Thomas Stearns Eliot is arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century, and without doubt one of the most celebrated. Since the publication in 1916 of his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot’s fame and reputation grew, culminating in a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. Today, while poets of past ages typically are considered in critical ways that diminish the standing they occupied in their own eras, Eliot’s remains intact, if not heightened. He is known for a style that combines classical elements with modernity, as his plays in verse have also enhanced his prestige, and no poet is more identified with the postwar movements that captured the periods of disillusionment of the times. The esteem attached to Eliot is such that, in recent decades, plays and films have focused on his own life, and notably his first, less than successful, marriage. In the following, a brief discussion of that life will be followed by analysis of his major work, which in turn will reflect the lasting impact of T. S. Eliot.
In noting the important aspects of Eliot’s life, and particularly as they may apply to his work, two factors dominant. The first is that, like many other literary artists later celebrated for their daring, Eliot essentially lived a quiet, conservative life. He came from an upper middle-class family and, even as he maintained his job in adulthood in British banking, he was never a “starving artist,” living on the fringe of society. The second element of note relates to that job; like Henry James and other writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Eliot was very much an emigre. England, and not America, would become his home, even as he would always recall his childhood in St. Louis with affection.
Born in 1888 to Henry Ware and Charlotte Eliot, Eliot’s youth was both unique and somewhat ordinary. His family was in the upper tiers of St. Louis society, and could trace its American ancestry back to John Quincy Adams (Sanna 5). Eliot himself was particularly proud f an ancestor, Sir Thomas Elyot, who had challenged Henry VIII’s marriage to Ann Boleyn (Gordon 17). The family was large and active in the city’s social and cultural life. At the same time, Eliot, as the seventh child, was treated very differently by his mother. A schoolteacher, Charlotte Eliot made it known to her son early on that he was, not an afterthought in the family, but exceptional. His childhood was marked by Charlotte’s protectiveness over him; they would read together, she did not permit him to engage in sports, and she essentially became his closest, if not only, companion. It is believed that Charlotte’s treating of the boy as an adult promoted his artistic and inquisitive nature, as the mother and child often held deep discussion as to life’s meaning and spiritual concerns (Sanna 5). Everything in Eliot’s child, then, indicates something of preparation for a life in the arts. He was a thoughtful, highly intelligent child, and one fully encouraged to perceive himself as remarkable. It seems that this encouragement, then, prompted the introspection and inquisitiveness that would profoundly mark Eliot’s later life and work.
In his Harvard years, the formation of the Eliot who would become a poet may be traced. In Boston, he had a deep awareness of the city as it was changing, and not in favorable ways. This new environment, in fact, appears to have fueled the beginnings of Eliot’s expansive view of America as postwar and in a strange decline. Because of his family’s standing, the young man moved through the upper classes of Boston easily, but he became contemptuous of how the people were, in his eyes, perverting civilization; Boston, in fact, was to him, “refined beyond the point of civilization” (Gordon 27). Harvard itself he found wholly unfulfilling, which in turn is reflected in his early poems. Even these, many never published, reveal the perspective that would come to define Eliot: “He started his poetic career with a smell of decay in his nostrils” (Gordon 35). It is noted as well that the young Eliot reveals in his early verse intense conflicts with women, as well as with society as a whole (Sanna 7). In England, Eliot’s life would take shape. Bertrand Russell brought him into contact with Ezra Pound, who would become a mentor, and Eliot made his first marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a union Eliot later admitted to as necessary to keep him in England. Upheavals in both life and work would occur over the decades, with Eliot’s fame rising, but the basic reality is that, for most of his life, he happily held onto his positions with Lloyd’s Bank, and later the publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer (Gordon 219). What is most evident, however, is a life continually evolving in an artistic sense, even as the liver of it struggles to reconcile a dissatisfaction, if not disgust, with the material world with the deeper concerns of his art.
Before anything is said regarding Eliot’s greatest efforts, it must be reinforced that, as his viewpoints were continually evolving, so too was his verse. Additionally, and remarkably, even Eliot’s poetry from his Harvard years indicates a striking level of maturity and insight. “Silence,” for example, inspired by a walk through Boston, beautifully evokes the existential quality Eliot would later develop. Perspective would develop quickly, and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” while very much and immature and early work, reveals a significant degree of self-awareness. The narrator is a fictional, middle-aged man, but Eliot’s own distance from the world is evident in the reflections: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each./ I do not think that they will sing to me” (ll 124-125). It is relatively easy for a young man to stumble when attempting to speak through the voice of age in poetry, but there is a sense of understanding in the poem that gives it integrity. The modesty is genuine, if the character is not: “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/ Am an attendant lord, one that will do/ To swell a progress, start a scene or two” (ll 111-113). Even at this stage, Eliot is accepting his role as a poet, which is to observe and comment from a distance.
