Thomas Stearns Eliot was born to a very distinguished New England family on September 26, 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Henry Ware, was a very successful businessman and his mother, Charlotte Stearns Eliot, was a poetess. His paternal grandfather established and presided over Washington University. While visiting Great Britain in 1915, World War I started and Eliot took up a permanent residency there. In 1927, he became a British citizen. While living in Britain, Eliot met and married Vivienne Haigh-Wood and at first everything was wonderful between them. Then he found out that Vivienne was very ill, both physically and mentally. In 1930, Vivienne had a mental breakdown and was confined to a mental hospital until her death in 1947. Her death was very hard on Eliot and he died on January 4, 1965. Most of Eliots works were produced from the emotional difficulties from his marriage.
Because of Eliots economic status, he attended only the finest schools while growing up. He attended Smith Academy in St. Louis and Milton Academy in Massachusetts. In 1906, he started his freshman year at Harvard University studying philosophy and literature. He received his bachelors degree in philosophy in only three years. Eliot went on to study at the University of Oxford and also at the Sorbonne in
Paris. At the Sorbonne, he found inspiration from writers such as Dante and Shakespeare and also from ancient literature, modern philosophy and Eastern mysticism.
T. S. Eliots first poem was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock written in 1915. It is widely recognized as one of Eliots most brilliant poems. J. C. C. Mays claims that, “It is one of his most approachable poems since it structurally takes fewer risks than some of his later poems. The tone of effort and futility of effort is central in Eliots poems” (Mays 111).
Another poem, The Waste Land was written in 1922 and it contrasts modern society with societies of the past. “The assumption of the mythical method is that our culture and language once had a pervasive meaningfulness which has been lost in our increasingly rational and discontinuous society, but by recovering the lost myth from within our culture, poets can restore mythic unity to literature” (Leavell 146).
Eliot converted his religion to Anglo – Catholicism and in 1927, his poetry took on new spiritual meaning.Ash Wednesday was the first poem he wrote after his conversion. It was written in 1930. It is said that it traces the pattern of Eliots spiritual progress. It strives to make connections between the earthly and the eternal, the word of man and the Word of God and the emphasis is on the struggle toward belief. “Eliot develops independently and begins immediately in all of his works. Ash Wednesday takes place in a world which is all meaningless, and yet is a plea directed toward the infinite, toward a realm that is ultimately unknowable” (Leavell 152).
In the poem, A Song for Simeon, a man sees the Incarnation after his birth. After seeing this, the man wishes only for death because he feels now that he is free from sin. In this poem, Eliot used images of Jesus life such as: the crucifixion, Roman soldiers, and Judas betrayal of Jesus. I think Eliot used these images because of how important Jesus life and death are to everyone in the Christian faith. “A Song for Simeon is an essentially interior monologue with the repetition of his prayer for peace, oblivion, and death” (Brooker 101).
Other poems Eliot has written are: Portrait of a Lady (1915), Mr. Apollinax (1916), Sweeny Among the Nightingales (1918), and Four Quartets (1943) which he believed to be his greatest achievement. Eliot also wrote the play “Murder in the Cathedral” (1935). It was about the murder of Thomas Becket and was later turned into a film in 1952. Other plays written by Eliot are: “The Family Reunion” (1939), “The Cocktail Party” (1949), “The Confidential Clerk” (1953), and “The Elder Statesman” (1959). “Thomas Stearns Eliot has been considered by many to be the leading American poet of this century. His poem The Waste Land is a summation of the disillusion and fragmentation that was felt by so many people following the first World War. It contained many poetic techniques that changed the face of modern poetry” (Costa 96). Eliot is considered one of the greatest poets and equally one of the greatest critics to ever live even though many were put off by his personality. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1948 and the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.
Brooker, Jewel Spears. Words in Time: New Essays on Eliots Four Quartets.
London: Athlone, 1993.
Costa, Marco. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Fourth edition volume 2.
Norton Company Inc. 1994.
Leavell, Linda. T.S. Eliot: Essays from the Southern Review. Oxford: Claredon, 1988.
Mays, J. C. C. “Early Poems: From Prufrock to Gerontion.” The Cambridge
Companion to T.S. Eliot. Ed. A. David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,
1994.108 – 120.
1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.