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T(homas) S(tearns) Eliot (1888-1965)

 

American-English poet, playwright, and critic, a leader of the modernist movement in literature. Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948. His most famous work is The Waste Land, written when he was 34. On one level this highly complex poem descibes cultural and spiritual crisis.

"The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways." (in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent,' 1920)

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the seventh and youngest child of a distinguished family of New England origin. Eliot's forebears included the Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of Washington University in St. Louis. Isaac Stearns on his mother's side was one of the original settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Henry, Eliot's father, was a prosperous industrialist and his mother Charlotte was a poet. She wrote among others a biography of William Greenleaf Eliot.

Eliot attended Smith Academy in St. Louis and Milton Academy in Massachusetts. In 1906 he went to Harvard, where he contributed poetry to Harvard Advocate. After receiving his B.A. in 1909, Eliot spent a year in France, attending Henri Bergson's lectures at the Sorbonne and studying poetry with the novelist and poet Henri Alain-Fournier. He then returned to Harvard, where he worked on a dissertation on the English idealist philosopher F.H. Bradley. Eliot also studied Sanskrit and Buddhism.

When Bertrand Russell met Eliot in London in 1914, he asked him what he thought of the War. "I don't know," he said, "I only know that I am not a pacifist." In 1915 Eliot made England his permanent home. For a period Russell lent the Eliots one of the two bedrooms of his flat. With Ezra Pound, his countryman and an advocate on literary modernism, he started to reform poetic diction. Pound was largely responsible for getting Eliot's early poems into print, such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in the Chicago magazine Poetry in 1915. The title character is tormented by the uncertainty of his identity and the difficulty of articulating his feelings. Prufrock is a perfect gentleman and tragic in his conventionality. He has heard "the mermaids singing" but is paralyzed by self-consciousness - "I do not think that they will sing to me."

Denis Donoghue has pointed out in Words Alone (2000) that in his early poems Eliot didn't start with a theme but with a fragment of rhythm, or motif. Prufrock has not the qualities of a person, he is a fragmented voice with a name. "Eliot's language here and in the early poems generally refers to things and simultaneously works free from the reference. He seems always to be saying: "That is not what I meant at all. / That is not it, at all." When he gives a voice a name—Prufrock, Gerontion—he makes no commitment beyond the naming." (Words Alone)

Pound also introduced Eliot to Harriet Weaver, who published Eliot's first volume of verse, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). Eliot taught for a year at Highgate Junior School in London, and then worked as a clerk at Lloyds Bank, where he wrote acticles for the monthly in-house magazine Lloyds Bank Economic Review on foreign currency movements. A physical condition prevented his entering in 1918 the US Navy. Eliot's second book, Ara Vos Prec (published in the U.S. as Poems), which appeared in 1919, was hand-printed by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at the Hogath Press. His outward appearance proclaimed normality and respectability: he wore City trousers, slate-blue with black stripes, and a black business coat with a bowler andf grey spats.

In an early essay, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1919), Eliot propounded the doctrine, that poetry should be impersonal and free itself from Romantic practices. "The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." Eliot saw that in this depersonalization the art approaches science. With his collection of essays, The Sacred Wood (1920), and later published The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) and The Classics and the Man of Letters  (1942), Eliot established his reputation as a literary critic.

In 1922 Eliot founded the Criterion, a quarterly review that he edited until he halted its publication at the beginning of World War II. He run the magazine without an office, and without a salary. With the help of Pound, who had raised money from friends and patrons, Eliot left the bank. Before this crucial step, he suffered a serious jaw infection. In 1925 Eliot joined the publishing house of Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), becoming eventually one of the firm's directors. Between the years 1917 and 1919, Eliot was an assistant editor of the journal the Egoist. From 1919 onward he was a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement.

In the 60 years from 1905 to his death, Eliot published some 600 articles and reviews. Eliot's principal purpose in his literary-critical essays was "the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste." He wanted to revive the appreciation of the 17th-century "Metaphysical poets," referring to such writers as Donne, Crashaw, Vaughan, Lord Herbert, and Cowley. He admitted that it is extremely difficult to define metaphysical poetry and decide what poets practiced it, but praised the complex mixture of intellect and passion that characterized their work. In the essay 'Religion and literature' (1935) Eliot stated that "literary criticism should be completed by criticism from a definite ethical and theological standpoint."

