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,"
"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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
"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:
Prufrock and Other Observations,
The Complete Poems and Plays,
The Dry Salvages
The Waste Land
After Strange Gods,
Essays Ancient and Modern,
For Lancelot Andrews,
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,
The Cocktail Party,
The Confidential Clerk,
The Elder Statesman,
The Family Reunion,
[Poet's Corner Index]
Reference, Research and Source Information
The History Channel
Modern American Poetry
This info is posted at wikipedia.org
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