T. S. Eliot Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
T. S. Eliot T. S. Eliot Image via writersmug.com

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 and Arthur Rimbaud, in the philosophical quest for salvation found in the works of Dante and Vergil, and in the English metaphysical poetry of John Donne and John Dryden. The Waste Land is the first truly modern poem in English in the twentieth century.

It is remarkable that during Eliot’s most productive period he was variously a teacher, a bank employee, and, for more than thirty years, a member of the publishing house of Faber and Gwyer, after 1929 known as Faber and Faber. Eliot could write for no more than three hours a day, usually composing directly to his typewriter as he stood at a lectern. He continued his work in publishing because he was never convinced that his writing was of sufficient quality that he should give over his life to it. As an editor, he was generous with his time and advice to young writers.

Religiously orthodox, Eliot declared himself to be also a neoclassicist and a royalist, stands that were uncommon among many intellectuals of his day. Viewed against the backdrop of the late twentieth century, Eliot, despite the heterodoxy of his poetic style and of his critical judgments, seems conservative, often to the point of being reactionary.

Religious identity was a continuing theme in Eliot’s poetry and drama, reflecting the personal religious conflicts he experienced. Eliot’s Ariel poems and Ash Wednesday (1930) express some of the concerns he had about the acceptance of religious belief and about the discipline such belief requires. His early dramas, most notably Murder in the Cathedral, a play in the Greek tradition that uses a chorus, reflect his own religious search.

Eliot’s philosophical stance and literary methodology were antithetical to Romanticism, which emphasizes emotion over intellect. Eliot’s artistic aim was to be as objective as possible but to produce writing that would serve a social function. This aim led him to experiment with drama in the 1930’s, a decade in which Murder in the Cathedral was his greatest triumph. His Orestian The Family Reunion (1939), although it contains some superb writing, confused audiences and enjoyed little popular success.

With the onset of World War II, Eliot wrote more poetry than drama, resurrecting “Burnt Norton” (1936) as the first poem of Four Quartets (1943), which also contained “East Coker” (1940), “The Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942), poems that deeply reflect his own past and, by extension, the collective past of the human race. Each of the four poems is autonomous, but taken collectively, they make a statement about humankind that has an encompassing philosophical and anthropological impact.

Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, the same year in which he received the Order of Merit from King George VI. By that time, Eliot was generally considered the most important poet writing in English. He heard of his selection for the Nobel Prize while he was in Princeton as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies. There, he worked on The Cocktail Party (1949), which he had begun before he left England.

The play, which enjoyed enormous popular acceptance, was followed by The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958). The later plays were concerned with the philosophical and moral issues with which Eliot had long been grappling, but they avoided the pitfalls of The Family Reunion and delivered their didactic message indirectly.

The Cocktail Party, witty and delightfully farcical, was Eliot’s greatest commercial success, although the musical extravaganza, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats (1981), based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), has become one of the most commercially successful shows of the twentieth century, having far surpassed The Cocktail Party in popular appeal.

Eliot, ever the gentleman in appearance and actions, was clearly an elitist. This austere posture, however, did not prevent his helping young writers of promise throughout his life, which was neither easy nor happy. His first wife, Vivien, from whom he was separated in 1932, was mentally unstable and was institutionalized for much of their married life. She died in 1947.

On January 10, 1957, Eliot married Valerie Fletcher, who had worked for him at Faber and Faber for eight years. In their nearly eight years together before Eliot’s death, Valerie, who keenly understood and appreciated Eliot’s work, brought more light and joy into his life than he had experienced since he reached adulthood.


History will probably treat T. S. Eliot’s poetry with more interest than it treats his plays or, perhaps, his literary criticism, both of which will likely be read more for their ability to elucidate his enigmatic poetry than for their not inconsiderable merits. Clearly, Eliot was not only one of the most prolific writers of his age but also a man of immense social conscience and artistic integrity. Like his grandfather, Eliot was convinced that one’s purpose in life is to build enduring structures and institutions that serve humanity.

