T.S. Eliot was a man of two continents, a prodigious poet who wrote relatively few creative works, a prolific literary critic, a bank employee, and a Nobel laureate. His name, along with writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, has come to define British modernist fiction. Eliot’s most famous pieces, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, are among the most widely taught and studied poems in English literature, and he remains one of the most influential poets of the 20th century.
Although he wrote much of his most famous work in Europe, Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri to a bourgeois family from Boston on September 26, 1888. The spirit of his American upbringing would never leave him, and he would later write that his poetry would have been quite different if he was born in England. Henry, his father, was the president of a brick producing company and his mother, Charlotte, was herself a poet and nourished her precocious son’s artistic bent (Ackroyd 18-19). Eliot’s family knew he was destined for greatness, and from an early age he began composing poems, satires, and comic strips. As a young man, Eliot was quite and well-dressed. A congenital double hernia forced him to wear a truss for most of his life and prevented him from participating in sports (Ackroyd 26). Although he remained aloof and self-conscious during his school days, he fostered great academic talent.
In 1906, Eliot matriculated at Harvard where he studied English and French literature, German grammar, Medieval history, and philosophy (Ackroyd 32). During his college years, he discovered and was deeply affected by French Symbolists poets, especially Jules Laforgue (Ackroyd 34). After graduation, Eliot spent some time in Paris, further immersing himself in the French poetry scene, and befriended several French artists and publishers, such Jacques Riviere and Jean Verdenal. Eliot eventually returned to Harvard to receive his masters in philosophy and take on the conventional life his family imaged for him. He planned on becoming an academic and began studying Eastern and Buddhist thought, studies which would later influence his poetry.
In 1914, Eliot won a fellowship that allowed him to study at Merton College, Oxford, to continue his work of F. H. Bradley. The next year, Eliot would leave Oxford for London, where he would briefly teach at a grammar school and then obtain a position at Lloyds Bank. In June of 1915, Eliot married the vivacious Vivienne Haigh-Wood, perhaps to solidify his new life in England. The marriage, however, would prove acidic for both of them. Vivienne’s physical and mental health deteriorated, driving Eliot to the brink of a nervous breakdown. On recommendation from his doctor, Eliot left for Switzerland to convalesce. While there, he finished the draft of a long poem he was working on, The Waste Land, and handed it to his friend Ezra Pound for revising before returning to London.
|Eliot Reading at Boston College|
Back in England, when not at the office, Eliot continued to exercise his artistic prowess. He wrote literary criticism, founded magazines, and composed more poetry. From 1917 to 1919, he was assistant editor of The Egoist magazine, and in 1922 he created and became editor of The Criterion, in which many of his works were published. Three years later, he would leave his job at Lloyds bank and join and eventually direct the publishing firm Faber & Gwyer, which would later be renamed Faber & Faber.
1927 would bring two of the most important changes in Eliot’s life and literary career: he became an English citizen and converted to the Anglican Church. Whereas his earlier work, such as “Prufrock” and The Waste Land, was concerned with social paralysis and cultural decay, his writings after the conversion took on a religious and penitent tone, such as in “Ash Wednesday” or “Four Quartets.” In 1933, Eliot ended his intolerable relationship with the now mentally unsound Vivien. She was committed to an asylum, where she would die five years later. Eliot, however, finally discovered the romantic bliss he never found with Vivien in 1943, when he married his secretary, Valerie Fletcher.
As Eliot aged, he would eventually move on from poetry to write several successful plays, including Murder at the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party. In 1948, he was awarded both the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize in Literature for his contributions to modernist literature. Eliot, a habitual smoker throughout most of his life, died of emphysema complications on January 4, 1965. Upon his instructions, Eliot’s body was cremated and left in a church in East Coker, home of his ancestors (Ackroyd 335).
To learn more, watch this short video: A Brief Introduction to the Writings of T.S. Eliot
Read further on Eliot
Imagism and Modernism and Beyond
Ackroyd, Peter. T.S. Eliot. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984. Print.
“Eliot at his desk”
Created by Greg LaLuna