Five Fascinating Facts about T. S. Eliot

The following facts about T. S. Eliot’s life and work are designed as a quick ‘way in’ to discovering more about him. For those who’d like to learn more about Eliot’s life, we’d recommend Lyndall Gordon’s excellent biography, The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot. But in the meantime, we hope these few scintillating facts about the biography and the writings of Thomas Stearns Eliot whet your whistle to learn more.

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is regarded as one of the most important and influential poets of the twentieth century, with poems like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) assuring him a place in the ‘canon’ of modernist poetry.

His poetry changed the landscape of Anglophone poetry for good. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888, Eliot studied at Harvard and Oxford before abandoning his postgraduate studies at Oxford because he preferred the exciting literary society of London. He met a fellow American expatriate, Ezra Pound, who helped to get Eliot’s work into print.

1. T. S. Eliot was distantly related to three former US Presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Rutherford B. Hayes. 

The Eliot lineage was a rich and impressive one: one of Eliot’s English ancestors had left Somerset for America in the seventeenth century (the village he left behind was East Coker, which Eliot would immortalise in one of his Four Quartets), and before him there was Sir Thomas Elyot, a sixteenth-century writer and statesman credited, among other things, with the first recorded use of the words ‘education’ and ‘democracy’ (in the OED) and with writing one of the first English dictionaries.

Eliot even quotes some of his forebear’s writing in ‘East Coker’. The noted American lexicographer Noah Webster was T. S. Eliot’s great-uncle.

Eliot plaque2. He once broke up a board meeting at Faber and Faber on 4th of July by setting off a bucketful of firecrackers between the chairman’s legs.

When he worked for Faber, T. S. Eliot liked to seat visiting authors in chairs with whoopee cushions and offer them exploding cigars. This was the man, of course, who wrote a book of comic poems about cats, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939 and made into a hugely successful West End musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber in the early 1980s. Cats made Eliot’s publishing house, Faber and Faber, a fortune.

The influence of Eliot’s book of poems can be felt elsewhere in popular music, too – for instance, the bands Mungo Jerry (most famous for ‘In the Summertime’) and Bombalurina (who inflicted ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ upon the world) took their names from cats in Eliot’s book.

3. When T. S. Eliot gave a university lecture in 1956, the audience was so large – nearly 14,000 – that it had to be given in a basketball stadium.

This was at the University of Minnesota. When Stephen Spender asked Eliot what it had felt like to address 14,000 people, Eliot replied, with characteristic precision, ‘Not 14,000 – 13,523.’

He goes on in the same letter to reveal that he found it easier to address such a large group of people than a small audience, because they were so anonymous and unseen and he had no way of knowing what they were thinking.

4. He was a huge fan of Groucho Marx.

He wrote the comedian a fan letter and kept a picture of him on his wall. In 1964, the two men met for a disastrous dinner; Marx had brushed up on his literature beforehand, expecting to talk about intellectual things, but all Eliot wanted to talk about was the Marx brothers’ films.

5. He was the first person to use the word ‘bullshit’.

This was on or around 1910, in a poem titled ‘The Triumph of Bullshit’. You can read the poem here, but we’d also recommend getting hold of a copy of Eliot’s early poems, edited by Christopher Ricks as the volume Inventions of the March Hare: T.S. Eliot Poems, 1909-1917. The volume’s title was inspired by Lewis Carroll.

But Eliot’s most famous poem is probably The Waste Land. This short documentary gives an overview of Eliot’s landmark poem in just over three minutes:

If you enjoyed these facts, we have a more detailed summary of Eliot’s life and work in our longer post on the interesting life of T. S. Eliot. You might also enjoy our interesting Rupert Brooke facts and our collection of great Dylan Thomas trivia. For more modernism, see our interesting whistle-stop tour of D. H. Lawrence’s colourful life.

Image: T. S. Eliot plaque, SOAS, London; author Man vyi; public domain.


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  3. I went through a period of borderline obsession with Eliot, studying his poetry and his life, writing a thesis paper about his poetry’s religious implications, and even painting a series of acrylics based on “The Waste Land.” Even so, each of these facts are new to me. Great job!

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  7. Who knew T. S. Eliot was this good for a laugh?! :-D

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  10. well your research and knowledge is amazing.

    and the fifth one cracked me up – (with bullish**) lol

    but I also found that I have this in common with Eliot….

    it is “easier to address such a large group of people than a small audience, because they were so anonymous and unseen and he had no way of knowing what they were thinking.”

    fun post!

  11. Loved this! And yeah, I can certainly see hints of the comedy, but a lot of Eliot’s works are so reflective that you tend to overlook the comedic aspects. And I never ever would’ve pegged him as such a practical joker.

  12. More really cool facts. Awesome!

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  14. Anyone who is now encouraged to discover more about TS Eliot and his works is invited to visit our website at The TS Eliot Society UK. We have a wealth of links and resources for enthusiasts and scholars, including more about those Eliot/Marx letters In our Letters section), and an entire Miscellany section full of further entertaining facts about Eliot and his life.

  15. Loved the last fact especially! Great set of facts altogether – as always!

  16. Etymology of the word “bullshit”! Who would’ve thought?! Thank you for the post :)

  17. A new perspective about someone famous is always so interesting. That dinner must have been worth witnessing!

  18. This has given me a new view of T.S. Eliot. He’s one of my favourite poets but I never thought of his as comedic before. I’ll have to go back and read through his poetry again,

  19. He also volunteered as a firewatcher during the blitz, putting out incendiary bombs on the roofs of Fabor and Fabor.

  20. Thanks for this this morning. He was very droll and that exchange with Spender is really funny. Excellent, Interesting Lit!

  21. As always, I love your posts. I always think of Eliot as being so serious that I never would have guessed about the Marx Brothers. That said, I have to correct you on your first fact. He was not “descended” but only distantly related to Presidents Hayes and John Quincy Adams. If he were “descended” Hayes would have had to have been his grandfather. I suspect your reference was Spiritual Selfhood and the Modern Idea” by David Donovan, and on p. 58 it says he was distantly related to them, as well as John Greenleaf Whittier, but no mention of John Adams – which means he was more likely related to Abigail Adams than her husband. Anyway, keep up the great posts! I learn so much from them.

  22. Thanks for this. One of my favorite writers.

  23. I really like this man. I’m not sure if his prank antics help me understand “The Hollow Men” more or less. It certainly helps “Prufrock” make sense. Cheers!

  24. two not to. Sorry I am dislexit.

  25. Amusing to say the least. I liked the story on the Marx Brother. To roads not meeting but going their own way with nothing in common but one is paved and the other is gravel.