It is 1922’s “The Wasteland,” however, that is typically seen as exemplifying Eliot as a poet. More exactly, the poem is viewed as an expression of the concerns most troubling to him, the primary one being the dissolution of culture in the postwar world of Europe. This is in turn amplified by what the poet himself claimed to be the chief inspiration for the work: his miserable marriage to Vivienne (Bush 10). Consequently, Eliot’s work is enriched by multiple perspectives. There is the Eliot translating personal unhappiness into a metaphorical wasteland, and there is the Eliot who then sees individual misery echoed in a landscape of ruin and failed dreams. It is this combination of elements that gives “The Wasteland” its power, in that it transcends both the individual cry of pain and the social statement. It connects, and the connections are rendered throughout the poem. Most of all, a kind of sadness mixes with rage; there is a potent and ongoing sense of something beautiful lost, and anger at the loss: “The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf/ Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind/ Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed” (11 173-175). Humor is infused to punctuate the despair, just as Eliot weaves in matter-of-fact things and events in his tale of loss. It is not, however, a tale of hopelessness; the thunder is sounding and rains will come. The poet does not embrace this as renewal, but there is a suggestion of life arising from the wreckage, and this illustrate an important point regarding Eliot. Even in his most emphatic sadness, he is aware that sadness need not be the reality. He is not optimistic by any means, and certainly not in this most tragic of poems, but he cannot disavow hope because no living, rational man may.
In Eliot’s plays, there is greater evidence of how the poet, while necessarily distancing himself from life, is fascinated by the mechanics and processes of it. More importantly, in the plays Eliot turns away from landscape as, in effect, a character or victim, and he focuses his skill and vision on what people to do one another. In this, he is then enabled to do what he does so superbly, which is to probe for answers while not in any real sense expecting to find them. Just as Eliot cannot adequately convey all the elements of the broken in “The Wasteland,” so too is he plunged into arenas of immeasurable depth and levels when he addresses strictly human affairs. There is an inherent courage in doing this, a courage suggested by even the trajectory of the major plays. More exactly, Murder in the Cathedral is the earlier work, and this is understandable; if a poet aims to expose human souls and desires, an intensely dramatic situation would seem to be helpful. Only later, when Eliot is older and “braver,” can he dispense with the overt drama and explore people as people, in The Cocktail Party.
In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot employs the legendary killing of Thomas Becket in 1170 to examine what may be called human destiny, or the forces inexplicably shaping that destiny. Given the tale and the setting, he chooses to borrow from classical Greek drama and a chorus of women serves to provide a foundation for action that is both worldly and other-worldly. This is made clear from the beginning: “Some presage of an act which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet toward the Cathedral” (I). The first part is largely suspense, yet it allows for Eliot to delve into what concerns him most: humanity’s ability to identify meaning in a world where meaning fades. The cynicism is strong, and it seems that Eliot could not have chosen a more appropriate spokesperson than Becket himself, famously self-indulgent and then utterly repentant. Eliot’s Becket, moreover, is no strict politician, as history has often defined him. He is, in a word, ready to be killed because his experience of life has led him to no greater expectation: “Only the fool, fixed in his folly, may think he can turn the wheel on which he turns” (I). This is existentialism as fatalism, in a sense, and Becket is willing to play his part in a drama beyond the power of any man to alter. The play ultimately combines the pragmatic – and often ugly – actions of mankind with an awareness that something beyond mankind directs. If that thing is unknown, it is nonetheless crucial because it suggests what is desperately needed: reason.
The honesty of The Cocktail Party is more raw, and very likely autobiographical. Even as Eliot’s great themes of meaning and loss are explored through the device of the party chatter, there is a strong sense of his being able here to incorporate himself. Early on, Julia scolds Edward, the host: “I know you’re always the perfect host, but just try to pretend you’re another guest” (I). Myriad issues and affairs are revealed, as the men and women interact throughout the scenes, but it seems evident here that Eliot is willing to place himself in the drama/comedy. The summation of the psychiatrist at the conclusion does not, of course, actually explain a great deal, but this is the point in itself. Even here and moving among the action, Eliot the poet resists answers. It is more critical that he document and here, as in his poetry, there is the awareness that Eliot feels that true judgment is beyond mankind’s scope. In a sense, his guests in the play are only extensions of J. Alfred Prufrock: questioning, doubtful, weary, and never quite certain of where the responsibility for their lives resides.
It is ordinary for Eliot to be viewed as something of a poet of loss, a reputation certainly enhanced by the despair in two of his greatest works, “The Wasteland” and Murder in the Cathedral. Even in his lighter treatments, in fact, there is a gravity indicating deep concerns with humanity’s state of being, or even worthiness to exist. Much of this is certainly due to his formative years in witnessing societal decay after World War I, just as his sheltered childhood and privileged background facilitated his role as an outsider. Then, an unhappy marriage was also a likely inspiration in his inclination to investigate the sadness of the human condition. At the same time, however, and perhaps ironically, nothing in Eliot is hopeless. If his work consistently sifts through human experience to find a core of meaning and fails to do so, there is nonetheless the effort made, which points to a fundamental faith in meaning. If T.S. Eliot lives on as the greatest poet of the postwar generations, it is as one who, sometimes in spite of himself, does not entirely give up on the humanity he so relentlessly interrogates.
Bush, R. T. S. Eliot: The Modernist in History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Print.
Eliot, T. S. Poems. 2013. Web.
Eliot, T. S. The Cocktail Party: A Comedy. New York: Samuel French, 1978. Print.
Eliot, T.S. Murder in the Cathedral. New York: Samuel French, 1963. Print.
Gordon, L. T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2000. Print.
Sanna, E. “Biography of T.S. Eliot.” T. S. Eliot. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall: Chelsea House