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T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot: The Four Quartets

In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, prompting England and other countries to declare war. As Eliot monitored the sky for German warplanes during the bombing of London, he began writing a series of poems later known as the Four Quartets. Each poem—"Burnt Norton," "East Coker," "The Dry Salvages," and "Little Gidding"—was a meditation on time. The poems also each reflected one of the four seasons as well as one of the four elements. Like The Waste Land, the poems were not an easy read, drawing heavily upon mythology and Christian symbolism. Eliot considered the series his masterpiece.
In his later years, Eliot wrote more plays than poems, including the Tony Award-winning play The Cocktail Party. Though his plays were well-received, they were never as well-known as his verse. It perhaps didn't help that, with his plays, Eliot disliked giving up creative control of his words to actors. He once said (in a huff, we imagine), "The interest of a performer is almost certain to be centred in himself: a very slight acquaintance with actors and musicians will testify."13

Eliot also worked on other projects that showed his fun-loving side. A lifelong cat lover, Eliot wrote a series of whimsical poems about his pets, which appeared in 1939 under the title Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. (Despite his distaste for actors, the poems later became the basis for the musical Cats.) He also had a sense of humor, writing a self-parodying poem about his staid academic reputation that began "How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!"14
In 1948, the Swedish Academy awarded Eliot the Nobel Prize. In his acceptance speech, the poet who drew so heavily on the traditions of the world in his work focused on the power of poetry to unite people across languages and cultures. "Poetry, it might seem, separates peoples instead of uniting them," he explained. "But on the other hand we must remember, that while language constitutes a barrier, poetry itself gives us a reason for trying to overcome the barrier."15

In 1957, Eliot married his secretary Esmé Valerie Fletcher, who was 37 years his junior. His new wife took her husband's name. By that time, Eliot was already ill with emphysema, after many years of heavy smoking. He died in 1965 at the age of 76. Eliot was cremated and his ashes were interred at an Anglican Church in East Coker, the setting of one of the Four Quartets and the town from which his ancestors immigrated to America. "He has influenced every young poet whether he knows it," poet Louis Untermeyer said after Eliot's death. "He changed the vocabulary of poetry. […] He contrasted the ugly, the commonplace and vulgar, with what was beautiful. He showed the horror, the boredom and the glory of life. His influence will last at least for another century."16 We have 56 more years to go, but so far it looks like Untermeyer was right. Unlike his anti-hero Prufrock, T.S. Eliot dared to disturb the universe. It's never been quite the same since.

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