The Eliot of the 1920’s spoke directly to the intellectuals of the so-called Lost Generation, who also heeded the call of writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. Eliot, however, was made of different stuff than the expatriates who flocked to Paris and its environs after World War I. Eliot constructed his castles of the mind while he led the routine existence of a young, newly married businessman struggling hard in a quite humdrum bank job to sustain himself and his wife. If the indecisive prewar J. Alfred Prufrock was essentially the early Eliot, as surely this self-caricature was, the later poetry, especially The Waste Land, is a depersonalized commentary on a generation that seems truly lost socially, religiously, and ethically, a world of displaced and shadowy figures.

Eliot’s break from the Romantic poets and his conscious experiments with new poetic rhythms that conform to normal speech patterns established him as a pioneering poet who dared to turn from established conventions in both the style and substance of poetry. In doing so, he led the way for poets such as W. H. Auden and Robert Lowell, whose work has close affinities to that of Eliot. At the same time, The Waste Land forged the way for the long, modernist poem, comparable in scope to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855). William Carlos Williams’ Paterson (1946-1958), Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930), and Pound’s The Cantos (1925-1969) are notable among the long poems that owe a considerable debt to The Waste Land.


Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot. London: Hamilton, 1984. An engrossing, accurate biography of Eliot, with sensitive comments about his artistic genesis. Ackroyd knows his subject well and presents it engagingly.

Canary, Robert H. T. S. Eliot: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1982. A striking, comprehensive consideration of Eliot’s critical standing based on half a century of criticism. Canary presents opposing points of view fairly. His approach reflects Eliot’s dictum that the writer must be objective.

Gallup, Donald, ed. T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography. Rev. ed. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1969. A comprehensive bibliography of Eliot and of writing about him until 1968. Excellent within the time period it covers.

Gardner, Helen. The Art of T. S. Eliot. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1950. Despite its age, this book remains a mainstay of Eliot criticism, especially penetrating in its discussion of Four Quartets. Exceptionally knowledgeable about Eliot’s use of images and metrical experimentation.

Litz, A. Walton, ed. Eliot in His Time. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. The best collection to date of critical essays on Eliot’s work. Better balanced than other collections that concentrate on one or two of Eliot’s works.

Matthiessen, Francis O. The Achievement of T. S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958. This remains the quintessential book on Eliot. This edition contains a valuable chapter by C.L. Barber on Eliot’s later work.

Schneider, Elisabeth. T. S. Eliot: The Pattern in the Carpet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Schneider succeeds well in her attempt to show that Eliot’s work seen collectively represents a consistent, coherent philosophical statement. She gives more attention to Eliot’s poetry than to his plays and criticism and shows the development of his thought and the conscious building of his philosophical and aesthetic viewpoints.

Smith, Grover C., Jr. T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956. This seminal book presents a complete survey of Eliot’s major sources and interprets them in terms of his writing. As useful a guide to Eliot as any in print.

T. S. Eliot Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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 entrancing individual, she nevertheless suffered from a nervous disability that had devastating emotional effects. In increasing financial difficulty, Eliot worked as an usher at a boys’ school, an employee at Lloyd’s Bank, a freelance journalist, and an assistant editor of The Egoist.

Eliot enjoyed many fruitful friendships, among them those with Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, and I. A. Richards. From 1921 to 1925, when he was publishing reviews in the Times Literary Supplement, Eliot’s health deteriorated; the unforeseen result of an enforced vacation was The Waste Land. In 1922, he founded The Criterion, a literary quarterly that was sponsored financially by Lady Rothermere. After a long period of ill health and self-doubt, he joined the Anglican Church. His biographer suggests a number of reasons for the decision, including certain social and “aesthetic” attractions of this particular denomination, the authoritarian cast of the Church, and the long Church “pedigree” that satisfied Eliot’s belief in the importance of tradition. His decision to become a British citizen followed soon thereafter, partly, Matthews believes, because Eliot felt that in the United States “the aristocratic tradition of culture was dead.”

Eliot’s 1932 return to his native land was, like his first journey away, a new start, for it began his separation from Vivienne, for whom he had become more nurse than husband. To be sure, the attempt to escape from her neurotic persecution made his middle years unhappy ones, years complicated further by the exigencies of World War II. Despite such distractions, however, these were the years in which Eliot began his career as a playwright.

