Thanet Writers Spotlight T.S. Eliot
A renowned poet and playwright, T.S. Eliot was troubled throughout most of his life with various illnesses and impediments, both physically and mentally, along with an almost continual conflict in his personality and beliefs. He was an artist who worked in logic, a religious man tortured by his own conscience and lack of faith, and a pioneer through a lens of his own history.
Best known for his seminal poem The Waste Land – which was partially written whilst he was staying in Thanet – Eliot first gained prominence as a writer and essayist, before mastering and championing the Modernist poetry movement, and was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Eliot was raised in St. Louis but eventually moved to London and became a British citizen. His family were from Boston and he came from a line of powerful and influential figures: his father was a businessman and the president and treasurer of the local Hydraulic-Press Brick Company; his paternal grandfather (who had died a year prior to Eliot’s birth) was responsible for moving the family from Massachusetts to Missouri as he had established a Unitarian church in St. Louis. By contrast, Eliot’s mother was a social worker who wrote poetry, and perhaps this juxtaposition of attitudes and roles manifested in Eliot’s later life and career.
“I never knew my grandfather: he died a year before my birth. But I was brought up to be very much aware of him: so much so, that as a child I thought of him as still the head of the family – a ruler for whom in absentia my grandmother stood as vicegerent.”
American Literature and the American Language, 1953
Born in 1888, Eliot was the youngest in his family, with his parents both in their mid-forties at the time. He was named Thomas Stearns Eliot, after his grandfather on his mother’s side. As a child he suffered from an inguinal hernia and was unable to participate in sports or physical activities, instead immersing himself in books. He read voraciously, especially Wild West stories, and was reportedly a fan of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. He pursued literature and language throughout his education, studying Latin and Ancient Greek alongside French and German.
Eliot’s poetry was first published when he was aged sixteen, in his school magazine. After graduating he moved to his family’s home state of Massachusetts and attended Milton Academy. It was here that he met Scofield Thayer, who would later become editor and co-owner of The Dial magazine and would publish The Waste Land in the United States.
Once he had finished his preparatory year at Milton, Eliot worked as a philosophy assistant at Harvard for a year, then moved to Paris and studied philosophy at the Sorbonne before returning to Harvard to study Sanskrit and Indian philosophy. He was then awarded a scholarship to Merton College in Oxford and travelled to the UK at the start of the First World War. Whilst studying at Oxford, Eliot was introduced to Ezra Pound.
“Consciousness of history cannot be fully awake, except where there is other history than the history of the poet’s own people; we need this in order to see our own place in history.”
What is a Classic?, 1944
Eliot married Vivienne Haigh-Wood when he was twenty-six and she twenty-seven, only a few months after first meeting. Their relationship was an unhappy one, with rumours of infidelity and her numerous health issues, which appeared to increase as the years progressed. Her physical and mental symptoms resulted in her repeatedly being sent away by both her doctors and husband for lengthy periods and after their separation eighteen years later she was eventually committed to a lunatic asylum by her brother.
In a private paper written in his sixties, Eliot claimed he had persuaded himself that he was in love with her simply to “burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England.” He said the marriage brought her no happiness, but to him “it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.”
Eliot spent several years teaching and writing essays and critiques before becoming widely known for poetry. During this period, whilst working as a teacher, his students included, amongst others, John Betjeman, who would later go on to become Poet Laureate of the UK and write poetry about many areas of the country, including Thanet. Around this time, Eliot released his first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations.
A few years prior to appearing as the titular poem in Eliot’s first collection, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was published in Poetry magazine. Ezra Pound was the overseas editor, and the piece was published at his behest. It contained influences from Dante and references to Hamlet, along with several other literary works, something that would later be celebrated as part of Eliot’s brilliance, though at the time it was not favoured by critics.
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1920
Eliot left teaching and began working for Lloyds Bank in London, on foreign accounts. This afforded him the luxury of travelling, and in 1920 he met James Joyce in Paris. Although the two men did not at first get along – Eliot found Joyce to be arrogant, whilst the latter doubted the former’s poetic ability – they quickly became friends and maintained regular contact. That year Eliot released another collection of poetry, titled Ara Vos Prec in the UK and Poems: 1920 in the US. Apart from one substitution they contained the same poems, albeit in a different order.
The stress of working at the bank, combined with his strained marriage, caused Eliot to have a self-described “nervous breakdown” the following year. He had already begun working on a long poem that contained extensive literary influences, and with his new health impediments he applied for three months’ leave from his job. He travelled with his wife to Margate in Thanet to soak up the sea air, relax, and convalesce.
In Margate, Eliot took time to himself, sitting in a seaside shelter overlooking the beach and working on his new poem. He wrote of London and his newfound setting, placing Margate in the lines. His mental state reportedly influenced his writing, as did the proximity to the water. Steamboats would sail to and from the harbour – much like they had done in St. Louis when he was a child – and this period allowed Eliot to process the poem which he had already spent some years writing.
“I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those who have not.”
Letter to Marquis W. Childs, 1930
Eliot continued to refine the poem whilst in Paris, and after visiting a doctor in Switzerland for treatment, he began editing the piece. Ezra Pound had made several suggestions for cuts, which Eliot took on board, along with removing other sections himself. Although he had already found a publisher to release the poem as a book, Eliot continued to edit and later dedicated the entire poem to Pound.
