Thomas Stearns Eliot, known as T. S. Eliot (January 4, 1965), was a British-American poet, playwright and literary critic. According to José María Valverde, in fact, “the publication of The Waste Land made T. S. Eliot the central figure of poetic life in the English language. Critics hailed the complex and obscure poem as a symbol of an age of disintegration, desperately trying to bring some order to the growing chaos by applying mythologies and forms inherited from the past”.
Eliot was born in the United States and moved to the United Kingdom in 1914, aged twenty-five. He became a British citizen in 1927, aged thirty-nine. About his nationality and its role in his work, he said, “It wouldn”t have been the same if he had been born in England, and it wouldn”t have been the same if he had stayed in the United States. It”s a combination of things. But in his sources, in his emotional currents, he comes from America”. The critic Edmund Wilson said of Eliot: “He is one of our truly unique poets”.
In 1948 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his outstanding and pioneering contribution to modern poetry”.
He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, United States, on September 26, 1888. His father, Henry Ware Eliot, was an important businessman, president and treasurer of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company of that city. His mother, Charlotte Champe Stearns, had literary interests, publishing a few books.
The interest in literature was awakened in the poet due to several factors. First, Eliot had to overcome some physical limitations as a child. He suffered from a congenital double abdominal hernia, which prevented him from engaging in many physical activities and limited his relationships with his peers. Because of this isolation, his passion for literature developed. Once he learned to read, the boy immediately became obsessed with books and became entirely absorbed in the tales of the Wild West, as well as the vicissitudes of Mark Twain”s Tom Sawyer. In the memoir dedicated to him by his close friend Robert Sencourt, one reads that young Eliot “often curled up on the windowsill behind a huge book, taking refuge in the drug of dreams against the pain of living.” Secondly, the settings of his hometown (Saint Louis) are also credited as the origin of his literary vision: “It is evident that Saint Louis affected me more deeply than any other setting; the fact that I spent my childhood beside the great river, something incommunicable to those who have not experienced it. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, and not in Boston, or New York, or London.”
Thomas studied at Smith Academy, Saint Louis, from 1898 to 1905. He soon excelled in all subjects, from Latin to physics. He began writing poetry at the age of fourteen, under the influence of Edward FitzGerald, especially his translation of Omar Khayam”s Rubaiyat. Eliot would claim that the result was bleak and despairing, and that he made everything he had written disappear. His first published poem, “A Fable For Feasters,” appeared as a school exercise in the Smith Academy Record in February 1905. He also published three short stories, including “The Man Who Was King,” reflecting his visit to the St. Louis World”s Fair in 1904.
In 1906 he entered Harvard University, where he studied Greek, English literature, German, medieval history and art history.
He publishes poetry in the university magazine, becoming interested in the French symbolist poets (Rimbaud, Verlaine, Corbière, Laforgue, etc.). Under this influence, he went to Paris in 1909, where he attended Henri Bergson”s classes and met Alain-Fournier. He also studied Dante, John Donne and other English metaphysical poets in depth. The recovery of the metaphysicians meant in Eliot a tacit censure of the romantic assumptions.
In his 1961 essay Criticizing the Critic, he will state the sources of his poetry:
I have written, yes, about Baudelaire, but not about Jules Laforgue, to whom I owe more than to any other poet in any language, nor about Tristan Corbière, to whom I also owe something. (…) There is, however, a poet who made a deep impression on me when I was twenty-two years old (…) a poet who remains the consolation and amazement of my present age (…) the poet of whom I speak is Dante.
From Paris, he went to Munich and Italy. In 1911 he returned to Harvard and received his doctorate in philosophy with a thesis on F. H. Bradley and his “knowledge and experience”. Throughout his university studies, Eliot studied with George Santayana, Irving Babbitt, Henri Bergson, C. R. Lanman, Josiah Royce, Bertrand Russell and Harold Joachim. He also chose Hindu philosophy and philology and Buddhism, for which he studied Sanskrit and Pali.
