Biography of T.S. Eliot, Poet, Playwright, and Essayist

TS Eliot
September 1958: Portrait of American-born poet TS Eliot (1888 - 1965) sitting with a book and reading eyeglasses, around the time of his seventieth birthday.

 Express / Getty Images

T.S. Eliot (September 26, 1888–January 4, 1965) was an American-born poet, essayist, publisher, playwright, and critic. One of the most eminent modernists, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 “for his outstanding, pioneer contributions to present-day poetry.” 

Fast Facts: T.S. Eliot

  • Full Name: Thomas Stearns Eliot
  • Known For: Nobel Prize laureate, writer and critic whose work defined modernism
  • Born: September 26, 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri
  • Parents: Henry Ware Eliot, Charlotte Tempe Stearns
  • Died: January 4, 1965 in Kensington, England
  • Education: Harvard University
  • Notable Works: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), The Waste Land (1922), "The Hollow Men" (1925), "Ash Wednesday" (1930), Four Quartets (1943), Murder in the Cathedral (1935), and The Cocktail Party (1949)
  • Awards and Honors: Nobel Prize in Literature (1948), Order of Merit (1948)
  • Spouses: Vivienne Haigh-Wood (m. 1915—1932), Esmé Valerie Fletcher (m. 1957)

Early Life (1888—1914)

Thomas Stearns “T.S.” Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, into a wealthy and culturally prominent family with roots in Boston and New England. His ancestors could trace their lineage back to the Pilgrim era, after leaving Somerset in the 1650s. He was raised to pursue the highest cultural ideals, and his lifelong obsession with literature can also be ascribed to the fact that he suffered from a congenital double inguinal hernia, which meant he could not participate in physical activities and thus, socialize with other children. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer was an early favorite of his. 

Eliot entered Smith Academy in 1898, where he received a humanistic education that included the study of Latin, ancient Greek, German, and French. Upon completing his education at Smith in 1905, he attended Milton Academy for one year in Boston to prepare for his enrollment at Harvard University, where he stayed from 1906 to 1914. He spent his junior year abroad, mainly in Paris, where he studied French literature at the Sorbonne University and was exposed to the thoughts of philosopher Henri Bergson. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in 1911, he proceeded with more thorough studies in philosophy through his master’s. During these years, he studied Sanskrit literature and philosophy and attended a lecture by philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was a visiting professor at Harvard in 1914. He impressed the philosopher to the point that he was mentioned in a letter from Bertrand Russell to lady Ottoline Morrell, who, in turn, became an important figure in Eliot’s life when he moved to England in the summer of 1914 for a fellowship at Merton College, Oxford.

Portrait of T. S. Eliot
Portrait of T. S. Eliot, 1933. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Bohemian Life (1915—1922)

  • Prufrock and Other Observations, incl. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917)
  • Poems incl. “Gerontion” (1919)
  • The Waste Land (1922)

Eliot promptly escaped Oxford, as he found the university town atmosphere and crowds stifling. He moved to London and took rooms in Bloomsbury, and got acquainted with other writers and poets. Thanks to his Harvard friend Conrad Aiken, who had been in London the year before and had shown Eliot’s work around, people like Harold Munro, the owner of the Poetry Bookshop, and American writer Ezra Pound knew about him. A friend from Milton Academy, Scofield Thayer, introduced him to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a governess whom Eliot married after a three-month courtship. Thayer also published Eliot’s first great work The Waste Land, in 1922.

Haigh-Wood suffered from physical and psychological ailments, and soon Eliot sought the company of others. She, in turn, embarked on a relationship with Russell. In those years, when World War I was raging on, T.S. Eliot had to work for a living, so he turned to teaching, which he was not fond of, and book reviewing. His writing appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The International Journal of Ethics, and The New Statesman. These early reviews contained ideas that he developed into larger and more significant essays later in life.

In 1917, he started working for Lloyds Bank, what would become an eight-year-long career. Shortly after he joined Lloyds, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Other Observations, was published by the Egoist Press, under the control of Harriet Shaw Weaver, a patron of the avant-garde arts. Prufrock, the narrator or speaker of the poem, is a modern individual living a life of frustration and lamenting his lack of qualities. His meditations are presented in a style reminiscent of James Joyce’s stream of consciousness. Working at Lloyds provided him with a steady income, and his literary output increased in volume and significance. In these years he befriended Virginia and Leonard Woolf, and published his first collection of poetry, aptly titled Poems, with their Hogarth Press imprint—the American edition was published by Knopf. At the urging of Ezra Pound, he also became assistant editor at Egoist magazine.

