THOMAS STEARNS ELIOT Biography - Famous Poets and dancers


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Eliot was born into a prominent family from Saint Louis, Missouri, then one of America’s largest cities. His father, Henry Ware Eliot (1843-1919), was a successful businessman becoming President and Treasurer of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis. His mother, née Charlotte Champe Stearns (1843-1929), had taught school prior to marriage and wrote poetry. Tom was the last of the Eliot’s children, his parents were 44 years old when he was born. Eliot’s four surviving sisters were about 11 to 19 years older than he; his brother was eight years older.


William Greenleaf Eliot, Eliot’s grandfather, was a Unitarian minister (the Eliots were Unitarians) who moved to St. Louis when it was still on the frontier and who was instrumental in founding many of the city’s institutions including Washington University. One distant cousin was Charles William Eliot, President of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, and a fifth cousin, another Tom Eliot, was Chancellor of Washington University.


Eliot’s major works show few signs of St. Louis, although there was, in his youth, a Prufrock furniture store in town. More importantly to Eliot’s poetry was that the family, who had Massachusetts ties, would spend summers at a large cottage they had built at Gloucester, Massachusetts. The cottage, close to the shore at Eastern Point, had a view of the sea and the young Eliot would often go sailing. Sea imagery became an important part of Eliot’s poetry and one of his major works, The Dry Salvages, was named after rocks offshore from Gloucester.



During the years 1898–1905 Eliot was a day student at Saint Louis’ Smith Academy, a preparatory school for Washington University. Even at this early stage Eliot was studying Latin, Greek, French and German. Although upon graduation he could have gone to Harvard University, his parents sent him to Milton Academy near Boston where he spent the next school year. There he met Scofield Thayer who would later publish his poem, The Waste Land. The years 1906–1909 were spent at Harvard where he earned his bachelor’s degree. There some of his poems were published in the Harvard Advocate and he became life-long friends with Conrad Aiken. The following year he earned a master’s degree at Harvard. In the 1910–1911 school year Eliot lived in Paris, doing some studying at the Sorbonne and some touring of the continent. Returning to Harvard in 1911 as a graduate student in philosophy Eliot studied the philosopher F.H. Bradley and also Buddhism and Indic philology (and learning Sanskrit and Pali to read some of the religious texts in the original language.) He was awarded a scholarship to attend Merton College, Oxford in 1914, but prior to attending he did some touring in Europe and visited Marburg, Germany. He intended to take a summer program in philosophy, but when World War I started, he went to London and then to the university. Eliot was not happy at Merton and although he was offered a second year of attendance he declined. Instead, in the summer of 1915, he married (see below) and after a short visit to the U.S. to meet with his family (not taking his wife) he took a few teaching jobs. He continued to work on his doctoral thesis and in the spring of 1916 he sent it to Harvard where it was accepted. However, because he did not appear in person to defend the thesis he was not awarded his Ph.D. (in 1964 the thesis was finally published as Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley.) During Eliot’s university career he studied under scholars as notable as George Santayana, Irving Babbitt, Henri Bergson, C.R. Lanman, Josiah Royce, Bertrand Russell, and Harold Joachim.


Life in Britain


In a letter to Conrad Aiken late in December 1914, Eliot complained that he was still a virgin, adding “I am very dependent upon women. I mean female society.” Less than four months later he was introduced to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a Cambridge governess, by mutual friends in Oxford. On 26 June 1915, Eliot and Vivien (the name she preferred), both 27 years old, were married in register office. “Tom” did not know that his bride had a history of recurrent illnesses, including episodes of headaches, backaches, stomach-aches, prolonged exhaustion, nervous collapse and excitability, all requiring medication with drugs, some of them morphine-based, that had become habit-forming. Nor did he know that she was subject to excessive, over-frequent menstrual periods. Bertrand Russell took an interest in Vivienne while the newlyweds were staying with Russell in his flat. Some critics have suggested that Vivien and Russell had an affair (see Carole Seymour-Jones, Painted Shadow), but these allegations have never been confirmed.


