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Thomas Stearns Eliot
article [ Culture ]
social life, literary works and religion

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by [stradymarius ]

2008-06-13  |     | 



“in my beginning is my end … in my end is my beginning”


There are plenty of words that can be said about Thomas Stearns Eliot, heaps of critics his works swelled like a tremendously instigating hurricane, a Nobel Prize for Literature hangs in the top of his literature pile and two continents felt his soft sharp tracks he broaden in America and Europe.
His works are very different than others, from that period of time; he brought something else, something new to poetry – a modern breeze for the expressionist literature, a wind which untied the words laid on the paper, and creating an anagrammatic current for the idea’s flow from top to bottom. He now chooses more pathways to reach the end of his master plan. I will redirect my view lens upon a few texts I found to be most expressive in Eliot’s work.

Social life
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26th, 1888 in America, in the town St. Louis, Missouri.
His father, Henry Ware Eliot (1843–1919), was a gifted businessman, president and treasurer of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis; his mother, born Charlotte Champe Stearns (1843–1929), wrote poems and was also a social worker. Eliot was the last of the six surviving children; his parents were both 44 years old when he was born. Known to family and friends as Tom, he was the namesake of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Stearns.
From 1898 to 1905, Eliot was a day student at Smith Academy, a preparatory school for Washington University. At the academy, Eliot studied Latin, Greek, French, and German. Upon graduation, he could have gone to Harvard University, but his parents sent him to Milton Academy (in Milton, Massachusetts, near Boston) for a preparatory year.
He studied at Harvard, where he earned a B.A., from 1906 to 1909. During this time, he read Arthur Symons's “The Symbolist Movement in Literature”, where, by his own permission, he first came across Laforgue, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. The “Harvard Advocate” published some of his poems, and he became permanent friend with Conrad Aiken. The next year, he earned a master's degree at Harvard. In the 1910, Eliot graduated and went to Paris, where he stayed from October 1910 until July 1911.
In 1911, Eliot entered the graduate philosophy school at Harvard. Besides a basic course in philosophy, he pursued Indian and Sanskrit literature and philosophy. Eliot studied the writings of the contemporary English philosopher F. H. Bradley, Buddhism and Indic philology (learning Sanskrit and Pāli to read some of the religious texts). He also took boxing lessons.
In 1913, he was made an assistant in philosophy at Harvard. In 1914, he left for Germany, to study at the University of Marburg. When the First World War began, he went to England, at Merton College, Oxford – where he remained for the rest of his life.
He became acquainted with Ezra Pound, his most important literary friend who influenced both his literary criticism and his poetic strategy. Pound found the first publisher for Eliot’s poems and introduced him to other writers such as Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, Yeats and Joyce. Eliot married with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, which she was to die in 1947, in a mental hospital, without ever having been visited by Eliot, who was still her husband. A year later, Eliot said that he had been through “the most awful nightmare of anxiety that the mind of a man could conceive”. In February 1921, while Eliot’s most controversial long poem “The Waste Land” was being completed, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary the Eliot’s following remark: “The critics say I am learned and cold. The truth is I am neither”.
In 1927, Eliot took two important steps in his self-definition. On June 29 he converted to Anglicanism and in November he dropped his American citizenship and became a British subject. In 1928, Eliot summarised his beliefs when he wrote in the preface to his book, “For Lancelot Andrewes” that "the general point of view [of the book's essays] may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-catholic in religion".
Stephen Spender said that contemporary writers seemed to be partitioned in three distinct categories. First, there were the writers generally approved of, who were pointed to the young generation – they were so called Georgian poets, the novelists praised by “The Observer” and “The Sunday Times”. The second category were the experimentalists, who were trying to be new at all costs; here we found great names like Gertrude Stein, Edith Sitwell, E.E. Cummings. The third category was that of the writers concerned with the very acute “problem of living in a history which though real was extremely difficult to apprehend” – Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, T.S. Eliot.
He obtains the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry" (Stockholm, 1948).
Eliot's second marriage was happy but short. On January 10, 1957, he married Esmé Valerie Fletcher, to whom he was introduced by Collin Brooks. Like his marriage to Vivien, the wedding was kept a secret to preserve his privacy.
Valerie was 37 years younger than her husband. Since Eliot's death, she 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 died of emphysema in London on January 4, 1965. For many years, he had health problems owing to the combination of London air and his heavy smoking, often being laid low with bronchitis or tachycardia. His body was incinerated and, according to Eliot's wishes, the ashes taken to St Michael's Church in East Coker, the village from which Eliot's ancestors immigrated to America.

