Introducing The Poet: T. S. Eliot
The rise of Modernism in literature in the first half of 20th century saw the emergence of two major poets in British literature – W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), an Irish poet and T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), an American who made England his home. The contribution of both the poets to English literature is of immense value, leaving behind them a wealth of literary works in criticism, prose, drama and especially, poetry. While Yeats poetry concentrated more on symbolism and myth, it was Eliot who surviving the debris of the two World Wars and a series of personal misfortunes, was effective in rendering modern English poetry a new type of rhetoric, structure and poetic diction that became the new poetic text of modernist era. Eliot, heavily influenced by the changing literary scene and the cultural trends of his times and French imagist and symbolist poets produced a poetry that is second to none. Departing from the grandiloquent poetic diction, Eliot’s poetry articulated raw, irregular and fragmented structure depicting for the first time realism in English poetry. His The Waste Land draws the picture of Europe immediately after the First World War. The horrifying images, obscure allusions, the darkness and desolation, the emotional and spiritual sterility, and the wreckage on which the most advanced of human civilization of that time was standing upon supplied for its content that is rightly said as a modern epic. No doubt Eliot was the poet of his age as Northrop Frye says about him: “A thorough knowledge of Eliot is compulsory for anyone interested in contemporary literature. Whether he is liked or disliked is of no importance, but he must be read.”
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on 26 September, 1888, in a middle class family of St. Louis, a large industrial town in the Missouri State of USA. His ancestors were Calvinist or Puritan Christian originally from East Coker, Somersetshire, England who migrated to North America in 1667 and settled in Boston, New England. In 1834, Eliot’s grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, an eminent philanthropist of his time, moved to St. Louis in order to establish the first Unitarian Church there. W. G. Eliot was also founder of Washington University. Eliot’s father Henry Ware Eliot (1843-1919) was into business and was the president of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis. T. S. Eliot was born as the seventh and last child of H. W. Eliot and Charlotte Champe Eliot (nee Stearns). Eliot’s family background and his ancestral origin played an important role in shaping his poetic sensibility and his later decision to move to England that he found to be his true home.
From a very tender age Eliot showed a natural knack for poetry, perhaps a gift from his mother, an amateur poet and social worker herself. An ailment of congenital double inquinal hernia during his childhood further restricted Eliot from any kind of physical activities and social engagements. This childhood isolation provided Eliot with ample time to devout himself to reading literature. The young Eliot soon became obsessed with books and his literary aptitude developed from avid reading of books like tales of Wild West, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, and poetry of Edgar Alan Poe, R. L. Stevenson, Swinburne, Byron, Shelley and Rossetti. In his memoir, Eliot later recalls how he “would often curl up in the window-seat behind an enormous book, setting the drug of dreams against the pain of living”.
From 1898 to 1905, Eliot attended Smith Academy in St. Louis where he learnt Greek, Latin, French and German. By the age of fourteen he started writing poetry most of which he claims to have destroyed as they were too pessimistic. A Fable For Feasters and Song (1905) were his first poems to be published in the school magazine of Smith Academy, the latter being re-published again in the Harvard’s Advocate (The Harvard University magazine). After school, Eliot attended Milton Academy for his preparatory year before enrolling in University of Harvard, as was the Eliot family tradition. It was Harvard that finally shaped Eliot- the poet and critic. His four years in Harvard became the most important part of his career as here for the first time he was introduced to the works of Baudelaire, the French Poet, and Arthur Symons’ The Symbolist Movement in Literature, Jules Laforgue and Paul Verlaine. From Verlaine, he was introduced to the poetry of Tristan Corbiere and in his Les amours jaunes in which he discovered the poetic potential that he never found in the works of any English or American poets. It was also in Harvard where he met Conrad Aiken, the American novelist and lifelong friend of Eliot, and Scofield Thayer who later published his The Waste Land. Eliot successfully completed his under graduate degree within three years instead of four and then studied in Harvard for another two years to complete his M.A. in philosophy.
After completing his M.A. degree, Eliot went to Paris for a year to study French literature and philosophy. In 1911, Eliot again returned to Harvard to study Indian Philosophy, Pali and Sanskrit. Eliot was deeply inspired by The Bhagvad Gita and Buddhist philosophy, the influence of which is evident from his later poems. In 1914, he shorty visited Germany but as First World War broke out he had to move to Oxford instead. In the same year, Eliot was introduced to the famous poet Ezra Pound by Conrad Aiken who instantly recognized the genius in him. Throughout his literary career, Pound helped Eliot in many ways. It was Pound who introduced Eliot to the elite drawing room circles of the intellectuals of his age and also assisted him in editing and publication of several of his poems in the most notable magazines like- The Love Songs of J. Alfred Prufrock, in ‘Poetry’ (1915), , Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and The Waste Land (1922). Apart from Pound, Aiken also introduced Eliot to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a Cambridge governess. Persuaded by Pound and Aiken, Eliot married Vivienne in the June of 1915, for two reasons, first, to get a woman figure in his life, and second, to get a permanent residence in England. Soon after his marriage Eliot made a short visit to America to meet his family and also to complete his PHD in philosophy. Eliot, however, failed to return for the viva exam, thus his degree was left incomplete. Eliot’s marriage to Vivienne proved to be his biggest mistake of his life All through their married life Vivienne suffered from list of health issues and mental problems that took a toll of Eliot as Vivienne’s sister Theresa sums it up: “Vivienne ruined Tom as a man, but made him as a poet”. In the later stage of his life, Eliot writes about his marriage: “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 a state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.” In 1933, Eliot finally separated from Vivienne though they officially never got divorced. Their marriage ended in 1947 with Vivienne’s death.
