Inspiring Purpose

T.S. Eliot

T S Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, the son of a successful businessman of New England origin. He attended the Smith Academy in St Louis and studied for four years at Harvard (1906-10), where the chief influence on his development was that of Irving Babbitt with his selective humanism and his resistance to modern trends. Eliot spent a year in Paris, attending lectures at the Sorbonne and improving his command of French, then returned to Harvard to study philosophy for three years. He had distinguished teachers, such as Josiah Royce and George Santayana and, for a time, Bertrand Russell. A travelling scholarship from Harvard took him to Merton College, Oxford, where he continued his work on a doctoral dissertation on F H Bradley, and read Plato and Aristotle under H H Joachim.

In 1914 he met Ezra Pound, to whom he had shown his poems; Pound persuaded him to remain in England, where he lived from then on, taking up naturalization in 1927. In 1915, he married Vivien Haigh-Wood. After a period of school teaching, he worked for eight years in Lloyds Bank before becoming a director of the publishing firm of Faber & Gwyer (later Faber & Faber). At Faber, he built up a list of new poets, including Auden and Spender, as well as Pound. Pound said of Eliot that 'he has actually modernized himself on his own', and his support led to the publication of Eliot's first volume of verse, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). In the same year he became assistant editor of The Egoist, to which he contributed criticism, and he wrote reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and Athenaeum. He was introduced by Bertrand Russell into the Bloomsbury Circle, where the quality of his work was immediately recognized.

Ara vos prec (1920) included new poetry, notably the dramatically pessimistic 'Gerontion'. In 1921 both Eliot and his wife were affected by nervous disorders, and he was granted three months' leave to receive treatment in Lausanne. At this time he completed The Waste Land (1922), which was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. It received wide attention and helped to reinforce his reputation. However The Hollow Men, which followed in 1925, gave more excuse for regarding Eliot at that point as a cynical defeatist. The Waste Land had appeared in the first number of The Criterion, a quarterly review which Eliot edited from 1923 to 1939. It aimed at impartiality in presenting opposed political philosophies and is indispensable for a study of ideas - political and religious - between the wars, as well as for the literary developments, in Great Britain and abroad, during that period. In 1933 Eliot divorced his wife Vivien; she was sent in controversial circumstances to a psychiatric hospital, where she died in 1947.

In 1939 Eliot published a collection of children's verse, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which revealed another side of his character, influenced by Edward Lear. It has been one of his most popular works, and was adapted as a musical (Cats, 1981). Four Quartets (1944), the last of his major poems, is considered, despite its obscurity, to be one of the greatest philosophical poems in English. Each of its four sections depicts one of the seasons against the background of historical events and of experiences of wartime London: 'Burnt Norton' is a Cotswold house Eliot often visited; 'East Coker' is a Somerset village; 'The Dry Salvages' is a rock formation off the coast of Massachusetts; and 'Little Gidding' is the Huntingdonshire home of Nicholas Ferrar and his 17th century religious community.
Eliot's critical work consists of literary criticism, such as The Sacred Wood (1920, on Jacobean dramatists), the admirable Homage to Dryden (1924), The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism (1933), Elizabethan Essays (1934), After Strange Gods (1934), and On Poetry and Poets (1957); and social comment, such as After Strange Gods (1934), Essays Ancient and Modern (1936), The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948). He was often highly provocative, as in his Modern Education and The Classics (1934), where he maintained that the classics were to be studied not for their own sake but as a buttress for the faith.

The new poetry, as announced by Ezra Pound, T E Hulme and Eliot, was to be related to modern life and expressed in modern idiom, preferably in free verse. Rhetoric and romantic clich├ęs were to be avoided. In his late essay 'Milton II', in On Poetry and Poets, he confessed that he and his friends had insisted overmuch on these ideas and this was a sort of recantation for his abuse of Milton.

In 1927, the year in which he became a British subject, Eliot was baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church, having been raised as a Unitarian. In the preface to a volume of essays For Lancelot Andrewes (1928), Eliot declared himself to be 'classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion'; the first fruit of this spiritual attitude was Ash Wednesday (1930). In the 1930s, Eliot developed his writing of poetic drama. The religious plays The Rock (1934) and Murder in the Cathedral (1935) further confirmed his reputation as the poet who had revived the verse play in the interests of Catholic devotion. The Family Reunion (1939) was a kind of comedy which dealt with social concerns; and his later dramas, The Cocktail Party (1950), The Confidential Clerk (1954) and The Elder Statesman (1958), were to be West End successes rather than sacred plays in church precincts. Catholic doctrine inspired all these plays, sometimes to the embarrassment of critics and audience alike.

Eliot's standing was greatly enhanced in 1948, when he received the Order of Merit and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In 1957 he married Valerie Fletcher, his secretary at Faber. His poem 'A Dedication to My Wife' celebrates the evidently happy marriage that followed. Since his death, Valerie Eliot has edited his letters, the first volume of which appeared in 1988.

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