Eliot’s literary perspective
Eliot’s gasping poems have a tone of fragmentariness. They seem to be made of pieces powerfully joined together. Transitions from one fragment of the text to another are very abrupt, leaded by a literary sweet aggression. His visions about life, about everything that surrounds us and which we get in contact with, transform his poems into a venture to mysterious; even the familiar aspects of life, from group to group, from one situation to a completely different standpoint.
Characteristically, Eliot first published his verses in journals or in small books or pamphlets consisting of a single poem (e.g., the “Ariel” poems) and then he started to add them to collections. His first collection was “Prufrock and Other Observations” (1917). In 1920 Eliot published more poems in “Ara Vos Prec” (London) and “Poems: 1920” (New York). These had the same poetry (in a different order) except that "Ode" in the British edition was replaced with "Hysteria" in the American edition. In 1925 Eliot collected “The Waste Land”, the poems in “Prufrock” and “Poems” into one volume and added "The Hollow Men" to form “Poems: 1909–1925”. Further, I will make a short description of his most valuable works.

"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" – represents a character’s dialogue with himself into a dramatic monologue. Prufrock is nostalgic in his intellectual and physical inactivity, the lost opportunities in his life and lack of spiritual evolution, with the recurrent theme of carnal love unattained. The poem starts with a short presentation of the main character, walking side by side with his mate, on the streets of town (chaotically and psychologically spread through a lot of his poems, even in “The Waste Land”): “Let us go then, you and I, /…/ Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,”; the visual aspects found from the start till the end of the poem, make you think like passing through words and transposing your own being in that sacking with dye words:
“Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells”, “For the yellow smoke that slides along the street, / Rubbing its back upon the window-panes…”
But what frappes the entire poem is the lack of time – the “time” is omnipresent during the entire poem (“There will be time, there will be time”, “There will be time to murder and create,”, “Time for you and time for me”), it makes you think that he has no time for his main purpose in discovering his own inner entity, to find himself; so, that’s why the poem has two basic backgrounds. The action takes place in two world dimensions melted one with each other in his deep mind tunnels: one is the city’s real image that he obviously presents very soft in the present, past and future times under the roof of hopeless. The other dimension is opened under the sign of inner consciousness; an ideal space and time that stops flowing, where peace it has to be found in an obsessively repetition of some particular verses: “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo”, “Is it perfume from a dress / That makes me so digress?”, “Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”, “Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me. / Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,”, “the chambers of the sea”
The real Prufrock looks like walking alone on the streets, imagining his dreams like would become true, his deliration “is spread out against the sky / like a patient etherised upon a table” – this suggests the feelings of illness that reaches each piece of town, its streets, its houses, the inhabitants, etc. Then he asks for himself existentialist problems: “And would it have been worth it, after all, / After the cups, the marmalade, the tea, / Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me, / Would it have been worth while, / To have bitten off the matter with a smile, / To have squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it toward some overwhelming question, / To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,” – he feels he is not far from being like Lazarus, who returns from the dead and he is welcomed with a lot of indifference, as the death he experienced wouldn’t be a big deal: “I am no prophet—and here's no great matter”. Here he feels drowned among cups, porcelain, tea toasts – and all these would have worth it reported to the dimensions of the Universe, to his infinite smaller existence reported to time and space? He thinks he is doomed and this shadows walk side by side with him on the entire development of the poem, giving him a failure posture.

He feels his end is near as he gets older and older, and much time will not be till he faces the real death, his fate: “I grow old… I grow old…/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” and the call of death is near, is far away into the sea he dreams of: “I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. / I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me / I have seen them riding seaward on the waves /…/ By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” – all his dreams become fetid in the end of the poem in an obscurely state of mind.

"The Hollow Men"
“The Hollow Men” appeared in 1926, and it is Eliot's major poem of the late twenties. Like other poems, the overlapping and fragmentariness is to be found here also; it is recognized to be concerned with: post-war Europe under the Treaty of Versailles, despised by Eliot.

"The Waste Land"
I think that “The Waste Land” is his first place masterpiece – which is the best illustration of his narrative base and devices used, fused with dramatic ones sheltered under a lyric roof.
In October 1922, Eliot published “The Waste Land” in “The Criterion”. Composed during a period of personal difficulty for Eliot – his marriage was failing, and both, he and Vivien, suffered from disordered nerves – “The Waste Land” is often read as a representation of the disillusionment of the post-war generation. Despite the alleged obscurity of the poem, its slippage between satire and prophecy; its abrupt changes of speaker, location, and time; its elegiac but intimidating summoning up, from a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures – it has become a standard of modern literature, a poetic counterpart to a novel published in the same year, James Joyce's “Ulysses”.

The ‘rain’ is omnipresent in this poem for the life it symbolizes. Illusion is invoked in the last part of the poem: “Who is the third person” and the desert gives him the idea of mirage. His Sanskrit and Pali studies are well proved to have been useful to him, using them in a subtle manner for the hidden expression beyond the words.