Quite clearly, Eliot’s religious conversion provided the themes not only for his poetry but also for his plays. Events in Eliot’s personal life, including the death of his estranged wife in 1947, are also reflected in his plays. Conceivably, his sense of alienation and guilt found its way into the portrait of Harry, the putative wife-killer in The Family Reunion, as well as into the depiction of the dreary marriage faced by the Chamberlaynes in The Cocktail Party. Other elements are identifiable, such as the figure of Agatha in The Family Reunion; the only one to understand Harry’s spiritual search thoroughly, Agatha is said to be based on Emily Hale, Eliot’s longtime friend, who had been a schoolmistress at Scripps College, Smith College, and Abbot Academy. Emily was as shocked by Eliot’s second, clandestine, marriage as she was by his first; at the age of sixty-nine, Eliot married Valerie Fletcher, his secretary.

Before the arrival of that emotional security, however, Eliot had achieved other triumphs. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948, and, in the same year, received the British Empire’s Order of Merit. While he was drafting The Cocktail Party, he traveled to Princeton, New Jersey, to accept a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study. His last two plays—The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman—were not as popular as The Cocktail Party; they do, however, show an increasing understanding of the way in which human relationships may be ameliorated. Indeed, in The Elder Statesman, the love experienced by Monica and Charles seems a reflection of the happiness that Eliot himself found with his second wife. For the first time in his dramatic writing, the possibility of redemption through human love is adequately broached. Indeed, for the first time, human love seems a model of divine love rather than, as Celia observes in The Cocktail Party, a distraction or a second-best choice.

On January 4, 1965, Eliot died in London. At his request, his ashes repose at East Coker, the birthplace of his ancestors and the titular locale of one of the Four Quartets; the memorial plaque in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey was placed on January 4, 1967.

T. S. Eliot Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 son, was born to Henry and Charlotte (Stearns) Eliot. Like the Eliots, the American Stearns family hailed from seventeenth century Massachusetts: Members of both families had done what they considered the right thing in the Salem witch trials, Andrew Eliot as a juror, a Stearns as a judge. Eliot’s schooling at Smith Academy was punctuated by summers in New England, chiefly at Gloucester and Rockport, Massachusetts (on Cape Ann), not far from the Dry Salvages. After a year at Milton Academy, Eliot matriculated at Harvard College, where he received a B.A. degree (1909) and pursued graduate studies (1910-1914), completing but not defending a doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley (published, 1964).

During the years 1910 to 1917, Eliot visited Paris and Germany (1910-1911) and studied at the Sorbonne; back in Cambridge (1911-1914), he studied philosophy (with Bertrand Russell), Sanskrit, and Pali, along with other subjects, and received a fellowship stipend to study at Marburg, Germany, in 1914—an award that he promptly transferred to Merton College, Oxford, at the onset of World War I. On September 22, 1914, Eliot met Ezra Pound; it was an event that marked the forging of a spiritual bond that endured for the rest of Eliot’s life. Since much has been made of Pound’s influence on Eliot’s poetry, especially The Waste Land, it may be useful to recall Pound’s statement that Eliot had “trained himself and modernized himself on his own.” It was largely through Pound’s influence, however, that the poems of Prufrock and Other Observations were first published in American and English periodicals.

Eliot’s marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, on June 26, 1915, was followed by brief periods of teaching (High Wycombe Grammar School, Highgate School) and lecturing (Oxford University Extension Lectures, 1915-1917). In March, 1917, Eliot secured a post in the Colonial and Foreign Department of Lloyd’s Bank, London, where he worked continuously, except for three months’ leave for reasons of health in the autumn of 1921, until he joined the publishing firm of Faber and Gwynn (later Faber and Faber) in 1925. His marriage lasted until Vivien’s death in 1947, although she and Eliot were officially separated (by letter) in 1933, and thereafter, according to written accounts, they met again only once, and briefly (at one of Eliot’s lectures). Several critics have seen the extremely unhappy marriage as fundamental to some of his poems.