Eliot's first marriage from 1915 with the ballet-dancer Vivienne Haigh-Wood turned out to be unhappy. She was temperamental, full of life, restless. Her arrival at menstruation brought extreme mood swings, pains and cramps; her condition was diagnosed as hysteria. From 1930 until her death in 1947 she was confined in mental institutions. Later Eliot married his secretary, Valerie Fletcher. Carole Seymour-Jones has argued in Painted Shadow: A Life of Vivienne Eliot (2001) that Eliot's sexual orientation was fundamentally gay. Eliot avoided sharing bed with Vivienne, who started an affair with Bertrand Russell. Virginia Woolf once said: "He was one of those poets who live by scratching, and his wife was his itch."

When Eliot vivited Paris with Wyndham Lewis in mid-August 1920, he stayed in the Hôtel Elysée (now gone) on the Rue de Beaune, probably upon the recommendation of Pound, who had taken a room in this hotel in June. They brought a box of old shoes that Pound had intended as a gift for Joyce.  The hotel he frequented in Paris from time to time was the Hôtel Foyot (now the square of Francis-Poulenc, en empty lot) on the Rue de Tournon. It was famous for its restaurant. Also such writers as Louis Aragon,  Mary Butts,George Moore, Dorothy Parker, and Rainer Maria Rilke rented a room at the hotel.

After a physical and mental breakdown in 1921, Eliot went to Lausanne for treatment. There he completed The Waste Land (1922), a poetic exploration of soul's - or civilization's - struggle for regeneration. Following Pound's suggestion, Eliot reduced The Waste Land to about half its original length, but Pound was not responsible for the form of the poem, its transitions, or lack of them. The first version, with Pound's revisions, was published in 1971.

Eliot's long poem, which caught the mood of confusion and feelings of nostalgia for a "paradise lost" after World War I, was not unanimously hailed as a masterpiece. Conrad Aiken noted that "What we feel is that Mr. Eliot has not wholly annealed the allusive material, has left it unabsorbed", but Aiken also argued that the poem succeeds "by virtue of its incoherence, not of its plan; by virtue of its ambiguities, not of its explanations." (New Republic, February 7, 1923) To critics who said that Eliot had expressed the "disillusionment of a generation" the poet himself answered that "I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention."

Divided into five sections, The Waste Land is a series of fragmentary dramatic monologues, a dense chorus of voices and culture historical quotations, that fade one into another. In the center is the immortal prophet Tiresias. The waste land is contrasted with sources of regeneration, such as fertility rituals and Christian and Eastern religious practices. Moreover, Eliot didn't hesitate to combine slang with scholarly language. Many parts of the poem are located in the banking area of London, where Eliot worked. At the same time the city is unreal, populated by miserable souls like in Dante's Inferno.

Material for the work Eliot drew from several sources, among them the Grail story, the legend of the Fisher King, Sir James George Frazer's Golden Bough, and Dante's Commedia, but when Dante finally is reunited with Beatrice in 'Heaven', The Waste Land ends ambiguously with a few words of Sanskrit. In a way the work, bristling with symbols, quotations and references, fulfilled Eliot's "impersonal theory of poetry": "The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to from a new compound are present together."

In 1927 Eliot became a British citizen and member of the Church of England. His way towards his own particular brand of High Anglicanism may be charted in his poetry, starting from 'The Hollow Men' (1925) to visions in Four Quartets (135-42), which Eliot himself regarded as his masterpiece. It consisted of four poems, 'Burnt Norton', 'East Coker', The Dry Salvages', and 'Little Gidding,' into which he integrated his experiences in World War II as a watchman checking for fires during bombing raids. These quartets represent the four seasons and four elements. Helen Gardner has described the whole work as an "austere and rigorously philosophic poem on time and time's losses and gains." (The Composition of Four Quarters, 1978)

Eliot's other works include poetic dramas, in which his dramatic verse became gradually indistinguishable from prose. Murder in the Cathedral (1935) was written for a church performance and treated the martyrdom of St. Thomas à Beckett. After the publication of the play, Eliot was appointed to the committee in charge of a new English translation of the Bible. In The Family Reunion (1939) Eliot took a theme of contemporary life, and tried to find a rhythm close to contemporary speech. The Coctail Party (1950) was partly based on Alcestis of Euripides. Eliot's most influential exercise in social criticism was Notes Towards a Definition of Culture  (1948).

