Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965), American-English author, was one of the most influential poets writing in English in the 20th century, one of the most seminal critics, an interesting playwright, and an editor and publisher.
On Sept. 26, 1888, T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Mo., a member of the third generation of a New England family that had come to St. Louis in 1834. Eliot's grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, Unitarian minister and founder of schools, a university, a learned society, and charities, was the family patriarch. While carrying on a tradition of public service, the Eliots never forgot their New England ties. T. S. Eliot claimed that he was a child of both the Southwest and New England. In Massachusetts he missed Missouri's dark river, cardinal birds, and lush vegetation. In Missouri he missed the fir trees, song sparrows, red granite shores, and blue sea of Massachusetts.
Henry Ware Eliot, the father of T. S. Eliot, became chairman of the board of a brick company and served the cultural institutions his father had helped found, as well as others. He married an intellectual New Englander, Charlotte Champ. After having six children, she turned her energies to education and legal safeguards for the young. She also wrote a biography, some religious poems, and a dramatic poem (1926), with a preface by her already widely respected youngest child, Thomas.
Eliot grew up within the family's tradition of service to religion, community, and education. Years later he declared, "Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any part of the world." The Eliots also spent summers on Cape Ann, Mass. These places appear in Eliot's early poetry, but in the Four Quartets of his maturity his affection for them is most explicit.
Education of a Poet
In St. Louis young Eliot received a classical education privately and at Smith Academy, originally named Eliot Academy. He composed and read the valedictory poem for his graduation in 1905. After a year at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, he went to Harvard in 1906. He was shy, correct in dress, and intellectually independent. He studied under such versatile men as William James, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, and Irving Babbitt. He discovered Dante and heard talk of reviving poetic drama. Among such student personalities as Walter Lippmann, Heywood Broun, Conrad Aiken, and E. E. Cummings, Eliot made a modest impression as a contributor and editor of the Harvard Advocate. He was quietly completing his bachelor of arts degree in 3 years and was hard on the track of a new poetic voice. In 1908 he discovered Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature, and through it the French poet Jules Laforgue. From the example of Laforgue, other French symbolists, and late Elizabethan dramatists, he began to develop the offhand eloquence, the pastiches and discordant juxta-positions, the rhythmic versatility, and the concern masked by evasive irony and wit that would soon dominate the American-British renascence in poetry.
Eliot's stay at Harvard to earn a master of arts in philosophy was interrupted by a year at the Sorbonne. He returned to Harvard in 1911 but in 1914 he went abroad again on a Harvard fellowship to study in Germany. When World War I broke out, he transferred to Merton College, Oxford, and studied with a disciple of F. H. Bradley, who became the subject of Eliot's dissertation. Ezra Pound, the young American poet, discovered Eliot at Oxford. Though they were quite different, they shared a devotion to learning and poetry. After Oxford, Eliot decided to stay in England and in 1915 married a vivacious Englishwoman, Vivienne Haigh Haigh-Wood. He taught at Highgate Junior School for boys near London (1915-1916) and then worked for Lloyd's Bank. While teaching, he completed his dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley. The dissertation was accepted, but Eliot did not return to America to defend it so as to receive his doctorate. His study of Bradley, however, contributed to his thought and prose style.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Eliot tried to join the U.S. Navy but was rejected for physical reasons. That year his first volume of verse, Prufrock and Other Observations, appeared and almost immediately became the focus for discussion and controversy. Eliot's abruptly varied rhythms and his mixtures of precision and discontinuity, contemporary references and echoes of the past, and immediate experience and haunting leitmotifs spoke to the distraction and alienation that World War I had intensified in Western civilization. This quality was most effective in the ironically titled poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," in which the Victorian dramatic monologue is turned inward and wedded to witty disillusion and psychic privacies to present a dilettante character fearful of disturbing or being disturbed by anything in the universe. Prufrock moves through a dehumanized city of dispirited common men on an empty round of elegant but uncommunicative chitchat. The many voices within him, speaking in approximations of blank verse and in catchy couplets, contribute to what Hugh Kenner, the American critic, called an "eloquence of inadequacy."