At Harvard he is appointed assistant professor of philosophy. He meets Bertrand Russell, who has come as a visitor to that university, and the latter judges him to be his best student. He goes on a scholarship to the University of Marburg (Germany), but, at the outbreak of war, he flees the country, moving to London. In 1914, against his father”s wishes, he decides to settle permanently in England and soon meets Ezra Pound, who introduces him to the English literary world. In those years he will also establish a relationship with Virginia Woolf and her husband, and with the novelist James Joyce, whom he confesses to admire.
In 1915 he taught French, German and history at a high school, but soon abandoned it: teaching was not for him. He married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who years later suffered from a mental illness. In 1930 they separated for good. The film Tom & Viv, by director Brian Gilbert, starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson, was filmed in 1994 about this sad period in their lives. Like his wife, Eliot suffered from various nervous disorders over the years. He did not remarry until many years later.
In 1917 Eliot began working at Lloyd”s Bank in London, where he remained for several years. He was a regular contributor to The Egoist magazine, founded by Dora Marsden. He also worked for the publishing house Faber and Gwyer, later Faber and Faber, of which he became a director.
That same year his first great poem appeared: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The work, probably Eliot”s most quoted, already evidences the intense experimental vocation of its author. It is structured as a dramatic monologue, in the manner of Robert Browning, using the technique of the interior monologue or “stream of consciousness”, which a few years later James Joyce would make very fashionable. As in later works, Prufrock is full of quotations and allusions of all kinds, with special attention to Dante and Shakespeare (Hamlet).
Let”s go then, you and I, when the sunset stretches against the sky like an anesthetized patient on a table; let”s go, through certain half-abandoned streets, the mumbling retreats of restless nights in cheap one-night hotels and restaurants with sawdust and oyster shells.
In 1920 he published Poesías and the collection of critical essays El bosque sagrado (The Sacred Forest). In 1922 (annus mirabilis of 20th century literature, with the appearance of James Joyce”s Ulysses (novel), R. M. Rilke”s Duino Elegies (published a year later), Ludwig Wittgenstein”s Tractatus logico-philosophicus, César Vallejo”s Trilce, an important part of Marcel Proust”s In Search of Lost Time, etc.), he published the poem that would make him world famous, The Waste Land. ) appears the poem that would make him world famous, The Waste Land, in whose final design his friend Ezra Pound had intervened.
The book was composed at a time of serious personal difficulties for the author, due to the nervous problems that afflicted his wife and himself. It is said to be a great exponent of the disenchantment and pain of the generation that had suffered the First World War. Composed in the form of a collage, and full, like Prufrock, of quotations and references of the most heterogeneous, critics in general describe it as dark, profound and visionary, for its oscillation between the prophetic and satire, its continuous and sudden changes of voice, place and time, its vast and elegiac review in distorted form of multiple elements of universal literature and culture. In its time it constituted the epitome of modernity, together with Joyce”s aforementioned novel, Ulysses.
A rat slithered softly through the vegetation, dragging its muddy belly along the bank as I fished in the murky canal on a winter”s evening behind the gasometers, meditating on the ruin of my brother the king and on the death of my father the king before him.
Also in 1922, he founded what would become the influential Criterion magazine. Other important books from this period are: The Hollow Men (1925) and Ash Wednesday (1930).
In 1927, Eliot took a very striking turn in his life, adopting British nationality and converting to Anglicanism: “It is a phrase from a preface to a small collection of essays entitled For Lancelot Andrewes: I said I was classical in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion. I should have foreseen that phrase so conducive to being quoted was going to haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Already separated from his wife and integrated into the Anglican Church, he moved to live in a residence for clergymen in London, in Gloucester Road, where he prayed every morning before starting his day”s work at Faber & Faber. And there he lived until his friend, the scholar John Hayward, confined to a wheelchair, invited him to share his home, which Eliot did not leave until he married Valérie Fletcher in 1957.
In 1943 the book that he himself, as well as much of the critics, considered his masterpiece appeared: Four Quartets. Four Quartets is the name given by the poet to four separate poems related to each other. Eliot republished them together in book form in 1943. They had been published separately from 1935 to 1942. Their titles are: “Burnt Norton”, “East Coker”, “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding”.