In the 1960s, Eliot would write: “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. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her the marriage brought no happiness … - “to me it brought the state of mind out of which came ‘The Waste Land’.”


In 1927 Eliot took British citizenship and converted to Anglicanism (on June 29).


Eliot separated from his wife in 1933. She tried many times to waylay him, but succeeded only in November 1935: holding their dog Polly and wearing the black shirt of the British Union of Fascists—which she perhaps joined to please her husband, who had on one occasion expressed some admiration for Mussolini — she was able to get close enough to him after one of his public lectures and ask when he would be coming home. For the last nine years of her life she was confined to a mental hospital, where Eliot did not visit.


Eliot’s second marriage was happy though short. On January 10, 1957 he married Esmé Valerie Fletcher. Unlike his hasty marriage to his first wife, Eliot knew Valerie well, as she had been his secretary at Faber and Faber since August, 1949. But, as with his marriage to Vivienne, the wedding was, to preserve his privacy, kept a secret, held in a church at 6:15 A.M. and with not many more other than his wife’s parents attending. Valerie was 38 years younger than her husband and the years of her widowhood have been spent preserving his legacy; she has edited and annotated The Letters of T.S. Eliot and a facsimilie of the draft of The Waste Land.


Eliot died of emphysema in London on January 4, 1965. For many years he had health problems due to his heavy smoking, often being laid low with bronchitis or tachycardia. After his death, his body was cremated and, according to Eliot’s wishes, the ashes taken to St Michael’s Church in East Coker, the village from which Eliot’s ancestors emigrated to America. There, a simple plaque commemorates him. On the second anniversary of his death a large stone placed on the floor of Poets’ Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey was dedicated to Eliot. This commemoration contains his name, “O.M.", dates and this quote from Little Gidding: “the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / the language of the living.”


As a note of trivia, late in his life, Eliot became somewhat of a penpal with comedian Groucho Marx. Eliot even requested a portrait of the comedian, which he then proudly displayed in his home.


Literary career


Eliot made his life and literary career in Britain. After the war, in the 1920s, he would spend time with other great artists in the Montparnasse Quarter in Paris, France where he was photographed by Man Ray. He dabbled in the study of Sanskrit and eastern religions and was a student of G. I. Gurdjieff.




Literary success came in 1915, when Ezra Pound, then the overseas editor of Poetry magazine, recommended that Harriet Monroe, the magazine’s founder, publish The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The poem is noteworthy for its aged speaker. Eliot wrote the poem at age 22.


In October 1922, Eliot published the long poem The Waste Land in The Criterion. Composed during a period of enormous personal difficulty for Eliot—his ill-fated marriage was already foundering, and both he and Vivien suffered from precarious health—The Waste Land became one of the principal examples of a new trend in English poetry and came to represent the disillusionment of the post-World War I generation. Even before The Waste Land had been published as a book (December 1922), Eliot had distanced himself from the poem’s vision of despair; “As for The Waste Land, that is a thing of the past so far as I am concerned and I am now feeling toward a new form and style” he wrote to Richard Aldington on November 15, 1922.


Despite the alleged obscurity of the poem—its slippage between satire and prophecy, its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, its elegiac but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures—the poem has nonetheless become a familiar touchstone of modern literature. Among its famous phrases are “April is the cruellest month"; “I will show you fear in a handful of dust"; and “Shantih shantih shantih.”


Eliot’s later work, following his religious conversion, is often, but by no means exclusively, religious in nature, but it also attempts to preserve historical English values that Eliot thought important. In 1928, Eliot summarised his beliefs well when he wrote in the preface to his book For Lancelot Andrewes that “The general point of view [of the book’s essays] may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic [sic] in religion.” This period includes such works as Ash Wednesday, The Journey of the Magi, and Four Quartets.


Four Quartets was considered by Eliot to be his masterpiece, as it draws upon his vast knowledge of mysticism and philosophy. It consists of four poems, “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” Each of these runs to several hundred lines total and is broken into five sections. Although they resist easy characterisation, they have many things in common: each begins with a rumination on the geographical location of its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect—theological, historical, physical, and on its relation to the human condition. A reflective early reading suggests an inexact systematicity among them; they approach the same ideas in varying but overlapping ways, although they do not necessarily exhaust their questions.


