Authors: T. S. Eliot

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Poet

September 26, 1888

St. Louis, Missouri

January 4, 1965

London, England

Biography

Thomas Stearns Eliot was so much the dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in English in the first half of the twentieth century that some have called that period the Age of Eliot. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1888, into a prominent family with New England roots. His grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, founded a Unitarian church in St. Louis and then founded Washington University, establishing a family tradition of public service and piety. Eliot’s father, Henry Ware Eliot, deviated from this tradition by going into the brick business but passed the basic Eliot ethos on to his son. T. S. Eliot’s mother, Charlotte Champe Eliot, was active in social reforms and was an amateur poet and biographer. Eliot inherited but often struggled with the legacy of his upbringing: moral rigor, a sense of duty, an acute conscience, and an emotionally constricted rationalism.

Eliot entered Harvard University in 1906. There he was influenced by the humanism of Irving Babbitt, and, through reading Arthur Symons’s important The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), he discovered the French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century, who would have such a great impact on his own poetry. As part of his graduate work in philosophy at Harvard, Eliot studied in Paris in 1910 and 1911 and then very briefly in Germany in 1914. The outbreak of World War I sent him to London and then to Oxford.

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T. S. Eliot

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By Thomas Stearns Eliot with his sister and his cousin by Lady Ottoline Morrell.jpg: Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873–1938) derivative work: Octave.H [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was in London at this time that Eliot’s literary career began in earnest. In September 1914, he introduced himself to Ezra Pound, another American poet who had come to London (in 1908) and was destined to become one of the most influential figures in modern literature. Upon reading Eliot’s first major poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (written in 1910–11), Pound professed amazement at the self-styled young poet and began to promote Eliot’s career wherever possible. In 1915, Eliot entered into an unhappy marriage with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a relationship that would bring continual pain to both of them for many years. After taking various unsatisfactory teaching jobs and completing his dissertation for a Harvard PhD (the degree was never awarded), Eliot began work in 1917 for Lloyds Bank of London, a position he would hold until 1925.

Eliot’s first book of poetry, Prufrock, and Other Observations, published a few months after his entering the bank, established him in the public eye as a poet of great promise. These poems treat the characteristic Eliot themes—alienation, decay (personal and societal), paralysis, spiritual emptiness—in the characteristic Eliot style. That style is marked by the use of urban settings, a mixture of vernacular and elevated language, exploration of (often sordid) consciousness, and violation of the traditional notions of rhyme, meter, and allusion. In short, Eliot breached many of the traditional rules for poetry in both form and content but in so doing created a new kind of poetry that seemed closer to modern life.

In 1920, Eliot’s first collection of literary criticism appeared as The Sacred Wood, marking the beginning of his enormous influence on modern thinking about literature. In 1921, physically and emotionally exhausted, Eliot went to a sanatorium in Switzerland to recover. While there, he finished The Waste Land, considered the single most important poem of the twentieth century. Ezra Pound, whose editing played a major role in the poem’s final form, said The Waste Land justified the entire movement to remake modern poetry. It continues exploration of themes laid out in the earlier poetry but in a style that is much more experimental and difficult. Incorporating allusions in six different languages to dozens of other works of literature, drama, and music, it is a poem without a central narrative voice or discernible plot. It uses rapid shifts from scene to scene to draw a picture of the spiritual and physical decay of Western civilization, while obliquely implying a possible means of renewal. The poem scandalized some and enraptured others but left the state of poetry forever changed.

Eliot’s influence as a poet, critic, and social commentator grew throughout the next three decades. In 1927, he announced his conversion to Christianity and became a British citizen. After the publication of Ash Wednesday in 1930, a poem about the pain and struggle of spiritual renewal, Eliot turned to the writing of plays, especially verse dramas with religious themes. His most important early play was Murder in the Cathedral, first produced in Canterbury in 1935. Soon thereafter, Eliot wrote “Burnt Norton,” a poem that would later become part of Eliot’s last major work of poetry, Four Quartets. Published together for the first time in 1943, Four Quartets explores the interpenetration of the temporal world by the transcendent in the quest of the soul for spiritual fulfillment. It is a major religious poem of the twentieth century. In 1948, Eliot received the Nobel Prize in Literature. He devoted the remainder of his writing career to drama—the best vehicle, he decided, for making his poetry and ideas accessible to the general public. Having completed The Family Reunion in 1939, Eliot later wrote The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk, and The Elder Statesman. Eliot died in 1965.

The extent of Eliot’s influence from the 1920s through the 1950s made a reaction against him inevitable after his death. Some have followed the lead of the American poet William Carlos Williams in seeing the complexity, allusiveness, and intellectual sophistication of Eliot’s poetry as a dead end with little usefulness for less learned poets. Others lament Eliot’s turn to traditional religion and his conservative social views. More significantly, Eliot’s reputation is caught up in the debate over whether the modernist movement, to which he and Pound were central, represents a fundamental shift in modern consciousness and the making of art or is only a temporary aberration of passing interest. No matter how these issues are resolved, however, the history of literature in the twentieth century cannot be written without coming to terms with T. S. Eliot.

