Wednesday, December 8, 2010

T.S. Eliot: Life and Career (1888-1965)

The Invisible Poet

Thomas Stearns Eliot enjoyed a long life span of more than seventy-five years, and his period of active literary production extended over a period of forty-five years. He has come to be regarded as one of the greatest of English poets, and he has influenced the course of modern poetry more than any other poet of the 20th century. “Yet opinion concerning the most influential man of letters of the 20th century has not freed itself from a cloud of unknowing”, says Hugh Kenner and therefore, the learned author proceeds to call him, the Invisible Poet. This ‘unknowing’ has resulted partly from Mr. Eliot’s deliberate mystifications—he called himself old Possum and tried to pretend that he was no poet at all—and partly from the difficult nature of his writings.

Birth and Parentage

However it may be, the facts of his life are clear and well-known. He was born on 20th September, 1888, at St. Louis, Missouri, an industrial city in the centre of the U.S.A. His ancestors on the father’s side had migrated to America in 1668 from East Coker (the name of one of the Four Quartets) in Somersetshire, England, and had become flourishing merchants at Boston, New England. It was the poet’s grandfather who left New England for St. Louis, and established a Unitarian Church there. He was a man of academic interests and in course of time became the founder of the Washington University at St. Louis and also left behind him a number of religious writings. But the poet’s father, Henry Eliot, did not enter the Church. He took to the brick-trade at St. Louis in which he was very successful. He married Charlotte Stearns who came directly from Boston when they married. She was an enthusiastic social worker as well as a writer of calibre. In her writings can be seen that keen interest in technical innovations which we find in the poetry of our poet. Thus, it is clear that Eliot’s grandfather and his mother contributed a lot to his development as a writer, specially as a religious poet. From his father he inherited his business ability which led him to the bank, and later on made him such a successful head of oublishing firm. Mr. Eliot’s complex, many-sided personality was the outcome of a number of inherited factors.

At School

The boy Eliot was first sent to school at St. Louis day school, where he studied till 1905, when he went to Harvard University. At school, he was considered a brilliant student, and in 1900 won a gold medal for Latin. He began writing at school and showed a marked technical proficiency and sense of humour. In 1897, his father built a holiday resort at Eastern Point, near Cape Ann, in New England, and here the poet passed his school vacations. It was here that the poet became an expert Yachtsman, and, consequently, sailing images are frequent in his works. Near Eastern Point there are three docks known as The Dry Salvages, and a part of the Four Quartets derives its title from them.

At Harvard: Literary Interests

The poet was at Harvard from 1906-10 where he pursued a wide-ranging course of studies in language and literature! the Classics, and German, French and English literatures. Particularly keen was his interest in comparative literature. Two of his teachers, Irving Babitt and George Santayana, influenced him profoundly, and he owed his sense of tradition largely to them. Round the year 1908, he read Arthur Symon’s book the Symbolist Movement in Literature, and this, stimulated his interest in the poetry of the French Symbolists, specially Laforgue.

European Tours

Eliot graduated from Harvard in 1910, and prompted by his interest in the French symbolists, he went to France and spent a year at the Sorbonne University at Paris, studying widely in many contemporary writers. In 1911, from Paris Eliot went to Bavaria, Germany, where he came into contact with important German writers and read their works. He returned to Harvard later in the year and studied philosophy, specially Indian and Sanskrit literature and philosophy. He was by nature shy, ‘an introvert’, and in order to shake off his shyness he took boxing lessons. In 1913, he was elected the President of the Harvard Philosophical Club. However, the very next year he undertook another trip to Germany to continue his philosophical studies there.

Settles in England: Marriage

With the outbreak of the First World War, Eliot had to leave Germany. He came to England and continued his studies at Oxford till 1915. Financial difficulties compelled him to take up the job of a school teacher. From England he submitted his thesis on the philosophy of Bradley for the doctorate degree, but never returned to Harvard to take that degree. The outbreak of the First World War, his meeting with Ezra Pound in London in 1914, and his introduction through him to the lively literary circles of the London of the time, and finally his marriage to an English girl, Vivienne Haigh, in July 1915, led to his settling in London, and making it his home. Thus though born an American, Eliot came to be a naturalized citizen of England.

Takes to Journalism: Rise of the Poet

In 1917, Eliot gave up teaching, and entered the foreign department of Lloyds Bank, where he worked till 1925, dealing with, “documentary bills, acceptances, and foreign exchange”. During all this time he was also writing vigorously, and several times became ill with over-work. In 1918, he registered for the U.S. Navy, but was not taken into service owing to his poor health. He worked as the assistant editor of The Egoist from 1917-19, contributed frequently to The Athenaeum, and in 1923, became the editor of The Criterion which he continued to edit till the out-break of the Second World War. In 1925, he joined the new publishing firm, Faber and Faber, of which he soon became the director, and worked in that capacity till the end of his days. During this time he had also been writing poetry, and his reputation as a poet was constantly growing. The publication of The Waste Land (1922) attracted wide interest; its technique was widely imitated, and it influenced even those who were not conscious imitators.

