Last reviewed: June 2017
September 26, 1888
St. Louis, Missouri
January 4, 1965
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. T. S. Eliot's signature
T. S. Eliot's signature
T. S. Eliot
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.