"What we have to do is to bring poetry into the world in which the audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the theatre; not to transport the audience into some imaginary world totally unlike their own, an unreal world in which poetry can be spoken. What I should hope might achieved, by a generation of dramatists having the benefit of our experience, is that the audience should find, at the moment of awareness that it is hearing poetry, that it is saying to itself: "I could talk in poetry too!" Then we should not be transported into an artificial world; on the contrary, out own sordid, dreary, daily world would be suddenly illuminated and transfigured." (in Poetry and Drama, 1951)

Eliot was an incurable joker and among his many pranks was to seat visiting authors in chairs with whoopee cushions and offer them exploding cigars. To the poet's pleasure, the American comedian Groucho Marx was his great fan. In 1964 he wrote to Groucho: "The picture of you in the newspaper saying that, amongst other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enchanted my credit line in the neighborhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street." The two met in 1964 in London, had a dinner at the Eliots' house, and perhaps realized that they could neve r be true friends.

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), Eliot's classical book of verse for children, has achieved a considerable world success in a musical adaptation. "The naming of cats is a difficult matter," he wrote. Eliot's own cats included Pettpaws, Wiscus and George Pushdragon. 

Eliot died in London on January 4, 1965. His ashes were taken to St Michael's Church in East Coker, his ancestral village. Eliot's fame has been shadowed by accusations of racism, misogynism, fascism, emotional coldness, and anti-Semitism. However, Eliot avoided being labelled as a Communist. Hints of Eliot's anti-Semitism, especially the poem 'Burbank With a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigar,' has been considered a questionable outgrowth of his theology, or due to a class prejudice, but never the center of his thought. "I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers,"  Eliot scribbled in one of his outbursts. The possibility that Eliot perhaps was parodying antisemitism also offer an alternative way of reading this controversial piece. (see Patricia Sloane's work T.S. Eliot's Bleistein Poems, 2000)

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
(in The Hollow Men)
For further reading: T. S. Eliot and Christian Tradition, ed. by Benjamin G. Lockerd (2014); Painted Shadow: A Life of Vivienne Eliot by Carole Seymour-Jones (2001); T.S. Eliot's Bleistein Poems: Uses of Literary Allusion in "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" and "Dirge" by Patricia Sloane (2000); Words Alone by Dennis Donoghue (2000); Eliot's Dark Angel by Ronald Schuchard (1999); Guide to the Secular Poetry of T.S. Eliot by Susan E. Blalock (1996); A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot by B.C. Southam (1996); The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and the Occult by Leon Surette (1993); T.S. Eliot: A Life by P. Acroyd (1985); T.S. Eliot: The Critic as Philosopher by L. Freed (1979); The Composition of Four Quarters by Helen Gardner (1978); T.S. Eliot by B. Bergonzi (1973); T.S. Eliot: Poet and Dramatist by J. Chiari (1973); T.S. Eliot: The Man and His Work, ed. by A. Tate (1967); T.S.Eliot's Dramatic Theory and Practice by C.H. Smith (1963); T.S. Eliot's Poetry and and Plays by G. Smith (1956); T.S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry by E. Drew (1949); The Achievement of T.S. Eliot by F.O. Matthiessen (1935) - See also: George Seferis, Eugenio Montale, Saint-John Perse: Anabasis, 1924, translated by T.S. Eliot.  Eliot´s writings also influenced Conrad Aiken´s early poems.  Note: Film Tom and Viv (1994), directed by Brian Gilbert, based on the plays by Michael Hastings and starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson, chronicled the details of Eliot's marriage to socialite Vivien Haigh-Wood.

Selected bibliography:

