bit of History
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T.S. Eliot: Life and Works
Stearn Eliot, poet, critic and dramatist, was born in St. Louis, Missouri,
of a family of British origin, and was educated at Harvard, the Sorbonne
and Oxford. He moved to Great Britain in 1915, became a teacher for a
brief period and later worked in Lloyds Bank. In that same year, he
published his first poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
In 1922, now a writer by
profession, he founded a literary magazine, The Criterion, and in
1925 became a director of Faber and Faber, a publishing house. In 1927, he
became a British subject and joined the Anglo-Catholic Protestant Church.
He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1948 and was a Nobel Prize winner for
literature. He died in London in 1965.
Eliot was a man of immense erudition, and thoroughly familiar with wide
and varied cultural traditions: the Bible, Buddhism, the teachings of
Zarathustra and Lao-tse. He knew Italian literature well, and was
particulary influenced by Dante, and by the "Stil Novo". The
French poets Laforgue and Baudelaire were influential in tempting Eliot to
experimenti with a flexible technique. A feature of Eliot's style is the
frequent quotation in the original language from all these sources. IN
English literature, Eliot drew inspirations from the post-Shakesperean
dramatists and from the seventeenth-century metaphysical
poets, particularly John Donne. Of twentieth-century writers, Ezra Pound
had the most influence on Eliot's poetical development.
Out of all these varied threads, drawn together by his native poetic
genius, Eliot created a new type of poetry in which a rapid series of
images, seemingly disparate, jostle together in a language which changes
from thre lyric to the prosaic, from the beautiful to the squalid, from
the elegant to the banal in as many lines. He experimented boldly in
styles and techniques, reaching his highest poetic achievment with his
last great work, the Four Quartets (1935-1942), which has a structure
resembling that of symphonic music. Each quartet represents a musical
instrument, but there is a general theme wich gives unity to the
"musical" composition: the subject is time, the past and its
relation to the present, its significance and effect, and reflection upon
Between The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock and the Four Quartets,
however, Eliot published other collections of poetry which established him
firmly in the twenties and the thirties as the originator and leader of
modern poetry. In 1920, there was Gerontion, the monologue of an
old man no longer able to believe in spiritual re-birth. The Waste Land
(1922) is probably Eliot's best-known and most popular poem. It expresses
the perplexity and disillusionment of twentieth-century man after the
First World War. At its deepest level, it records the modern Quest for the
Holy Grail, presented as a kind of anthology of varying states of thought
and feeling, of "memory and desire" resisting present awarenes,
of vivid perception, of situations, phrases, personalities blended and
superimposed across boundaries of time and space. The Hollow Man
(1925) develops the theme of The Waste Land and is a kind of
sardonic elegy on the unreal beings in all his previous poems.
A marked change comes with Ash Wednesday (1927-1930). Now, Eliot
had accepted religious faith and a path of fullfilment and hope was opened
to him. The main idea is suggested by the title; it is the start of Lent,
the season of penitence, and therefore the way lies ahead towards finding
a meaning of life and of man in God.
Eliot shared with Joyce the view that the poet should be detached; indeed,
his central purpose can be described as a search for "impersonality"
as he himself called it in his essay Tradition and the Individual
Talent. Detachment is the counterpoise to his deep sense of unreality,
or equivocal reality, in personal emotions. It is for this reason that the
people he creates in his early poems embody detachment in the negative
sense that they have no satisfying hold on life; they have no personal
roots or affctions and cannot trust their own impulses. They are aware of
a spiritual absolute but only in the form of a privation.
With Murder in the Cathedral (1935), Eliot revived the poetic drama,
and followed it with other verse plays: The Family Reunion, The
Cocktail Party and The Confidential Clerk.
Eliot was also a most impressive literary critic. His first cotribution
was The Sacred Wood (1920), a series of essays on poets, the
writing of poetry and the theory of criticism. His further critical works
were collected in a single volume, Selected Essays, in 1951. His
most profound criticism af all, however, is to be found in his latest
critical books, The Three Voices of Poetry (1953) and On Poetry
and the Poets (1957).
This article was
published in "Cross-Sections: A Socio-Literary Survey of British and
American Cultural Traditions", vol. 1.