Interview with T S Eliot from the Paris Review, 1959


This interview between Donald Hall and the poet T S Eliot was the first contribution to ‘The Art of Poetry’, a prestigious and long-running series in the magazine the Paris Review. By this point in his career, Eliot was enormously famous and successful, having received both the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Order of Merit. Having published his last great poetic sequence Four Quartets (1943), he had achieved success on the American stage with his play The Cocktail Party (1949). His most recent play The Elder Statesman (1958) had done less well.

What is the tone of the interview?

Eliot often comes across as more approachable and funnier than one might expect from the forbidding reputation he had developed. Yet there is a note of melancholy when he looks back on his career and judges that

No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written. He may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.

What does it tell us about his working practices?

As well as writing, Eliot spent much of his life doing other jobs – some teaching, followed by spells at Lloyds Bank and at the publishers Faber and Faber. In this interview, he suggests that these jobs actually had a positive effect:

I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me.

Eliot wrote drama and criticism as well as poetry. At other points in the interview, he reflects on the balance of different sorts of writing in his work, and how this might have affected his development:

From my personal point of view, the one good thing the war did was to prevent me from writing another play too soon. … I think that writing plays – that is, Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion – made a difference to the writing of the Four Quartets. I think that it led to a greater simplification of language and to speaking in a way which is more like conversing with your reader. I see the later Quartets as being much simpler and easier to understand than The Waste Land and ‘Ash Wednesday’. Sometimes the thing I’m trying to say, the subject matter, may be difficult, but it seems to me that I’m saying it in a simpler way.

On the whole, though, Eliot is reluctant to prescribe ‘optimal conditions’ for a poet to work under. He feels that these depend on the individual poet.

Full title:
'The Art of Poetry I. T. S. Eliot', Issue 21
1959, Paris, New York, US
Paris Review
Periodical / Illustration / Image
The Paris Review , Donald Hall, D Cammell
Usage terms

Donald Hall: © Donald Hall. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence. 

Donald Cammell: © Reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of Donald Cammell. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

T S Eliot: © Estate of T. S. Eliot. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

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