Critic and Editor
As literary editor of the Egoist, a feminist magazine, from 1917 to 1919, Eliot began the editorial and critical careers that would continue until his death. The back pages of the Egoist were entrusted to a succession of young poet-editors, and here, with the aid of Ezra Pound, the new poetry and criticism got a hearing. Eliot was also writing anonymous reviews for the London Times and publishing essays that announced the appearance of a sometimes pontifical but illuminating critic. In 1919 two of his most influential pieces appeared. "Tradition and the Individual Talent" advocated the "depersonalization" of poetry and a redirection of interest away from the poet's personality to the poem, the process, and the tradition to which the poem belonged. "Hamlet and His Problems" defined "objective correlative," a term soon to achieve wide currency, as a particular object, act, sequence, or situation which the poet infuses with a particular feeling in order to be able to call it up economically by mere mention of the thing or event. In this essay Eliot demonstrated the need to cut through received opinion to the literary work itself. He declared that the "primary problem" in Hamlet is not the character but the play, because the character has to bear the burden of an "inexpressible" emotion "in excess of the facts as they appear."
In his early critical essays, collected as The Sacred Wood (1920), Homage to John Dryden (1924), Selected Essays: 1917-1932 (1932), and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), Eliot pointed to the poets, critics, and cultural figures who had been helpful to him and might assist others in adjusting 20th-century experience to literary and cultural tradition. Eliot was drawn to precision and concreteness in language, seeking "to purify the dialect of the tribe," as he later put it. He called attention to thematic or musical structure for communicating complex psychological experience, to past mergers of thought and feeling that could counteract the modern "dissociation of sensibility," and to the "mythical method" of James Joyce's novel Ulysses and of his own poetry—a method that contrasts the balance and sanity of masterpieces and the ages that produced them with the contemporary deracination that isolates individuals culturally and psychologically. With learned understatement he also assessed critics from Aristotle to his Harvard teacher Irving Babbitt. He found creative guides in 19th-century French symbolists; the 17th-century man of letters John Dryden and his predecessor John Donne; the Jacobean dramatists; and beyond them Dante, a bitter exile who created a serene masterpiece.
A rising poet and critic, Eliot made his way into elite British circles. The Bloomsbury group led by Leonard and Virginia Woolf welcomed him; as a somewhat British American, both conservative and liberal leaders could accept him; and young writers on both sides of the Atlantic offered respect and affection. When restless Pound left London for Paris in 1920, Eliot quietly assumed the leadership of England's young intelligentsia.
In "Gerontion" (1920) Eliot offered a shorter, less fragmented perspective on Prufrock's unfocused world, resorting again to the interior monologue, this time spoken by a despairing old man who did not believe or act passionately in youth and now regrets the spiritual waste of his life.
The Waste Land
While convalescing from exhaustion in 1921, Eliot advanced his diagnosis of war-enervated, spiritually moribund Europe with a draft of The Waste Land. This was to become, after publication in 1922, the most influential and controversial poem of the century. Eliot corresponded with Pound about the poem, and Pound's drastic editing compressed it, no doubt unifying and sharpening it. Eliot acknowledged Pound's help by dedicating the poem to him in Dante's words as "il miglior fabbro," the better maker.
In The Waste Land Eliot defines alienation and also indicates a remedy. Voices such as Prufrock's and Gerontion's are still heard, but Eliot's spokesman is now a mild Jeremiah, a lonely prophet or pilgrim who seeks spiritual regeneration in person and in thought throughout a corrupt city and across a disoriented continent. Spring is no longer the joyous season of renewal: "April is the cruelest month," for it calls unwilling people to physical and spiritual regeneration, to leave off unsacramental sex and materialistic busy-ness. Eliot had intensified and extended the varied rhythms and montages of his earlier interior monologues and now organized them in a five-part structure deriving from Beethoven's late quarters. While sordid and distracted images still abound, hopeful ones have increased, and a greater tension exists between the two. Social disintegration is equated with a shattered wasteland, but the poem's central consciousness is nevertheless alert to the possibility of recreating personal and communal wholes out of the present and the past, of fertility rites, Christianity, Indian philosophy, and Western literature and art: "These fragments I have shored against my ruin."
Also in 1922 Eliot founded the Criterion, an influential little magazine that appeared until 1939, when he discontinued its publication. In it he stressed learning, discipline, and the constant renewal of tradition in literature. The magazine also reflected his growing religiousness and his devotion to the idea of a culture stratified by class and unified by Christianity.
As author of The Waste Land and editor of the Criterion, Eliot assumed a dominant role in literature in America and in Great Britain. He left Lloyd's Bank in 1925 and joined Faber and Faber, Ltd., a publisher, eventually rising to a directorship there.