Eliot’s literary activity between 1916 and 1922 was prodigious: It was the time of his numerous essays and reviews for The Egoist, The Dial, the Athanaeum, the Times Literary Supplement, and many other journals, of Prufrock and Other Observations, Ara Vos Prec, Poems, and his masterpiece, The Waste Land. That work would catapult him to a prominence attained by no other poet of the twentieth century. In 1922, he assumed the editorship of The Criterion. In 1927, Eliot experienced a sea-change: First, he became a communicant in the Church of England (June 29); then he became a British subject (November). In 1928, a statement in For Lancelot Andrewes characterized his newly adopted perspectives: “The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” The formulation is one that should be approached with caution. Although accurate in some respects and misleading in others, it does help to explain the many turnings in the road from “The Hollow Men” (1925) through the Ariel poems to Ash Wednesday.

Before returning from his post as Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard (1932-1933), Eliot obtained a legal separation from his wife (to whom he had dedicated Ash Wednesday) and lectured at the University of Virginia on Christian apologetics, a subject of increasing interest for him. His poetry of the 1930’s centered on verse drama and on such disparate efforts as “Five Finger Exercises,” “Triumphal March,” and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, but the poetic highlights of the decade are Ash Wednesday, Murder in the Cathedral, and his best poem of those years, “Burnt Norton.”

The first of the poems later to comprise Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton” was followed by “East Coker” (1940), “The Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942). In the years following the publication of Four Quartets, Eliot wrote little poetry, but he kept on writing verse drama and began to enjoy generous recognition of his work; notably, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, a year after the death of Vivien. His marriage to Valerie Fletcher (January 10, 1957) marked another of the many turning points of his life—this time a turn for the better in a happy marriage. Eliot truly became, in the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s, the elder statesman of letters. His position in the history of modern poetry became unassailable.

Eliot died on January 4, 1965, survived by his wife, Valerie. His ashes were interred in the parish church at East Coker, Somerset, the church of his English ancestors, and a memorial was placed in the Poets’ Corner, Westminister Abbey.

T. S. Eliot Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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 in American cultural values, moved to Europe during and shortly after World War I. These expatriates transformed the senseless slaughter of the war and its socially disruptive aftermath into a metaphor for the general breakdown of civilization, fueled by the loss of a common cultural heritage and threatened by political destablization.

Eliot’s poetry reflects this view, often describing what he considered the decadence of contemporary life, plagued by a decay in spiritual values, a disregard for tradition, and the inability of government and religious institutions to provide significant order and meaning in life. His poems describe privileged men of culture displaced by the alienating effects of modern society; his poems also tell of victims, psychologically damaged products of a society in which transience has replaced any sense of community and the desire for novelty is purchased at the expense of quality. His characters are desperate for transcendence but impotent to effect any remedy for their spiritual malaise.

Eliot’s poetry specifically depicts the point of view of an educated, white European male alienated by cultural values he does not respect or understand. He writes from a narrow ideological base, having once described himself as “a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, an Anglo-Catholic in religion.” The technical mastery of his poetry and the acute intellectual insight of his criticism have had an enormous influence on the history of literature. Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

T. S. Eliot Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 family’s essentially New England outlook. As he matured, his sympathies shifted still farther east, to Great Britain. In his twenties, Eliot established permanent residence in England, eventually becoming a British citizen. The pull of these three very different places—the Midwest, New England, and Great Britain—is crucial to understanding Eliot both as a man and as a writer. His last great work, Four Quartets (1943), is in a sense an extended meditation on the way that history and geographical place had formed him.

Although his father, Henry Ware Eliot, was a business executive (president of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company), Eliot was encouraged by his mother to pursue literary and scholarly interests. In fact, his early education was begun under her supervision, and her love of poetry very likely sparked his own. In 1898, Eliot began attending Smith Academy in St. Louis, and in 1906, he spent a year at Milton Academy in Massachusetts before entering Harvard. He received his B.A. in philosophy in 1909.

During this period, Harvard’s department of philosophy was rich in stimulating and original thinkers, and Eliot studied under two important twentieth century philosophers, George Santayana and Irving Babbitt. He began work on his master’s at Harvard in the fall of 1909. He spent the following academic year, 1910-1911, studying in France, where he attended the lectures of another major modern philosopher, Henri Bergson. At the same time, however, Eliot became acquainted with the poetry of the nineteenth century French Symbolist poets, particularly Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Jules Laforgue. Although he had written poetry throughout his adolescence and later at Harvard, the work of the Symbolists transformed him as a writer. His verse began to change radically, culminating four years later in the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915).

