Thomas Stearns Eliot

Eliot,T.S. (1888-1965), American-born writer, regarded as one of the greets poets of the 20th century. His best-known poem, The Waste Land (1922), is a devastating analysis of the society of his time. Eliot also wrote drama and literary criticism. In his plays, which use unrhymed verse, he attempted to revive poetic drama for the contemporary audience. His most influential criticism looked at the way the poet should approach the act of writing. Eliot won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest son in a large, prosperous, and distinguished family. Eliot's father, Henry Ware Eliot, Sr., was a successful businessman; his mother, Charlotte Champe Stearns  wrote prose and religious poetry. Eliot was educated at Milton Academy (a private boarding school outside of Boston, Massachusetts) and at Harvard University. He earned his undergraduate degree, after three years of study, in 1909. He then continued at Harvard, studying philosophy under George Santayana. Eliot received his M.A. degree in philosophy in 1910, after which he studied literature and languages at the Sorbonne in Paris, France; as a fellowship recipient in Germany; and at the University of Oxford in England.

After leaving Oxford, Eliot stayed in England. He became close friends with American poet Ezra Pound, who was also living abroad. In 1922, Eliot founded the literary journal The Criterion, which he edited until 1939. In 1925, he joined the publishing firm Faber and Gwyer, which later became Faber and Faber. Throughout the late 1920s and the 1930s Eliot wrote, lectured, and taught in Britain and the United States. In 1927, he became a British citizen and converted from the Unitarian Church to the Church of England.

Early Poetry:
Eliot's earliest masterpiece, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," was published in Poetry magazine in 1915. Written as a dramatic monologue, the poem is an examination of the soul of a timid man paralyzed by indecision and worry about his appearance to others, particularly women. Anxious about becoming bald, and about his thin arms and legs, Prufrock hesitates in making even the smallest decisions or actions, wondering:"Do I dare / Disturb the universe? / In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse." Eliot's first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, appeared in 1917.

Two other well-known early poems are "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" (1919), which features an aggressive, fun-loving hero who is the opposite of Prufrock, and "Gerontion" (1920), which was originally designed as a prologue to the longer poem The Waste Land. "Gerontion" is a glimpse into the soul of an old man whose dreamlike memories wander through Western history from the 5th century BC to the 20th century.

Eliot earned international acclaim in 1922 with the publication of The Waste Land, which he produced with much editorial assistance from Ezra Pound. The Waste Land, a poem in five parts, was ground breaking in establishing the form of the so-called kaleidoscopic, or fragmented, modern poem. These fragmented poems are characterized by jarring jumps in perspective, imagery, setting, or subject. Despite this fragmentation of form, The Waste Land is unified by its theme of despair. Its opening lines introduce the ideas of life's ultimate futility despite momentary flashes of hope:"April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ dull roots with spring rain." The poem goes on to present a sequence of short sketches following an individual's baffled search for spiritual peace. It concludes with resignation at the never-ending nature of the search. The poem is full of literary and mythological references that draw on many cultures and universalize the poem's themes.

The Waste Land draws much of its symbolism and narrative framework from the mythological story of the quest for the Holy Grail, the sacred cup that jesus Christ drank from the Last Supper. According to legend, only the pure of heart can attain the Grail. In the version of the Grail myth that Eliot draws on, a wasteland is awaiting a miraculous revival-for itself and its falling ruler, the Fisher King, guardian of the Holy Grail. The Waste Land appeared in the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918), which was the most destructive war in human history to that point. Many people saw the poem as an indictment of postwar European culture and as an expression of disillusionment with contemporary society, which Eliot believed was culturally barren. His work The Hollow Men (1925), based partly on unedited portions of The Waste Land manuscript, takes a similar view.

Following Eliot's conversion to the Church of England in 1927, qualities of serenity and religious humility became important in his poetry. Ash Wednesday (1930) shows his sense of how emotionally destructive life can be, but also suggests that everyday suffering may have a purifying effect.

The volume Four Quartets (1943) consists of four separate poems: Burnt Norton (1935), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941), and Little Gidding (1942). Each of these can be read on its own or as part of the whole. Four Quartets addresses love, justice, the problem of poetic creation, history, and time-both immediate and fleeting, eternal and repeated. Little Gidding opens with Eliot regarding both notions of time by observing a winter warming, which is both brief and individual, and yet like all winter warnings that have been before or will come after: "Midwinter spring is its own season/ Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, / Suspended in time..." In these lines Eliot uses the word sempiternal to mean eternal or everlasting.

Plays and Literary Criticism:
Eliot eventually turned from poems and essays to the more public art of plays, all of which he wrote in verse. he also began giving lectures. By 1943, Eliot had given up writing poetry altogether, and he devoted his last 20 years to other kinds of writing.

Eliot's earliest play, Sweeney Agonistes (1932), has two verse scenes and a prose epilogue. In this drama, Apeneck Sweeney, who is the same character from "Sweeney Among the Nightingales," is a modern, brutish, incarnation of a mythic Greek figure similar to Hercules and Agamemnon. In this work, Eliot used elements of vaudeville, combining slang language and slapstick songs with his more standard theme of the hopelessness of modern life.

Two of Eliot's plays that examine religion are The Rock (1934) and Murder in the Cathedral (1935), which was based on the 12th-century English Saint Thomas a Becket, who was killed at Canterbury Cathedral.

Like his poetry, Eliot's plays also incorporated ancient myth. The Family Reunion (1939) is a melodrama concerning a family curse. It draws on the Greek myth of the Eumenides, goddesses who are the guardians of justice. The Cocktail Party (1949), with which Eliot first won success as a playwright, explores the theme of salvation, but in the form of a modern comedy of manners (a play that satirizes social customs). Drawing on the play Alcestis by ancient Greek writer Euripides, The Cocktail Party presents a psychiatrist as an incarnation of Hercules, who rescued the princess Alcestis from the underworld.

In essays and lectures, Eliot profoundly influenced modern literary criticism. In the collection The Sacred Wood (1920), he contended that the critic must develop a strong historical sense to judge literature from the proper perspective, and that the poet must be impersonal in the creative exercise of the craft. As editor of The Criterion, he provided a literary forum for many prominent contemporary writer, including French writers Paul Valery and Marcel Proust.

Sixteen years after he died, some for Eliot's poems appeared in the unlikely form of a Broadway musical, when British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber brought out cats (1981). Lloyd Webber based his production on a book of poetry Eliot wrote for children, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939). Eliot's other works include the nonfiction projects The Idea of a Christian Society (1940) and Notes Toward a Definition of Culture (1948). Inventions of the March Hare: T.S. Eliot Poems 1909-1917 (1996) is a volume of 40 previously unpublished early poems. These poems include a fragment that Eliot had at one time included in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," but which he ultimately removed. In the 1980s and 1990s, Eliot and his poetry were increasingly criticized for elements of anti-Semitism, racism, and sexism. Despite these unfortunate prejudices, most people continue to regard Eliot as one of the most important figures in modern literature.