Meanwhile Eliot was crossing a divide in his career. He ended his preoccupation with one kind of alienation in "The Hollow Men" (1925), where the will-less subjects of the poem cluster in a dead land, waiting like effigies for a galvanic revelation that does not come. They comment on their lot in a spastic chorus that includes a children's game song, a fragment of the Lord's Prayer, and a parody of "world without end" and other expressions from the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
"The Hollow Men," "Gerontion," and The Waste Land compose a triptych that delineates the estrangement of the self in a society fallen into secularism, with the central panel, The Waste Land, suggesting the possibility of salvaging the self by reconstituting culture out of its scattered parts.
Religious and Cultural Views
In 1927 Eliot became an Anglo-Catholic and a British citizen. With the heightened social consciousness of the worldwide economic depression, a reaction set in against his conservatism. It grew more difficult to explain away on literary grounds the anti-Semitic references in several of his poems. In After Strange Gods (1934) Eliot took the literary ideas of his "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and made them apply to culture. He also declared that too many freethinking Jews would be a detriment to the kind of organic Christian culture he proposed. This work, along with The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes toward a Definition of Culture (1948), indicated Eliot's stand against the pluralistic society of most Western democracies. Without a reconstruction of Christendom, the alternative, he felt, was paganism.
With Ash Wednesday (1930), while the literary tide was flowing Leftward, Eliot emerged as the sole orthodox Christian among important Anglo-American poets. The title of this six-part poem refers to the beginning of Lent, the most intense season of penitence and self-denial in the Christian year. The poem's central consciousness is an aging penitent closer to the convert Eliot than his spokesman in any previous major poem. Like his antecedents, the penitent is alienated—but from God, not from society or nature; and following the precedents of Dante and St. John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish mystic, he sets out to draw near the divine presence. The poem is his interior monologue narrating his progress and praying for guidance. The tone of unbroken sincerity and passionate yearning, of anxiety and some joy is new for Eliot. The penitent desires to abandon ambition, his fading powers of expression, the enticements of the world, and all that may prevent his mounting the turning stairs toward salvation. Though his longing for the vision of God known in childhood is not fulfilled, he progresses toward it, and he will persist. American critic F. O. Matthiessen remarked how Eliot with "paradoxical precision in vagueness" used wonderfully concrete images to convey the mystery of a spiritual experience.
In 1934 Eliot published After Strange Gods and also brought his religious and dramatic interests together in The Rock. This pageant mingles narrative prose with poetic dialogue and choruses as part of a campaign to raise funds to restore London's churches. Eliot's speakers ask for visible gathering places, where the "Invisible Light" can do its work.
In 1935 Murder in the Cathedral, perhaps Eliot's best play, was produced at Canterbury Cathedral. It has to do with Archbishop Thomas Becket, who was assassinated before the altar there in 1170. Its theme is the historical competition between church and state for the allegiance of the individual. Its poetry suggests blank verse with deviations. Becket prepares, like the penitent in Ash Wednesday, to accept God's will, knowing that "humanity cannot bear much reality." After his death, the chorus, speaking for humanity, confesses that "in life there is not time to grieve long," even for a martyr.
In 1936 Eliot concluded his Poems 1909-1935 with "Burnt Norton," the first of what became the Four Quartets, an extended work that proved to be his poetic viaticum. "Burnt Norton," in which Eliot makes vivid use of his recurring rose-garden symbolism, grew out of a visit to a deserted Gloucestershire mansion. This poem engendered three others, each associated with a place. "East Coker" (1940) is set in the village of Eliot's Massachusetts ancestors. The last two quartets appeared with the publication of Four Quartets (1943). The third, "The Dry Salvages," named for three small islands off the Massachusetts coast where Eliot vacationed in his youth, draws on his American experiences; and the fourth, "Little Gidding," derives from a visit to the site of a religious community, now an Anglican shrine, where the British king Charles I paused before he surrendered and went to his death. Here Eliot asks forgiveness for a lifetime of mistakes, which no doubt includes his possible anti-Semitism of the years before the war. Each of the quartets is a separate whole but related to the others. All employ the thematic structure of music and the five movements of The Waste Land. The theme, developed differently, is the same in each: a penitential Eliot seeks the eternal in and through the temporal, the still dynamic center of the turning world. One may seek or wait in any place at any time, for God is in all places at all times. The theme and method continue those of Ash Wednesday, but the feeling in Four Quartets is less passionately personal, more compassionate and reconciled. The verse is serene, poised, and sparsely graceful.
