Biography of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis in 1888 to a family with prominent New England roots. Eliot largely abandoned his Midwestern roots and chose to ally himself with both New and Old England throughout his life. He attended Harvard as an undergraduate in 1906, was accepted into the literary circles, and had a predilection for 16th- and 17th-century poetry, the Italian Renaissance (particularly Dante), Eastern religion, and philosophy. Perhaps the greatest influences on him, however, were 19th-century French Symbolists such as Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stephene Mallarme, and Eliot's favorite, Jules Laforgue. Eliot took from them their sensual yet precise attention to symbolic images, a feature that would be the hallmark of his brand of Modernism.
Eliot also earned a master's degree from Harvard in 1910 before studying in Paris and Germany. He settled in England in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, studying at Oxford, teaching, and working at a bank. In 1915 he married British writer Vivienne Haigh-Wood (they would divorce in 1933), a woman prone to poor physical and mental health, and in November of 1921, Eliot had a nervous breakdown.
By 1917 Eliot had already achieved great success with his first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations (which included "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," a work begun in his days at Harvard). Eliot's reputation was bolstered by the admiration and aid of esteemed contemporary poet Ezra Pound, the other tower of Modernist poetry. During Eliot's recuperation from his breakdown in a Swiss sanitarium, he wrote "The Waste Land," arguably the most influential English-languge poem ever written.
Eliot was now the voice of Modernism, and in London he expanded the breadth of his writing. In addition to writing poetry and editing it for various publications (he also founded the quarterly Criterion in 1922, editing it until its end in 1939), he wrote philosophical reviews and a number of critical essays. Many of these, such as "Tradition and the Individual Talent," have become classics, smartly and affectionately dissecting other poets while subliminally informing us about Eliot's own work. Eliot declared his preference for poetry that does away with the poet's own personality and poetry that uses the "objective correlative" of symbolic, meaningful, and often chaotic concrete imagery.
Eliot joined the Church of England in 1927, and his work afterward reflects his Anglican attitudes. The six-part poem "Ash Wednesday" (1930) and other religious works in the early part of the 1930s, while stellar in their own right, retrospectively feel like a warm-up for his epic "Four Quartets" (completed and published together in 1943). Eliot used his wit, philosophical preoccupation with time, and vocal range to examine further religious issues.
Eliot continued his Renaissance man ways by writing his first play, "Murder in the Cathedral," in 1935. A verse drama about the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, the play's religious themes were forerunners of Eliot's four other major plays, "The Family Reunion" (1939), "The Cocktail Party" (1949), "The Confidential Clerk" (1953), and "The Elder Statesman" (1959). Religious verse dramas cloaked in secular conversational comedy, Eliot belied whatever pretensions his detractors may have found in his Anglophilia. He leapt ahead with this anti-pretension with "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" (1939), a book of verse for children that was eventually adapted into the Broadway musical "Cats."
As one might expect from his work, Eliot was unhappy for most of his life, but his second marriage in 1957 proved fruitful. When he died in 1965, he was the recipient of a Nobel Prize (1948), the author of the century's most influential poem, and arguably the century's most important poet. Perhaps due to the large shadow he casts, relatively few poets have tried to ape his style; others simply find him cold. Still, no one can escape the authority of Eliot's Modernism -- it is as relevant today as it was in 1922. While Eliot may not have as much influence on poets today as some of his contemporaries, he has had a far greater impact on poetry.