Overview

T. S. Eliot

(1888—1965) poet, critic, and publisher


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(1888–1965)

US-born British poet, critic, and playwright. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948 and appointed to the OM the same year.

Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, where he attended Smith Academy (1898–1903) before going on to Milton Academy, Massachusetts, and then to Harvard. After a year at the Sorbonne he returned to Harvard to write a doctoral thesis on F. H. Bradley's philosophy. However, he was already writing poetry (‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ dates from 1910) and absorbed in other reading that was to influence his work, notably the poems of Jules Laforgue and the philosophies of India. In 1914 he travelled to Europe, but the outbreak of World War I caused him to divert to Oxford. Here he continued working on Bradley before realizing that his true interests lay in poetry. He was encouraged in this by Ezra Pound, whom he met in autumn 1914, and it was Pound who at last found a journal willing to publish ‘Prufrock’ (1915). In 1915 Eliot married Vivian Haigh-Wood and decided to settle in England.

At first Eliot supported himself and his wife by school-teaching while he completed his thesis, although he never returned to Harvard to complete his doctorate. Instead he began working as a clerk in a London branch of Lloyds Bank (1917), writing poetry and criticism in his spare time. Prufrock and Other Observations was published in 1917, followed by Poems (1919) and a collection of essays and reviews entitled The Sacred Wood (1920). In 1921 overwork and worry about his wife's mental health caused him to take three months' leave from work, time he used to complete The Waste Land (1922). Although abstruse and technically innovative, it was at once acknowledged as a major work. In 1922 Eliot founded The Criterion, the most influential English literary journal of its time. It survived until 1939. In 1925 he joined the publishing house of Faber and Faber, where he was responsible for the poetry list, a job in which he also exerted a crucial influence. His increasing involvement with Christianity is evident in such poems as ‘The Journey of the Magi’, published in the same year (1927) that he became a British subject and an Anglo-Catholic, and ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), a long religious meditation.

In 1932–33 Eliot delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. In 1933 he also separated from his now mentally ill wife – a decision that caused him a great deal of distress, which only eased after her death in 1947 and after he had unburdened himself in his greatest work, Four Quartets (1944). Burnt Norton was the first of the quartet, published in 1935, followed by the three other poems – East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941), and Little Gidding (1942).

Apart from his poetry, Eliot also wrote a series of verse dramas in a form of blank verse sometimes called ‘heightened prose’. The first, Sweeney Agonistes (1924), was not performed until 1934. Murder in the Cathedral (1935), on the theme of the murder of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, was perhaps his best known. Later plays – The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and The Elder Statesman (1959) – although on secular subjects, often using plots from Greek drama, also explore fundamentally religious concepts. In a playful vein he wrote Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939; dramatized as the musical Cats (1981) by Andrew Lloyd Webber).

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Subjects: literature.