The piece features several characters speaking in first-person, with unannounced changes of narrator, location, and time-period. Originally and somewhat aptly titled He Do the Police In Different Voices – taken from Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, another writer who spent time in Thanet – Eliot later changed it to The Waste Land, inspired by Jessie L. Weston’s book about the Holy Grail, where the Fisher King is wounded and his lands become sterile. The poem itself, after numerous edits, loosely follows the legend of the Grail, so the final moniker does appear to be less obviously linked to the structure and more fitting for the theme.
The Waste Land references numerous literary texts and contains lines in French, German, Italian, Greek, Latin and Sanskrit. Religious overtones and philosophical undertones flow throughout the piece and both classic and, at the time, contemporary writing is alluded to. It is a continuation of the exploration of dramatic monologue that Eliot began with ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Profrock’ but the use of multiple speakers and disjointed structure – like other Modernist pieces, including Ulysses by James Joyce – show he had matured and progressed into a style that would define both his own poetry, and the Modernist poetic movement as a whole.
“When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary.”
The Metaphysical Poets, 1921
Eliot wanted to capitalise on this long and time-consuming poem, and so set up The Criterion, a literary magazine he would also edit, to publish it in the UK. A month after the first issue, The Waste Land was published in The Dial in the United States. Over the following few months it was released in book form in the US by Boni and Liveright, who had agreed a publication deal before Eliot began editing the poem. A British book version was launched some months later by Hogarth Press, with the type handset by press co-owner Virginia Woolf.
The renown The Waste Land brought Eliot allowed him to continue writing ground-breaking poetry, and he followed it with The Hollow Men. This poem contained many of Eliot’s most well-known quotes, and had a profound effect on popular culture. The final two lines: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” are perhaps the most famous Eliot ever produced.
Around the time of the release of The Hollow Men, Eliot left his job at Lloyds and took up a role at Faber and Gwyer, a publisher that later became Faber and Faber. He spent the remainder of his career there and published several notable poets including W. H. Auden and Ted Hughes, and later became a director of the company.
In 1927 Eliot converted to Anglicanism and gained British citizenship. Having been brought up a Unitarian, his move to the Church of England was seen by some as a way of connecting more with Britain, despite his conflicting ideals of multiple faiths. Eliot remained an active member of his parish church and became a warden, taking a more active role in his later life; possibly influenced on some level by the spectre of his grandfather.
“The trouble of the modern age is not merely the inability to believe certain things about God and man which our forefathers believed, but the inability to feel towards God and man as they did.”
The Social Function of Poetry, 1945
Eliot continued to publish poetry, from Ash-Wednesday – his third long poem – to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. He also wrote several plays and continued to write essays and critiques, along with working as an editor and publisher. His marriage came to its inevitable end and after their separation in 1933 (and although they were still legally married) Eliot only saw Vivienne once between their parting and her death twenty-four years later.
From 1936 to 1942 Eliot published four long poems, which were brought together in 1943 as his self-proclaimed masterpiece, Four Quartets. Each poem was divided into five sections, as Eliot had done with The Waste Land, and all explore deep and profound themes. These led to Eliot being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry” in 1948, just one year after his estranged wife died.
A year later, twenty-three year-old Esmé Valerie Fletcher began working as Eliot’s secretary at Faber and Faber, and in 1957, when she was thirty, they married in secret. Eliot was sixty-eight at the time.
“To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.”
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933
T.S. Eliot changed the way Modernism and poetry connected, and brought the old into the new. His legacy is one of quality, not quantity, as his output was relatively small compared to his contemporaries. Since his death from emphysema in 1965 he has been voted the UK’s favourite poet and his works are still influential today.
Eliot was awarded thirteen Honorary Doctorates and Eliot College of the University of Kent is named in his honour. St. Louis, Boston, London, Paris, and Oxford all celebrate his connection, as does Thanet. The seaside shelter where he wrote parts of The Waste Land has become a listed building, and the words he wrote are embedded into the consciousness and identity of Margate forever.
“On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
The Waste Land, 1922
Despite his travels, and links to many places, Eliot never really fitted in anywhere. He was something of a nomad: he did not comply with the rules of poetry or society. Reading his poetry, it has always struck me how he was a poet for poets: his work gained acclaim from critics – and later the public – due to its intellectualism, its depth, and its many layers.
T.S. Eliot was a fascinating writer and his life brought him to and through The Waste Land, a piece that – to me – was a defining moment in his writing career. It demonstrates the moment he transcended experimentation and defined Modernism in a way that had not been done in poetry before, and as a result has been extensively imitated. His style and craft holds a lasting influence on poetry, and the more I read of his work, the more I understand the reach poetry can have. It goes beyond the laws that defined poetry, fusing past and present into something new, and his legacy can be felt still today. His use of monologues and varied speakers and characters is reflected in contemporary spoken-word poetry and his fusing of the Modernist styles typical of Joyce with the epics of Homer, Dante and Milton, prismed through the likes of Shakespeare and what he referred to as “low-brow” influences, brought about a sea-change that altered the way poetry was written. He was a man of the world but out-of-place, and the world is indebted to him for it.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.