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3. Utopian Promise   



10. Rhythms
in Poetry


•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- HD (Hilda Doolittle)
- T. S. Eliot
- Robert Frost
- Langston Hughes
- Claude McKay
- Ezra Pound
- Carl Sandburg
- Genevieve Taggard
- Jean Toomer
- William Carlos Williams
- Suggested
Author
Pairings
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

T. S. Eliot, Half-Length Portrait, Seated, Facing Slightly Right, Holding Eyeglasses
[4995] Barry Hyams, T. S. Eliot, Half-Length Portrait, Seated, Facing Slightly Right, Holding Eyeglasses (1954), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-109122].

T. S. Eliot Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
Born in St. Louis, Thomas Stearns Eliot was one of seven children. Originally from New England, the Eliot family's lineage was bound to both religion and education. Eliot's grandfather, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, moved to St. Louis in 1834, where he began a Unitarian Church and founded Washington University, which became one of the nation's elite educational institutions. Eliot's father was a successful business executive, but it was his mother, Charlotte Stearns, from whom he seems to have inherited his literary sensibility. She was a poet, and her biography of Eliot's grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, was published in 1904.

Although Eliot spent his formative early years in St. Louis, he maintained strong connections to New England, where the family summered following the aristocratic tradition of his ancestors. He graduated from Milton Academy, an elite private school in Massachusetts; and like many of his relatives, he then went to Harvard. Graduating in three years, Eliot stayed in Cambridge to study philosophy. While at Harvard, his most influential professors proved to be George Santayana and Irving Babbitt, who was vociferous in his dislike for lingering Romanticism and exhausted aesthetic traditions. As his poetry suggests, Eliot's formal education was intense and varied. He earned a master's degree from Harvard in 1910, the same year in which he wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." He also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and in Marburg, Germany, but when World War I exploded across northern Europe, he retreated to Oxford and London and never returned to America except as a visitor. Eliot read in an eclectic manner, to say the least, absorbing Dante, centuries of French poetry, and texts from Sanskrit. Eliot married his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood, on June 26, 1915, and it proved to be a turbulent marriage, ending in separation in 1932. Eliot's difficulties dealing with his wife's mental instability appear in subtle references in his poetry, most notably in Part II of The Waste Land.

In 1914, while in England, Eliot met Ezra Pound, who was to become one of the most influential figures in his life and career. It was Pound who first recognized Eliot's genius, proclaiming he "has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own." Pound became Eliot's mentor and proponent, as he convinced editors to publish his work. Then as now, however, it was hard for anyone to make a decent living as a poet, so Eliot taught school for a while and eventually took a job as a clerk at Lloyd's Bank in London, where he worked while writing The Waste Land and other poems that made his reputation in the 1920s. The pressures of balancing a difficult marriage, Vivien's health problems, his father's death, and a developing writing career culminated in a mental breakdown in 1921. With most of The Waste Land completed, Eliot went to Lausanne, Switzerland, for rest and psychiatric treatment.

Pound helped Eliot edit The Waste Land extensively, reducing the poem by nearly half. Influenced by French poets like Laforgue, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud, and characterized by its fragmented form, esoteric allusions, spiritual searching, and apocalyptic imagery, The Waste Land stands as one of the most ambitious and innovative works of its time. In many ways the quintessential modernist text, this poem dispenses with linear sequence and narrative cohesion; complete with footnotes, it seemed to dare the reader to make sense of it. Although The Waste Land has become a centerpiece in survey courses of twentieth-century literature, in 1922 its voice and its themes seemed utterly new.

In the same year, Eliot started Criterion, a magazine that soon became an important voice on the literary scene. By the late 1920s, Eliot had established himself as a leading critic and arbiter of literary taste. His literary essays, including "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919), proved almost as influential as his poetry in shaping what came to be called "High Modernism."

The Waste Land marks a turning point in Eliot's career because it seems to mark the end of a kind of spiritual despair. Eliot's poems in the years after, including "The Hollow Men" (1925) and "Ash Wednesday" (1930), suggest a transition that culminates in the spiritual solace that characterizes his elaborate meditations Four Quartets. Eliot did, in fact, become a dedicated member of the Church of England, and much of his later writing portrays this struggle for faith, including Murder in the Cathedral, The Cocktail Party, and various essays and books on religion. As well as writing poems and critical essays, Eliot also wrote plays, some of which were produced on Broadway and in London's West End. In 1948, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.



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