T.S. ELIOT Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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T.S. Eliot in 1670 Andrew Eliot left East Coker in Somerset, England, for Boston. Two hundred and eighteen years later, his direct descendant, Thomas Stearns Eliot - who would become the most celebrated English-language poet of the century - was born in St. Louis, Mo., to a businessman and a poet, Henry and Charlotte Eliot. Although young Tom was brilliantly educated in English and European literature and in Eastern and Western philosophy and religion, he fled - in his mid 20s - the career in philosophy awaiting him at Harvard, and moved to England. There he married (disastrously), met the entrepreneurial Ezra Pound and, while working at Lloyds Bank, brought out Prufrock and Other Observations. Five years later, after a nervous breakdown and a stay in a Swiss sanatorium in Lausanne, he published The Waste Land. Modern poetry had struck its note. Not everyone was impressed.


Dorothy Wellesley, writing to W.B. Yeats, said petulantly, “But Eliot, that man isn’t modern. He wrings the past dry and pours the juice down the throats of those who are either too busy, or too creative to read as much as he does.” “The juice of the past” isn’t a bad description of the lifeblood of The Waste Land; but it was a past so disarranged - with the Buddha next to St. Augustine, and Ovid next to Wagner - that a reader felt thrust into a time machine of disorienting simultaneity. And the poem had an unsettling habit of saying, out of the blue, “Oed’ und leer das Meer,” or something even more peculiar. It ended, in fact, with a cascade of lines in different languages - English, Italian, Latin, French, Sanskrit. Still, readers felt the desperate spiritual quest behind the poem - and were seduced by the unerring musicality of its free-verse lines.


The Waste Land was a deeply unoptimistic, un-Christian and therefore un-American poem, prefaced by the suicidal words of the Cumaean Sibyl, “I want to die.” It is, we could say, the first Euro-poem. In its desolation at the breakup of the Judeo-Christian past, the poem turns for salvation to the Buddha and his three ethical commandments: Give, Sympathize, Control. But on the way to its ritually religious close ("Shantih, shantih, shantih"), it films a succession of loveless or violent or failed sexual unions - among the educated ("My nerves are bad tonight") and the uneducated ("He, the young man carbuncular, arrives"), and in the poet’s own life ("your heart would have responded / Gaily"). It speaks of an absent God and of a dead father; Eliot’s recently dead father had left capital outright to the other children, but permitted his wayward son only the interest on his portion.


It annoyed Eliot that The Waste Land was interpreted as a prophetic statement: he referred to it (somewhat disingenuously) as “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” Yet World War I had intervened between the writing of most of the poems included in Prufrock and the composition of The Waste Land; and in a 1915 letter to Conrad Aiken, Eliot had said, “The War suffocates me.” Whether or not Eliot had written down the Armageddon of the West, he had showed up the lightweight poetry dominating American magazines. Nothing could have been further from either bland escapism or Imagist stylization than the music-hall syncopation ("O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag") and the pub vulgarity ("What you get married for if you don’t want children") of The Waste Land. Eliot’s poem went off like a bomb in a genteel drawing-room, as he intended it to.


How could The Waste Land - and the sad poems, almost as peculiar, that followed it (from The Hollow Men to Little Gidding) - succeed to such an extent that by 1956 the University of Minnesota needed to stage his lecture there in a basketball arena? The astonishing growth of literacy between 1910 and 1940 certainly helps to explain the rise of an audience for modernist writing. But it was an audience chiefly of fiction readers. Fiction had claimed “real life,” and in 1910 poetry was subsisting, for the most part, on vague appeals to nature and to God. Though from 1897 on, Edwin Arlington Robinson had been writing his grim, intelligent poetry of American failures (Miniver Cheevy among them), he was not a popular American poet: Joyce Kilmer and Edgar Guest were the poets who sold.


Lovers of poetry in the pre-Modernist era had been surviving on a thin diet of either Platonic idealism or a post-’90s “decadence,” and it was felt that barbaric and businesslike America could not equal the sophistication of England. Eliot’s vignettes of modern life (some sardonic, some elegiac), and his meditation on consciousness and its aridities, reclaimed for American poetry a terrain of close observation and complex intelligence that had seemed lost. The heartbreak under the poised irony of Eliot’s work was not lost on his audience, who suddenly felt that in understanding Eliot, they understood themselves.


The discontinuous and “impersonal” Eliot of course provoked rebellion in some poets. John Berryman wrote, “Let’s have narrative, and at least one dominant personality, and no fragmentation! In short, let us have something spectacularly NOT The Waste Land.” But other younger poets disagreed. Charles Wright, this year’s Pulitzer Prize poet, first read the Four Quartets (Eliot’s World War II poem) in the Army-base library in Verona, Italy. “I loved the music; I loved the investigation of the past,” he says. “The sound of it was so beautiful to me.” The voice of the Quartets - meditative, grave, sorrowful, but also dry, experienced and harsh - has been important to poets from Wright to John Ashbery, because it allowed the conversational tone of everyday life to enter into the discussion of the deepest subjects.


After Eliot’s unhappy marriage and separation (Vivienne Eliot died in a mental hospital), he was baptized in the Anglican church, and his poetry became more orthodox. Eventually, he could no longer summon the intense concentration of heart, mind and imagination necessary to produce significant poetry, and he subsided into the versifier of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats - ironically, the work by which he is now most widely known in the U.S., thanks to its popularization in the musical Cats.


He was a formidably intelligent critic of literature and culture, though he did not escape - any more than we can ourselves - the limitations and prejudices of his time and his upbringing. He sent the stock of the 17th-century poets soaring while arguing against the romantic notion of “self-expression” in favor of a poetry that was severe and classical.


Eliot died in 1965. He chose to be buried in East Coker with his ancestors, remaining the unrepentant exile whose Americanness - his Protestant New England, his St. Louis, his Mississippi River - can be seen better by hindsight than it could when he was alive.