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Eliot, T. S. (1888-1965)

Published onMar 06, 2024
Eliot, T. S. (1888-1965)

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

Used by permission of the Poetry Foundation

The 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, T.S. Eliot is highly distinguished as a poet, a literary critic, a dramatist, an editor, and a publisher. In 1910 and 1911, while still a college student, he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in Poetry magazine, and other poems that are landmarks in the history of modern literature. Eliot’s most notable works include The Waste Land (1922), Four Quartets (1943), and the play Murder in the Cathedral (1935). Eliot’s awards and honors include the British Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature. His play The Cocktail Party won the 1950 Tony Award for Best Play. In 1964, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats was famously adapted in 1981 into the musical Cats, which won seven Tony Awards. Despite his enduring popularity, Eliot and his work have been criticized as having prejudiced views, particularly anti-Semitism.

T.S. Eliot (Thomas Stearns Eliot) was born September 26, 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri. He was educated at Smith Academy in St. Louis (1898–1905); Milton Academy in Massachusetts (1905–1906); Harvard University (BA, June 1909; MA, February 1911; PhD courses, October 1911–May 1914); University of Paris-Sorbonne (October 1910–June 1911); and Merton College, Oxford University (October 1914–May 1915). He devoted a further year (1915–1916) to a doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of F.H. Bradley, eventually published in 1964.

In 1927, T.S. Eliot became a British citizen. In 1915, he married his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood (Vivienne Eliot). The marriage was thought to have influenced Eliot’s bleak masterpiece The Waste Land. After 1933, Vivienne suffered from mental illness, and the two lived separately until she died in 1947. In 1957, at the age of 68, Eliot married Esmé Valerie Fletcher (Valerie Eliot), his secretary at Faber & Faber since 1950—she was almost 40 years his junior. Valerie Eliot preserved her husband’s literary legacy until she passed away in 2012 at the age of 86.

Eliot was almost as renowned a literary critic as he was a poet. From 1916 through 1921, he contributed approximately 100 reviews and articles to various periodicals. He also made significant contributions as an editor and a publisher. From 1922 to 1939, Eliot edited a major journal, the Criterion, and from 1925 to 1965, he was an editor and a director in the publishing house of Faber & Faber.

Several of Eliot’s earliest poems were published first in association with the college literary magazine the Harvard Advocate. At least one of Eliot’s lifelong friendships, that with fellow poet Conrad Aiken, was formed in this nursery of writers and poets.

Eliot’s career as a poet can be reasonably organized into three periods—the first coincided with his studies in Boston and Paris, culminating in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1911. The second coincided with World War I and the financial and marital stress of his early years in London, culminating in The Waste Land in 1922. The third coincided with Eliot’s angst at the economic depression and the rise of Nazism, culminating in the wartime Four Quartets in 1943. The poems of the first period were preceded by only a few exercises published in school magazines, but in 1910 and 1911, he wrote four poems that introduced themes to which, with variation and development, he returned time and again: “Portrait of a Lady,” “Preludes,” “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” 

Between the poems of 1910–1911 and The Waste Land in 1922, Eliot lived through several experiences crucial in understanding his development as a poet. His decision to put down roots or to discover roots in Europe stands, together with his first marriage to Vivienne Eliot and his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, as the most important of his life. His Harvard friend Aiken, who had met Ezra Pound and showed him a copy of “Prufrock,” preceded Eliot in London. He called on Pound September 22, 1914, and Pound immediately adopted Eliot as a cause, promoting his poetry and introducing him to William Butler Yeats and other artists. 

Both T.S. Eliot and his mentor Ezra Pound espoused biased and harmful views in their poetry; Pound was a known fascist, and Eliot’s poetry contains anti-Semitic language. Critics including Anthony Julius have read Eliot and his work as degrading of Jewish people and culture, citing “Gerontion” and Eliot’s lectures as primary sources. 

In 1915, Pound arranged for the publication of “Prufrock” in Poetry magazine. In 1917, Pound facilitated the publication by Egoist Press of Prufrock and Other Observations. He continued to play a central role in Eliot’s life and work through the early 1920s. Pound influenced the form and content of Eliot’s next group of poems, the quatrains in Poems (1919). More famously, he changed the shape of The Waste Land by urging Eliot to cut several long passages.

T.S. Eliot died in 1965.

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