The year that Eliot spent in France, his biographers agree, altered him psychologically as well. He returned to Harvard deepened by his year abroad and less content with the narrow confines of scholarship. Nevertheless, he pursued graduate work until 1914, reading Indian philosophy and studying the work of F. H. Bradley, the subject of his dissertation.

By 1915, Eliot was living in London and becoming known in literary circles there: He had met another rising American poet, Ezra Pound, who was instrumental in seeing to it that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published by Harriet Monroe in Poetry magazine (June, 1915). Pound also pushed forward the publication of Eliot’s first book, Prufrock, and Other Observations (1917).

Practical life in London was difficult for Eliot at first. He taught a variety of subjects at High Wycombe Grammar School and then at Highgate School. In 1917, he began work for Lloyds Bank as a clerk in the colonial and foreign department. At the same time, he was steadily publishing reviews and criticism in a number of well-known English journals, thus strengthening his literary reputation. In 1919, Poems was published, and in 1920 a collection of essays, The Sacred Wood, assured his stature as a critic. Then in 1922 The Waste Land appeared. Thereafter, Eliot’s position as one of the twentieth century’s leading poets was no longer in doubt.

This was also a period of severe personal stress for Eliot. He had married Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1915, and the marriage had been plagued with difficulties nearly from the outset. Both husband and wife were often ill with a variety of psychological and physical ailments, and she was eventually institutionalized. In the fall and winter of 1921-1922, Eliot was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and doctors prescribed travel and rest. It was during this period of recuperation that The Waste Land was composed.

Financial pressures also continued to weigh on Eliot, but these were relieved when, in 1922, he was given the editorship of The Criterion, a literary quarterly that Eliot managed until 1939. This position led in turn to his becoming a director of the publishing firm of Faber & Faber. He stayed with the firm until his retirement.

Throughout, his friend Pound continued to help him both in his personal life and in his literary career. The Waste Land had originally run to almost eight hundred lines, but Pound had cut the original nearly in half, tightening and focusing the work. Pound had also been a key figure in persuading Lady Rothermere, The Criterion’s financial backer, to hire Eliot as a fully salaried editor in chief. After World War II, when Pound’s reputation was badly clouded, Eliot was quick to recognize his debt to “Uncle Ez.” (It was Pound who gave Eliot his famous nickname “Possum.”)

Eliot became an Anglo-Catholic in 1927. Throughout the remainder of his life, he was to explore the meaning of Christianity in his poetry, his essays, and his drama. In fact, his first substantial dramatic work, The Rock: A Pageant Play (pr., pb. 1934), was intended to be staged within the church. Subsequent poetic dramas—especially Murder in the Cathedral (pr., pb. 1935)—were animated by religious themes.

By 1940, Eliot was one of the most notable British literary figures, a key arbiter of taste and a keen critic of modern culture. Four Quartets, his last major nondramatic work, brought together the several threads of his life—personal, historic, and religious—and capped his reputation as the foremost poet of his time. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

The Nobel was only the chief distinction among dozens of awards and honors Eliot received during the last years of his life. He had become the English-speaking world’s most distinguished man of letters, a role that he seemed to adopt easily. However, like many of the earlier roles that he had played, that of the Great Man seemed to conceal the private Eliot, a true self that he rarely revealed to anyone. The one exception here may perhaps have been his second wife, Valerie Fletcher, whom he married in 1957. His last years with her, according to Eliot himself, may have been his happiest. He died in London on January 4, 1965.

T. S. Eliot Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 Letters” in the old English literary tradition; his views on literature and the canon held ultimate authority for many years and still have an astonishing influence throughout the English-speaking world.

T. S. Eliot Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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 inherited but often struggled with the legacy of his upbringing: moral rigor, a sense of duty, an acute conscience, and an emotionally constricted rationalism.

Eliot entered Harvard University in 1906. There he was influenced by the humanism of Irving Babbitt, and, through reading Arthur Symons’s important The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), he discovered the French Symbolist poets of the nineteenth century, who would have such a great impact on his own poetry. As part of his graduate work in philosophy at Harvard, Eliot studied in Paris in 1910 and 1911 and then very briefly in Germany in 1914. The outbreak of World War I sent him to London and then to Oxford.

