T.S. Eliot (by E.O. Hoppe, 1919)
|September 26, 1888
St. Louis, Missouri, USA
|January 4, 1965
Thomas Stearns Eliot, OM (September 26, 1888–January 4, 1965) was a poet, dramatist and literary critic, whose works, such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, "The Hollow Men", and Four Quartets, are considered defining achievements of twentieth century Modernist poetry. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, he is considered one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. Although he was born an American, he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 (at age 25) and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39.
Eliot was born into a prominent family from St. Louis, Missouri. Later, he said that "having passed one's childhood beside the big river" (the Mississippi) influenced his poetry. His father, Henry Ware Eliot (1843–1919), was a successful businessman, president and treasurer of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis; his mother, born Charlotte Champe Stearns (1843–1929), taught school before her marriage and wrote poems. He was their last child of a family of seven; his parents were 44 years old when he was born. His four surviving sisters were between 11 and 19 years older than he, and his brother eight years older.
William Greenleaf Eliot, Eliot's grandfather, was a Unitarian minister, who moved to St. Louis when it was still on the frontier. He was instrumental in founding many of the city's institutions, including Washington University in St. Louis. One distant cousin was Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, and a fifth cousin, another Thomas Eliot, was chancellor of Washington University. Eliot's works often allude to his youth in St. Louis (there was a Prufrock furniture store in town) and to New England. His family had Massachusetts ties and summered at a large cottage they had built in Gloucester, MA. The cottage, near the shore at Eastern Point, had a view of the sea and the young Eliot would often go sailing.
From 1898 to 1905, Eliot was a day student at St Louis' Smith Academy, a preparatory school for Washington University. At the academy, Eliot studied Latin, Greek, French and German. Although, upon graduation, he could have gone to Harvard University, his parents sent him, for a preparatory year, to Milton Academy, in Milton, Massachusetts, near Boston. There, he met Scofield Thayer, who would later publish The Waste Land. He studied at Harvard from 1906 to 1909, where he was awarded a B.A.. 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 1910–11 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 programme in philosophy. When the First World War broke out, however, he went to London and then to Oxford. Eliot was not happy at Merton and declined a second year there. Instead, in the summer of 1915, he married, and, after a short visit to the US to see his family (not taking his wife), he took a few teaching jobs. 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 thesis, 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.
In a letter to Aiken late in December 1914, Eliot, aged 26, 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 by a fellow American at Oxford, Scofield Thayer, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood (May 28, 1888 – January 22, 1947). Vivien (the spelling she preferred) was a Cambridge governess. On 26 June 1915, Eliot and she, respectively aged 26 and 27 years old, were married in a register office.
Bertrand Russell took an interest in Vivienne while the newlyweds were staying with Russell in his flat. Some critics have suggested that Vivien and Russell had an affair (see Carole Seymour-Jones, Painted Shadow), but these allegations have never been confirmed. 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 dying. 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 school teacher, most notably at Highgate School, where he taught the young poet Sir John Betjeman and at The Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, where he taught in room 26, and, to earn extra money, 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 1925, he left Lloyds to become a director of the publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), where he remained for the rest of his career.
In 1927, Eliot took two important steps in his self-definition. On June 29 he converted to Anglicanism and in November he dropped his American citizenship and became a British subject. In 1928, Eliot summarised his beliefs well when he wrote in the preface to his book For Lancelot Andrewes that "the general point of view [of the book's essays] may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion."
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 Vivienne in England. Upon his return in 1933 Eliot officially separated from Vivienne. He avoided all but one meeting with his wife between his leaving for America in 1932 and her death in 1947. (Vivienne 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 house with his friend, the editor and critic John Davy Hayward, who gathered and archived Eliot's papers and styled himself Keeper of the Eliot Archive. He also edited a book of Eliot's verse called Poems Written in Early Youth. When they 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 January 10, 1957 he married Esmé Valerie Fletcher, to whom he was introduced by Collin Brooks. In sharp contrast to his first marriage, Eliot knew Valerie well, as she had been his secretary at Faber and Faber since August, 1949. As was his marriage to Vivienne, the wedding was kept a secret to preserve his privacy. The ceremony was held in a church at 6.15am with virtually no one other than his wife's parents in attendance. Valerie was 38 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 January 4, 1965. For many years he had health problems owing to the combination of London air and his heavy smoking, often being laid low with bronchitis or tachycardia. 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. There, a simple plaque commemorates him. 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 Little Gidding: "the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / the language of the living."
Later in his life, Eliot exchanged numerous letters with the comedian Groucho Marx. A portrait of Marx, which Eliot had requested, was proudly displayed in Eliot's home next to pictures of the poets Yeats and Valéry.
Eliot made his home in London. After the war, in the mid 1920s, he would spend time with other great artists in the Montparnasse Quarter in Paris, where he was photographed by Man Ray. French poetry was a strong influence on Eliot's work, in particular that of Charles Baudelaire, whose clear-cut images of Paris city life provided a model for Eliot's own images of London. He dabbled early in the study of Sanskrit and eastern religions and was a student of G. I. Gurdjieff. Eliot's work, following his conversion to Christianity and the Church of England, is often religious in nature and also tries to preserve historical English and broadly European values that Eliot thought important. This period includes such major works as Ash Wednesday, The Journey of the Magi, and Four Quartets.
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 June 21, 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 Vivienne 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 November 15, 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.