Midway in his composition of Four Quartets, Eliot published Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939). Here Eliot the fabulist appeared, and the humorist and wit resurfaced.
The Family Reunion, the first of Eliot's four plays for the professional stage, appeared in 1939. He later observed that its hero was a prig but its poetry the best in any of his plays. This play, like the other three, employs the familiar conventions of drawing-room comedy to encase religious matters. The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party (1940) both involve analogs with classical Greek dramas. The Confidential Clerk (1954) and The Elder Statesman (1959) even employ potentially melodramatic situations, although they are not developed popularly, for Eliot is preoccupied with individual religiousness and the self-revelations and mutual understandings it effects within families. In fact, The Elder Statesman, the last and simplest of his plays, contending that true love is beyond verbal expression, is dedicated to his second wife, Valerie.
The most successful of these plays, The Cocktail Party, enjoyed respectable runs and revivals in London and New York. It puts the tension between the temporal and the eternal in more effective dramatic terms than do the other plays. By means of the familiar, a cocktail party, Eliot involves the audience in the unbelievable, a modern martyrdom. He contrasts lives oriented to the natural with that of a martyred missionary devoted to the supernatural. At the same time he parallels a Greek drama more subtly than he did in The Family Reunion.
Eliot's drawing-room plays, however, have only a limited appeal. The poetry in the last three is unobtrusively effective, carried by voices moving naturally along the hazy border between poetry and prose. They are not so much powerful plays as suggestive ones.
Honor and Old Age
Following World War II there were important changes in Eliot's life and literary activities. In 1947 his first wife died. Suffering from nervous debilities, she had been institutionalized for years, and Eliot had visited her every Sunday and kept his suffering and deprivation private. In 1948 he received the Nobel Prize and the British Order of Merit, and the list of his honors continued to grow. Publishing no important poetry after the Four Quartets, he devoted himself to the poetic drama, the revitalization of culture, some new criticism in On Poetry and Poets (1957), the readjustment of earlier critical judgments, and the editing of collections of his poetry and plays. In 1957 he married his private secretary, Valerie Fischer, and enjoyed a felicitous marriage until he died on Jan. 4, 1965, in London. In accordance with earlier arrangements his ashes were deposited in St. Michael's Church, East Coker, his ancestral village, on April 17, 1965.
Many poets and artists paid final tribute to Eliot, including Pound: "A grand poet and brotherly friend"; W. H. Auden: "A great poet and a great man"; Allen Tate: "Mr. Eliot was the greatest poet in English of the 20th century"; Robert Lowell: "He was a dear personal friend. Our American literature has had no greater poet or critic"; Robert Penn Warren: "He is the key figure of our century in America and England, the most powerful single influence." Avowedly Christian in a secular age, Eliot tried to revitalize the religious roots of Western culture. His career recalls the versatile man of letters of the 18th century.
Further Reading on Thomas Stearns Eliot
An edition of Eliot's work is The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot (1969). Donald C. Gallup, T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (1952), lists Eliot's writings through 1951.
The literature on Eliot is extensive. Herbert Howarth, Notes on Some Figures behind T. S. Eliot (1964), provides biographical information. Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot (1959), is probably the standard work on Eliot. Francis O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (1935; 3d ed. 1958), provides a balanced introduction. Russell H. Robbins, The T. S. Eliot Myth (1951), primarily because of Eliot's conservatism, offers a negative view. Other studies include Elizabeth A. Drew, T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry (1949); Helen L. Gardner, The Art of T. S. Eliot (1949); and D. E. S. Maxwell, The Poetry of T. S. Eliot (1952). George Williamson, A Reader's Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem-by-Poem Analysis (1953; 2d ed. 1966), is a helpful reference work.
Collections of critical estimates of Eliot are Balachandra Rajan, ed., T. S. Eliot: A Study of His Writings by Several Hands (1947); Richard March and M. J. Tambimuttu, eds., T. S. Eliot: A Symposium (1948); Leonard Unger, ed., T. S. Eliot: A Selected Critique (1948); and Neville Braybrooke, ed., T. S. Eliot: A Symposium for His Seventieth Birthday (1958). Studies of particular works include Raymond Preston, " Four Quarters" Rehearsed (1946), and Robert E. Knoll, ed., Storm over the Waste Land (1964).