T S Eliot At Desk Inspecting Manuscripts
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The post-World War I climate of uncertainty, coupled with his failing marriage, which led to his feeling of nervous exhaustion, led him to express fear and loathing of the contemporary social and economic scene. This served as a backdrop for the four-part poem, which he started drafting in 1920, He Do the Police in Different Voices, which then developed into The Waste Land. In the summer of 1921, with his poem still unfinished, he had two memorable aesthetic experiences: one was the awareness of the upcoming publication of Joyce’s Ulysses, which he praised for its “mythic method,” the usage of myth to make sense of the modern world; the other was attending a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring, known for its primeval rhythm and dissonance, which juxtaposed the primitive and the contemporary.

In the months prior to the publication of The Wasteland, he suffered from panic attacks and migraines, to the point that he managed to get a three-month leave from the bank and went to recuperate in Margate, located in the southeast coast of England, with his wife. At the urging of Lady Ottoline Morrell, by then a friend, he consulted Dr. Roger Vitoz, a specialist in nervous disorders, in Lausanne. This allowed him to compose the fifth part of the poem in a state of inspiration. He left his manuscript in the care of Ezra Pound, who excised about half of the lines of the original work and rechristened it The Waste Land. Pound had realized that the unifying element of Eliot’s poem was its mythic core. Back in London, he launched the Criterion, financed by Lady Rothermere. It debuted in October 1922, when he also published The Waste Land. One month later it was published in Sconfield Thayer’s magazine The Dial. Within a year of its publication, the poem had an enormous impact and, alongside Ulysses, it defined the characters and stylistic convention of modernist literature.

Man of Letters (1923–1945) 

  • The Hollow Men (1925)
  • Ariel Poems (1927–1954)
  • Ash Wednesday (1930)
  • Coriolan (1931)
  • The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, a collection of lectures (1933)
  • Murder in the Cathedral (1935)
  • The Family Reunion (1939)
  • Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939)
  • Four Quartets (1945)

With the prestige and podium found as editor of Criterion and with Lady Rothermere’s financial support to the operation, he quit his banking job. However, Lady Rothermere was a difficult investor and, by 1925, she had given up on her commitment to the literary enterprise. Eliot promptly found a new patron, Geoffrey Faber, an Oxford alumnus with a family fortune. He had just invested in a publishing enterprise operated by Richard Gwyer, and was looking for similar opportunities. His friendship with Eliot lasted four decades and, thanks to Faber’s patronage, Eliot was able to publish the writings of authors who were redefining British literature.

By 1927, Eliot's marriage to Vivienne was limited to his role as a caretaker, as her behavior had become increasingly erratic. While his marriage was deteriorating, Eliot distanced himself from the Unitarian church of his youth and moved closer to the Church of England. His mental state was as complex as his wife’s, though, as he swerved from abjection to overly dramatic acts. 

The Family Reunion
American-born British writer T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965) watches English actress Catherine Lacey (1904 - 1979) at a rehearsal of his new play 'The Family Reunion', at the Westminster Theatre, London, March 1939. Felix Man / Getty Images

Harvard University offered him a position as a lecturer in the winter 1932–33, which he accepted enthusiastically as a way to get away from Vivienne. He had not been stateside in 17 years. He collected the lectures he gave in The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism, which became one of his most important critical works. He returned to England in 1933 and made his separation official, which led Vivienne to a complete breakdown. Free from the shackles of his marriage, and in line with his somewhat performative streak, he devoted himself to playwriting. His 1935 play Murder in the Cathedral, which was quite successful, reflects his mother’s obsession with saints and visionaries.

At this time, he had a new woman in his life, a drama teacher. Emily Hale was an old friend whom he met as a young university student in Boston and whom he reconnected with when he taught at Harvard in 1932-33. He did not intend to marry her, citing the Church as a reason why he refused divorcing, yet when Vivienne died in 1947, he claimed he had made a vow of celibacy, and so he could not remarry. His play, The Family Reunion, was staged in 1939.

