Through the centuries, decades, and years the world has come by many amazing authors and poets but there are always that select renowned few that will stick out in your memory, one of which being Thomas Stearns Eliot. As you read on you will be taken through the journey of T.S. Eliot’s amazing and intriguing life, and his works of poetry.
The authoritative prose style he developed in his 20’s helped him re-establish the premises upon which poetry was read, evaluated, and written. In writing strange and impersonal seeming poems written out of his own personal torments, he helped redirect the course of twentieth-century poetry in English. Proving to be such a pivotal part in literary history T.S. Eliot has without a doubt gained his spot in literature, being a poet, playwright, literary critic, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and a leader of the modernist movement in literature.
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T.S. Eliot was born on September 26, 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the seventh and last child of Henry Ware Eliot, a brick manufacturer, and Charlotte Stearns Eliot, who herself was a poet. Both parents’ families had emigrated from England to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. The poet’s paternal grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot had moved to St. Louis in the 1830s where he became a Unitarian Minister but he still kept a very close New England connection.
As a young boy T.S. Eliot attended Miss Locke’s Primary School and Smith Academy Record, graduating high school in 1905. He spent the year following his graduation at Milton Academy, a private prep school in Massachusetts. In late September 1906, he began to study at Harvard University. There he took classes from professors such as Paul Elmer More and Irving Abbott, who both would later become Eliot’s main influence in his writing career. They will both influence Eliot through his classicism and emphasis on tradition. Also, Eliot studied the poetry of Dante, who would soon be Eliot’s prime source of inspiration and enthusiasm.
In 1909, Eliot earned a B.A. at Harvard and stayed to earn a master’s degree in English literature. Leaving at the beginning of the fall in the following year, Eliot went off to Paris to spend a year taking courses at the Sorbonne, writing, reading and mostly soaking up the atmosphere. When Eliot returned to America, he also returned to Harvard and continued on to take graduate courses in philosophy and also served as a teaching assistant. In the academic year of 1914-1915, Eliot was awarded a traveling fellowship, he chose to study in Germany, but the outbreak of WW 1 in August 1914 caused him to leave the country after only a few weeks. After his experience in Germany was cut short, he made his way to London, England, which would become his home for the remaining fifty years of his life. Through a classmate of his from Harvard, Eliot met Ezra Pound on September 22, 1914. Pound would soon become a great influence over the development of Eliot’s work and his literary career. While studying in London Eliot wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, which would soon turn out to be one of his most famous poems.
Spring, following year, Eliot met Vivien Haigh-Wood, a strong young woman who intrigued him because she was the polar opposite to everything he had grown used to in his life. After knowing each other only a short two months, Eliot and Haigh-Wood wed on June 26, 1915. To please his parents, Eliot reluctantly finished his doctoral dissertation and submitted it to Harvard, yet he never completed his degree or became a professor.
The year 1915 also held much more for Eliot, that year his “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” appeared in the June issue of the Chicago magazine Poetry, this became Eliot’s first major publication. This poem showed Eliot’s ease to find the rhythm in his wording, and ability to make striking images with words.
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table:
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels..”
-Excerpt from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Eliot uses imagery of urban life in a context of poetic intensity. Some may say that modern poetry begins in the third line of “Prufrock”. This poem intricately describes the seeming elegant yet superficial world of his years in Boston and Cambridge(Harvard years), especially alluding to his experiences with women in particular. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” became the central piece of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), a collection that only contained twelve poems.
Briefly, in 1915 and 1916 Eliot taught school, then worked in Lloyd’s Bank for several years beginning in 1917. In 1922 Eliot would found The Criterion, a journal where he would write and publish essays and volumes of literary and social criticism. He would not achieve financial security until he joined the publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer(later to be Faber and Faber) in 1925. The stress of overworking himself, exhaustion, and the tensions of his marriage finally took its toll when Eliot had a nervous breakdown in 1921.
He recuperated in a sanitarium in Lausanne, Switzerland. During his stay he finished writing The Waste Land, a poem more than four hundred lines long. After recommendations from Ezra Pound to omit much material from the poem, The Waste Land was published in 1922, it quickly became the most controversial and infamous example of new poetry.
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee…”
-Excerpt from “The Waste Land”
Conservative critics found it lacking orderly continuity because of its rapid shifts of the speaker, its allusions and quotations, languages, and its pages of notes provided from the author himself. On the other end of the spectrum, readers of more advance and modern tastes were intrigued by the description of the filthy society, and the empty spiritual values at the time of World War 1. But until Eliot died, he was the only one who knew the meaning of his poem.
In actuality, the poem had do to with Eliot’s personal life and was somewhat of an autobiography. It was clear that the descriptions in the poem were of his marital tension with Vivien and the end of their physical love, later they would separate and Vivien would spend the rest of her life institutionalized in a nursing home.
In 1927 Eliot became a British citizen and a member of the Church of England. Despite the fact that he was one of the most modern poets and writers of his time, his newfound conservatism had come increasingly overt, as shown in his famous declaration in 1928. Some of his writings dismayed many of his admirers, particularly when he expressed his love for a society built around the Christian church, and suggested that such a society could only afford a limited number of “free-thinking Jews”. His comments led many to believe him to be a racist, and an undeniable anti-Semitism in Eliot’s mindset.
Religious themes became a vital part of Eliot’s poetry, going from “Journey Of The Magi”(1927), to other lines published in the series of pamphlets, through Ash-Wednesday(1930), to Murder In The Cathedral(1939), the titles alone gave the immediate influence of religion in his writing. His last major work of non-dramatic poetry was Four Quartets(1943), which was four previously published poems gathered into one volume.
This volume of poetry represented the peak of Eliot’s literary creation, and to others, it lacked the dynamic tension that had been represented in some of Eliot’s earlier works such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land. It is evident that Eliot’s earlier writings were mostly influenced by his inspiration Dante, but that his later poetry was mainly influenced by the Church of England and his dedication and a strong belief in Christianity.
In January of 1957, Eliot surprised and shocked everyone who knew him, when he married Valeria Fletcher, his secretary at Faber and Faber. Many were shocked because of the difference in their ages, Eliot was sixty-eight years old and Fletcher as thirty years old. After a painful and stressful first marriage, Eliot was ready to start over and marry once again. Eliot, in the last years of his life, enjoyed his marriage, gaining the physical closeness with Fletcher that he never had with his first wife. Due to his ailing health, his happiness would be short-lived. After fighting emphysema for several years, he died in his home in London on January 4, 1965, just six days before his eighth wedding anniversary.
In the sixty years from 1905 to his death in 1965, Eliot published some incredible 600 articles and reviews. It is almost impossible to overstate that Eliot was a talented and wide range writer, ranging from writing of his personal insecurities in his marriage, to later in his life, his love for the Church of England. He was not afraid to turn heads with his writing, nor was he afraid to voice his feelings and opinions in his poetry even though it may have disgruntled others. Eliot’s writing style of an unrhymed verse and his methods of literary analysis has been a major influence on English and American critical writing that came after him.
Through his essays and especially through his own poetic change in writing he played a major role in establishing the modernist conception of poetry. It is undeniable that T.S. Eliot changed the outlook and style of writing of modern poetry today. Eliot impressed people with his sudden change in writing style, and was respected for his risky topics and opinions, and even cause controversy with his beliefs, but you cannot overlook the fact that T.S. Eliot changed and helped developed the way all poets write today with his writing style.
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