T. S. Eliot

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

Thomas Stearns Eliot (September 26, 1888January 4, 1965), Anglo-American poet, dramatist, and critic.



Family and early life

Eliot was born into a prominent family from St. Louis, Missouri, a large city in the middle of the United_States of America, on the western bank of the Mississippi River. His father, Henry Ware Eliot (1843-1919), was a successful businessman, becoming president and treasurer of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis. His mother, ne 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 who 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 his poem, 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 19101911 school year, Eliot lived in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and touring of 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.

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 register office. "Tom" did not know that his bride had a history of recurrent illnesses, including episodes of headaches, backaches, stomach-aches, prolonged exhaustion, nervous collapse and excitability, all requiring medication with drugs, some of them morphine-based, that had become habit-forming. Nor did he know that she was subject to excessive, over-frequent menstrual periods. 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 … - "to 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. She tried many times to waylay him, but succeeded only in November 1935: holding their dog Polly and wearing the black shirt of the British Union of Fascists—which she perhaps joined to please her husband, who had on one occasion expressed some admiration for Mussolini — she was able to get close enough to him after one of his public lectures and ask when he would be coming home. For the last nine years of her life she was confined to a mental hospital, where Eliot did not visit.

Eliot's second marriage was happy though short. On January 10, 1957 he married Esm 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, "O.M.", dates and this quote from Little Gidding: "the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / the language of the living."

As a note of trivia, late in his life, Eliot became somewhat of a penpal with comedian Groucho Marx. Eliot even requested a portrait of the comedian, which he then proudly displayed in his home next to pictures of Yeats and Valery.

Literary career

Eliot made his life and literary career in Britain. After the war, in the 1920s, he would spend time with other great artists in the Montparnasse Quarter in Paris, France where he was photographed by Man Ray. He dabbled in the study of Sanskrit and eastern religions and was a student of G. I. Gurdjieff.


In 1915, Ezra Pound, then the 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.

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 Vivien suffered from precarious health—, The Waste Land became one of the principal examples of a new trend in English poetry and 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 had 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 familiar 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, 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 [sic] in religion." This period includes such works as Ash Wednesday, The Journey of the Magi, and Four Quartets.

Eliot considered Four Quartets his masterpiece, as it draws upon his knowledge of mysticism and philosophy. It consists of four long poems, "Burnt Norton," "East Coker," "The Dry Salvages," and "Little Gidding", each in five sections. Although they resist easy characterisation, they have many things in common: each begins with a rumination on the geographical location of its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect—theological, historical, physical, and on its relation to the human condition. A reflective early reading suggests an inexact systematicity among them; 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 aren't the case but 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.


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.

Other works

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.


Formal recognition


Popular recognition

"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 private-eye 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 the Joseph Conrad novel 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.

A favourite of hodiern 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).




  • 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 Toward a Definition of Culture (1948)
  • Poetry and Drama (1951)
  • The Three Voices of Poetry (1954)
  • On Poetry and Poets (1957)

Further reading

External links

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eo:Thomas Stearns ELIOT fr:Thomas Stearns Eliot he:תומס סטרנס אליוט ku:Thomas Stearns Eliot nl:T.S. Eliot ja:T・S・エリオット pl:Thomas Stearns Eliot pt:T. S. Eliot sa:टी. एस. एलियट sv:T S Eliot zh:托马斯·斯特尔那斯·艾略特


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