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T. S. Eliot. An introduction

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) and Ezra Pound (1885-1972) were two Americans who lived in Europe and altered the manner and form of English poetry. Pound urged a conscious modernization of verse, and, in Eliot he believed he found a poet who had modernized himself already; though Pound still made revisions to Eliot's work and cut almost half the lines of 'The Waste Land', Eliot's most famous poem.

Their lives took very different ways. Pound became a fascist and made a hundred anti-American radio broadcasts from Mussolini’s Italy, for which he was accused of treachery by the Allies and committed to an asylum for the criminally insane. Eliot, meanwhile, attempted to reach his Anglo-Saxon roots by taking British citizenship and becoming an Anglican, and, finally, he achieved the position of a grand establishment figure who received the Nobel Prize in 1948 along with the Order of Merit. T. S. Eliot was the Great Man of English Letters in the mid-twentieth century while Pound languished in prison attempting to finish his Pisan Cantos.

Pound might have grumbled that Eliot had got all the breaks. T. S. Eliot was born into a wealthy patrician family in St. Louis, Missouri, and had all the educational chances that money can pay for. He attended Harvard and the Sorbonne and admired the French Symbolist poets, especially Jules Laforgue who influenced his early flippant style of writing. He came into contact with Rimbaud, Corbière and Laforgue through Arthur Symons’ Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899).

Listening to the many recordings he made of his own verse, there is little of the trans-Atlantic in Eliot’s dry voice - wry, with a rasp of humour, and very English. He arrived in London in 1914 and decided to stay. Through Pound he met a vivacious and unstable ballet dancer whom he married – possibly, as a recent commentator has suggested, to disguise his homosexuality. Vivienne Eliot caused him much grief and eventually, like Pound, was committed to a mental institution. Virginia Woolf observed of Eliot that he was a poet who lived by scratching and his wife was his itch.

Eliot began work on his best known early poem 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' in 1910. He was a graduate student at Harvard, immersed in Sanskrit and Buddhism at the time, and wrote a number of light verses in a similar voice. Ezra Pound helped him finish the poem in London and it was published in Chicago in 1915. Prufrock is not a person but a style of living. Eliot was a deeply serious and scholarly man who was afraid of sounding so and hid behind facetiousness and his facility with words. Later he was to be taken very seriously indeed. To contemporary readers, Prufrock did not look like a poem at all: in 1915 poetry was what Rupert Brooke had written before he died. The nature of English poetry changed in the following two years under the impact of the First World War. Descriptions of the no-mans-land at Passchendaele and the merciless anti-poetry of men like Sassoon, as well as the Russian Revolution and Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang (translated as The Decline of the West, volume I, 1918), provided the background to 'The Waste Land' in 1922 and, in part, prepared a readership to attempt it.

The United States entered the war in 1917 and Eliot was liable for military service. He was found to be medically unfit but refused to appear idle or disdainful of ordinary working life so took a clerking job with Lloyd’s Bank that he held for the next eight years – apart from a period of convalescence following a nervous collapse in 1919. During World War II he was to serve as an air raid warden and firewatcher in London while completing Four Quartets.

'The Waste Land' and James Joyce’s Ulysses both appeared in 1922. Leonard and Virginia Woolf hand-printed the early work of Eliot at the Hogarth Press and also accepted Ulysses for publication; however, the latter appeared in Paris because English printers refused to set it. 'The Waste Land' did not meet with any moral objections: it was simply regarded as weird. It was published originally in Eliot’s own journal The Criterion; but what was not known at the time was that Ezra Pound, who had moved to Paris, cut 400 lines from the work with Eliot’s agreement.

'The Waste Land' has received much critical and scholarly attention. It was erudite. It drew on references to European and Indian culture with odd juxtapositions of the classical and colloquial. Eliot appeared to be exploring the possibilities of regeneration after the collapse of a culture that had lost its certainties and values. The Quest for the Holy Grail is a motif along with figures from Sir James Frazer’s anthropological work The Golden Bough (1911–15) that examined the role of myths in the progress of cultures. To embrace myth and readmit primitive behaviour was not, for C. G. Jung, to flee modernity but to face up to it: and Eliot agreed with Jung rather than Frazer for whom myth was superstition. The Great War had shown Europe to be more primitive than the great and the good cared to admit. 'The Waste Land' is a poem of moods in which the past foreshadows the present and the future waits in hope of grace descending. It even came with its own set of notes.

A grasp of all the literary and historical references is not necessary to an appreciation of the poem’s musicality and the distinctive texture of Eliot’s syntax. No, it didn’t rhyme and scan like 'proper' poetry from John Masefield and Walter de la Mare. The lines of Death by Water, for example, are close to Anglo-Saxon verse, which both he and Pound admired, and imitate the rhythms of the sea

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Eliot looked for his own personal redemption in the Church of England and became an Anglican in 1927, the year that he took British citizenship. He left Lloyd’s Bank in 1925 and moved to the publishing house that is known by its later name Faber and Faber, becoming a director. Faber and Faber published all of Eliot’s poetry and plays and collected his numerous articles and reviews.

Eliot rekindled interest in the Metaphysical poets, especially John Donne (1572-1631) and George Herbert (1593-1633). He also attempted to recreate modern verse drama, with less success; the most memorable example being Murder in the Cathedral (1935) which concerns the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket on 29 December 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. It recalled the original foundation of the English church by Augustine at Canterbury and the martyr whose tomb was an object of pilgrimage for four centuries until the Reformation – the goal of Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales.

To Eliot it was an affirmation of his adopted Englishness: an affirmation that found an enduring place in the English literary consciousness through Four Quartets – 'Burnt Norton', which appeared in Collected Poems (1936), 'East Coker' (1940), 'The Dry Salvages' (1941), and 'Little Gidding' (1942) – published together in 1943. The last three poems were composed during the Blitz when Eliot nightly observed the blacked-out city of London in fireflash silhouettes of searchlights and anti-aircraft fire and incendiary bombs falling about the dome of St Paul's; and 'Little Gidding' contains the aftermath of an air raid and a strange meeting with the shade of William Butler Yeats and Stéphane Mallarmé before the All Clear sounds

In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.

Little Gidding is a place – a small manor house and church between Cambridge and Huntingdon – where Nicholas Ferrer, a friend of George Herbert, established a religious community in 1626 and kept apart from the politics and tribulations of the English Civil War. It was here that the broken king Charles I came at night and took refuge before his capture by Parliament and subsequent execution. 'Little Gidding' concerns return and renewal in rediscovery

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

A lighter side of Eliot revealed itself in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) which was the basis for the musical play Cats in the 1980s. Also a long-standing friend was the comedian Groucho Marx who founded the club Groucho's on the grounds that he wouldn’t join any club that was willing to have him as a member, so had to have his own. Eliot declared that this was his most practical friendship because it gave him credit at the greengrocer’s shop where the proprietor was a great fan of Marx Brothers’ films.

© Stephen Colbourn, September 2006. Stephen Colbourn is a contributor to The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914

T S Eliot Links
Other T S Eliot essays on this site
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Prufrock and The Outsider
Four Quartets, The Sign and the Symbol
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