The book is based on Eliot”s thirty-year study of philosophy and mysticism. Christian imagery and symbolism abound in the poems. Eliot converted to Anglicanism in 1927, and was a practicing Christian. In the poems, as in earlier works, there are also abundant references to Hindu symbols and traditions, with which he was very familiar from his student days. According to Andreu Jaume, these quartets are of theatrical inspiration, although not intended for the stage, so that they amalgamate dramatic monologue, lyrical and meditative poetry in a perfect contrapuntal balance.
The four poems, of several hundred lines each, are divided into five sections. Although they resist easy characterization, they show some overlap. Each begins with a lyrical reasoning located in the location that gives it its title (all meditate on the nature of time in some aspect, theological, historical, physical, and in its relation to the human being. Finally, each of the poems is associated with one of the classical elements of nature: air, earth, water and fire. They seem to be essays in verse that address the same ideas through variations, without reaching any definite conclusion.
Present time and past time are perhaps present in future time and future time within past time.if all time is eternally presentall time is irredeemable.what might have been is a mere abstractionremaining as an eternal possibility only in the world of speculation.what might have been and what was point to a single end, which is always present.
His poetry will never again reach such heights of quality. Until the 50”s, several plays of mainly moralistic or religious content appeared: Asesinato en la catedral (Murder in the Cathedral), Reunión familiar (Family Reunion), El cocktail…
Eliot also stood out as an essayist with several works on literary criticism and social issues: The Art of Poetry and the Art of Criticism, Criticizing the Critic, Notes for a Definition of Culture…
The highest recognition came with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Order of Merit of the United Kingdom, both in 1948.
In 1957 he married Valerie Fletcher, his secretary.
He died in London, on January 4, 1965, of pulmonary emphysema, generated, it seems, by his severe smoking and by the continuous exposure to London”s pollution, very intense at that time. His remains were cremated and, in accordance with his wishes, his ashes rest in East Coker, the village from which his ancestors left for the United States, and which gives title to one of his great poems.
The literary historian Hugh Haughton, from the University of York, was commissioned in 2006 by the publisher Faber to work on the abundant correspondence of the poet and Nobel Laureate. So far only one volume of his letters has been published, corresponding to the years 1898-1921, in an edition under the care of his widow, Valerie Eliot. For years, she has been a jealous guardian of the correspondence and other documents of the author of Four Quartets, to the exasperation of biographers and analysts of his work.
One of the possible causes of the restrictions on access to Eliot”s papers may be the fear of revelations about his alleged homosexual tendencies and anti-Semitic views.
In this regard, the RTVE documentary entitled Jaime Gil de Biedma. Retrato de un poeta (Portrait of a poet) includes a letter from the poet to his friend, the diplomat Paco Mayáns, in which Gil de Biedma -a well-known homosexual-, referring to his long stay in England in the 50s, says textually (the letter itself is displayed on screen): “I have been cohabiting with T.S.E. for days with great pleasure on my part and with somewhat less pleasure on the part of my family, which has been somewhat insensitive to the charms of English prosody. They talk of throwing us both out on the street.”
Leaving aside the “intellectualism” of which he is often accused (often as a way of contrasting his figure with those of his contemporaries Dylan Thomas and W. H. Auden, poets more clearly lyrical), the poetry of T. S. Eliot presents three fundamental aspects, facets apparently contradictory to each other, but which the great artist harmonized wisely. The first, a very sui generis humorous vein. The author was very fond of satirical trifles and ironic jokes, visible in books such as the first one he published, in 1917, Prufrock and Other Observations, or in The Book of Clever Cats (1939), on which the famous musical comedy Cats, by Andrew Lloyd Weber, is based. The second one, the outburst of avant-gardism or literary experimentalism; not in vain, together with Wallace Stevens and Ezra Pound, he was the great representative of English modernism, which has nothing to do with our “modernism”: The Waste Land.