Joins Anglo-Catholic Church: The Christian Note

Eliot became a British citizen in 1927, and also joined the British Church that very year. The event marks an epoch in his poetic career. The poems written after that as The Journey of the Magi, Ash Wednesday are more religious in tone: they reflect the state of Eliot’s thinking and feeling about the religion he has adopted and are a stage in his intention to communicate his feelings. His reputation continued to grow and he paid a short visit to Harvard in 1933, to lecture there as a visiting professor. At this time, Eliot was also developing a practical interest in drama, with a view to reaching wider audiences. The result were the great masterpieces of poetic drama—The Murder in the Cathedral, The Family Reunion, The Confidential Clerk, The Cocktail Party, etc. His poetry, after 1935, continued to be religious, but not so obviously Christian as that of the earlier period. His last major poetic work is The Four Quartets.

Fame and Prosperity: Death

Eliot’s success both as a poet and in a worldly sense was remarkable. He visited the U.S.A. several times as a visiting professor, and continued to publish articles and essays upto the very end of his days. World recognition of his genius came with the award of The Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. On the death, in 1947, of his first wife, who had been ailing since 1930, he married his private secretary, Miss Valerie Fletcher, in 1957. This lady was the companion of his last days and nursed him tenderly when he fell ill in 1964. He died on 4th January, 1965, in London, leaving a void in the literary world which may never be filled. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in the little village of East Coker in Somerset from where his ancestor, Andrew Eliot, had migrated to America in the 17th century.


A Powerful, Complex Personality

Eliot, a great force in modern English literature, had a complex and many-sided personality. He was a classicist and a traditionalist, a great innovator, a critic, a social thinker, a philosopher and mystic, all combined in one. He was born in America, toured through Europe, and accepted British citizenship early in life. His character and personality were thus the result of cosmopolitan influences. As T.S. Pearce points out, “He presented himself in a British manner, with umbrella, striped trousers, and bowler hat. He rejected many of the causes which make up the American tradition, the cause of the emigration to America, of the War of Independence, and of the Civil War. He never returned to America except as a visitor. He developed a perfectly standard English accent. He appeared to possess a characteristic English reticence. He liked English cheeses. Nevertheless, none of these things really disguised the fact that he was an American and that in attitude and tradition he fits more easily into the American context than into the British, especially when you remember that to live and work out of America has been characteristic of American writers at all times. He wore his new nationality, and his English characteristics, rather as a mask, covering, though not exactly hiding, a powerful individual largely detached from such matters as nationality.” He was also European, and that is a title almost as unrevealing as American. The powerful individual, rejecting any label or classification, is revealed in his poetry. It has little in common with either his English or American contemporaries, though it is closer, if anything, to the American writers, especially to Ezra Pound.

Physical Appearance

The most striking impression which memories of him as a person give are of his appearance. Whatever else his friends recall, nearly everyone comments on his dress, his precise, proper, dark jacket and striped trousers, which might almost have been a deliberate disguise. Occasionally, there are glimpses of him in a more flamboyant costume, and a hint that there was a touch of the dandy in him, but these are rare. He is recalled as tall, pale, thoughtful, absorbed, speaking in measured and solemn tones even when humorous, and in such a way that you could not really tell whether he was being humorous or not.

His Sense of Humour

There are anecdotes which reveal a remote and melancholy humour with the potent implications of profundity which made it disarming and slightly weird. One such anecdote is recorded by Hugh Kenner:

After The Confidential Clerk was produced, a journalist, teased by implications he couldn’t pin down, or perhaps simply assigned a turn of duty at poet-baiting, wanted to know what it meant. ‘It means what it says’, said Mr. Eliot patiently. ‘No more?’ ‘Certainly, no more’. ‘But supposing’, the journalist pursued, ‘supposing you had meant something else, would you not have put some other meaning more plainly?’ ‘No’, Eliot replied, ‘I should have put it just as obscurely.’

The anecdote reveals humorous attitude towards the situation, a humorous detachment from it, and even from himself as part of it.

Character and Personal Habits

Herbert Read writes of his character as follows: “The man, I knew, in all his reserve, was the man he wished to be: a serious but not necessarily a solemn man, a severe man never lacking in kindness and sympathy, a profound man (profoundly learned, profoundly poetic, profoundly spiritual) and yet to outward appearance a correct man, a conventional man, an infinitely polite man—in brief, a gentleman. He not only was not capable of a mean deed; I would also say that he never had a mean thought. He could mock folly and be severe with sin, and there were people he simply did not wish to know. But his circle of friends, though never very large, was very diverse, and he could relax with great charm in the presence of women. He had moods of gaiety and moods of great depression—I have known occasions when I left him feeling that my spirit had been utterly depleted. Often he was witty (in a somewhat solemn voice); his anecdotes were related with great deliberation. He did not hesitate to discuss policies or personalities, but he condemned idle gossip. In personal habits, he was scrupulously correct and clean, never a Bohemian in thought or appearance; but he had a steak of hypochondria, and was addicted to pills and points. He had good reason for taking care of himself, for he easily took a chill and often suffered from a distressing cough. I never saw him indulge in any sport. One weekend he spent with me early in our friendship (it was 1927 or 1928) he came clad in a most curious pair of checkered breeches, neither riding-breeches nor ‘puls fours’, but some hybrid which was certainly not from Savile Row. He had a fetish of umbrellas, as is perhaps well-known. He had them specially made with enormous handles, with the excuse that no one would take away such an umbrella from a cloakroom by mistake. He relished good food and beer and wine, but his speciality was cheese of which he had tasted a great many varieties.”

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