T.S. Eliot: Biography, Life and Literary Works

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      T.S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888. After a Harvard degree he came to Europe to complete his studies and because of the war, stayed in England, where he did low-paid work as a teacher and bank clerk while writing reviews of startling originality. Like many other young artists, he was helped and influenced at this time by Ezra Pound, on whose advice he is said to have cut his most famous poem, The Waste Land (1922) by about half. In his youth Eliot was understandably regarded as a rebel, because his new ideas were radical; but he was always of a sober nature, and with his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927 and his Professorship of poetry at Harvard in 1932, he became a highly respectable and respected figure, giving talks on religion and culture and, as a director of 'Faber and Faber', doing much a number of verse plays. He died in 1965.

T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888. After a Harvard degree he came to Europe to complete his studies and because of the war, stayed in England, where he did low-paid work as a teacher and bank-clerk, while writing reviews of startling originality
T. S. Eliot

      His reaction against romanticism: When Eliot began publishing poetry, Victorian Romanticism was at its last gasp, in the chatty, matter-of-fact, but basically sentimental poems of the 'Georgians', of whom Rupert Brooke was the most popular. Eliot, both by personal inclination and for what he sensed to be the needs of time, reacted sharply against nineteenth-century English poetry and its criticism. In his reviewing, he asserted the excellence of half-forgotten sixteenth and seventeenth-century writers, and in his poetry, made brainwork and a sense of wit again important. Irony is probably the most pervasive characteristic of his early London poems: not only the ironic wit of the seventeenth-century Metaphysicals, but also a modern impudent, allusive irony derived from the French symbolists, Jules Laforgue and from Ezra Pound.

      Eliot's later Poetry: Later, Eliot's poetry becomes more earnest and broadly philosophical, though The Waste Land, certainly a philosophical comment on twentieth-century society, is still wickedly infested with literary sick jokes and embellished with exaggeratedly learned notes. The spirit of The Waste Land seems pessimistic, but its message is one of exhortation to better things, and Ash Wednesday (1930) and Four Quartets (1944) are poems firmly based on Christian faith, though always of a somber kind. (Eliot is never exuberant.) Four Quartets, arguably Eliot's finest work, is easier to understand than the earlier poems the literary allusions have almost disappeared and there is no deliberate cultivation of obscurity.

      Eliot is undeniably a difficult poet, and the more irritating for this is because the difficulty is often quite deliberate. But he is not inaccessible, and he would himself have considered that he had failed if his poems did not communicate a great part of their meaning to an intelligent reader unfurnished with notes and commentaries. It is important not to make difficulties for ourselves, particularly in early readings of poetry; the clever critics should be left alone, at least for a while. Take things at their face value and don't try to do too much allegorical interpreting. The second paragraph of East Coker, for example, is about a lane leading into a village, on a hot afternoon; and suggestions that the lane is life, and the village one's destiny seem to us grotesque and crude. Eliot knew that he was doing better than that. When he wants to be allegorical, he gives clear signposts (and avoids descriptions of this concrete immediacy).


      T. S. Eliot's literary production spreads over 45 years. He wrote poems, plays, literary and social essays during this long period. He worked as a journalist and editor. His writings may be divided under three heads i.e. poetry, drama and prose.


      T.S. Eliot's poetical career has been divided into five phases periods:

(i) The First period: Eliot's Juvenalia 1905-1909. The poems of this period are immature and mere school-boy exercises. These poems still show signs of poetic talent. They were published in the various college and school magazines named the Smith Academy Record and the Harvard Advocate.

(ii) The Second Period: "Prufrock and other observations, 1917." The most significant poems of this phase are as follows:

1. The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

2. Portrait of a Lady

3. The Preludes

4. Rhapsody on a Windy Night

5. The "Boston Evening Transcript"

6. Mr. Apollinax

(iii) The Third Period: (1918-1925). The most important poems of this period are as follows:

1. Gerontion

2. Burbank with a Baedeker

3. Sweeney Erect

4. A Cooking Egg

5. Sweeney among the Nightingales

6. The Waste Land, (1922)

7. The Hollow Men, (1925)

(iv) The Fourth Period: (1925-1935). It is called the period of Eliot's Christian Poetry. The following are the significant poems of this Christian period: 

1. Ash Wednesday, 1930

2. Journey of the Magi

3. Animila

4. Marina

5. Choruses from "The Rock"

6. Coriolan

7.A number of minor and unfinished poems

(v) The Fifth Period: This period of Eliot's religious poetry is distinguished with the previous Christian poetry. It is the period of Four Quartets which were published as follows:

1. Burnt Norton, 1936

2. East Coker, 1940

3. The Dry Salvages, 1941

4. Little Gidding, 1942


      Eliot endeavored to revive English poetic drama. His poetic dramas are as follows:

1. The Rock, a Pageant Play, 1934

2. Murder in the Cathedral, 1935

3. The Family Reunion, 1939

4. The Cocktail Party, 1950

5. The Confidential Clerk, 1954

6. The Elder Statesman, 1959


      Eliot's prose was published in the form of articles and essays in the various periodicals and journals of the day. The following are the literary essays which are highly admired because of his critical pronouncements:

1. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, 1933

2. The idea of the Christian Society, 1939

3. Notes towards a Definition of Culture, 1948

4. Selected Essays, Third Edition, 1951

5. On Poetry and Poets, 1957

6. To Criticise the Critic, 1965

7. Tradition and Individual Talent

8. Poetry and Drama

9. The Function of Criticism

10. The English Metaphysical Poets

11. The Frontiers of Criticism, etc

      Eliot was a renowned editor of the magazine named the Criterion which was in circulation from 1922-1939. This magazine was closed because of the outbreak of war in Europe.

      Conclusion: Above all, Eliot is accessible (like many great poets) through his verse. Some of us were brought up on his Practical Cat poems, or a little, later, perhaps, on 'Sweeney Agonistes', in which conventional popular verse-forms are handled with the utmost skill. Prufrock is haunting and disturbing in it's incantations (listen if possible to Eliot's reading of it on record); the epigrams of Whispers of Immortality have become popular quotations. Throughout his work the craftsmanship and lucidity of the verse compel us to close attention and can be a guide to our understanding.

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