  • The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, 1917
  • Ara vus prec, 1919
  • Poems, 1920
  • Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1920
  • The Waste Land, 1922
    - Autio maa: neljä kvartettia ja muita runoja (suom. Yrjö Kaijärvi, Sinikka Kallio-Visapää, Kai Laitinen, Juha Mannerkorpi, Kaj Mäkinen, Leo Tiainen, Lauri Viljanen, 1949)
    - Short film 1995, directed by  Deborah Warner, cast: Fiona Shaw, cinematography by Patrick Duval, film editing by David Rabin, production desing by Hildegard Bechtler, art direction by Rupert Lazarus
  • Homage to John Dryden: Three Essays on Poetry of the Seventeenth Century , 1924
  • Sweeney Agonistes, 1926
  • The Journey of the Magi, 1927 (drawings by E. McKnight Kauffer) 
  • A Song for Simeon, 1928
  • For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order, 1928
  • Dante, 1929
  • Animula; Wood Engravings, 1929
  • Ash Wednesday, 1930
  • Anabasis: A Poem / Saint-John Perse, 1930 (translator)
  • Marina, 1930 (drawings by E. McKnight Kauffer) 
  • Triumphal March, 1931 (drawings by E. McKnight Kauffer)
  • Charles Whibley: A Memoir, 1931
  • Thoughts after Lambeth, 1931
  • Selected Essays, 1917-1932, 1932
  • Poems, 1909-1925, 1932
  • The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933
  • After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, 1934
  • The Rock: A Pageant Play, 1934
  • Elizabethan Essays, 1934
  • Murder in the Cathedral, 1935
    - Murha katedraalissa (suom. Pertti Nieminen, 1985)
    - Films: 1952, prod. Film Traders Ltd, directed by  George Hoellering, screenplay by T.S. Eliot, featuring John Groser, Alexander Gauge, David Ward, George Woodbridge, T.S. Eliot, as the 4th Tempter (voice); Mord im Dom, 1962 (TV drama), dir. by Hans Lietzau, featuring Gerd Brüdern, Wolfgang Kieling, Pinkas Braun, Benno Sterzenbach
  • Collected poems, 1909-1935, 1936
  • The Idea of a Christian Society, 1939
  • The Family Reunion, 1939
  • Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, 1939
    - Andrew Loyd Webber's musical Cats is based on fourteen poems of T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. The original production opened at the New London Theatre, in the West End on May 11, 1981. TV film in 1998, produced by Really Useful Films, directed by David Mallet, starring Elaine Page, John Mills, Ken Page, Rosemarie Ford, Michael Gruber, John Partridge
  • The Dry Salvages, 1941
  • A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, 1941 (with an essay on Rudyard Kipling)
  • Little Gidding, 1942
  • Introducing James Joyce: A Selection of Joyce’s Prose by T.S. Eliot, 1942 (with an introductory note)
  • Four Quartets, 1943
    - Neljä kvartettoa (suom. Juha Silvo, 2007)
  • What Is a Classic?, 1945
  • Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1948
  • The Undergraduate Poems of T.S. Eliot, 1949
  • The Cocktail Party: A Comedy, 1950
    - Coctailkutsut (suom. E. S. Repo ja Ville Repo, 1951)
    - Films: 1960 (TV film), directed by Jean Vernier, adapted by Henri Fluchères; Die Cocktailparty, 1964 (TV film), prod. Hessischer Rundfunk (West Germany), dir. Ulrich Lauterbach; Koktel, 1967 (TV drama), prod. Radiotelevizija Beograd (Yugoslavia), dir. Mira Trailovic; 1967 (TV drama), dir. Michael Elliott, featuring Liv Ullman, Glaes Gill
  • The Value and Use of Cathedrals in England To-Day , 1952
  • Poetry and Drama, 1951
  • The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950, 1952 (enl. ed., 1962)
  • Selected Prose, 1953 (edited by John Hayward)
  • Religious Drama: Mediaeval and Modern, 1954
  • The Cultivation of Christmas Trees, 1954 (illustrated by David Jones)
  • The Confidential Clerk: A Play, 1954
    - Yksityissihteeri (suom. Eino S. Repo, Ville Repo, 1955)
    - Der Privatsekretär, 1977 (TV drama), prod. Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (West Germany), directed by Thomas Land
  • On Poetry and Poets, 1957
  • The Elder Statesman: A Play, 1958
  • Geoffrey Faber, 1889-1961, 1961
  • George Herbert, 1962
  • Collected Poems 1909-1962, 1962
  • Collected Plays, 1962
  • Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley, 1964 (Eliot's Ph.D. dissertation, finished in 1916)
  • To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings, 1965
  • Poems Written in Early Youth 1967
  • The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot, 1969 
  • The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, 1971 (edited by Valerie Eliot)
  • Selected Prose, 1975 (edited by Frank Kermode)
  • The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 1, 1898-1922, 1988 (edited by Valerie Eliot)
  • Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917, 1997 (edited by Christopher Ricks)
  • The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 2, 1923-1925, 2009 (edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton)
  • The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 3, 1926-1927, 2012  (edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton)
  • The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 4, 1928-1929, 2012 (edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton)


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