|:: T. S. Eliot Biography ::
Thomas Stearns Eliot OM (September 26, 1888 – January 4, 1965) was a playwright, literary critic, and an important English-language poet of the 20th century. Although he was born an American, he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 (at age 25) and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39. The poem that made his name, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock—started in 1910 and published in Chicago in 1915—is seen as a masterpiece of the modernist movement, and was followed by some of the best-known poems in the English language, including Gerontion (1920), The Waste Land (1922), The Hollow Men (1925), Ash Wednesday (1930), and Four Quartets (1945). He is also known for his seven plays, particularly Murder in the Cathedral (1935). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, and educated at Harvard, Eliot studied philosophy at the Sorbonne for a year, then in 1914 won a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford, becoming a British citizen in 1927 when he was 39. He said of his poetry and the effect on it of his nationality: "It wouldn't be what it is, and I imagine it wouldn't be so good ... if I'd been born in England, and it wouldn't be what it is if I'd stayed in America. It's a combination of things. But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America."
Eliot was born into the Eliot family, a middle class family originally from New England, who had moved to St. Louis, Missouri. His father, Henry Ware Eliot (1843–1919), was a successful businessman, president and treasurer of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis. His mother, Charlotte Champe Stearns (1843–1929), wrote poetry and was a social worker, a new profession in the early twentieth century. Eliot was the last of six surviving children; his parents were both 44 years old when he was born. His four sisters were between eleven and nineteen years older; his brother was eight years older. Known to family and friends as Tom, he was the namesake of his maternal grandfather Thomas Stearns.
Several factors are responsible for Eliot's infatuation with literature during his childhood. First, Eliot had to overcome physical limitations as a child. Struggling from a congenital double hernia, a condition in which one's intestines jut through the bowel wall and causes an abdominal rupture, Eliot was unable to participate in many physical activities and thus was prevented from interacting socially with his peers. Because Eliot was often isolated his love of literature developed. For, once he learned to read, the young boy immediately became obsessed with books and was completely absorbed in tales depicting savages, the Wild West, or Mark Twain's thrill-seeking Tom Sawyer. In his memoir of T.S. Eliot, Eliot's close friend Robert Sencourt comments that young Eliot "would often curl up in the window-seat behind an enormous book, setting the drug of dreams against the pain of living." Secondly, Eliot also credited his hometown with seeding his literary vision: "It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done. I feel that there is something in having passed one's childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London." Thus, from the onset, literature was an essential part of Eliot's childhood and both his disability and location influenced him.
From 1898 to 1905, Eliot attended Smith Academy, where his studies included Latin, Ancient Greek, French, and German. He began to write poetry when he was fourteen under the influence of Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a translation of the poetry of Omar Khayyam. He said the results were gloomy and despairing, and he destroyed them. His first poem published, "A Fable For Feasters," was written as a school exercise and was published in the Smith Academy Record in February 1905. Also published there in April 1905 was his oldest surviving poem in manuscript, an untitled lyric, later revised and reprinted as "Song" in The Harvard Advocate, Harvard University's student magazine. He also published three short stories in 1905, "Birds of Prey," "A Tale of a Whale" and "The Man Who Was King." The last mentioned story significantly reflects his exploration of Igorot Village while visiting the 1904 World's Fair of St. Louis. Such a link with primitive people importantly antedates his anthropological studies at Harvard.
After graduation, Eliot attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts for a preparatory year, where he met Scofield Thayer, who would later publish The Waste Land. He studied philosophy at Harvard from 1906 to 1909, earning his bachelor's degree after three years, instead of the usual four. Frank Kermode writes that the most important moment of Eliot's undergraduate career was in 1908, when he discovered Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899). This introduced him to Jules Laforgue, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine. Without Verlaine, Eliot wrote, he might never have heard of Tristan Corbière and his book Les amours jaunes, a work that affected the course of Eliot's life. The Harvard Advocate published some of his poems, and he became lifelong friends with Conrad Aiken, the American novelist.
After working as a philosophy assistant at Harvard from 1909 to 1910, Eliot moved to Paris, where from 1910 to 1911, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. He attended lectures by Henri Bergson and read poetry with Alain-Fournier. From 1911 to 1914, he was back at Harvard studying Indian philosophy and Sanskrit. Eliot was awarded a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford in 1914. He first visited Marburg, Germany, where he planned to take a summer program, but when the First World War broke out, he went to Oxford instead. At the time, so many American students attended Merton that the Junior Common Room proposed a motion "that this society abhors the Americanization of Oxford." It was defeated by two votes, after Eliot reminded the students how much they owed American culture.
Eliot wrote to Conrad Aiken on New Year's Eve 1914: "I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books and hideous pictures on the walls ... Oxford is very pretty, but I don't like to be dead." Escaping Oxford, Eliot actually spent much of his time in London. This city had a monumental and life-altering impact on Eliot for multiple reasons, the most significant of which was his introduction to the acclaimed literary figure Ezra Pound. A connection through Aiken resulted in an arranged meeting and on September 22, 1914, Eliot paid a visit to Pound's flat. Pound instantly deemed Eliot "worth watching" and was imperative to Eliot's beginning career as a poet as he is credited with promoting Eliot through social events and literary gatherings. Thus, according to biographer John Worthen, during his time in England Eliot "was seeing as little of Oxford as possible. He was instead spending long periods of time in London, in the company of Ezra Pound and "some of the modern artists whom the war has so far spared . . . . It was Pound who helped most, introducing him everywhere." In the end, Eliot did not settle at Merton, and left after a year.
