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T. S. Eliot (Thomas Stearns Eliot) Biography

(1888–1965), (Thomas Stearns Eliot), on his own, Poetry, Blast, Catholic Anthology

American poet, critic, and dramatist, the son of a successful businessman of New England descent, born in St Louis, Missouri, where he attended the Smith Academy, contributing poems and stories to the school's magazine. In 1906 he entered Harvard, studying literature, history, and philosophy as an undergraduate and taking a master's degree in English Literature; among his teachers was Irving Babbitt, whose repudiation of Romanticism and stress on the ethical functions of literature formed an abiding influence on Eliot's thought. In October 1910 he travelled to Europe, staying chiefly in Paris, where he attended lectures at the Sorbonne; ‘Portrait of a Lady’ and ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ were completed before his return to Harvard to begin work on a Ph.D. in philosophy in the autumn of 1911. Having obtained a travelling fellowship, he went to England in 1914 to study at Merton College, Oxford. Conrad Aiken, whom Eliot knew from Harvard, supplied him with an introduction to Ezra Pound, who responded to his poetry by noting in a letter that ‘he has actually … modernized himself on his own’; in the course of 1915 Pound introduced Eliot's poems to several magazines, notably Poetry and Blast, and included five in his Catholic Anthology of that year. Eliot had produced all the poems collected in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), his first collection of verse, by the summer of 1915. His early work displayed striking originality and accomplishment, combining the suppleness of free verse with shrewd virtuosity in the use of rhythm and rhyme; imagery drawn from precise observation gained in poise and effectiveness from the detached irony of tone he had acquired at Harvard from his reading of Jules Laforgue (186087).

Marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1915, together with the stimulation and opportunities provided by his entry to the circle associated with the emergence of Anglo-American literary Modernism, precluded his return to America to pursue the academic career he had formerly considered. His doctoral dissertation, published as Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley in 1964, was accepted by Harvard in 1916, but he did not complete the University's requirements for the degree. He worked as a schoolteacher, book reviewer, and tutor for the University of London Extension Board until he joined the Colonial and Foreign Department of Lloyd's Bank in 1917, when he also became assistant editor of the Egoist; the articles he produced for the magazine include numerous examples of his most vigorous and incisive criticism. By 1919 he was also reviewing regularly for the Times Literary Supplement and the Athenaeum; The Sacred Wood (1920) collected the best of his literary journalism from these years, including ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in which he argued that ‘the progress of an artist is…a continual extinction of personality’, and ‘Hamlet’, in the course of which he coined the term ‘objective correlative’. Poems (1919), published by the Hogarth Press, demonstrated energetic technical and thematic advances; ‘Whispers of Immortality’ and ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ used rhymed quatrains of remarkable facility and concentration to achieve astringently witty presentations of their morbid social anatomies. Ara Vos Prec and the American edition of Poems, both of 1920, contained previously collected poems along with fresh material, notably ‘Gerontion’, a dramatically disquieting expression of his intensifying pessimism which displays the deepening historical and imaginative resonances commanded by his fluently allusive manner.

In 1921 both Eliot and his wife succumbed to nervous and emotional disorders; given three months' leave by his employers, he rested in Margate before going to Lausanne for treatment, on the recommendation of Lady Ottoline Morrell. During this period he completed The Waste Land (1922). The poem appeared in the first edition of the Criterion, of which Eliot remained editor, doing much to promote the acceptance of literary Modernism, until it ceased publication in 1939; the socio-cultural views in his editorials reflected the growing conservatism suggested by the assertion that he was ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion’ in the preface to his essays in For Lancelot Andrewes (1928). He was received into the Church of England in 1927; in that year he also took British citizenship and composed ‘Journey of the Magi’, which established the importance of religious elements to most of his later work. The Waste Land having gained Eliot wide notice as a poet, his reputation was consolidated by Poems 1909–1925 (1925); the only previously uncollected poem in the volume was ‘The Hollow Men’, the incantatory austerity of which anticipated the ritualistic qualities of much of his subsequent poetry. The book was the first of Eliot's to be issued by Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), whose board of directors he joined in 1925; Pound, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, David Jones, and Ted Hughes are among the poets he secured for Faber's list. His work as a poet continued with Ash Wednesday (1930), a devotional meditation in six parts on self-denial and the possibility of redemption; it draws chiefly upon Dante and the Bible for its emblematic imagery, in which power and strangeness combine with great lucidity chiefly as a result of a new openness in the poem's language. The spirited children's verse of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939) forms a refreshing hiatus in the meditative seriousness of his later poetry, which culminates with Four Quartets (1943); with the exception of numerous minor poems, the sequence concluded his career as a poet.

The publications which gained him pre-eminence among the critics of his day include The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), After Strange Gods (1934), Essays Ancient and Modern (1936), The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948), and On Poetry and Poets (1957). His pervasive concern with the interdependence of literary tradition and modern cultural values decisively influenced the development of modern criticism through its appeal to F. R. Leavis and his associates at Scrutiny; social and ethical issues assume growing importance in his critical writings in the course of the 1930s. In 1932 and 1933 Eliot lectured at various American universities. Upon his return to Britain he effected a separation from his wife, whose growing mental imbalance had reduced their marriage's hitherto meagre potential for success; Vivien was eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital, where she died in 1947. Eliot was married in 1957 to Valerie Fletcher, his secretary at Faber and Faber; their happiness is clear from the late poem ‘A Dedication to my Wife’.

The uncompleted Sweeney Agonistes (1932), begun in 1923 and performed by the Group Theatre in 1934, marked the beginning of his preoccupation with poetic drama; The Rock (1934), an ecclesiastical and historical pageant reflecting the social and political concerns of the early 1930s, was followed by Murder in the Cathedral in 1935. The Family Reunion (1939) was the first of his attempts to align his underlying spiritual concerns with the conventions of the popular theatre; although the play was not a commercial success, he sustained the endeavour, in the belief that his art should serve a broad social purpose, with The Cocktail Party (1950), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and The Elder Statesman (1959). Public enthusiasm for these plays was partly a result of Eliot's greatly increased prominence following the awards of the Nobel Prize and the Order of Merit in 1948. In his later years he enjoyed unrivalled celebrity and veneration as a literary and cultural figure; in terms of his combined importance to literature in English as a poet and critic, he remains the major figure of the twentieth century. His Complete Poems and Plays appeared in 1969 and Selected Prose, edited by Frank Kermode, was published in 1975. The principal biographical studies are Peter Ackroyd's T. S. Eliot (1984), and Lyndall Gordon's Eliot's Early Years (1977) and Eliot's New Life (1988); among the more interesting of many critical treatments are Hugh Kenner's The Invisible Poet (1959), Bernard Bergonzi's T. S. Eliot (1972), and Helen Gardner's The Composition of ‘Four Quartets’ (1978). The first volume of Eliot's Letters, edited by his wife Valerie Eliot, was published in 1988.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Dutchman to Paul Engle Biography