T. S. Eliot

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T.S. Eliot (by E.O. Hoppe, 1919)
T.S. Eliot (by E.O. Hoppe, 1919)

Thomas Stearns Eliot, OM (September 26, 1888January 4, 1965) was an American-born poet, dramatist, and literary critic, whose works like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land and Four Quartets, are considered major achievements of twentieth-century Modernist poetry.



Early life and education

Eliot was born into a prominent family from St. Louis, Missouri. 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, née Charlotte Champe Stearns (1843-1929), taught school prior to marriage, and wrote poetry. Thomas was their last child; his parents were 44 years old when he was born. Thomas' four surviving sisters were about eleven to nineteen years older than he; 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 and 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 Tom Eliot, was Chancellor of Washington University. Eliot's works allude to St. Louis (there was, in his youth, 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. The cottage, close to 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's 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 earned his A.B.. The Harvard Advocate published some of his poems, and he became life-long friends with Conrad Aiken. The following year, he earned an A.M 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 Pali 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, but when World War I started, he went to London and then to Oxford. Eliot was not happy at Merton and declined a second year of attendance. Instead, in the summer of 1915, he married, and, after a short visit to the U.S. to meet with 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 the thesis, however, he was not awarded his Ph.D. (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.

Later life in Britain

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. On 26 June 1915, Eliot and Vivien (the name she preferred), both 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 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", adding "[T]o me it brought the state of mind out of which came 'The Waste Land'."

In 1927 Eliot took British citizenship and converted to Anglicanism (on June 29). Eliot separated from his wife in 1933. Eliot's second marriage was happy though short. On January 10, 1957 he married Esmé Valerie Fletcher. Unlike his hasty marriage to his first wife, Eliot knew Valerie well, as she had been his secretary at Faber and Faber since August, 1949. But, as with his marriage to Vivienne, the wedding was, to preserve his privacy, kept a secret, held in a church at 6:15 A.M. and with not many more other than his wife's parents attending. Valerie was 38 years younger than her husband and the years of her widowhood have been spent 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 due to his heavy smoking, often being laid low with bronchitis or tachycardia. 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. 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 quote from Little Gidding: "the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / the language of the living."

Late in his life, Eliot exchanged numerous letters with comedian Groucho Marx. A portrait of the comedian, which Eliot had requested of Marx, was proudly displayed in Eliot's home next to pictures of Yeats and Valery.

Literary career

Eliot made his life in Britain. After the war, in the 1920s, he would spend time with other great artists in the Montparnasse Quarter in Paris where he was photographed by Man Ray. A particularly strong influence on Eliot's work was French poetry, in particular 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 religious conversion, is sometimes religious in nature, but it also attempts to preserve historical English values that Eliot thought important. 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." This period includes such works as Ash Wednesday, The Journey of the Magi, and Four Quartets.


The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

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 is of decided late middle-age, Eliot wrote most of the poem when he was only 22. Its now-famous opening lines with a comparison of the evening sky to "a patient etherised upon a table" were particularly shocking and offensive at a time when the poetry of the Georgians was hailed for its weak derivations of the nineteenth century Romantic Poets.The poem deals with a man, Prufrock, regreting that he never pursued love during his life

Its mainstream reception can be gauged from a review by F. Dalton in The Times Literary Supplement, 31 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 Waste Land

In October 1922, Eliot published the long poem The Waste Land in The Criterion. Composed during a period of personal difficulty for Eliot—his marriage was foundering, and both he and Vivienne suffered from precarious health—The Waste Land came to represent the disillusionment of the post-World War I 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. 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'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, prior to which Part I had been titled "He Do the Police in Different Voices". Part IV "Death by Water" was reduced to its current ten lines from an original ninety-two. Pound advised against Eliot's thought of scrapping it altogether. Eliot thanked Pound for "helping one to do it in one's own way."

Four Quartets

Eliot considered Four Quartets his masterpiece, even as critics preferred his earlier work, as it 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 characterization, each begins with a rumination on the geographical location of its title, each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect—theological, 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, although they do not necessarily exhaust their questions.

"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 everday 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 Mother Julian of Norwich "all shall be well and/All manner of things shall be well".


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 a Becket. Eliot confessed to being influenced by, among others, the works of 17th century preacher, Lancelot Andrewes. Critics generally agree that Eliot's dramas are the least successful of his literary works.

Eliot is known for his critical and theoretical writing, particularly 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. There is, however, evidence throughout his work of contrary practice (e.g. part II of "The Waste Land" in the section beginning "My nerves are bad tonight.")

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. After his death, this work became the basis of the hit West End and Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats.

Pre-occupations of his Poetry

Mainly Eliot is found to have been a great social commentator of the new industrial age, and with this - his poems put great emphasis on issues such as:

  • The absence of religion
  • The passing of time (particularly evident in 'Preludes')
  • The decay of urban society (shown by effective use of imagery and personification)
  • People's ambitions being restricted by the mundane, repetitive nature of life and the human condition in general
  • People living lives of survival, rather than enjoyment with regime and time forming the idea that humanity has lost its element of 'choice' in the new industrial age


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 being plagiarism.