Author Works Poetry: Prufrock, and Other Observations, 1917 Poems, 1919 Ara Vos Prec, 1920 The Waste Land, 1922 Poems, 1909–1925, 1925 Ash Wednesday, 1930 Triumphal March, 1931 Sweeney Agonistes, 1932 Words for Music, 1934 Collected Poems, 1909–1935, 1936 Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, 1939 Four Quartets, 1943 The Cultivation of Christmas Trees, 1954 Collected Poems, 1909–1962, 1963 Poems Written in Early Youth, 1967 The Complete Poems and Plays, 1969 Drama: Sweeney Agonistes, pb. 1932 (fragment) The Rock: A Pageant Play, pr., pb. 1934 Murder in the Cathedral, pr., pb. 1935 The Family Reunion, pr., pb. 1939 The Cocktail Party, pr. 1949 The Confidential Clerk, pr. 1953 The Elder Statesman, pr. 1958 Collected Plays, pb. 1962 Nonfiction: Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry, 1917 The Sacred Wood, 1920 Homage to John Dryden, 1924 Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca, 1927 For Lancelot Andrewes, 1928 Dante, 1929 Thoughts After Lambeth, 1931 Charles Whibley: A Memoir, 1931 John Dryden: The Poet, the Dramatist, the Critic, 1932 Selected Essays, 1932, new edition 1950 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, 1939 The Music of Poetry, 1942 The Classics and the Man of Letters, 1942 Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, 1948 Poetry and Drama, 1951 The Three Voices of Poetry, 1953 Religious Drama: Medieval and Modern, 1954 The Literature of Politics, 1955 The Frontiers of Criticism, 1956 On Poetry and Poets, 1957 Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley, 1964 To Criticize the Critic, 1965 The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume I, 1898–1922, 1988 Bibliography Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. The first comprehensive biography based on Eliot’s published and unpublished writing as well as on extensive interviews with his friends and associates. Ackroyd has been praised in several reviews for his handling of both Eliot’s life and work, especially the poet’s disastrous first marriage and The Waste Land. Bloom, Harold, ed. Murder in the Cathedral. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. A collection of the most significant articles, by a variety of critics, on one of Eliot’s most famous plays. Some of the articles tend toward obscurity, but most are helpful in placing the play in the larger context of poetic drama. Includes a helpful introduction by Bloom and a bibliography. Browne, Elliott Martin. The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. The most exhaustive textual study of Eliot’s plays available, this book analyzes the early typescript and manuscript versions of Eliot’s dramas, identifying and commenting on all major changes. Browne attempts to reconstruct Eliot’s writing process, and so any reader interested in that aspect of Eliot’s art might begin here. Childs, Donald J. From Philosophy to Poetry: T. S. Eliot’s Study of Knowledge and Experience. London: Athalone Press, 2001. Childs analyzes Eliot’s literary works with emphasis on how he expressed his philosophy through his poetry. Bibliography and index. Davidson, Harriet, ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: Longman, 1999. A collection of literary criticism regarding Eliot and his works. Bibliography and index. Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone: The Poet, T. S. Eliot. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A wide-ranging critical examination in the form of an intellectual memoir, and an illuminating account of Donoghue’s engagement with the works of Eliot. Includes bibliographical references and index. Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 1898-1922. Vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. Includes all the poet’s significant extant correspondence up to the age of thirty-four. An important addition to the biographical and critical literature on Eliot, none of which had access to this complete collection of letters. His correspondence contains drafts of poems and reveals both his extremely correct and whimsical sides. Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s Early Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Reviewed by Richard Ellmann and other important critics as the most thorough treatment of Eliot’s early career, Gordon’s study is a superb meld of biography and criticism, drawing upon unpublished diaries, letters, and poems by the poet’s mother. Should be read in conjunction with Peter Ackroyd’s equally important biography. Gordon, Lyndall. Eliot’s New Life. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988. A continuation of Gordon’s biography of the early years, concentrating on the religious phase of the poet’s life, his separation from his first wife, his friendships with two other women, and his marriage to Valerie Fletcher in 1957. Gordon is equally sound on Eliot’s later poetry, especially on the development of Four Quartets. Gordon, Lyndall. T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: Norton, 1999. In this exhaustive biography Gordon builds on the efforts from her first two books covering Eliot’s early years. She assiduously tracked down Eliot’s correspondence and manuscripts to address the issue of Eliot’s anti-Semitism and misogyny. Gordon reinforces her thesis that Eliot’s poetic output should be interpreted as a coherent spiritual biography. Habib, Rafey. The Early T. S. Eliot and Western Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. A look at the philosophical beliefs held by Eliot and how they found their way into his literary works. Bibliography and index. Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Waste Land.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. Eight essays by eminent poets and scholars on the development, the achievement, and the impact of Eliot’s great poem. Each essay assesses Eliot’s place in literary history and examines not only his published poetry but also the facsimile publication of Eliot’s manuscripts of The Waste Land. Malamud, Randy. T. S. Eliot’s Drama: A Research and Production Sourcebook. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992. A close look at the production of Eliot’s dramatic works. Bibliography and indexes. Malamud, Randy. Where the Words Are Valid: T. S. Eliot’s Communities of Drama. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. A critical analysis and interpretation of Eliot’s plays. Bibliography and index. Moody, A. David, ed. The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. A comprehensive reference work dedicated to Eliot’s life, work, and times. Bibliography and index. Schuchard, Ronald. Eliot’s Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. A critical study demonstrating how Eliot’s personal voice works through the sordid, the bawdy, the blasphemous, and the horrific to create a unique moral world. Schuchard works against conventional attitudes toward Eliot’s intellectual and spiritual development by showing how early and consistently his classical and religious sensibility manifests itself in his poetry and criticism.

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