“Burnt Norton” asks what it means to consider things that aren’t the case but might have been. We see the shell of an abandoned house, and Eliot toys with the idea that all these “merely possible” realities are present together, but invisible to us: All the possible ways people might walk across a courtyard add up to a vast dance we can’t see; children who aren’t there are hiding in the bushes.




Eliot’s plays, mostly in verse, include Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958).


Murder in the Cathedral is a frankly religious piece about the death of St Thomas Becket. He confessed to being influenced by, among others, the works of 17th century preacher, Lancelot Andrewes.


Other works


He was appointed to the committee formed to produce the “New English” translation of the Bible. In 1939, he published a book of poetry for children, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – “Old Possum” being a name Pound had bestowed upon him. After his death, this work became the basis of the hit West End and Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats.




Formal recognition
Awarded the Order of Merit by King George VI (U.K., 1948)
Nobel Prize for Literature for “remarkable achievements as a pioneer within modern poetry.” (Stockholm,


Officier de la Legion d’Honneur (1951)
Hanseatic Goethe Prize (Hamburg, 1955)
Dante Medal (Florence, 1959)
Commandeur de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres, (1960)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964)
Numerous honorary doctorates
Posthumously won two Tony Awards (1983) for his writing used in the musical Cats
Eliot College of the University of Kent, England, was named for him
Eliot has also been honored with commemorative postage stamps


Popular recognition


“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a greatly quoted and referenced piece. References have appeared in Hill Street Blues and The Long Goodbye by private-eye novelist Raymond Chandler.


In the movie Apocalypse Now based on the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, one of the side-characters, a photographer obsessed with the life of the elusive Colonel Kurtz, quoted “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” specifically the lines, “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” Marlon Brando’s character Kurtz later reads Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men": “We are the Hollow Men, We are the stuffed men…". Appropriately Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” quotes the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness in its epigraph — “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.” The American photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) also references the end of “The Hollow Men” when speaking to Willard.


A favourite of hodiern Christians is “Choruses from ‘The Rock’,” a poem decrying what Eliot saw as the decadence of Western thought from the sublime (the Word as the Revelation of God, wisdom, life) to the humdrum (information, living).




Prufrock and Other Observations (1917)
Poems (1920)
The Waste Land (1922)
The Hollow Men (1925)
Ash Wednesday (1930)
Ariel Poems (1930)
Coriolan (1931)
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939)
Four Quartets (1935-1942)
Burnt Nortan (1935)
East Coker (1940)
The Dry Salvages (1941)
Little Gidding (1942)


Sweeney Agonistes (published in 1926, first performed in 1934)
The Rock (1934)
Murder in the Cathedral (1935)
The Family Reunion (1939)
The Cocktail Party (1949)
The Confidential Clerk (1954)
The Elder Statesman (first performed in 1958, published in 1959)


The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920)
The Second-Order Mind (1920)
Homage to John Dryden (1924)
Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca (1928)
For Lancelot Andrewes (1928)
Dante (1929)
Selected Essays, 1917?1932 (1932)
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)
After Strange Gods (1934)
Elizabethan Essays (1934)
Essays Ancient and Modern (1936)
The Idea of a Christian Society (1940)
Notes Toward a Definition of Culture (1948)
Poetry and Drama (1951)
The Three Voices of Poetry (1954)
On Poetry and Poets (1957)


Further reading
T.S. Eliot: A Life by Peter Ackroyd (1984)
T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life by Lyndall Gordon (1998)
Painted Shadow: A Life of Vivienne Eliot by Carole Seymour-Jones (2001)
Great Tom: Notes Towards the Definition of T.S. Eliot by T.S. Matthews (1973)
T.S. Eliot: A Memoir by Robert Sencourt (1971)
T.S. Eliot by Stephen Spender (1975)
Affectionately, T.S. Eliot: The Story of a Friendship: 1947-1965 by William Turner Levy and Victor Scherle (1968)