When the facsimile edition of the original manuscript for The Waste Land was published in 1974, it was revealed that Ezra Pound's redaction of the work was quite substantial. The poem is dedicated to Pound, whom Eliot calls il miglior fabbro "the better craftsman", a quotation from Dante.
Eliot's work was hailed by the W.H. Auden generation of 1930s poets. On one occasion Auden read out loud the whole of The Waste Land to a social gathering. The publication of the draft manuscript of the poem in 1972 showed the strong influence of Ezra Pound upon its final form, before which it had been entitled "He Do the Police in Different Voices". Part IV, Death by Water, was reduced to its current 10 lines from an original 92 — Pound advised against Eliot's thought of scrapping it altogether. Eliot thanked Pound for "helping one to do it in one's own way".
Ash Wednesday is the first long poem written by Eliot after his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism. Published in 1930, this poem deals with the struggle that ensues when one who has lacked faith in the past strives to move towards God.
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", while in other quarters it was not well received . Among many of the more secular literati its groundwork of orthodox Christianity was discomfiting. Edwin Muir maintained that “Ash Wednesday is one of the most moving poems he has written, and perhaps the most perfect.” 
Although many critics preferred his earlier work, Eliot and many other critics considered Four Quartets his masterpiece and it is the work which led to his receipt of the Nobel Prize.  The Four Quartets draws upon his knowledge of mysticism and philosophy. It consists of four long poems, published separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942), each in five sections. Although they resist easy characterisation, each begins with a rumination on the geographical location of its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect — theology, historical, physical — and its relation to the human condition. Also, each is associated with one of the four classical elements: air, earth, water, and fire. They approach the same ideas in varying but overlapping ways, and are open to a diversity of interpretations.
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 things 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 Burnt Norton, 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.
An important member of the New Criticism, Eliot is considered by some to be one of the great literary critics of the 20th century. His essays were a major factor in the revival of interest in the metaphysical poets. A preoccupation with Elizabethan and Jacobean verse drama (for instance, John Webster, who is mentioned in his poem Whispers of Immortality) is also central to his critical writing, and greatly influenced his own forays into drama.
Eliot's plays, mostly in verse, include Sweeney Agonistes (1925), Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950), The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958). 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. The dramatic works of Eliot are less well known than his poems, but worth investigating, eg in the recorded version of The Cocktail Party with Sir Alec Guinness in the lead role of An Unidentified Guest (Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly). Murder in the Cathedral has been a standard choice for Anglican and Roman Catholic curricula for many years.
In his critical and theoretical writing, Eliot is known for his advocacy of the "objective correlative," the notion that art should not be a personal expression, but should work through objective universal symbols. There is fierce critical debate over the pragmatic value of the objective correlative, and Eliot's failure to follow its dicta. It is claimed that there is evidence throughout his work of contrary practice (e.g. part II of The Waste Land in the section beginning "My nerves are bad tonight"); but of course the worth of the idea is by no means negated by alleged lapses in practice, here as elsewhere.
In 1958 the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed Eliot (and also C.S. Lewis) to a commission which resulted in "The Revised Psalter" (1963). 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. After his death, this work became the basis of the hit West End and Broadway musical by Andrew Loyd Webber, Cats.
Eliot's poetry was first criticized as not being poetry at all. Another criticism has been of his widespread interweaving of quotes from other authors into his work. "Notes on the Waste Land," which follows after the poem, gives the source of many of these, but not all. This practice has been defended as a necessary salvaging of tradition in an age of fragmentation, and completely integral to the work, as well adding richness through unexpected juxtaposition. It has also been condemned as showing a lack of originality, and for plagiarism. A prominent critic once published an essay called 'Eliot's Poetry of Pseudo-Learning'. Eliot himself once wrote ("The Sacred Wood"): "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."
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." 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." C. S. Lewis, however, thought his poetry ludicrous, and his literary criticism "superficial and unscholarly".
Although he is regarded throughout the English-speaking world as one of the chief poets and critics of modern times, he has sometimes been charged with anti-Semitism. The poem "Gerontion" contains a negative portrayal of a greedy landlord known as the "Jew [who] squats on the window sill." Another much-quoted example of anti-Semitism in his work is the poem, "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar", in which Eliot implicitly finds the Jews responsible for the decline of Venice ("The rats are underneath the piles. / The Jew is underneath the lot"). In "A Cooking Egg", he writes, "The red-eyed scavengers are creeping | From Kentish Town and Golder's Green" (Golders Green was a largely Jewish suburb of London). And this from "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" is the most ambiguous instance in his verse: "Rachel née Rabinovitch, | Tears at the grapes with murderous paws." Even so, Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia Woolf, who was himself Jewish and a friend of Eliot's, judged that Eliot was probably "slightly anti-Semitic in the sort of vague way which is not uncommon. He would have denied it quite genuinely."
Discussion of Eliot's prejudices was suppressed for many years by certain of his survivors. Recent biography, however, has accepted Eliot's anti-Semitism, along with his misogyny, as fact rather than conjecture, noting that many in his milieu successfully eschewed such views. 
In his minor work "After Strange Gods" (1933), Eliot deprecates the presence of "free-thinking Jews," who are said to be "undesirable" in large numbers. 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 expressed his regret over these remarks (disavowing the book, and refusing to allow any part to be reprinted), saying he was not in good health when he gave the lectures in which they were first expressed.
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" [ie. to a system of fascist government]. 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.
In Catch 22 he is mentioned when Col. Cargill says "name one poet who makes money." Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen calls him without identifying himself and says "T.S. Eliot." There is later a T.S. Eliot phone tag between other Colonel and Generals.