returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, then returned to Europe and settled in England in 1914.

In 1910 and 1911 Eliot copied into a leather notebook the poems that would establish his reputation: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Portrait of a Lady," "La Figlia Che Piange," "Preludes," and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." Combining some of the robustness of Robert Browning's monologues with the incantatory elegance of symbolist verse, and compacting Laforgue's poetry of alienation with the moral earnestness of what Eliot once called "Boston doubt," these poems explore the subtleties of the unconscious with a caustic wit. Their effect was both unique and compelling, and their assurance staggered his contemporaries who were privileged to read them in manuscript.

In early spring of 1915 Eliot was introduced to to Vivien Haigh-Wood, a dancer and a friend of, his Milton Academy and Harvard friend, Scofield Thayer's sister. Eliot was drawn instantly to Vivien's exceptional frankness and charmed by her family's Hampstead polish. Abandoning his habitual tentativeness with women, that year he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Eloit's parents were shocked, and then, when they learned of Vivien's history of emotional and physical problems, was profoundly disturbed. The marriage nearly caused a family break, but it also indelibly marked the beginning of Eliot's English life. He worked in London, first as a teacher, and later in the spring 1917 he found steady employment; his knowledge of languages qualified him for a job in the foreign section of Lloyds Bank, where he evaluated a broad range of continental documents.

Ezra Pound, who recognized his poetic genius at once, assisted in the publication of his work in a number of magazines, most notably "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in Poetry in 1915. His first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, was published in 1917, and immediately established him as a leading poet of the avant-garde. With the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, now considered by many to be the single most influential poetic work of the twentieth century, Eliot's reputation began to grow to nearly mythic proportions; by 1930, and for the next thirty years, he was the most dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in the English-speaking world.

The years of Eliot's literary maturation were accompanied by increasing family worries. Eliot's father died in January 1919, producing a paroxysm of guilt in the son who had hoped he would have time to heal the bad feelings caused by his marriage and emigration. At the same time Vivien's emotional and physical health deteriorated, and the financial and emotional strain of her condition took its toll. After an extended visit in the summer of 1921 from his mother and sister Marion, Eliot suffered a nervous collapse and, on his physician's advice, took a three month's rest cure, first on the coast at Margate and then at a sanitarium at Lausanne, Switzerland.

Whether because of the breakdown or the long needed rest it imposed, Eliot broke through a severe writer's block and completed a long poem he had been working on since 1919. Assembled out of dramatic vignettes based on Eliot's London life, The Waste Land's extraordinary intensity stems from a sudden fusing of diverse materials into a rhythmic whole of great skill and daring. The Waste Land was at first correctly perceived as a work of jazzlike syncopation--and, like 1920s jazz, essentially iconoclastic. A poem suffused with Eliot's horror of life, it was taken over by the postwar generation as a rallying cry for its sense of disillusionment. Pound helped pare and sharpen the poem when Eliot stopped in Paris on his way to and from Lausanne.
Eliot's old friend Thayer, by then publisher of the Dial, decided even before he had seen the finished poem to make it the centerpiece of the magazine's attempt to establish American letters in the vanguard of modern culture, secured The Waste Land for the Dial, Thayer arranged in 1922 to award Eliot the magazine's annual prize of two thousand dollars and to trumpet The Waste Land's importance with an essay commissioned from the Dial's already influential Edmund Wilson.

Eliot, however, was too consumed by domestic anxiety to appreciate his success. In 1923 Viven nearly died, and Eliot, in despair, came close to a second breakdown. The next two years were almost as bad, until a lucky chance allowed him to escape from the demands of his job at the bank. Geoffrey Faber, of the new publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), saw the advantages of Eliot's dual expertise in business and letters and recruited him as literary editor. At about the same time, Eliot reached out for religious support. Having long found his family's Unitarianism unsatisfying, he turned to the Anglican church. The seeds of his future faith can be found in The Hollow Men, though the poem was read as a sequel to The Waste Land's philosophical despair when it appeared in Poems 1909-1925.

