Literature

10 of the Most Famous Lines by T. S. Eliot

The Anglo-American modernist poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) was arguably the most influential poet of the twentieth century. With poems like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, The Waste Land, ‘The Hollow Men’, and Four Quartets, Eliot changed the landscape of poetry forever.

T. S. Eliot is also one of the most quotable poets of the modern age, and his work is full of memorable lines. Although copyright restrictions mean we cannot quote whole chunks of Eliot’s poetry here, if the following selection of individual lines whets your appetite for more, we recommend The Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems (Faber Poetry) and The Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume II: Practical Cats and Further Verses (Faber Poetry), the definitive two-volume edition of Eliot’s poetry.

Here are ten of the greatest lines of T. S. Eliot’s work.

1. ‘April is the cruellest month’.

Let’s begin with perhaps the best-known line from Eliot’s best-known poem – although it isn’t technically the opening line of the poem. Well … not quite, anyway. These five words begin Eliot’s landmark 1922 poem The Waste Land, but the full first line of the poem’s opening section, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, continues beyond the word ‘month’ with the word ‘breeding’ (after a comma).

This five-word statement immediately cuts across a whole tradition of Romantic poetry (and even pre-Romantic: the opening words of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales have also been detected behind this line) which sees April and springtime as a beneficent and positive time of year. Instead, April is cruel (for the speaker) because it leads to rebirth amidst the ‘dead land’, which, among other things, summons the waste ground housing the dead of the First World War (which concluded just four years earlier).

We have analysed this famous opening line in more detail here.

2. ‘This is the way the world ends’.

From Eliot’s next major poem after The Waste Land, ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925). That five-part poem, which takes place in a purgatorial between-land, a world of twilight, ends with this reference to the end of the world, not with a bang, but with a ‘whimper’. This anticlimactic ending – or rather, an ending about anticlimax – has become one of the most famous lines in Eliot’s oeuvre.

We have analysed these famous closing lines in more depth here.

3. ‘A cold coming we had of it’.

We have to quote this opening line from Eliot’s 1927 poem ‘Journey of the Magi’, about the journey the ‘Wise Men’ undertook to visit the baby Jesus in the Christian story. But then Eliot himself was quoting from the seventeenth-century prelate Lancelot Andrewes, who wrote a Christmas sermon in 1922 about the journey of the Magi: ‘Last we consider the time of their coming, the season of the year. It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey.’

4. ‘In my beginning is my end’.

This line begins the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets, the masterly ‘East Coker’ (1940). East Coker is the name of the small Somerset village where Eliot’s English ancestors lived, and Eliot – who was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888 but became a UK citizen in 1927 – asked for his ashes to be interred in St Michael’s Church in East Coker when he died in 1965. This line, which is curiously apt given Eliot’s own return to his ancestral home, is inscribed on the plaque in the church. We have analysed ‘East Coker’ here.

5. ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’.

Another line from Eliot’s Four Quartets, though this time from the first of the four poems, ‘Burnt Norton’, written in the mid-1930s before Eliot conceived of the idea of writing a suite of four related poems on the theme of time and place. This line strikes at the heart of a widely known truth, expressing it in direct and memorable language.

6. ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’.

This is another famous line from Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem full of memorable lines (both Eliot’s and other people’s, which his poem quotes from). This line hints at the idea of death which pervades the poem, especially as it immediately follows some sinister lines about our ‘shadow’ rising to meet us. And this in a section of the poem whose title, ‘The Burial of the Dead’, summons the famous words of the Anglican burial service: ashes to ashes, dust to dust …

7. ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’.

A famous T. S. Eliot line found adorning many a novelty coffee mug, this line comes from Eliot’s 1915 poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (which he’d actually written in 1910 while still in his early twenties).

The unexpectedness of ‘coffee spoons’ as a measuring unit (as opposed to the more usual teaspoons) is perhaps one reason for the popularity of the line, along with its enigmatic quality: is Prufrock saying that his life is nothing more than a charade of tea dances and social engagements, fundamentally futile and lacking in deeper meaning or purpose? Or is this to overanalyse the line?

8. ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal’.

This is the one line from T. S. Eliot’s prose (as opposed to his poetry) which we include here. Eliot made this pronouncement in an essay on the playwright Philip Massinger, and it has since become one of his most famous statements about the way poets get ‘inspiration’ for their work.

Eliot’s point is that more experienced poets know how to ‘steal’ ideas from other poets but then transform them in the taking; in this regard, his comment shares much with his theory about poetic originality from another essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in which he argued that a good modern poet uses previous poets’ work as a tool for asserting his own modernity and originality.

9. ‘Webster was much possessed by death’.

Eliot learned much from the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and spent the last few decades of his life trying to create a modern living verse drama in English. He wrote numerous essays on Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but also a fine poem, ‘Whispers of Immortality’ (1919), which is one of Eliot’s few truly metaphysical poems (it even mentions, after Webster, the metaphysical poet John Donne). The first quatrain is chillingly macabre.

10. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’.

Another famous line from Eliot’s The Waste Land, this time from the closing section of the poem. The line embodies the fragmentary style of Eliot’s poem as a whole, and much modernist art: civilisation appears to be in ruins, and all the artist can do is shore up the remains and try to find something vaguely cohesive.

9 Comments

  1. This is a great article. Thank you for presenting it.

  2. Many thanks for the article. I haven’t read Eliot’s poems before and you made me want to read them.

  3. Point 6. This is taken from Tenyson’s poem Maud: “Dead, long dead, and my heart a handful of dust”. The narrator imagines himself dead from unrequited love and buried under the highway, where his remains are jolted by passing traffic, which “will not let me sleep”. This adds an extra layer of meaning, since the “fear” in Eliot’s line is not simply fear of mortality but of the loss of the ability to love and be loved.

  4. A Handful of Dust was lifted by Evelyn Waugh for a celebrated novel. Has Eliot been the source of other novel titles ?

    • Yes indeed! Just sticking with The Waste Land, we have The Grass is Singing (Lessing), Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward (both Iain M. Banks), and these are just the famous ones which spring to mind – I’m sure there are more obscure titles out there that owe a debt to Eliot’s work (and among the later work there are other examples, e.g. Val McDermid took ‘Wire in the Blood’ from Four Quartets).

  5. A poet unto the human soul like none other.

  6. “The unexpectedness of ‘coffee spoons’ as a measuring unit (as opposed to the more usual teaspoons)”…but would it be unexpected to the American Eliot, who may have been more used to coffee and the implements that go with it than to teaspoons? Or perhaps, as an American living in London, he thought the contrast was a good way of defining Prufrock’s Americanness.

  7. Every word is a treasure. Thank you for presenting these lines..