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“A Biography of T. S. Eliot,” by Andrew J. Schatkin

“A Biography of T. S. Eliot,” by Andrew J. Schatkin

My dear friends thinkers and readers and persons of all nations races and thought streams and opinions, I bid you and ask you to join with me in another voyage of intellectual discovery where those who may wish to engage in critical thinking and do not engage in and accept media lies, falsehoods, political code words, and hype can join in the effort to gain truth and facts amid the barrage of corruption and virtual darkness we are confronted with and befuddled and made effective fools of. I welcome you in this quest and task of attaining and coming to know intellectual honesty and honest discernment. Join with me in this voyage of discovery to get at and find what is valid and authentic in the world of confusion and to come with me in tearing apart the curtain of lies and darkness that hides from us what is truth and facts.

Today I will present a biographical sketch of one of America’s greatest poets, playwrights, and literary critics, T.S. Eliot. He was born in St. Louis and moved to England in 1914 at the age of 25 and went on to settle there, work, and marry there. He became a British subject in 1927 at age 39. He is considered one of the century’s major poets and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948. The Eliots were a Boston family and Eliot early in his life became infatuated with literature. From 1898 to 1905, he attended the Smith Academy, a division of Washington University, where he studied classics and modern languages. He lived in St. Louis for the first 16 years of his life and following graduation from Smith attended the Milton Academy in Massachusetts for a prep year and studied at Harvard College from 1906 to 1909. He received a BA in Comparative Literature and a MA in English Literature the following year. After working as a philosophy assistant at Harvard for a year, he moved to Paris where he studied philosophy for a year at the Sorbonne. And then from 1911 to 1914 he was back at Harvard studying Indian philosophy and Sanskrit and while at the graduate school met and fell in love with Emily Hale. He was awarded a scholarship to Merton College in Oxford in 1914. He spent much of his time in London and in 1916 completed his dissertation at Harvard but failed to return for his doctoral exam and married Vivienne Wood, a Cambridge governess in 1915 but exchanged letters with Emily and did not see her again until 1927. He then took several teaching jobs in London, but the marriage was unhappy in part due to his wife’s health problems and the couple separated in 1933 and Vivienne died of heart disease in 1947 while for a period of time in a mental hospital.

After leaving Oxford, Eliot worked as a schoolteacher in several institutions and in 1917 took a position at Lloyds Bank and left that position to become a director of the publishing firm of Faber where he remained for the rest of his career. He converted to the Anglican church in 1917 and in that year took British citizenship. In 1932-33, he accepted a professorship at Harvard. He then separated from his wife. From 1933 to 1946 he had a close emotional relationship with Emily. From 1938 to 1957, Eliot’s companion was Mary Trevelyan and in 1957 he married Esme Fletcher. Eliot died of emphysema in London in 1965.

Eliot was not a prolific poet and published his poems individually in periodicals or in small books or pamphlets; this included The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Wasteland, as well as others. Both were original and innovative. The Wasteland was obscure and in structure complex. The Hollowmen appeared in 1925. Its themes are postwar Europe; lack of hope; religious conversion; and his failed marriage. Ash Wednesday was published in 1930 and deals with the struggle that ensues when a person who lacks faith acquire it. In this poem, Eliot shows his Christian faith and spiritual concerns. In 1939, Eliot published a book of light verse, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Eliot regarded as his masterpiece Four Quartets which consists of four long poems, published separately from 1936 to 1942. Four Quartets draws for its material and background from theology and the language of such figures as Dante, St. John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich. After Ash Wednesday, Eliot devoted his energies to writing plays. The most important of his plays included Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party. Murder in the Cathedral was a verse play. Eliot made significant contributions to literary criticism, such as his essay on Hamlet and the metaphysical poets. I have a great fondness and love for two of his notable essays, Notes to a Definition of Culture and The Idea of a Christian Society. Both essays are most original and interesting.

The critical reception to Eliot’s poetry was varied and mixed. Eliot’s reputation as a poet peaked following the publication of Four Quartets, but his reputation slipped after his death. Many literary scholars such as Harold Bloom still acknowledge that his poetry is still central to the literary English canon. Eliot has been charged with anti-Semitism both in his poetry and in a series of lectures delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933.

Eliot, as I have come to know his work better and better and more fully, has grown on me, in particular, his major poems such as The Wasteland, Four Quartets, The Love Song, and his major plays such as Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party. These works are most telling and original and I have come to like if not love them more and more. I am a particular fan of his literary criticism in which leads us to an understanding of the lesser known Elizabethan dramatist.

Dear friends, young and old, I urge you to read both the poetry and prose writer which has lived and continues to outlive the ravages of time. His work is challenging and engaging and in his prose most informative of some lesser known great literary figures of the past in the tradition of English literature.