For the duration of World War II, T.S. Eliot interrupted his activity as a playwright. During the war, while maintaining his day job as an editor, he composed The Four Quartets and also volunteered as a fire warden during the bombing raids. He tried to help his friends, finding war jobs for them, but he could do little for Pound, who was in Italy broadcasting for the Fascist government. Yet, when Pound was incarcerated in America as a traitor, Eliot made sure he kept his writings in circulation.

The Old Sage (1945-1965) 

  • Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948)
  • The Cocktail Party (1948)
  • The Confidential Clerk (1954) 
  • The Elder Statesman (1959)

After the war, Eliot had reached a degree of success and celebrity that was rare among literary figures. His 1948 Notes Towards the Definition of Culture is a conversation with Matthew Arnold’s 1866 work Culture and Anarchy. In 1948, he was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Order of Merit by George VI.

T. S. And Valerie Eliot
American-born British poet, playwright and essayist, T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965), with his second wife, Valerie Eliot (1926 - 2012), 16th August 1958. Express / Getty Images

In 1957, he married his assistant Valerie Fletcher, who had been working for him since 1948. In his last years, Eliot grew more infirm and frail, but he was in the care of his wife and she eased the pain of sickness and old age, bringing him a rare happiness even at the worst of times. Valerie was with him on the day he died of a respiratory illness on January 4, 1965 

Themes and Literary Style 

T.S. Eliot was a poet and a critic, and his two modes of expression cannot be understood without taking the other into consideration.

Spirituality and religion prominently figure in Eliot’s work; he was not only concerned with the fate of his own soul, but with the fate of a society living in an era of uncertainty and dissolution. Early poems such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” examine the inner agonies of an individual, as the title character occupies a version of hell, as evinced through the quotation of Guido’s speech from Dante’s Inferno in the epigraph. Similarly, “The Hollow Men” deals with dilemmas of belief. The Waste Land portrays a world in shambles—it reflects the instability of the aftermath of World War I— where death and sex are the main pillars. However, the heavy references to the legend of the Holy Grail and the final section, “What the Thunder Said,” indicate an element of pilgrimage, where the final teachings revolve around giving, sympathizing, and exerting control. Ash-Wednesday, ‘‘Journey of the Magi,’’ Four Quartets, and a series of verse plays explore the themes of faith and belief. 

T. S. Eliot Wins Nobel Prize
Anglo-American poet, critic and writer, T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965, far right) after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, Stockholm, Sweden, 13th December 1948. Looking on are members of the Swedish royal family. Keystone / Getty Images

A modernist, Eliot also examines the role of the artist, as he tends to find himself at odds with the fast pace of the contemporary society, despite his undisputable importance: both Prufrock and The Waste Land have characters experiencing isolation.

His writing style is eclectic and rife with literary references and direct quotations. Growing up, T.S. Eliot was encouraged to pursue culture to the highest levels. His mother, an avid poetry reader, had a fondness for poem inclined towards the prophetic and the visionary, which she passed onto her son. When he entered Harvard University, he studied the canon of European literature, which included Dante, the Elizabethan dramatists, and contemporary French poetry. Yet, it was his moving to England that provided him with the most important literary context of his life: he got in touch with fellow expatriate Ezra Pound, who introduced him to the cultural movement called Vorticism. He also met Wyndham Lewis, with whom he had a conflicted relationship his whole life. 

Legacy

Throughout his literary production, T.S. Eliot treaded the line between tradition and modernity. His influence as a critic and as a poet made him achieve an unprecedented degree of stardom for an intellectual who wasn’t, markedly, an entertainer. With his performative public persona, he could masterfully command the attention of his audiences. American avant-garde intellectuals bemoaned the fact that he had forsaken his roots by abandoning the attempts to write about contemporary America. Since his death, views on him have been more critical, especially for his elitism and for his anti-semitism. 

Bibliography

  • Cooper, John Xiros. The Cambridge Introduction to T.S. Eliot. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • “In Our Time, The Waste Land and Modernity.” BBC Radio 4, BBC, 26 Feb. 2009, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00hlb38.
  • Moody, David A. The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot. Cambridge University Press, 2009.