Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Eliot, perhaps the most significant of the new wave of Symbolists of the 1920’s, startled the world of poetry and spoke for a lost generation in The Waste Land, engaged literary critics with his landmark book of criticism, The Sacred Wood, and wrote the most successful verse play of the twentieth century, The Cocktail Party.
Although Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in and lived his early life in St. Louis, his family was so New England in its outlook that it can hardly be identified as Midwestern. Eliot’s grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, was a Unitarian clergyman whose religious zeal brought him to St. Louis in 1834, shortly after graduation from Harvard’s Divinity School. He founded a Unitarian church in St. Louis and then went on to establish three schools, a poor fund, and a sanitary commission in the city. His crowning triumph, however, was in founding Washington University in 1872.
Eliot was the youngest of seven children, one of whom died in infancy. His sister Abigail was nineteen when Eliot was born, his only brother, Henry, nine. Eliot’s parents, Henry Ware and Charlotte Champe Stearns Eliot, were in their forties when their last child was born. They had been married for twenty years. The father was president of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company. Both of Eliot’s parents lived in the shadow of the renowned grandfather. Eliot’s father suffered the guilt of not having become a clergyman. Charlotte Eliot, an accomplished person by most standards, believed that she was a failure because she had not attended college and because her verse, written mostly for friends but occasionally published in local newspapers, had brought her no recognition. Charlotte was not comfortable around infants, so during Eliot’s early years, a nurse looked after him.
The family spent summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, at Eastern Point, the summer home Eliot’s father built in 1896. Eliot knew early that regardless of where he lived, he was a New Englander. Although he was a Unitarian as well, his nurse had exposed him to services in the Roman Catholic Church, to which she belonged. In 1927, the year Eliot became a British subject, he was also confirmed in the Anglican Church.
Eliot received a solid classical education at Smith Academy in St. Louis. In preparation for his entrance to Harvard in 1906, Eliot attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts. At Harvard, he finished his bachelor’s degree in three years. Eliot stayed on from 1909 to 1914 as a graduate student in English and philosophy. Following the lead of Arthur Symons’ The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), Eliot read the French Symbolists, especially Jules Laforgue, in whose literary tracks he followed.
Awarded a Sheldon Travelling Fellowship in 1914, Eliot planned to travel on the Continent, then to take up residence at Merton College, Oxford, to write his thesis on F. H. Bradley. In July, 1914, he went to Marburg, Germany, for a summer program in philosophy but left after two weeks because war was imminent. He married Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1915. Eliot, five feet, eleven inches tall, was handsome and slender, although stooped, sallow, and sad-eyed. Always meticulously dressed and polished, he fit easily into British life. He visited the United States only occasionally after 1915.
Shortly after Eliot arrived in England from Marburg, his Harvard classmate, Conrad Aiken, introduced him to Ezra Pound, who became the most influential literary influence in Eliot’s life. Pound identified “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” written on Eliot’s first trip to Europe in 1910-1911, as the poem most likely to establish Eliot’s literary reputation. Pound persuaded Harriet Monroe to publish the poem in Poetry, which she did, in June, 1915. Subsequently, Eliot’s poems appeared often in Poetry. In 1917, his first book, Prufrock and Other Observations, was published in London.
At thirty, Eliot had two books in print: Prufrock and Other Observations and Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry (1917). By his fortieth birthday, he had twenty-three more books in print, including collections of his poetry, several books of criticism that dislocated many entrenched ideas about literature, and three dramatic works, Sweeney Agonistes (1932; verse play), The Rock (1934), and Murder in the Cathedral (1935).
The most influential of his books was The Waste Land (1922), a long poem dedicated to Ezra Pound, who suggested the extensive revisions Eliot made in the manuscript. The poem, which deals largely with the question of human alienation and estrangement in the post-World War I era, is a series of closely related sections whose unifying allegorical thread is the search for the Holy Grail. It depicts pessimistically humankind’s greed and lust, its need and desire for redemption. No poem could have been more right for its time.
The Waste Land was unique in that Eliot supplied extensive notes and references for it, leading readers to view it as a more formidable document than it actually is. Eliot later confessed that he added the documentation, much of which is misleading, to fill space. The poem is more important for its fresh and vigorous use of language and for its control of metrics than early critics, misled by the documentation, credited it.
