Thomas Sterns Eliot

(b. Sept. 26, 1888, St. Louis, Mo., U.S.-d. Jan. 4, 1965, London, Eng.)

Thomas Sterns Eliot was an American-English poet, playwright, literary critic, and editor who was a leader of the Modernist movement in poetry in such works as The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943). His experiments in diction, style, and versification revitalized English poetry, and in a series of critical essays he shattered old orthodoxies and erected new ones. In 1948 he was awarded both the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Eliot entered Harvard in 1906 and received a B.A. in He spent the year 1910–11 in France, attending Henri Bergson’s lectures in philosophy at the Sorbonne and reading poetry with Alain-Fournier. From 1911 to 1914 he was back at Harvard reading Indian philosophy and studying Sanskrit. By 1916 he had finished, in Europe, a dissertation entitled Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley. But World War I had intervened, and he never returned to Harvard to take the final oral examination for the Ph.D. degree.

Eliot was to pursue four careers: editor, dramatist, literary critic, and philosophical poet. His first important publication, and the first masterpiece of “Modernism” in English, was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It represented a break with the immediate past as radical as that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth in Lyrical Ballads (1798). From the appearance of Eliot’s first volume, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917, one may conveniently date the maturity of the 20th-century poetic revolution.

For a year Eliot taught French and Latin at the Highgate School; in 1917 he began his brief career as a bank clerk in Lloyds Bank Ltd. Meanwhile he was also a prolific reviewer and essayist in both literary criticism and technical philosophy. In 1919 he published Poems, which contained the poem Gerontion, a meditative interior monologue in blank verse: nothing like this poem had appeared in English.

With the publication in 1922 of his poem The Waste Land, Eliot won an international reputation. The Waste Land expresses with great power the disenchantment, disillusionment, and disgust of the period after World War I. In a series of vignettes, loosely linked by the legend of the search for the Grail, it portrays a sterile world of panicky fears and barren lusts, and of human beings waiting for some sign or promise of redemption. The Waste Land showed him to be, in addition, a metrist of great virtuosity, capable of astonishing modulations ranging from the sublime to the conversational.

Consciously intended or not, Eliot’s criticism created an atmosphere in which his own poetry could be better understood and appreciated than if it had to appear in a literary milieu dominated by the standards of the preceding age. In the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, appearing in his first critical volume, The Sacred Wood (1920), Eliot asserts that tradition, as used by the poet, is not a mere repetition of the work of the immediate past; rather, it comprises the whole of European literature from Homer to the present. The poet writing in English may therefore make his own tradition by using materials from any past period, in any language.

Two other essays almost complete the Eliot critical canon: The Metaphysical Poets and Andrew Marvell, published in Selected Essays, 1917–32 (1932). In these essays he effects a new historical perspective on the hierarchy of English poetry, putting at the top Donne and other Metaphysical poets of the 17th century and lowering poets of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Eliot was confirmed in the Church of England (1927); in that year he also became a British subject. The first long poem after his conversion was Ash Wednesday (1930), a religious meditation in a style entirely different from that of any of the earlier poems. This and subsequent poems were written in a more relaxed, musical, and meditative style than his earlier works.

Eliot’s masterpiece is Four Quartets, which was issued as a book in 1943. This work made a deep impression on the reading public, and even those who were unable to accept the poems’ Christian beliefs recognized the intellectual integrity with which Eliot pursued his high theme, the originality of the form he had devised, and the technical mastery of his verse. This work led to the award to Eliot, in 1948, of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Eliot’s plays, which begin with Sweeney Agonistes (published 1926; first performed in 1934) and end with The Elder Statesman (first performed 1958; published 1959), are, with the exception of Murder in the Cathedral (published and performed 1935), inferior to the lyric and meditative poetry. All his plays are in a blank verse of his own invention; thus he brought “poetic drama” back to the popular stage. The Family Reunion (1939) and Murder in the Cathedral are Christian tragedies, the former a tragedy of revenge, the latter of the sin of pride. Murder in the Cathedral is a modern miracle play on the martyrdom of Thomas Becket.

After World War II, Eliot returned to writing plays with several comedies derived from Greek drama. Eliot’s career as editor was ancillary to his main interests, but his quarterly review, The Criterion (1922–39), was the most distinguished international critical journal of the period. He was a “director,” or working editor, of the publishing firm of Faber & Faber Ltd. from the early 1920s until his death.

From the 1920s onward, Eliot’s influence as a poet and as a critic-in both Great Britain and the United States-was immense. Since his death, interpreters have been markedly more critical, focusing on his complex relationship to his American origins, his elitist cultural and social views, and his exclusivist notions of tradition and of race.

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