Critics on and from Eliot’s person
Although best known as a poet, Eliot also made significant contributions to the field of literary criticism. In particular, Eliot strongly influenced the school of New Criticism. Eliot is considered by some to be one of the greatest literary critics of the 20th century.
Also extremely important to New Criticism was the idea – as articulated in Eliot’s essay “Hamlet and His Problems” – of an “objective correlative” which presumes a connection among the words of the text and events, states of mind, and experiences. This notion concedes that a poem means what it says, but suggests that there can be a non-subjective judgment based on different readers’ different – but perhaps consequential – interpretations of a work.
Eliot had argued that a poet must write “programmatic criticism” – or the idea that a poet should write to advance his own interests than to advance “historical scholarship”. Viewed from Eliot's own critical lens, “The Waste Land” likely shows his personal distaste for World War I, rather than an objective historical understanding of it.

Eliot's poetry was first criticized as not being poetry at all. Another criticism has been of his widespread interweaving of citations from other authors into his work. The notes on “The Waste Land” which follows after the poem, gives the source of many of these, but not all. This practice has been defended as a necessary salvaging of tradition in an age of fragmentation, and completely integral to the work, as well adding richness through unexpected juxtaposition. It has also been condemned as showing a lack of originality, and for plagiarism. The prominent critic F. W. Bateson once published an essay called “T.S. Eliot: The Poetry of Pseudo-Learning”. Eliot himself once wrote (“The Sacred Wood”): “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”.

Religion in Eliot’s works
I found, after reading “The Waste Land”, that Eliot makes a lot of connections with gods from different mythologies, with different own beliefs; most important is the fact that this poem can be put as a mission of finding himself, finding the purpose in life, the ecclesiastic inner side of his own body: “With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, / And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, / And drank coffee, and talked for an hour”, where he hears only the voice of the woman (her name is Marie – referring maybe to the Virgin Mary, from the Bible?) – “The Waste Land”
On his card in the Tarot pack, the Hanged Man is shown hanging on a T-shaped cross. He symbolizes the self-sacrifice of the fertility god who is killed in order that his resurrection may bring fertility once again to land and people. – “The Waste Land”


“Ash Wednesday” is the first long poem written by Eliot after his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism. Published in 1930, this poem deals with the struggle that ensues when one who has lacked faith in the past strives to move towards God.
Sometimes referred to as Eliot's "conversion poem", “Ash Wednesday”, with a base of Dante's “Purgatorio”, is richly but ambiguously allusive and deals with the aspiration to move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation. The style is different from his poetry which foregoes his conversion. “Ash Wednesday” and the poems that followed had a more casual, melodic, and contemplative method.
Many critics were particularly enthusiastic concerning on “Ash Wednesday"; while in other quarters it was not well received. Among many of the more "secular literati", its groundwork of orthodox Christianity was discomfiting. Edwin Muir maintained that "Ash Wednesday” is one of the most moving poems he has written, and perhaps the most.

Charges of anti-Semitism
Eliot has sometimes been charged with anti-Semitism. Biographer Lyndall Gordon has noted that many in Eliot's milieu successfully avoided such views.
The poem “Gerontion” contains a depiction of a landlord referred to only as the “Jew (who) squats on the window sill”. Another much-quoted example is the poem, “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”, in which a character in the poem utterly blames the Jews for the decline of Venice (“The rats are underneath the piles/ The Jew is underneath the lot”). In “A Cooking Egg”, Eliot writes: “The red-eyed scavengers are creeping/ From Kentish Town and Golder's Green” (Golders Green was a largely Jewish suburb of London).

In a series of lectures given at the University of Virginia in 1933 and later, published under the title “After Strange Gods” (1934), Eliot said, regarding a homogeneity of culture (and implying a traditional Christian community): “What is still more important is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable”. The philosopher George Boas, who had previously been on friendly terms with Eliot, wrote to him that, “I can at least rid you of the company of one”. Eliot did not reply. In later years Eliot disavowed the book, and refused to allow any part to be reprinted.

One of the first and most famous protests against T. S. Eliot on the subject of anti-Semitism came in the form of a poem from the Anglo-Jewish writer and poet Emanuel Litvinoff, at an introductory poetry reading for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1951. Only a few years after the Holocaust, Eliot had republished lines originally written in the 1920s about “money in furs” and the “protozoic slime” of Bleistein's “lustreless, protrusive eye” in his “Selected Poems” of 1948, angering Litvinoff. When the poet got up and announced his poem, entitled “To T. S. Eliot”, the event’s host, Sir Herbert Read, declared “Oh Good, Tom's just come in”. Litvinoff proceeded in evoking to the packed but silent room his work, which ended with the lines “Let your words/tread lightly on this earth of Europe/lest my people's bones protest”. Many members of the audience were outraged; Litvinoff said “hell broke loose" and that no one supported him.
One listener, the poet Stephen Spender, claiming to be as Jewish as Litvinoff, stood and called the poem an undeserved attack on Eliot. However, Litvinoff says that Eliot was heard to mutter, “It's a good poem”.

“in my beginning is my end … in my end is my beginning”


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