T. S. Eliot: Rich Legacy of a Poet

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

Thomas Stearns Eliot (26 September 1888–4 January 1965)

T. S. Eliot is a poet, editor, dramatist and literary critic, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. He was famous for several poems, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, “The Four Quartets”, “The Hollow Men”, “The Waste Land”, and “Ash Wednesday”. Among his plays are Murder in the Cathedral and A Cocktail Party. He is also the author of the article “Tradition and Individual Talent”. Eliot was born in the USA and moved to the United Kingdom in 1914, then became a British subject in 1927.

Eliot’s Early Years

Eliot came from a well-established family in Boston. The family’s origins go back to England. Eliot’s great-grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to establish a Unitarian Christian Church there. His father, Henry Eliot (1843-1919), was a successful businessman and president of a big company in St. Louis. His mother, Charlotte Stearns (1843-1929), was a social activist with a literary tendency that made her write several poems. He was the youngest among six children.

Eliot’s interest in literature can be attributed to several factors, including some of the congenital disorders he suffered as a youngster, such as a double inguinal hernia, and his inability to participate in physical activities with his peers, which led him to isolation and an interest in literature. Once he learned to read in his youth, he became obsessed with books to a great degree.

The city where he grew up had a crucial influence on his literary predilections. “It goes without saying that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment, especially my childhood spent by the Big River. I consider myself fortunate to have been born there, not Boston, New York, or London,” said Eliot.

Elliot’s Personal Life

On June 26, 1915, Eliot married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a Cambridge civil servant and writer. The two probably married so that Eliot could remain in England, and consequently, neither of them was happy with this marriage. Moreover, Vivienne’s frequent illnesses and mental instability made him increasingly detached from her.

The couple separated in 1933. However, in 1938, before divorce proceedings began, Vivienne’s brother admitted her to a mental hospital, where she remained until she died in 1947. Although she remained his legal wife, Elliot never visited her.

From 1938 to 1957, he was in a relationship with Mary Trevelyan, a principal at University College London. Some say that Mary wanted to marry him, however, for some reason, it did not happen. On January 10, 1957, Elliot married Esmé Valerie Fletcher, his associate at Faber & Faber. They were married until he died in 1965. After his death, she dedicated herself to spread his legacy, editing and adding notes to the T.S. Eliot Letters.

Eliot’s Early Writings

Eliot attended Smith Academy between 1898 and 1905, and his studies there included Latin, ancient Greek, French, and German. He started his poetic experience at the age of 14; his first published poem was “The Feasts’ Tale”, which he wrote as a school exercise and was published in Smith’s Academy Record in February 1905. In the same year, he published three short stories: “Birds of Prey”, “The Story of a Whale”, and “The Man Who Was the King”.

Eliot spent the first 16 years of his life in St. Louis, Missouri. Still, after going to school in 1905, he returned only for visits and vacations, and yet he wrote to a friend that “Missouri and the Mississippi made a more profound impression on me than any other part of the world.”

After graduating from school, Eliot attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts, where he met the writer Schofield Thayer, then studied philosophy at Harvard College from 1906 to 1909, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1909 and a master’s degree the following year. Eliot was allowed to earn a bachelor’s degree after three years instead of the usual four due to his preparatory year at Milton Academy.

The most crucial moment in Eliot’s college career was in 1908 when he was introduced to Arthur Simmons and the Symbolist movement in literature, which introduced him to other figures in that genre. Harvard magazine occasionally published some of his poems.

Elliot’s Poetry

For a poet of his stature, Eliot’s poetic output was little. Eliot realised this early in his career and wrote to J. H. Woods, one of his former professors at Harvard: “My reputation in London is built on a few verses, and it is preserved by the printing of two or three poems a year. The only important thing is that these poems should be complete and unique so that each becomes an event in itself.”

Traditionally Eliot published his first poems in periodicals and pamphlets containing a single poem (e.g. Poems of Ariel) and then added them to the collections. His first collection of poetry was Prufrock and Other Notes (1917). These were the same poems – in a different order – except that “Song” in the English version was replaced by “Hysteria” in the American version.