By 1916, he had completed a doctoral dissertation for Harvard on Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley, but he failed to return for the viva voce exam. In a letter to Aiken late in December, 1914, Eliot, aged 26, wrote, "I am very dependent upon women (I mean female society)." Less than four months later, Thayer introduced Eliot to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a Cambridge governess. They were married at Hampstead Register Office on June 26, 1915. After a short visit alone to his family in the United States, Eliot returned to London and took several teaching jobs, such as lecturing at Birkbeck College, University of London. The philosopher Bertrand Russell took an interest in Vivienne while the newlyweds stayed in his flat. Some scholars have suggested that she and Russell had an affair, but the allegations were never confirmed.
The marriage was markedly unhappy, in part because of Vivienne's health issues. In a letter addressed to Ezra Pound, she covers an extensive list of her symptoms, which included a habitually high temperature, fatigue, insomnia, migraines, and colitis. This, coupled with apparent mental instability, meant that she was often sent away by Eliot and her doctors for extended periods of time in the hope of improving her health, and as time went on, he became increasingly more detached from her. Their relationship became the subject of a 1984 play Tom and Viv, which in 1994 was adapted as a film. In a private paper written in his sixties, Eliot confessed: "I came to persuade myself that I was in love with Vivienne simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land."
After leaving Merton, Eliot worked as a schoolteacher, most notably at Highgate School, a private school in London, where he taught French and Latin—his students included the young John Betjeman. Later he taught at the Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe, a state school in Buckinghamshire. To earn extra money, he wrote book reviews and lectured at evening extension courses. In 1917, he took a position at Lloyds Bank in London, working on foreign accounts. On a trip to Paris in August, 1920 with the artist Wyndham Lewis, he met the writer James Joyce. Eliot said he found Joyce arrogant—Joyce doubted Eliot's ability as a poet at the time—but the two soon became friends, with Eliot's visiting Joyce whenever he was in Paris.
In 1925, Eliot left Lloyds to join the publishing firm Faber and Gwyer, later Faber and Faber, where he remained for the rest of his career, eventually becoming a director. Wyndham Lewis and Eliot became close friends, a friendship leading to Lewis's well-known painting of Eliot in 1938. On June 29, 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism from Unitarianism, and in November that year he took British citizenship. He became a warden of his parish church, Saint Stephen's, Gloucester Road, London, and a life member of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. He specifically identified as Anglo-Catholic, proclaiming himself "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion." About thirty years later Eliot commented on his religious views that he combined "a Catholic cast of mind, a Calvinist heritage, and a Puritanical temperament."
By 1932, Eliot had been contemplating a separation from his wife for some time. When Harvard offered him the Charles Eliot Norton professorship for the 1932-1933 academic year, he accepted and left Vivienne in England. Upon his return, he arranged for a formal separation from her, avoiding all but one meeting with her between his leaving for America in 1932 and her death in 1947. Vivienne was committed to the Northumberland House mental hospital, Stoke Newington, in 1938, and remained there until she died. Although Eliot was still legally her husband, he never visited her. From 1946 to 1957, Eliot shared a flat with his friend John Davy Hayward, who gathered and archived Eliot's papers, styling himself "Keeper of the Eliot Archive." Hayward also collected Eliot's pre-Prufrock verse, commercially published after Eliot's death as Poems Written in Early Youth. When Eliot and Hayward separated their household in 1957, Hayward retained his collection of Eliot's papers, which he bequeathed to King's College, Cambridge, in 1965.
On January 10, 1957, Eliot at the age of 68, married Esmé Valerie Fletcher, who was 32. In contrast to his first marriage, Eliot knew Fletcher well, as she had been his secretary at Faber and Faber since August, 1949. They kept their wedding secret; the ceremony was held in a church at 6:15 A.M., with virtually no one in attendance other than his wife's parents. Since Eliot's death, Valerie has dedicated her time to preserving his legacy; she has edited and annotated The Letters of T. S. Eliot and a facsimile of the draft of The Waste Land. Eliot never had children with either of his wives. In the early 1960s, by then in failing health, Eliot worked as an editor for the Wesleyan University Press, seeking new poets in Europe for publication. Eliot died of emphysema in London on January 4, 1965. For many years he had had health problems caused by his heavy smoking, and had often been laid low with bronchitis or tachycardia. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium. In accordance with Eliot's wishes, his ashes were taken to St. Michael's Church in East Coker, the village from which his ancestors had emigrated to America.
Thomas Stearns Eliot's Awards and Honors
Order of Merit (awarded by King George VI (United Kingdom), 1948)
Nobel Prize for Literature "for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry" (Stockholm, 1948)
Officier de la Legion d'Honneur (1951)
Hanseatic Goethe Prize (Hamburg, 1955)
Dante Medal (Florence, 1959)
Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1960)
Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964)
Thirteen honorary doctorates (including Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne, and Harvard)
Tony Award in 1950 for Best Play: The Broadway production of The Cocktail Party
Two posthumous Tony Awards (1983) for his poems used in the musical Cats
Eliot College of the University of Kent, England, named after him
Celebrated on commemorative postage stamps
A star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame