T. S. Eliot (1888–1965)

He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the child of New England transplants, and the youngest of six children. Thomas Stearns Eliot, who became one of the 20th century’s foremost poets and literary critics—in some critics’ minds, the foremost—said that his childhood in St. Louis provided the emotional springs of his work, though by the time he was 39 he was living in England and about to become a British citizen. He had spent half his life as an American, absorbing the cultural currents of the young century. Though he wrote only 54 poems, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. And though by this time he was a naturalized British citizen, he would still describe himself as a “resident alien,” making frequent trips back to the United States, giving lectures at Harvard, his alma mater, and living in Princeton for a time in 1948 where he was a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study.

His New York Times obituary suggested that the literary history of the 20th century should be called the Age of Eliot, as we once spoke of the Age of Alexander Pope or of Tennyson. Yet in the 21st century, Eliot’s brand of ironic allusiveness and his immersion in an elitist, high art view of literature seem a kind of relic of modernism, now even irrelevant in the mashup of postmodernism that has jettisoned the canon and favors an eclecticism of styles and genres. Yet for a mid-century generation, his poetry, especially The Waste Land (1922) and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), were almost sacramental in their flat rhythms, snippets of dialogue, and radical juxtapositions of image:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table.

—“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

The Waste Land

The poetry and criticism of T. S. Eliot changed literary studies and poetic language in mid-century America.

The poetry and criticism of T. S. Eliot changed literary studies and poetic language in mid-century America. (AP Photo)

Both of these reputation-making major poems were written when Eliot was barely out of his twenties. He had come under the considerable influence of the expatriate American poet and critic Ezra Pound who recognized his talent in the Prufrock poem, got it published, and went on to ruthlessly cut and edit The Waste Land. It was a unique poem, difficult and abstruse, written in several languages and requiring footnotes to decipher its allusions. The Waste Land reflected Eliot’s own learning, his study of Sanskrit, and his doctoral studies at Harvard, but he called Pound “the better maker” for shaping the poem in its then-radical form. In the post–World War I gloom, it had absolutely got rid of any leftover Victorian sentimentality, and, just as Hemingway was doing with language in his novels, redid and (in Eliot’s words) dislocated language to force it “into its meaning.” In one of his several books of influential literary criticism, The Sacred Wood, Eliot said,

Poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.... The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect.
“Tradition and the Individual Talent”

In his 1920 essay, “Hamlet and His Problems,” Eliot spoke of the “objective correlative,” “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Another expatriate American, Ernest Hemingway, was saying the same thing in Death in the Afternoon 12 years on:

I was trying to write then and I found the greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, had been taught to feel, was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced... the real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion and which would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always.

Both of these Midwestern Americans went to Europe to find their subject and their talent, like the New Englander Henry James had before them. Eliot got there before Hemingway did, studying first at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910 for a year, then returning to Harvard to study philosophy and Sanskrit. He won a scholarship to Merton College at Oxford University where he spent the first year of the world war but escaped to London where he took teaching jobs and married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a Cambridge governess. The marriage, needless to say, was a profoundly unhappy one. Vivienne would prove sickly and demanding and end her days in a mental hospital. “To me,” Eliot said, the marriage “brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.” Some lines in that poem seem to be Vivienne’s own words of lament.

Eliot completed his doctoral dissertation on the work and thought of philosopher F. H. Bradley for the PhD at Harvard, in absentia, by 1916 but never went back for the oral exams or the degree. He declared himself a true Anglophile, a convert to “classicism, royalism, and Anglo-Catholicism,” a long way from the Unitarianism and democratic ways of his St. Louis family and his native land. He explained that he had “a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament.”

In London, where the married couple lived for a time in British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s flat, Eliot took a position at Lloyd’s Bank, eventually leaving for the publishing firm of Faber and Faber where he remained. He became a British citizen in 1927, but went back to the United States for a year in 1932–1933, accepting an invitation from Harvard to assume the Charles Eliot Norton professorship and leaving Vivienne behind in England. Upon his return, Eliot arranged a separation from her and saw her only once before her death in 1947. They were never divorced. When Eliot was 68, he married Valerie Fletcher, 32, who had been his secretary at Faber and Faber. Since his death in 1965, Mrs. Eliot has devoted herself to preserving his legacy and has edited and published The Letters of T. S. Eliot: 1898–1922.