The Waste Land broke totally from the post-Romantic literary tradition, and it had obvious roots in such French Symbolists as Paul Verlaine...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26, 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri. His celebrated statement of his allegiances in For Lancelot Andrewes—“classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”—ran counter to the family tradition of Unitarianism; his grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, descendant of a pastor of Boston’s Old North Church, established the Unitarian Church of the Messiah in St. Louis. Eliot’s father himself was a renegade, refusing the ministry for what was eventually the presidency of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company. His mother, Charlotte Stearns, was a descendant of one of the judges in the Salem witch trials. An intellectual woman, Stearns began a career as a schoolteacher and eventually became active in children’s causes.
As Matthews notes, the family saying “Tace et fac (‘Shut up and get on with it’)” suggests a household in which indulgence gave way to duty. As a child, Eliot was considered delicate but precocious. At Smith Academy, he took the Latin prize and excelled in English. Deemed too young at seventeen to enter Harvard, he was sent first to Milton Academy. At Harvard, he was conservative and studious. He became an editor of the Advocate, a literary magazine, but his decision to accelerate his undergraduate work to pursue a master’s degree left him small leisure for friends, such as Conrad Aiken. Important influences during his college years included his discovery of Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), a book that led him to imitate the verse of Jules Laforgue; his love for Elizabethan drama; and, finally, his acquaintance with Irving Babbitt, the leader of the New Humanism, an anti-Romantic movement that stressed the ethical nature of experience. Certainly, Babbitt’s influence led Eliot to spend one of his graduate years in France, where, resisting the attractive Bohemianism open to a writer of his talents, he decided to pursue a degree in philosophy at Harvard, where he came under the influence of Bertrand Russell.
The fellowship that Harvard awarded Eliot in 1914 proved to alter the course of his life. Enrolled in Merton College, at Oxford, he began his long friendship with Ezra Pound , under whose aegis Eliot published “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Poetry magazine in 1915. In England, Eliot met and married his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Described as a beautiful and...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
To see Thomas Stearns Eliot’s end in his beginning is to recall that Andrew Eliot (1627-1704) emigrated from East Coker, Somerset, to Beverly, Massachusetts, in a century that his twentieth century scion would explore and reexplore in poetry and criticism for most of his life. Eliot’s grandfather, the Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot, forsook his native New England and went with missionary zeal to the outpost of St. Louis, Missiouri, in 1834. There he founded the (first) Unitarian church of the Messiah and later founded Washington University (originally, Eliot Seminary), where he became chancellor (1870-1887). In the year after William Eliot’s death, on September 25, 1888, Thomas Stearns Eliot, the seventh child of a second...
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T. S. Eliot began his career as a modernist poet, breaking with the traditions of nineteenth century literary standards and creating a new and innovative approach to the way poetry is written, read, and discussed. Born into a prominent and wealthy family, Eliot enjoyed a privileged education. After finishing two degrees at Harvard, he studied in Germany, at the Sorbonne in Paris, and at Merton College, Oxford. He settled in London, where he worked for Lloyds Bank, and in 1927 he became a British citizen.
Eliot is often associated with the American artists and writers who, dissatisfied with what they perceived as a decline...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888, the youngest child of a family with four daughters and a son. Eliot’s grandfather, the Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot, arrived in St. Louis from Boston in 1834 and quickly rose to prominence. The Reverend Eliot made his mark not only as a Unitarian minister and abolitionist but also as an educator, becoming chancellor of Washington University in 1872. As a boy, Eliot was much influenced by his grandfather and by his family’s New England heritage. His summers were usually spent in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where his father had built a vacation home. His mother, Charlotte Champe Stearns, herself a poet, also reinforced in Eliot a sense of his...
(The entire section is 1117 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Many readers of modern poetry know the twentieth century as “The Age of Eliot.” Be that as it may, T. S. Eliot’s stature ranks him among the two or three great English-language poets of the last hundred years (the others being, perhaps, Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats).
