"An age which reads in a hurry and likes to understand familiar meanings with headline speed has accused [T.S.] Eliot of being obscure," wrote Time magazine of Thomas Stearns Eliot, author of The Waste Land and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
Obscure? You think? The guy opened his poems with lines like, "S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse"—which, just in case you didn't catch it, is not even in English. In the 434 lines of The Waste Land, Eliot refers to six different languages and to 35 different authors, mostly people you have never heard of. Oh, and the "age which reads in a hurry" that Time magazine was talking about? That was written in 1950. In an era where we hardly have time to check our Twitter feed, isn't it time to retire Mister Obscure, T.S. Eliot, from the required reading list?
Honestly, we may need him now more than ever. Though it's hard to believe while you're muddling through The Waste Land at 11 o'clock at night, Eliot did not write poetry specifically to make future generations of students miserable. He wrote in order to process the nightmares he saw unfolding around him. He saw an entire generation of young people debilitated by the waste and horror of World War I, and then watched German bombs rain down on his beloved London in -World War II. Eliot believed passionately in the power of poetry, and he believed above all else that poetry should represent life. Life is hard, so poetry must be tough too, he argued. "The reader of a poem should take at least as much trouble as a barrister reading a decision on a complicated case," The truth of Eliot's poetry still applies, even in our modern world where we have a million different ways to communicate but still aren't sure what to say. Even if he makes zero sense to you now, don't give up. You might return to Eliot's poems at a different time and find out that he was right all along.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on 26 September 1888. He was the youngest of Henry Eliot and Charlotte Stearns Eliot's six surviving children. His parents came from a distinguished line of New Englanders—his grandfather established the first Unitarian Church in Boston, his father was a successful businessman, and his mother was a social worker who also wrote poetry. Eliot attended only the best schools. In 1906, after a final preparatory year at Milton Academy, he enrolled at Harvard University. And Eliot was no slouch in the academic department—he blew through his undergraduate coursework in three years and then used the fourth to obtain a master's degree. He graduated from Harvard in 1910, and immediately took off to Paris for a year of study at the Sorbonne.
In 1911, Eliot returned to Harvard for his doctorate in philosophy. His studies included ancient languages like Sanskrit and Pali, which he later employed in poems like The Waste Land. After three years, he received a scholarship to attend Oxford University's Merton College and set sail for England, a journey that would change his life. Eliot didn't care much for his studies at Oxford and left after only a year (he completed, but never defended, his doctoral dissertation so Harvard never awarded him the degree.)
But that year at Oxford changed the course of his life. He fell in love with England, a country that felt more like home to him than the one of his birth. Eliot also met a fellow poet named Ezra Pound, who would become a lifelong friend and an important editor of Eliot's poetry. In 1915, Eliot was introduced to an English governess named Vivienne Haigh-Wood. The pair was married after a courtship of only a few months in a small, private civil ceremony.
Unfortunately, their marriage was doomed almost from the start. The couple lived briefly with philosopher Bertrand Russell, with whom Vivienne was rumored to have had an affair. Eliot soon realized that he had married more out of love for England than for his wife. "I came to persuade myself that I was in love with Vivienne simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England," he later said, "To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land." Ouch.
Upon leaving Oxford after one year, Eliot took a teaching job at Highgate School, and the following year became a foreign accounts manager at Lloyds Bank in London. Though history remembers him as a poet, Eliot always held a full-time job, saying that he did not think writing poetry was a way to earn a living. Eliot's co-workers were regular people: men whose dreams had managed to slip past their fingers, people who saw their best years behind them. It was perhaps because of his immersion in the world of real people and their regrets that Eliot was able to write his first great poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."
"Prufrock" was first published in 1915 in the journal Poetry and was then included in Eliot's first poetry collection in 1917, Prufrock and Other Observations. The poem was the lament of an anonymous everyman who found himself paralyzed by indecision, insecurity, and inertia as the years slipped away, his life "measured out […] with coffee spoons." "Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?" wondered the poem's narrator. "Shall I part my hair behind?/ Do I dare to eat a peach?"blank">Ezra Pound saw Eliot as a genius.
In 1917, the literary journal Egoist (where Eliot served as an assistant editor) published an essay of his entitled "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Eliot's manifesto railed against the modern tendency to praise a poet's attempts to be different for the sake of being different. Only by recognizing the poetic traditions he drew upon and suppressing his personal desires, Eliot argued, could a poet truly achieve greatness. (And, yes, Eliot assumed that any great poet would be male.) He elaborated:
We shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet's] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. […] The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.
In 1925, Eliot finally left Lloyds and took a job as an editor at the publishing house Faber & Faber. He spent the rest of his career at Faber and liked the job very much, though he cautioned young writers to avoid such work early in their careers. "You have to look at so much inferior stuff all the time that, like a teataster, or a chocolate-maker, you may lose your appetite for literature altogether,"blank">Harvard in 1932, and quickly became a popular lecturer. This time gave Eliot a break from his failing marriage with Vivienne and, upon returning home the following year, he decided to separate from her legally. She was soon committed to a mental institution. Though the couple remained legally married, they saw each other only once between the separation and her death in 1947.
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."blank" rel="nofollow">Prufrock, T.S. Eliot dared to disturb the universe. It's never been quite the same since.
Father: Henry Ware Eliot (1843-1919)
Mother: Charlotte Champe Stearns (1843-1929)
Sister: Ada Eliot (1869-1943)
Sister: Margaret Eliot (1871-1956)
Sister: Charlotte Eliot (1874-1926)
Sister: Marian Eliot (1877-1964)
Brother: Henry Eliot (1879-1947)
Wife 1: Vivienne Haigh-Wood (?-1947), married 1915-1947
Wife 2: Esmé Valerie Fletcher (b. 1926), married 1957-1965
Harvard University, A.B. (1906-1909)
Harvard University (1911-1914)
Merton College, Oxford (1914-1915)
Teacher, Highgate School (1915)
Foreign Account Manager, Lloyds Bank (1917-1925)
Assistant Editor, Egoist (1917-1919)
Editor, Criterion (1922-1939)
Editor, Faber and Faber (1925-c. 1960)
Visiting Professor, Harvard University (1932-1933)
Visiting Scholar, Princeton University (1948)
Prufrock and Other Observations (1917)
The Waste Land (1922)
Poems, 1909-1925 (1925)
Ash Wednesday (1930)
Collected Poems 1909-1935 (1936)
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939)
East Coker (1940)
The Dry Salvages (1941)
Little Gidding (1942)
The Complete Poems and Plays (1952)
Collected Poems (1962)
The Sacred Wood (1920)
Andrew Marvell (1922)
For Lancelot Andrews (1928)
Tradition and Experimentation in Present-Day Literature (1929)
Thoughts After Lambeth (1931)
John Dryden (1932)
After Strange Gods (1933)
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)
Elizabethan Essays (1934)
Essays Ancient and Modern (1936)
The Idea of a Christian Society (1940)
The Classics and The Man of Letters (1942)
Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1949)
Poetry and Drama (1951)
Religious Drama: Mediaeval and Modern (1954)
The Three Voices of Poetry (1954)
Sweeney Agonistes (1932)
The Rock (1934)
Murder in the Cathedral (1935)
The Family Reunion (1939)
The Cocktail Party (1950)
The Confidential Clerk (1953)
The Elder Statesman (1958)
Nobel Prize (1948)
Order of Merit (1948)
Tony Award, Best Play (1950)