Study Guide

T.S. Eliot Childhood & Young Scholar

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Childhood & Young Scholar

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.

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