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T.S. Eliot Introduction

What T.S. Eliot did... and why you should care

Poet Thomas Stearns Eliot—or T.S., as we like to call him—was a man of contradictions. His greatest works—The Waste Land, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and the poems that make up the Four Quartets—reflected the despair and desolation of the world after the World Wars. Eliot eschewed the London bars and cafes that attracted his fellow writers in favor of his prim and solitary office. Even his physical appearance was so gray and severe-looking that an interviewer once described him as "forbidding and austere, [like] the abbot of an ascetic order."

Yet, the same visitor also pronounced, "There is probably no kinder man in London today than T.S. Eliot."1 The poet graciously entertained students over tea and offered his name to charitable causes. Eliot enjoyed bourbon and a game of gin rummy. And, in perhaps the greatest contradiction, the man whose modernist verse smashed poetic conventions believed staunchly that a poet's first obligation was to tradition. Eliot tapped into the wisdom of the ages to produce poems that perfectly captured the emotions of the post-war Western world.

In 1888, Eliot was born in all-American St. Louis, Missouri, but became a British subject in 1927 and spent most of his life in England. Eliot is considered the bard of modernism, the early twentieth-century era during which bold thinkers took the existing forms of art and literature and smashed them with a hammer. "It is very likely that when the literary history of our time comes to be written, it will be characterized as the Age of Eliot, just as we speak now of the Age of Pope or Tennyson," his obituary said. "If we judge a man by the vacancy that his absence from his time would have caused, T.S. Eliot was a giant."2

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