In 1925, Eliot collected The Waste Land and Other Poems in Prufrock and Poems in one volume and added it to The Hollow Men as Poems: 1909 – 1925. Hence his work is a collection of poems. The exceptions were:

  • The Old Rat’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) is A collection of light poems.
  • Poems Written in Early Youth (published posthumously in 1967) contain poems mainly published between 1907 and 1910 in Harvard Lawyer, the student journal of Harvard University.
  • The Walking Rabbit’s Inventions: 1909–1917 (posthumously published 1997), clips and drafts Eliot did not intend to publish. Explained by Christopher Rex.

Elliot’s Plays

Much of Eliot’s creative energy after “Ash Wednesday” went to writing poetry, comedies, or plays with restorative endings. He was a constant admirer of Elizabethan and Jacobean poetic drama (his fantasies of Webster, Middleton, Shakespeare, and Cade testify in The Waste Land).

In a lecture he gave in 1933, he said, “I imagine that every poet likes to be able to think that he has a direct social medium.” He would like to be a kind of popular entertainer, to be able to think of his own ideas behind the tragic or comedic mask. He would like to communicate the joy of poetry, not only to a broader audience but to larger groups of people collectively, and the theatre is the best place to do that.

After writing The Waste Land (1922), Eliot wanted to write a verse play with a jazz rhythm and a character that appeared in many of his poems, Sweeney. Elliot did not finish it. He published two pieces of what he wrote separately.

The two clips, “A Clip from an Entrance” (1926) and “A Clip from a Dramatic Struggle” (1927), were published together under the title: Sweeney’s Conflicts. Although this book was not intended to be a one-act play, it is sometimes acted as such.

In 19934, Elliot’s play “The Rock” was played at a festival. It was for the benefit of the churches in the Diocese of London. Much of the work was a team effort, and Elliot accepted composing one scene and the chorus. The festival has a sympathetic audience but generally contains traditional churchmen, a new audience for Eliot, who had to adjust his style in a “teaching” way.

George Bell, Bishop of Chester, who was instrumental in bringing Elliot to work as a writer with producer E. Martin Brown in a production of his festival play “The Rock”, Elliot had to write a new play for the Canterbury Festival in 1935. This play was a crime in the cathedral under Elliot’s control more than the previous one.

A crime in the cathedral for the death of Thomas Becket. Eliot admitted that he was influenced by the seventeenth-century preacher Lancelot Andrews, among others. “Murder in the Cathedral” has been a consistent choice of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches for many years.

Elliot’s Achievements

In 1915, Elliot left Merton and began teaching French and Latin at Highgate Junior School in London. To make enough money, he gave evening shift English lessons at Birkbeck, University of London. Writing reviews was another source of income. In the same year, he published The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which was not only his first poem of the period but his first significant work; By its radical nature, it represented a break from the recent past.

Meanwhile, Eliot continued to work on his doctoral thesis for Harvard University, “Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley”. Which he completed in 1916, and although it was accepted, he was unable to travel to the United States to discuss it because of the war.

He worked in 1917 as an editor at Lloyd’s Bank in London, a job he would hold until 1925. In the same year, he became the editor of August, a literary magazine in London that published modernist primarily works. In the same year, he published his first collection of poetry, titled “Prufrock and Other Observations.” The collection received good reviews and made him one of the leading poets of the period.

Eliot remained with Equestrian magazine until 1919 and published one of his significant works, Tradition and the Individual Talent, to be republished in his first critical book, Sacred Wood (1920). He may have already started work on his most famous work, “The West Land,” at that time. In 1921, in a letter to John Quinn, the godfather of modernity, Eliot said he had a long poem in mind and that he had partially written it on paper, and that he now wanted to complete it.

In the fall of 1921, while on leave from his bank job due to a nervous breakdown, Eliot travelled to Margate, Kent. He concentrated on Clintonville to finish that poem. It took a few months to complete this 434-bit work.

The Waste Land

In October 1922, Eliot published “The Waste Land” in The Standard. Written during the collapse of Eliot’s marriage, the poem is usually read as a representation of the demise of the illusion of the post-World War I generation. Even before “The Waste Land” was published as a book (December 1922).

Eliot distanced himself from seeing the poem’s despair: “As for the Waste Land, this is a thing of the past, I think, and I now feel like trying a new style.” This poem is considered one of the most essential and challenging poems in the history of English and world literature for several reasons, the most important among them is the reliance on dozens of other literary works, such as Shakespeare’s works and the unique psychological state that the poem expresses. It is worth noting that this poem contains verses in several languages, including French, German, Spanish and Hindi.