In June 1927 few followers were prepared for Eliot's baptism into the Church of England. And so, within five years of his avant-garde success, Eliot provoked a second storm. The furor grew in November 1927 when Eliot took British citizenship, and again in 1928 when he collected a group of politically conservative essays under the title of For Lancelot Andrewes, prefacing them with a declaration that he considered himself a "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion." Eliot's poetry now addressed explicitly religious situations. In the late 1920s he published a series of shorter poems in Faber's Ariel series--short pieces issued in pamphlet form within striking modern covers. These included "Journey of the Magi" (1927), "A Song for Simeon" (1928), "Animula" (1929), "Marina" (1930), and 'Triumphal March" (1931). Steeped in Eliot's contemporary study of Dante and the late Shakespeare, all of them meditate on spiritual growth and anticipate the longer and more celebrated Ash-Wednesday (1930). "Journey of the Magi" and "A Song for Simeon" are also exercises in Browningesque dramatic monologues, and speak to Eliot's desire, pronounced since 1922, to exchange the symbolist fluidity of the psychological lyric for a more traditional dramatic form.

Much of the last half of Eliot's career was spent writing one kind of drama or another, and attempting to reach (and bring together) a larger and more varied audience. In the late 1930s, Eliot attempted to conflate a drama of spiritual crisis with a Noël Coward-inspired contemporary theater of social manners. Though Eliot based The Family Reunion on the plot of Aeschylus's Eumenides, he designed it to tell a story of Christian redemption.

After 1925 Eliot's marriage steadily deteriorated. During the tenure of his Norton year at Harvard he separated from Vivien, but would not consider divorce because of his Anglican beliefs. For most of the 1930s he secluded himself from Vivien's often histrionic attempts to embarrass him into a reconciliation, and made an attempt to order his life around his editorial duties at Faber's and the Criterion and around work at his Kensington church. In 1938 Vivien was committed to Northumberland House, a mental hospital north of London. Vivien died in January 1947, Eliot was remarried, to Valerie Fletcher, in 1956 and attained a degree of contentedness that had eluded him all his life.

In 1939, with the war impending, Eliot wrote three more poems, each more somber than the last, "East Coker" was published at Easter 1940, "The Dry Salvages," published in 1941, reverted to Eliot's experience as a boy on the Mississippi and sailing on the Massachussetts coast. Its title refers to a set of dangerously hidden rocks near Cape Ann and "Little Gidding" was published in 1942.

His poems in many respects articulated the disillusionment of a younger post-World-War-I generation with the values and conventions, both literary and social, of the Victorian era. As a critic also, he had an enormous impact on contemporary literary taste, propounding views that, after his conversion to orthodox Christianity in the late thirties, were increasingly based in social and religious conservatism.
After the war, Eliot wrote no more major poetry, turning entirely to his plays and to literary essays, the most important of which revisited the French symbolists and the development of language in twentieth-century poetry.
In the decades after his death Eliot's reputation slipped further. Sometimes regarded as too academic (William Carlos Williams's view), Eliot was also frequently criticized (as he himself--perhaps just as unfairly--had criticized Milton) for a deadening neoclassicism.

T. S. Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, and died in London in 1965, according to his own instructions, his ashes were interred in the church of St. Michael's in East Coker. A commemorative plaque on the church wall bears his chosen epitaph--lines chosen from Four Quartets: "In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning."

NO. 1--Buirnt Norton
NO. 2--East Coker
NO. 3--The Dry Salvages
NO. 4--Little Gidding


An excellent site to view many of Eliot's poems:
Famous Poets and Poems


Some more of his works includes:
Ash Wednesday, Burnt Norton, Collected Poems, East Coker, Four Quartets, Poems, Poems, 1909-1925, Prufrock and Other Observations, The Complete Poems and Plays, The Dry Salvages The Waste Land

After Strange Gods, Andrew Marvell, Dante, Elizabethan Essays, Essays Ancient and Modern, For Lancelot Andrews, John Dryden, Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, Poetry and Drama, Religious Drama: Mediaeval and Modern, The Classics and The Man of Letters, The Idea of a Christian Society, The Sacred Wood, The Three Voices of Poetry, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Thoughts After Lambeth, Tradition and Experimentation in Present-Day Literature

Murder in the Cathedral, Sweeney Agonistes, The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk, The Elder Statesman, The Family Reunion, The Rock


[Poet's Corner Index]


Reference, Research and Source Information

The History Channel
Modern American Poetry

This info is posted at wikipedia.org
A postcard reproduction of this photograph by fotofolio indicates that this was taken in 1919 by E.O. Hoppe. Thus, the copyright term is assumed to have expired

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