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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

T.S. Eliot
(1888-1965)


Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Thomas Stearns Eliot was the son of Charlotte Stearns, a sometime amateur poet strictly committed to New England beliefs, and Henry Ware Eliot, a successful businessman. His grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian minister with a strong sense of civic and religious duty, had moved from Massachusetts in 1831, founding the local church, school, and the college which subsequently became Washington University. Thus, growing up a “South Westerner,” Eliot was nonetheless always aware of his New England heritage, an awareness deepened by his mother’s tutelage, by regular family summer vacations on Cape Ann, and by his education at Milton Academy (1905–06) and Harvard (1906–10, 1911–14).

However strong these American influences, Eliot chose to live almost his entire adult life abroad. In 1910 he went to the Sorbonne for a year, and after three graduate years studying philosophy at Harvard, he went to Merton College at Oxford on a fellowship. In September, 1914, he met Ezra Pound, to whom he read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Pound immediately recognized its merit and persuaded Harriet Monroe to publish it in Poetry in June 1915, the same month Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood. His family strongly disapproved of the sudden marriage and temporarily withdrew support. Faced with the necessity of making a living, Eliot taught in public schools for two years. By 1917 he had completed his doctoral dissertation on F. H. Bradley, but he did not return to Harvard to receive the degree and join the philosophy department, despite his outspoken dislike of grammar school teaching. Instead he became a bank clerk at Lloyd’s, which he also found wearing. It was not until 1925 that, through the efforts of influential literary friends, Eliot obtained a congenial position as a director at the publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer, a post he retained for the rest of his life.

Ultimately, the strongest force in keeping him abroad was his growing reputation in literary London, a reputation enhanced by the publication of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and Poems (1920). He also had begun to establish himself as a critic, the first collection of his essays, The Sacred Wood, appearing in 1920. With the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, he achieved the status he was to hold for the next two decades as the most influential poet and critic writing in English.

In his private life, however, and especially at the time he was writing The Waste Land, Eliot was at the point of despair. His sense of conflict with his parents, his dislike of his job, and, above all, the strain of his marriage brought him close to collapse. After years of tension and unhappiness, to which both undoubtedly contributed, Eliot arranged a formal separation from Vivien in 1932, as he made his first return home to give a series of lectures at Harvard. There is much evidence in “The Family Reunion” and elsewhere of the guilt he continued to feel over forcing the separation. As for Vivien Eliot, always high-strung, her intermittent instability eventually worsened into a nervous breakdown, and she was institutionalized from 1939 until her death in 1947. Eliot did not remarry until 1958, his seventieth year, and he seems to have been supremely happy in these last years with Valerie Eliot.

As Eliot was being recognized as the premier poet of the 1920s, he was also noted for his essays on literature. Certain of his theories, abbreviated in catch phrases, are still part of the critical vocabulary—the “impersonality” of the poet; “dissociation of sensibility” into thought and feeling; the “objective correlative” by which an emotion is expressed. Essays on Donne, the Metaphysical Poets, Dryden, and, especially, early seventeenth-century dramatists, given what was by now Eliot’s almost magisterial literary authority, were highly influential in contributing to a reconsideration of these figures. Eliot’s role as a major critical voice was facilitated by his launching of Criterion in 1922, a journal which he edited until 1939; and he continued to publish a wide range of essays there and elsewhere throughout the 1920s.

In 1935 “Burnt Norton” was published, followed by “East Coker” (1940), “The Dry Salvages” (1941), and “Little Gidding” (1942). They were collected as Four Quartets in 1943, the major opus of the last part of Eliot’s career. Both external and internal evidence indicates that he did not at the outset envisage Four Quartets as a unified poem, although read together, the Quartets provide a better sense of the total thrust, not only of the four pieces, but of Eliot’s entire work. The differences between the early and late poetry are marked, but there is also an essential thematic continuity.

Many readers have regarded Four Quartets as Eliot’s culminating achievement, appropriately recognized by the Nobel Prize in 1948. Others have entered demurrals. Several close readings have recently presented Eliot as a poet essentially torn between romantic yearning and intellectual detachment, unwilling or unable in this final major effort to maintain the temper of negative capability so movingly evident in his earlier poems. In this view, Four Quartets becomes an assertion in desperation, a falling off from the poetry of experience to the more prosaic, discursive mode of “a man reasoning with himself in solitude,” with a consequent loss of intensity and even credibility. Whether or not one finds validity in such “corrections” to previous understandings of Eliot, they are valuable in underlining the importance of continued examination of his writing. In any reading, his work stands as one of the most distinctive contributions of the twentieth century to the literary tradition.

Sam S. Baskett
Michigan State University


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)
Preludes (1917)
Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919)
The Waste Land (1922)
The Dry Salvages (1941)

Other Works
Selected Essays (1932)
The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot (1952)



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Links

T.S. Eliot at Kobe University
(http://www.lit.kobe-u.ac.jp/~hishika/eliot.htm)
Professor's page, including biography and links to other Eliot pages.

T.S. Elliot
(http://town.hall.org/radio/HarperAudio/011894_harp_ITH.html)
Audio files of Elliot reading The Waste Land.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
(http://www.cs.amherst.edu/~ccm/prufrock.html)
A hypertext version.

What T.S. Eliot Almost Believed
(http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9508/bottum.html)
From The Institute on Religion and Public Life, a First Things essay.

What the Thunder Said
(http://www.deathclock.com/thunder/)
Site dedicated to Elliot offering his works, a timeline, and suggested resources.


Secondary Sources





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