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.
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.