His third facet is, undoubtedly, the meditative and religious. The transcendent and penitential tone acquires an enormous presence throughout his work, and from the encounter of such disparate elements (tradition and novelty, jokes and truths, the sacred and the profane, we could say, or, as we will see later, faith and nihilism) will emanate, in synthesis, the, for some, greatest poetry of the twentieth century; “an intense attraction for beauty together with an equally intense fascination for ugliness, which contrasts with it and ends up destroying it”, he affirmed in one of his essays. Damaso López García nicely summarizes these striking contrasts in his introduction to Inventos de la liebre de marzo, a collection of Eliot”s early poems, published after his death.
As has been said, Eliot, well into maturity, suddenly and spectacularly converted to Anglicanism; this explains the importance of religious sentiment in his life, which he would spontaneously transfer to his poetry. This transfer is expressed, first of all, through the incorporation, here and there, of innumerable quotations taken from the Bible, from the works of saints, from Dante, as well as from Eastern sacred texts. References to episodes or places with strong religious significance are also frequent, as in what many consider his masterpiece, Four Quartets (1943). But Eliot went further. In a convulsive, cynical and unbelieving time like the one in which he lived, marked by two world wars, he did not refrain from directly bringing to light a bunch of “religious” poems, almost in imitation of the medieval clergy: Journey of the Magi (1927), Ash Wednesday (1930, dedicated to the Virgin Mary), the choruses of The Stone (1934, in favor of the construction of new temples), etc. But the devotional fervor in him -an artist imbued to the core in the spirit, says Valverde, cynical and hollow of his century- often seems to be only apparent. Like the Spanish Miguel de Unamuno, Eliot reveals a mystical mood at least hesitant, in which faith has been considerably tempered or cooled, if not replaced, by the disenchanted rational meditation, always around a metaphysical theme in the background: in the case of Eliot, the incomprehensible becoming of time (Four Quartets).
Indeed, let us look at the beginning of one of the purely “religious” poems already mentioned, Ash Wednesday:
Because I have no hope
Section that concludes very canonically:
Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
It is not clear whether these verses convey faith or despair, although the poetic effect of contrasts such as this one, together with the daring formal resources employed, far from restricting the lyrical intensity, amplifies it considerably. His compositions in images offer original resonances, deep and unexpected spiritual visions; a richness and variety of registers rare in the poetry of the last century, if we exclude one of his great contemporaries, the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa.
Other important aspects in his poetry, already mentioned, were the influence of the metaphysicians (Donne, Marwell), the French symbolists and the reaction against romanticism. According to Andreu Jaume, “For Eliot, romanticism meant above all individualism and personality cult, just the opposite of what he sought in his work: a sense of traditional community and personal invisibility”, in reference to his aspiration to “escape from personality”, in his own words, and to his technique of the objective correlate.
It is difficult to imagine a Spanish avant-gardist of the time dedicating verses like Ash Wednesday to the Virgin Mary. The same can be said of the poets of the Generation of the 50”s, great readers of Eliot. One of the most notable, Claudio Rodríguez, came to know him in person, and translated his complete poetry from English, although he later distanced himself from his figure and his poetics, which were closer to the ways of Dylan Thomas, in the sense mentioned above. During his stay in the United Kingdom, Jaime Gil de Biedma also met the Anglo-American in person, whose work he deeply admired. The poet from Barcelona translated Eliot”s essay “The Function of Poetry and the Function of Criticism” and even considered elaborating a serious study on Eliot”s influence on Cernuda. Like Gil de Biedma, particularly in his formative years, José Ángel Valente was very aware of Eliot”s teachings. A more recent poet, also in Eliot”s line, is Francisco Castaño (Salamanca, 1951) from Salamanca. In Latin America, the most Eliotian author, due to his poetic and critical dedication, is perhaps Octavio Paz.
