T.S. Eliot: Biography, Notable Works and Accomplishments
English poet T.S. Eliot gained great prestige as one of the most adventurous poets and playwrights of the 20th century. Much of his life as a poet has reflected his conviction that poetry should be able to capture in words the intricacies of a modern and dynamic society. A distinguished literary critic, Eliot had a monumental effect on modern poetic diction. In 1948, he received both a Nobel Prize in Literature and an Order of Merit for his outstanding contributions to art and literature.
Birth and Education
Born Thomas Stearns Eliot, he came from a respectable English family in Missouri. He attended Smith College and Harvard University. He later pursued graduate studies in philosophy at the Sorbonne.
During his time at Harvard, he met philosopher George Santayana and critic Irving Babbitt who helped shape his literary prospect and anti-Romantic style. He returned to Harvard in 1911 and for four years, pursued a program in Indian philosophy.
After school, Eliot moved to England where he worked as a headmaster of a school, a bank clerk and later as an editor for the publishing company, Faber and Faber. He rose through the ranks to serve as the director of the company. For seventeen years, he worked as the editor of Criterion, a magazine he had started. By 1927, he was a British citizen.
In 1917, T.S. Eliot gained nationwide fame for his first major poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which was first published in the June 1915 edition of Poetry magazine. Many critics considered it a masterpiece of the Modernist movement.
Many of Eliot’s works, including “Prufrock” and “Four Quartets” were reflections of his Christian journey. Dramas such as “Murder in the Cathedral” and “The Family Reunion” portrayed him as a Christian apologetic.
In spite of his religious allusions, Eliot was tactful and exercised just the right amount of caution in order not to come across as overly religious. In his later essays, he expressed his support for traditionalism in religion and literature.
Several of his plays, including “Murder in the Cathedral,” “The Family Reunion,” “The Cocktail Party” and ‘The Elder Statesman” were published in one volume in 1962.
Style and Technique
Eliot’s technique of juxtaposition, use of a cluster of images, literary allusions and symbolism have received critical acclaim over the years.
The amateur reader may regard his poems “difficult” with his scholarly use of allusions, foreign language and a lack of narrative structure. His works are known for their embodiment of shocking contrasts and a sense of aloofness from daily living.
A more sophisticated reader on the other hand, may consider Eliot’s “modernism” old fashioned. Though he had a liking for the 17th century metaphysical poets of English literature, he was also drawn to the 19th century French symbolist poets such as Laforgue and Baudelaire. He critically praised the subjects and the revolutionary technique introduced in the works of these poets.
Many of Eliot’s works were noticed for their Christian religious undertones and his preservation of historical English.
Notable Poems by T.S. Eliot
As is typical of many modernist writers, Eliot’s poetry, in particular, have focused on the frail psychological state of humanity in the 20th century. Also, his themes have ranged from such subject matters as Victorian ideals to the tragedy of the First World War. A conscientious critic, some of his works have questioned cultural beliefs around the masculine gender. Like many modernists, his poems have attempted to capture his view of the transformed world which he considered broken, alienated and degraded.
The following are some notable poems written by T.S. Eliot:
“Morning at the Window” (1917)
Written a few months after the outbreak of the First World War, this collection features the famous “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” This poem presents experiences that is characteristic of a modern urban life in London, most likely. The first verse talks about the setting of the poem, whereas the second verse focuses on the inhabitants of the city. Eliot masterfully uses imagery to create themes of misery, poverty and depression in the slums. The poem also captures the alienation and unhappiness associated with these adverse living conditions.
“The Waste Land” (1922)
This long poem is one of the most famous works of literary modernism. It is perceived as one of brokenness and loss and depicts an intense image of despair. The many allusions to the First World War is an indication of the severe impact of the war in Eliot’s life. The poem also represents the disappointments that marked the post-war generation. It starts on a note of destruction and ends with an imagery of quotations from various poetic traditions. The ambiguity at the end of the poem is also worthy of note. The key themes of the poem include war, sex, relationships and decay. “The Waste Land” was first published in 1922 in Criterion and later in the journal, The Dial.
“Ash Wednesday” (1930)
This poem was written after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927 and his subsequent joining of the Church of England. The first stanza of the poem reflects hopelessness and the poet’s realization that worldly gains cannot give deep fulfillment. However, as the poem progresses the poet’s finds restoration of his lost faith. Published in 1930, the poem talks of a man’s move towards God after a hard life. The title of the poem prepares the reader for a spiritual reawakening. As one read the poem, one is invited on a spiritual journey which involves deep reflection and soul-searching. The key theme of the poem is spiritual salvation with regards to Anglicanism.
“Four Quartets” (1945)
This poem explores the poet’s knowledge of religious ecstasies and philosophy. It comprises four separately published poems, namely, “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding.” Each title of the “four quartets” is an actual place that has some association with the poet. Again, each bears a relationship with the classical element of water, fire, earth and wind. The very title, “Burnt Norton” alludes to a mysterious English Country House in Gloucestershire which got burnt to ashes in the 17th century. With this poem, Eliot invites the reader to think of things that might have been.
“East Coker,” modeled after “Burnt Norton,” is the name of a small village in England that is the native land of Eliot’s ancestors.
“The Dry Salvages” is a group of small rocky islands with a lighthouse located off the coast of Massachusetts. It seems Eliot either knew about these islands or actually visited them in the past. Unlike the other poems in the quartet, this poem expresses hope.
The last of the “Four Quartets,” “The Little Gidding,” makes references to fire as an element of purification or cleansing. The themes of the four quartets are centered around man’s relationship with time, the universe and the divine.
An extremely influential writer, Eliot’s works and style have over the years given inspiration to numerous poets, novelists and composers, including Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Allen Tate, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ted Hughes and Bob Dylan.
Did you know…?
- Though T.S. Eliot’s fame found its roots in poetry, he published lesser known works in other genres such as prose and non-fiction.
- In addition to being a Nobel Prize laureate, the poet received received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his unbridled contributions to literature. The honor, which is the highest civilian honor of the United States, was given to him by then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.