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T.S. Eliot: Life and Works

Thomas 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 eternity.
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.