Eliot himself in the years between wives shared lodgings in London with a friend, John Davy Hayward, who, confined to a wheelchair, considered himself a keeper of the Eliot archive and later donated the Eliot papers in his possession to King’s College at Cambridge University. He had produced a very small amount of poetry on which his literary prestige grew enormously and admitted, “My reputation in London is built upon one small volume of verse, and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year. The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.”

His seven plays and his literary criticism, on the other hand, secured him a solid place in university literary curricula and in critical esteem. Eliot had a considerable flair for the dramatic, as some of his poems and the characters in them illustrate, but he wrote only two plays that have stood the test of time on stage, The Cocktail Party and Murder in the Cathedral, about the death of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas a Becket in 1170. Given Eliot’s reputation in the United States and abroad, it was considered de rigueur and the height of sophistication to see his plays performed, and The Cocktail Party, performed on Broadway in 1950, won a Tony Award for Best Play. Eliot would be astounded to learn that his book about cats, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, written in 1939, became the basis for the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway musical, Cats, winner of seven Tony awards, and still touring the United States (Webber says he had picked up the book in an airport bookstore to while away the wait for a flight).

Eliot’s literary criticism, on the other hand, particularly his essay on “The Metaphysical Poets” in 1921, changed the course of literary studies. His statement that “In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in from which we have never recovered” was taken to be the virtual definition of metaphysical. His literary criticism, 18 volumes in all, also gave support to the New Criticism then taking hold in mid-century, a doctrine of judging literature without any of the props of biography or historical context but just on the close reading of language and style, viewing the work itself as self-contained and self-referential. Advocates of the New Criticism included critics William Empson and John Crowe Ransom, along with Alan Tate, Cleanth Brooks, and Robert Penn Warren. It was a relatively straightforward and nonpolitical way to analyze literature, and T. S. Eliot’s poetry, difficult as it was, lent itself well to such analysis.

His later poetry, including “Ash Wednesday” and The Four Quartets, explored a postwar world of depression and secularism that Eliot countered with his own faith and beliefs. His characteristic tone of restraint and gravity, remoteness and “immobilized, disjointed despair” as critic Cynthia Ozick once characterized it, was well suited to the subject, flattening out emotional reaction to bare-boned irony. In “Ash Wednesday,” Eliot describes his acquisition of faith. In The Four Quartets, he discusses his Christianity in four long poems set in an area of England where his ancestors had lived and where he would be buried. Written between 1936 and 1942, they are poems the Nobel Prize especially honored.

Eliot, unfortunately, also expressed anti-Semitic ideas in his poetry and essays that are indefensible, though some critics have tried. Eliot gave a series of lectures on the subject at the University of Virginia, collected in his book, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, published in 1934 but never reissued.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26, 1888, to Henry Ware Eliot, a successful businessman and manufacturer of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company, and Charlotte Champe Stearns, who wrote poetry and did social work. He was their sixth child and a sickly one who retreated to books in lieu of physical activity. His parents recognized his gift for writing and his superior intelligence. He had begun to write poetry when he was 14, under the influence he later said of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translated by Edward Fitzgerald. He published a poem and three short stories in the Smith Academy Record. Finishing high school at the Milton Academy in Massachusetts, Eliot went on to Harvard, earning his BA in three years, 1906–1909. There he first encountered what critic Frank Kermode would say to be the most important moment in Eliot’s poetic career, Arthur Symons’s book The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), which introduced him to French poets Verlaine, Laforgue, and Rimbaud and heavily influenced the writing of his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

T. S. Eliot died of emphysema at the age of 76 on January 4, 1965. He was cremated and his ashes are buried in the church at East Coker, England, the village from which his ancestors had emigrated to the United States.

—Mary Cross


Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Poetry, 1917.

Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land.” Criterion, 1922.

Hugh, Kenner. A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers. London: Marion Boyars, 1977.

Osterling, Anders. “Award Ceremony Speech.” December 10, 1948. Nobelprize.org. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1948press.html

Ozick, Cynthia. “T. S. Eliot at 101.” The New Yorker, November 20, 1989, 119–54.

“T. S. Eliot, the Poet, Is Dead in London at 76.” January 5, 1965. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/books/97/04/20/reviews/eliot-obit.html .