It was in London at this time that Eliot’s literary career began in earnest. In September of 1914 he introduced himself to Ezra Pound, another American poet who had come to London (in 1908) and was destined to become one of the most influential figures in modern literature. Upon reading Eliot’s first major poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (written in 1910-1911), Pound professed amazement at the self-styled young poet and began to promote Eliot’s career wherever possible. In 1915 Eliot entered into an unhappy marriage with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a relationship that would bring continual pain to both of them for many years. After taking various unsatisfactory teaching jobs and completing his dissertation for a Harvard Ph.D. (the degree was never awarded), Eliot began work in 1917 for Lloyds Bank of London, a position he would hold until 1925.

Eliot’s first book of poetry, Prufrock, and Other Observations, published a few months after his entering the bank, established him in the public eye as a poet of great promise. These poems treat the characteristic Eliot themes—alienation, decay (personal and societal), paralysis, spiritual emptiness—in the characteristic Eliot style. That style is marked by the use of urban settings, a mixture of vernacular and elevated language, exploration of (often sordid) consciousness, and violation of the traditional notions of rhyme, meter, and allusion. In short, Eliot breached many of the traditional rules for poetry in both form and content but in so doing created a new kind of poetry that seemed closer to modern life.

In 1920 Eliot’s first collection of literary criticism appeared as The Sacred Wood, marking the beginning of his enormous influence on modern thinking about literature. In 1921, physically and emotionally exhausted, Eliot went to a sanatorium in Switzerland to recover. While there he finished The Waste Land, considered the single most important poem of the twentieth century. Ezra Pound, whose editing played a major role in the poem’s final form, said The Waste Land justified the entire movement to remake modern poetry. It continues exploration of themes laid out in the earlier poetry but in a style that is much more experimental and difficult. Incorporating allusions in six different languages to dozens of other works of literature, drama, and music, it is a poem without a central narrative voice or discernible plot. It uses rapid shifts from scene to scene to draw a picture of the spiritual and physical decay of Western civilization, while obliquely implying a possible means of renewal. The poem scandalized some and enraptured others but left the state of poetry forever changed.

Eliot’s influence as a poet, critic, and social commentator grew throughout the next three decades. In 1927 he announced his conversion to Christianity and became a British citizen. After the publication of Ash Wednesday in 1930, a poem about the pain and struggle of spiritual renewal, Eliot turned to the writing of plays, especially verse dramas with religious themes. His most important early play was Murder in the Cathedral, first produced in Canterbury in 1935. Soon thereafter, Eliot wrote “Burnt Norton,” a poem that would later become part of Eliot’s last major work of poetry, Four Quartets. Published together for the first time in 1943, Four Quartets explores the interpenetration of the temporal world by the transcendent in the quest of the soul for spiritual fulfillment. It is a major religious poem of the twentieth century. In 1948 Eliot received the Nobel Prize in Literature. He devoted the remainder of his writing career to drama—the best vehicle, he decided, for making his poetry and ideas accessible to the general public. Having completed The Family Reunion in 1939, Eliot later wrote The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk, and The Elder Statesman. Eliot died in 1965.

The extent of Eliot’s influence from the 1920’s through the 1950’s made a reaction against him inevitable after his death. Some have followed the lead of the American poet William Carlos Williams in seeing the complexity, allusiveness, and intellectual sophistication of Eliot’s poetry as a dead end with little usefulness for less learned poets. Others lament Eliot’s turn to traditional religion and his conservative social views. More significantly, Eliot’s reputation is caught up in the debate over whether the modernist movement, to which he and Pound were central, represents a fundamental shift in modern consciousness and the making of art or is only a temporary aberration of passing interest. No matter how these issues are resolved, however, the history of literature in the twentieth century cannot be written without coming to terms with T. S. Eliot.

T. S. Eliot Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111226225-Eliot.jpg T. S. Eliot Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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, would inform the imagined landscapes of his subsequent poetry, as would visits to his ancestral home in East Coker, Somerset, England. Eliot studied for a year at Milton Academy (Massachusetts) and then entered Harvard College, where he received the B.A. degree in 1909 and pursued a doctoral degree program from 1909 to 1914, in which he completed but did not defend a dissertation on F. H. Bradley’s philosophy.

