T S Eliot

T S Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell
T S Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell © The estate of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.


The American poet, critic and publisher T S Eliot was born into a comfortable and historically distinguished family in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888. He studied at Smith Academy and then Harvard, where he undertook an eclectic range of courses before settling on a BA in what would now be called Comparative Literature and an MA in English Literature. He spent a year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, and returned to Harvard to work on the philosophy of consciousness. This can be seen as influential in his earlier poetry, much of which is concerned with fractured perceptions and mental illness. Eventually he settled in London, where his friend Conrad Aiken began one of the most important literary collaborations in Anglo-American poetry by showing Eliot’s work to the poet Ezra Pound.

In 1915, Poetry magazine published ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Framed as a dramatic monologue, the speech is delivered by a frustrated, nervous young upper-class man who is worried about aging. In 1917, Eliot took a job at Lloyds Bank, which gave him a secure income and time to return to his poetry. Then in the spring of that year he saw his first book published, Prufrock and other Observations, printed by the literary journal The Egoist, of which Eliot was an editor. 1917 was also the year he took a job in the foreign section of Lloyds Bank; his other famous employment was shaping 20th-century English poetry as an editor at Faber.

The Waste Land (1922), often treated as Eliot’s masterpiece, was edited into its final form by Pound. Written in the aftermath of a mental breakdown, it is a bleak, disjointed distillation of Eliot’s vast learning. As a writer he has shaped the literary canon through essays, lectures and his editorship of the journal Criterion, while works like Practical Cats (1939) show a lighter side to his talent. Four Quartets (1943), a suite of poems structured in emulation of the music of Bach, finds a moving new public voice to express both personal regrets and memories, and the feelings of a nation during the Second World War.

In 1927, Eliot was baptised into the Church of England. In 1928, he took British citizenship, and announced himself in the preface to his prose collection for Lancelot Andrewes as a ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion’. In 1948 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Further information about the life of T S Eliot can be found via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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