Before getting recognition as a poet Eliot worked as school teacher for a year and then joined Lloyds Bank in London (1917) where he worked for eight years. In the meanwhile, Eliot’s poem also began to appear in many popular English magazines. He then left his job in the bank to join a publishing house called “Faber and Gwyer” and then “Faber and Faber” of which he later became the director.
The publication of his first set of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), and essays, The Sacred Wood (1920) brought Eliot to literary light. With the publication of The Waste Land (1922), Eliot finally established himself as the leading poet of his age.
Another important element that constituted an important part in the poetic growth of Eliot was his religious belief. Born and brought up in a strict Unitarian faith Eliot converted to Anglicanism in the June of 1927 and committed himself to the Church of England. In the same November, Eliot also took British Citizenship. Eliot, however, asserted that his conversation of faith and becoming a British Citizen in the same year was a mere co-incident, a culmination of long process owing to his English ancestral past, and not to get a British citizenship. In a preface of his essays political essays For Lancelot Andrews (1928) Eliot writes that as a person “…he was a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics and an Anglo-Catholic in religion”.
In 1932, Eliot once again visited America, this time to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard and Virginia University. His essays were later collected and published in two parts- The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) and After Strange Gods (1934). The later phase of Eliot’s writing saw very little of poetry and more of his interest in literary criticism and revival of poetic drama. Apart from Four Quarters in 1943 which is considered as his greatest poetical achievement, Eliot produced no major poetry. In 1935, Eliot was commissioned to write Murder in the Cathedral (1935) for the Canterbury Festival. The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958) are the other plays penned by Eliot in his attempt to revive back the glorious dramatic culture of Great Britain.
Nine years after the death of his first wife Vivienne, Eliot married Valerie Fletcher, his long-time secretary in Faber and Faber on 10 January, 1957. Although Eliot was more than double the age of Valerie, the marriage finally brought Eliot the contentedness and security that the poet yearned all his life. By the time of his death, Eliot had successfully established in English literature the greatest of literary standard that was only previously found in the works of the distinguished French writers. Eliot was no doubt poet of his age and to honor his outstanding contribution to English literature he received the ‘Nobel Prize in Literature’ in 1948. In 1964, Eliot was awarded the ‘Medal of Freedom’ (the highest American civilian honor). After a prolong illness, Eliot died on 4 January, 1965 at his home in Kensington, London. On his death, Robert Giroux wrote, “the world became a lesser place” and Ezra Pound commented that the best tribute to the poet would be to read his work. Complying with his wishes Eliot was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes were scattered in East Coker village in Somerset, his ancestral village in England, thus completing his refrain, “In my beginning is my end.” A wall plague quoting the same line now stands in East Coker in honor of the poet. In the occasion of his second death anniversary a large stone monument was established in the Poet’s Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey inscribed with the quotation, “the communication/ of the dead is tongued with fire beyond/ the language of the living.”, as taken from his poem, Little Gidding.
His Literary Style
Eliot’s critical feat and high literary erudition makes it hard to understand Eliot at initial level. Influenced by the French symbolist poets, Eliot departs from the traditional style to bring into English poetry a new jargon and style that was quite uncommon for his age. His poems are difficult to read and are not definitely meant for common readers. His poetic style is like a continuous stream of thought recollected from his personal memories and also from the works read by him. In his poems, he repeatedly draws analogy and quotes from his favorite authors and classical poets and juxtapose it with obscure and fragmented colloquial diction and his own past experiences that further complicates reading Eliot. But Eliot was also a careful poet and he quoted from other poets not just to be difficult or obscure but to represent the vision of a modern poet when compared with his predecessors. Eliot wrote about his literary style, “A poet must take as his material his own language as it is actually spoken around him”, and that the function of a poet is “only indirectly to the people: his direct duty is to language…” Eliot also abundantly used metaphors, allusions, myth and imagery and other rhetorical devices in his poems to give it an effective auditory and rhetorical impact. Eliot was also obsessed with the problem of time. Eliot tends to let past, present and future overlap each other from time to time in his verses and it is one of the recurrent theme in all his poems. Sordidness, despair, meaninglessness, solitariness, spiritual sterility, existential crisis of modern man are the themes that Eliot best explores in his poems. Nevertheless, Eliot can be said the modern prophet of modern age and his poetry echoes the hollowness and chaos that his time inhabits.
Apart from being a poet, Eliot was also an influential critic and was well read in classical literature, philosophy, theology and religion. In poetry, he was highly influenced by the Metaphysical poets, especially Donne. His high level of erudition made a distinct impact in his poetry too and as a poet Eliot makes no attempt to separate Eliot- the poet and Eliot- the critic. For such reasons, the response to Eliot’s poetic style has been mixed. Eminent critics like Edmund Wilson, Ronald Bush, Gilbert Seldes and Cornad Aiken states Eliot as the best poet in English literature while other critics like Charles Powell and John Crowe Ransom thought Eliot to be “incomprehensible”, “too pessimistic” and “too academic”. Modern literary scholars like Harold Bloom and Stephen Greenblatt appreciated Eliot as being “one of the great renovators of English literary dialect”. Compared to his gigantic stature in English literature, Eliot wrote only a handful number of poems, dramas and critical works. But though small in volume, each of his work made a significant contribution to the development of modern English literary canon and as Eliot says, each is “perfect in their kind”. Although his popularity slightly diminished after his death, to this age, Eliot stands to be the most influential poet and critic of modern literature and no study of contemporary literature can be complete without reading Eliot. He is a true modernist is every sense.
[T.S. Eliot and his second wife: img source]