In 1910-1911, Eliot visited Germany and France and studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In addition to his philosophical studies at Harvard, he explored several subjects, the Pali and Sanskrit languages among them. World War I halted his plans to study at Marburg, Germany, where he had received a fellowship stipend in 1914. Instead, he transferred to the University of Oxford’s Merton College. Two highly significant events followed: On September 22, 1914, he met the expatriate American poet Ezra Pound; on June 26, 1915, Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood.

Pound, who observed that Eliot had already “trained himself and modernized himself on his own,” was to become Eliot’s lifelong friend and sometime editor, “the better craftsman” to whom Eliot dedicated The Waste Land (1922). Eliot’s unhappy marriage was to last until Vivien’s death in 1947, although Eliot wrote to her from the United States in 1933 announcing their official separation.

With his added fiscal responsibilities, Eliot left Oxford and embarked on a short-lived teaching career at High Wycombe Grammar School and Highgate School and as an extension lecturer for Oxford between 1915 and 1917. In March, 1917, he joined Lloyd’s of London bank as a clerk in its Colonial and Foreign Department and, except for three months of sick leave in fall, 1921, remained there until 1925, when he became an editor with the publishing house of Faber and Gwynn (later, Faber and Faber). It has been suggested that his early career as a poet of somber things was directly influenced by his marriage, financial circumstances, and unchallenging work.

The period from 1916 to 1922 was marked by Eliot’s extraordinary literary productivity. He regularly contributed essays and reviews to the Athenaeum, The Dial, The Egoist, The Times Literary Supplement, and other journals. Thanks to Pound’s influence, his early poems, published in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1919), Ara Vos Prec (1920), and The Waste Land (1922), were published in British and American journals. This last poem reshaped the post-World War I literary world, made Eliot the obvious choice to be editor of the new journal The Criterion (1922-1939), and gained for him a lasting place among twentieth century poets.

A year after joining Faber and Gwynn, Eliot was Clark Lecturer at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, and a year later he underwent profound changes: In June, 1927, he joined the Church of England and within five months became a British subject. In his book For Lancelot Andrewes (1928), he explained himself: “The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” Like most authorial statements, this may reflect more desire than achievement and may be less than accurate. It does, nevertheless, help account for an evolution in Eliot’s poetic thought and concerns from “The Hollow Men” (1925) through Four Quartets (1943).

Eliot returned to the United States in 1932 and to his alma mater as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard (1932-1933). While in America, he obtained a legal separation from his wife. Before returning to England, he lectured at the University of Virginia on Christian apologetics, a topic that had already begun to suffuse his poetry and that was to inform much more of it, as well as his dramas. His work in the 1930’s was largely given to spiritual topics such as those in the verse pageant plays The Rock: A Pageant Play (1934) and Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and in the poems Ash Wednesday (1930) and the first of his Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton” (1939).

With “Burnt Norton” as a beginning, Eliot continued work on his Four Quartets, producing “East Coker” (1940), “The Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942), and publishing them together in one volume in 1943. This was to be the last of his major poetic efforts; thereafter, he turned principally to prose and to writing verse dramas. The restoration of poetic drama to the stage was a project to which he had committed himself, as had Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in a conscious reaction to the vogue and influence of the realistic plays of Henrik Ibsen. In 1948, Eliot was awarded both the British Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize in Literature.

More honors and distinctions were to follow in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He won the Hanseatic Goethe Prize (1954), the Dante Gold Medal (Florence, 1959), the Emerson-Thoreau Medal (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1959) and the U.S. Medal of Freedom (1964). He received honorary degrees from American, British, and other European colleges and universities.

Another important change came to Eliot when he married Valerie Fletcher on January 10, 1957, a change decidedly for the better—theirs was a happy marriage. While he continued to write plays and essays, he wrote little poetry in the 1950’s, The Cultivation of Christmas Trees (1954) standing as the sole volume of new poetry in this period.

Eliot died on January 4, 1965, survived by his wife, Valerie. A memorial to Eliot is in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey; his ashes are interred in the parish church of East Coker, Somerset, the church of his ancestors.

T. S. Eliot Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.

T. S. Eliot Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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