An introduction to T. S. Eliot’s life and work
We could write thousands of words as part of a T. S. Eliot biography, but instead we’ll limit ourselves to a reasonably short piece that distils all of the most interesting aspects of Eliot’s life into one relatively brief post. What follows, then, is a very short guide to the amazing life of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965). We hope it’s also an interesting summary of his life. For the serious Eliot scholar, this short biography should be complemented with one of the major biographies of Eliot’s life – we have some suggestions for where to start here in our ‘further reading’ section at the end of this article.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on 26 September 1888 in St Louis, Missouri. His ancestors had lived in America for the last couple of centuries, since Andrew Elliott had left East Coker in Somerset for Massachusetts in the 1660s. (Elliott was one of the jurists who tried the Salem ‘witches’ in 1692, alongside John Hathorne, great-great-grandfather of the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.) Eliot was also related to three US presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, and Rutherford B. Hayes.
His family belonged to the New England aristocracy, meaning that Eliot was a New Englander by descent, and he would become an Englander by emigration: he moved to England in 1914, and swapped his US passport for UK citizenship in 1927.
After spells of study at Harvard and then at Oxford, Eliot became part of the London literary scene, following a meeting with Ezra Pound in 1914. Pound would champion Eliot and promote his work – he even helped to pay for the publication of Eliot’s first volume of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917.
Eliot’s early poetry took its cue from several different sources: from French Symbolists, especially the French-Uruguayan Jules Laforgue (1860-1887); the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists; and the seventeenth-century Metaphysical poets. He would write numerous lectures and essays about the dramatists and Metaphysical poets in particular.
In 1919, in an influential essay titled ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, he set himself squarely against the Romantic notion of poetry as (in Wordsworth’s words) ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, instead seeing it as an ‘escape from emotion’ and an ‘escape from personality’. He was becoming associated with other poets of the time whose work would later become known as ‘modernist’ – Ezra Pound was another leading modernist poet who was born in the US but moved to Europe in his youth.
The Waste Land
Eliot’s landmark poem, which would bring him to a wider audience, was The Waste Land, published in 1922. (For an informative short documentary about Eliot’s poem, which analyses The Waste Land in under four minutes, see this Youtube video.) Ezra Pound acted as the editor of the work, and cut much of the original content from the early drafts: the poem started out as something of around 800-1,000 words, but the final version would be just over 430 lines.
Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, whom he had married in 1915, would also help to edit the poem. Its popularity made Eliot one of the most important poets of his generation. Many have read The Waste Land biographically, and T. S. Eliot’s own verdict (expressed some years later) was that it was merely a ‘the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life’; however, such a person and biographically informed view of the poem goes against Eliot’s earlier theory of poetic impersonality.
Conversion to Christianity and Later Work
The breakthrough came in 1927, when T. S. Eliot converted to Anglo-Catholicism and would write, in the ensuing years, a long confessional poem Ash-Wednesday (1930) and, later, Four Quartets (1943), this latter poem sometimes thought as his true masterpiece (e.g. by Helen Gardner, in her The Art of T. S. Eliot). Eliot would spend much of the last thirty-odd years of his life doing two things: being a public intellectual, and trying to write modern verse-drama.
In this latter endeavour he was probably most successful in his 1950 play The Cocktail Party, although some also praise his earlier play, The Family Reunion (1939). His 1935 play, Murder in the Cathedral, about the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, was also popular with audiences.
We can’t cover every aspect of Eliot’s life in a very short biography, but it’s worth mentioning his quirkier side. The life of T. S. Eliot, and the character of the man, is often painted as a highly serious one in the various biographies of him – and it’s true that Eliot can be highly serious, intellectually challenging, and a bit of a snob (he reportedly considered ordinary people ‘termites’), but he was more than this. For instance, he enjoyed detective fiction and wrote an essay on ‘Wilkie Collins and Dickens’ (in his Selected Essays).
In 1927, he reviewed some 24 detective novels in his own journal, the Criterion. One of Eliot’s party tricks was to recite long passages of Sherlock Holmes from memory. Although many consider Eliot a cultural snob, his tastes went to both ends of the cultural spectrum: when Marie Lloyd, the celebrated comedian and star of the working-class London music hall, died, Eliot wrote a glowing obituary of her.
He also liked a joke. Eliot went to work for the publishing firm Faber and Gwyer in 1925, the firm that would shortly become Faber and Faber. Eliot’s name would become synonymous with the publishing house for the next forty years.
Eliot was a consummate professional at the firm, and would help to give a string of poets a much-needed break (these would include W. H. Auden and Ted Hughes, among others). But there was also a mischievous side to him. He once broke up a board meeting at Faber on 4th of July by setting off a bucketful of firecrackers between the chairman’s legs. As we’ve revealed in our five fascinating facts about T. S. Eliot, Eliot was also a huge fan of Groucho Marx; he wrote the comedian a fan letter and kept a picture of him on his wall.
Charges of Anti-Semitism
Was T. S. Eliot anti-Semitic? Critics and biographers remain divided on the answer, and the evidence seems to rest on a less-than-favourable references to Jewish people in a handful of poems, notably ‘Gerontion‘, ‘Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar‘, and early drafts of The Waste Land (lines which Ezra Pound actually cut out – surprisingly, given Pound’s vocal anti-Semitism).
There is also a controversial reference to ‘free-thinking Jews’ in a book of Eliot’s American lectures, After Strange Gods (1934) – a book which Eliot allowed to fall out of print (and which remains so). See Ricks’s T. S. Eliot and Prejudice for a detailed discussion.
Eliot’s relationship with Vivienne (whom he had married just a few months after their first meeting in 1915) began to falter shortly after their marriage. It came to an end in the early 1930s, when he separated from her (though they never divorced). Vivienne would be committed to an asylum in 1938 and would die there nine years later. It had become apparent to both of them shortly after their hasty marriage that they were not particularly compatible. Vivienne suffered from a number of ailments, including neurological problems.
After his split from Vivienne, Eliot would retreat into a monkish life of religious contemplation and solitude, though he also rekindled his friendship with Emily Hale, a friend from his American youth.
1948 was the year of honours for Eliot: in January he was awarded the Order of Merit by George VI, and in November news arrived that he was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Vivienne died in the late 1940s, and Eliot married his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, in 1957. It is fitting, almost poetically so, that Eliot married Valerie in the same London church in which Jules Laforgue, the poet who had first showed him how he might forge his own poetic voice almost fifty years ago, had married an English girl in 1886. The following year, in 1958, his final play, The Elder Statesman, was staged and published. Eliot died in 1965, aged 76.
His ashes were interred in the churchyard of St. Michael’s Church in East Coker, the subject of the second of his Four Quartets and the village which his ancestors had left in the seventeenth century when they had departed for the New World. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, would survive until 2012, having acted, for the best part of fifty years, as Eliot’s executor, editor, and devoted guardian.
They are both commemorated in the plaque that marks the final resting-place of Eliot’s ashes. Fittingly, the first and final words of ‘East Coker’ are also inscribed on the stone: ‘In my beginning is my end.’ ‘In my end is my beginning.’
If you enjoyed this very brief biography of T. S. Eliot, you can find more information on the life of T. S. Eliot in the further reading below, especially the biographies by Ackroyd and Gordon.
Images (top to bottom): T. S. Eliot by Simon Fieldhouse, Wikimedia Commons; St. Michael’s Church, East Coker, Somerset, © Oliver Tearle, 2014; T. S. Eliot Memorial Plaque at East Coker, © Oliver Tearle, 2014.