“The West Land” was first published in England in the inaugural issue of The Criterion, a literary magazine founded by Eliot in October 1922 provide standard literary reviews. In a short time, the poem became very popular, and Eliot remained the magazine’s editor-in-chief until 1939.

The Hollow Men

In 1925 Eliot left Lloyd’s Bank to join Faber & Guyer, a publishing company where he remained until the end of his career. He has become one of its directors. In 1925, he published another poem called “The Hollow Men.”

In 1926 he began trying to write poetic plays but only completed the first scene. Nevertheless, the second scene was published a year later, and in the early 1930s, it was compiled as “Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama”.

After being born a Unitarian Christian, Eliot converted to Anglicanism in 1927 and was granted British citizenship the same year. That move made him feel closer to English culture. Eventually, he became a curator at St Stephen’s Church and a permanent member of the King Charles Martyr’s Society. In April 1930, he wrote a second long poem entitled “Ash Wednesday.”

Often referred to as “Eliot’s Transformation poem”, it recounts the struggle that occurs in a person’s life as he or she moves from spiritual want toward religious sufficiency. His subsequent major work was Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, published in 1939. It is a book in light order composed of some curious poems written over the decade, and the Old Rat is a name that Ezra Pound has attached to it. At the same time, he continued to produce several poetic plays as well as theses of literary criticism.

In the early 1960s, Eliot began working as an editor at the Wesleyan University newspaper. Although his health began to deteriorate, he continued to search for new European poets to publish.

Four Quarters

Of all his works, Eliot considered his Four Quarters the best that he produced. Although composed of four poems, this collection was published individually from 1935 to 1942 and bears the titles: Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding. Most researchers refer to it as his last important work.

Although written individually over a period of years, these poems have a common theme, which is a person’s relationship with time, the universe, and God. To illustrate his point, he imported philosophical works and cultural traditions from various Eastern and Western religions and mixed them with Anglo-Catholics.

Excerpts of Eliot’s Greatest Poems

1.      “The Waste Land”

I. The Burial of the Dead

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened. He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. Only

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

2.    “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question …

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,

The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,

Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,

Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,

Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,

Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,

And seeing that it was a soft October night,

Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time

For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,

Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,

And for a hundred visions and revisions,

Before the taking of a toast and tea.

3.     “Portrait of a Lady”


Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon

You have the scene arrange itself–as it will seem to do–

With “I have saved this afternoon for you”;

And four wax candles in the darkened room,

Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,

An atmosphere of Juliet’s tomb

Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid.

We have been, let us say, to hear the latest Pole

Transmit the Preludes, through his hair and finger tips.

“So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul

Should be resurrected only among friends

Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom

That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room.”

–And so the conversation slips

Among velleities and carefully caught regrets

Through attenuated tones of violins

Mingled with remote cornets

And begins.

“You do not know how much they mean to me, my friends,

And how, how rare and strange it is, to find

In a life composed so much, so much of odds and ends,

(For indeed I do not love it … you knew? you are not blind!

How keen you are!)

To find a friend who has these qualities,

Who has, and gives

Those qualities upon which friendship lives.

How much it means that I say this to you–

Without these friendships–life, what cauchemar!”


In 1948, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his outstanding and pioneering contribution to the poetry of the present”. His other significant awards were the Heinrich Goethe Prize (in Hamburg) in 1955 and the Dante Medal (Florence) in 1959. In 1948, Eliot was awarded the Order of Merit by the British King. In 1964, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the United States of America.

He was awarded the Legion of Honor (1951) and the Commander of Arts and Letters (1960) from France, and he received three Tony Awards. In 1950, he won an award in the Best Play category for his play “The Cocktail Party”, which was produced on Broadway. Then in 1983, he won two Tony Awards for his poems featured in the musical “Cats.”

He received thirteen honorary doctorates from prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne.


Elliot’s Death

On 4 January 1965, Eliot died of emphysema at his home in London. His body was buried at Golder’s Green Crematorium in London. His ashes were then taken to East Coker, his ancestral village in Somerset, and buried in St Michael’s Church.

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