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).

More importantly and more crucial to Eliot's reputation are the numerous charges of Anti-Semitism. The poem "Gerontion" contains a seemingly negative portrayal of a greedy landlord known as the "jew [who] squats on the window sill." Another well-documented example of anti-semitism in his work is the poem, "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar", in which Eliot implicitly blames the Jews for the decline of Venice.

Later Eliot expressed regret at these writings, and was concerned for the plight of Jews in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries.


Formal recognition

Popular recognition

  • In 1941, Henry Reed published Chard Whitlow, an intelligent and witty satire on Burnt Norton. Eliot wrote, "Most parodies of one's own work strike one as very poor. In fact, one is apt to think one could parody oneself much better. (As a matter of fact, some critics have said that I have done so.) But there is one which deserves the success it has had, Henry Reed's Chard Whitlow."
  • "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 detective novelist Raymond Chandler.
  • In the movie Apocalypse Now based on the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, one of the side-characters, a photographer obsessed with the life of the elusive Colonel Kurtz, quoted "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," specifically the lines, "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas." Marlon Brando's character Kurtz later reads Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men": "We are the Hollow Men, We are the stuffed men...". Appropriately, Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men" quotes Heart of Darkness in its epigraph — "Mistah Kurtz—he dead." The American photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) also references the end of "The Hollow Men" when speaking to Willard.
  • In the autobiographical A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken's admiration for Eliot's poetry lends credibility in Vanauken's eyes to Christianity and plays a part, along with letters from C. S. Lewis, in his conversion.
  • A favorite of present-day Christians is "Choruses from 'The Rock'," a poem decrying what Eliot saw as the decadence of Western thought from the sublime (the Word as the Revelation of God, wisdom, life) to the humdrum (information, living).
  • Liverpool poet Adrian Henri included "Poem in Memoriam T.S. Eliot" in the best-selling 1968 anthology The Mersey Sound.
  • The band Crash Test Dummies released a song called "Afternoons and Coffee Spoons" from the album "God Shuffled His Feet" in the early 1990s. This song borrows from and pays homage to the poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock".
  • "The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was also referenced by Chuck D of the seminal rap group Public Enemy, in Niggativaty, Do I Dare Disturb the Universe, on his solo album The Autobiography of Mistachuck.
  • On September 20, 2005, a series of unpublished letters from Eliot and an author-inscribed first edition of The Waste Land were sold at auction for nearly $438,000. [1]
  • In Bob Dylan's song "Desolation Row", Ezra Pound and Eliot fight on the Titanic.
  • In Melbourne band TISM's song Mistah Eliot - He Wanker, they make numerous references to T.S. Eliot. One such line is; "T. S. Eliot lost his wallet when he went into town/Serves him right for hangin' round with the likes of Ezra Pound."




  • Sweeney Agonistes (published in 1926, first performed in 1934)
  • The Rock (1934)
  • Murder in the Cathedral (1935)
  • The Family Reunion (1939)
  • The Cocktail Party (1949)
  • The Confidential Clerk (1954)
  • The Elder Statesman (first performed in 1958, published in 1959)


  • The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920)
  • The Second-Order Mind (1920)
  • Homage to John Dryden (1924)
  • Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca (1928)
  • For Lancelot Andrewes (1928)
  • Dante (1929)
  • Selected Essays, 1917?1932 (1932)
  • The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)
  • After Strange Gods (1934)
  • Elizabethan Essays (1934)
  • Essays Ancient and Modern (1936)
  • The Idea of a Christian Society (1940)
  • Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948)
  • Poetry and Drama (1951)
  • The Three Voices of Poetry (1954)
  • On Poetry and Poets (1957)

Further reading

  • Ackroyd, Peter. T.S. Eliot: A Life. (1984)
  • Bush, Ronald. T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style. (1984)
  • Crawford, Robert. The Savage and the City in the Work of T.S. Eliot. (1987).
  • Gardner,Helen. The Composition of Four Quartets. (1978).
  • ---The Art of T.S. Eliot. (1949)
  • Gordon, Lyndall. T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. (1998)
  • Julius, Anthony. T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form. (1996).
  • Levy, William Turner and Victor Scherle. Affectionately, T.S. Eliot: The Story of a Friendship: 1947-1965. (1968).
  • Matthews, T.S. Great Tom: Notes Towards the Definition of T.S. Eliot. (1973)
  • Quillian, William H. Hamlet and the new poetic: James Joyce and T.S. Eliot . Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1983.
  • Ricks, Christopher.T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. (1988).
  • Ronald Schuchard. Eliot's Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. (1999).
  • Carole Seymour-Jones. Painted Shadow: A Life of Vivienne Eliot. (2001).
  • Robert Sencourt. T.S.Eliot: A Memoir. (1971).
  • Spender, Stephen. T.S. Eliot. (1975).

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