This is so for three reasons. First, as Pound pointed out, Eliot was the century’s poetic forerunner: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” stands at the threshold of the twentieth century’s modernist tradition. Second, certain of Eliot’s poems—especially The Waste Land—seem to convey the anonymity, confusion, and urbanity of the time better than those of any other poet. Third, Eliot was perhaps the last “Man of...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Thomas Stearns Eliot is so much the dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in English in the first half of the twentieth century that some have called that period the Age of Eliot. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1888, into a prominent family with New England roots. His grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, founded a Unitarian church in St. Louis and then founded Washington University, establishing a family tradition of public service and piety. Eliot’s father, Henry Ware Eliot, deviated from this tradition by going into the brick business but passed the basic Eliot ethos on to his son. T. S. Eliot’s mother, Charlotte Champe Eliot, was active in social reforms and was an amateur poet and biographer. Eliot...
(The entire section is 997 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888, the son of Henry and Charlotte (Stearns) Eliot, whose ancestors were among the early settlers of seventeenth century Massachusetts. Eliot’s grandfather, the Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot, left New England in 1834 to evangelize an outpost of civilization at St. Louis. There he founded the (first) Unitarian Church of the Messiah and Eliot Seminary which, under his leadership as chancellor (1870-1887), became Washington University.
Eliot’s early schooling at Smith Academy and his summers at coastal Rockport and Gloucester, Massachusetts,...
(The entire section is 981 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Eliot’s multiyear quest “to purify the language of the tribe” found its reward in his reception of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948—“for the entire corpus,” he supposed. A poet in the forefront of modernism whose later work sought to give life to a vigorous union of the poetic and the spiritual, Eliot’s poetry, drama, and criticism remain cultural forces to which successive generations have had recourse in probing the same issues—sometimes disquieting issues—that Eliot had examined before them.
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T. S. Eliot was bom in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888, into a family that stressed the importance of education and tradition. His paternal grandfather had moved to St. Louis from Boston and founded Washington University; the young Eliot entered Harvard University in 1906 to study French literature and philosophy (he received a baccalaureate degree in 1909 and a master's degree in 1910). In 1910, Eliot attended the Sorbonne and studied under the philosopher Henri Bergson; he later studied at Oxford and completed his dissertation on philosopher F. H. Bradley in 1916, when he was living in London with his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood.
During this phase of his life, Eliot was befriended by die American poet Ezra Pound who helped him shape and publish his poetry, specifically "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" which first appeared in the journal Poetry. 1917 saw the publication of Eliot's first volume of verse, Prufrock and Other Observations which was greeted with enthusiasm by its readers. Eliot's success, however, was not enough to relive the stress he felt from his failing marriage; he suffered an emotional breakdown and sought treatment at a sanitorium in Switzerland. It was there that he completed the first draft of what is regarded as his best—and most difficult to interpret—work, The Waste Land, Upon returning to London, Eliot edited the poem (at Pound's request) and published it in the American journal the Dial. More and more readers began paying attention to Eliot's new verse forms, which reflected the angst and desperation of people who had just lived through the terror and chaos of World War I.
Eliot renewed himself personally as he had the world of poetry: in 1927, he became a British subject and a confirmed member of the Anglican church. During this same year, he stated his controversial creed of conservatism, describing himself as "Anglo-Catholic in religion, royalist in politics and classicist in literature." In 1930, another of his important poems, Ash Wednesday, was published, and in 1932 Eliot returned to the United States to become the Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. He was almost completely estranged from his wife and remained in the United States to lecture at various universities. In 1934 his first play, Sweeney Agonistes, was produced, followed the same year by his second drama, The Rock. However, it was 1935's Murder in the Cathedral that drew as much attention to Eliot's playwriting as his poetry. His next play, The Family Reunion, was produced in 1939, followed in 1943 by the poem Four Quartets. Vivien died in 1947 and in 1948 Eliot received the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Order of Merit by George VI. His next play, The Cocktail Party, was produced in 1949 and proved to be a critical and commercial success. Two other plays followed: The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958). During his playwriting career, Eliot continued to write verse, essays, and volumes of criticism. He was remarried in 1957, this time to Valerie Fletcher, to whom he remained married until his death in 1965. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.