The concern for transcendence is very present in two important earlier Spanish poets of the first half of the century: the aforementioned Unamuno and that other great meditator, younger, called Luis Cernuda. In the former, a “professional” philosopher, as Eliot could have been (let us not forget that he obtained the degree of “Master of Philosophy”, becoming an advanced student of Bertrand Russell), the essential doubt, the problematic devotion is translated into deep frustration, human pain, in the “tragic feeling of life”, as can be seen in his poem El Cristo de Velázquez (1920).
On the contrary, in Cernuda -an assiduous taster of the English poet, as Octavio Paz recalls in his essay La palabra edificante-, merely in cold divine disdain, as can be seen in his composition -which seems to be inspired by Eliot”s already mentioned- La adoración de los magos (The Adoration of the Magi) (1940).
This poem closes:
And we wanted to be men without worshipping any god.
Eliot, years earlier, had finished off his in no less pessimistic fashion:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old state of affairs, with a strange people clinging to their gods. I would be glad of another death.
Pessimism, we say, although let us not forget that the contemporary James Joyce, trained at Trinity College, would go as far as satire in this sense (see the beginning of Ulysses).
Cernuda himself, in his 1959 essay Goethe and Mr. Eliot, described the Englishman as
one of the greatest poets alive today an exceptional critic, to whose keenness we owe fresh insights into the art of poetry in general and the history of English poetry in particular.
Between Eliot and Cernuda other divergences are appreciable apart from those exposed. The orientalizing contents are very present in the former and are conspicuous by their absence in Cernuda. The latter, on the other hand, was often carried away by his sensualist and “historicist” veins, at the antipodes of Eliot”s ascetic and, so to speak, circumstantial (or synchronic, in the words of his Spanish translator José María Valverde) poetry. And although both show a marked discursive tendency (even argumentative in some cases, without losing an iota of elegance and inspiration), Eliot”s poetics made possible a more varied inventory of registers, visible in techniques such as collage, and in the so-called “objective correlate”, by virtue of which he tried to show, to capture in a very graphic way, certain images or realities in order to arouse in the reader the chosen emotion and idea.
It was, in short, that original religious imagery, that choppy penitential litany, sprinkled with ironic intelligence, which enhanced to the maximum degree his overwhelming visions of the absurdity and spiritual rootlessness so characteristic of the modern world.
Eliot”s dramas, mostly in verse, include Sweeney Agonist (1925), Murder in the Cathedral (1935), Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950), The Private Secretary (1953), and The Old Statesman (1958). Murder in the Cathedral is about the death of the saint Thomas Becket (12th century). Eliot confessed to the influence, among others, of the work of the 17th century preacher Lancelot Andrewes, about whom he wrote an essay.
His dramas are much less well known than his poetry, but it is worth remembering, for example, the version of The Cocktail Party in which Sir Alec Guinness appeared in the title role. The reading of Murder in the Cathedral has for many years been included in Church of England curricula.
Eliot was an outstanding representative of the so-called new English criticism, and one of the great critics of his time.
In 1920 he published El bosque sagrado, according to Andreu Jaume, his most programmatic and calculated book, where the main lines of his program are outlined: the minor Elizabethans, the interest in dramatic poetry, discomfort with Shakespeare, French symbolism and Dante.
Already in 1929 he was considered the most important critic of his generation by Edmund Wilson.
Also well known are his works: El arte de la poesía y el arte de la crítica (1933) and Criticar al crítico (1961).
His concerns range from the pedagogy of classical languages (The ends of education) to literary commentary (on Dante, Poe, Valery, Ezra Pound, free verse, etc.) and literary criticism itself (Criticizing the critic).
It is worth mentioning here his concept of the objective correlative, which is based on the idea that art should not be a personal expression, but should function through universal symbols. One must look for an object or group of objects that are capable, by themselves, of evoking the emotion chosen by the poet. He has been criticized for his position frequently with evidence to the contrary, even within his own poetic work, evidence which in no way tarnishes the validity of his theory. Other typical expressions of Eliotian criticism: the “auditory imagination” and the “dissociation of sensibility”.
Eliot”s critical system is mainly focused on the technical aspect of the authors he studies. Thus, poetic technique is reduced above all to a metrical problem.