Thomas Stearns Eliot was an American author, poet, literary critic, and playwright who wrote primarily in England in the early 20th century. He is best known for forging a new kind of Modernist poetry that is heavily allusive and stretches emotion into intelligence, along with perfecting the English language.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888. He moved to England in 1914 to attend Oxford, and he fell in love with London. He also met the influential American poet Ezra Pound, who was crucial in helping Eliot publish much of his early works. He became a British citizen in 1927.
Eliot published his first poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” under the guiding editing hand of Pound in 1915. The poem was well-received and thought to usher in a new era of intelligent, stream-of-consciousness Modernist poetry. He followed “Prufrock” with “Gerontion” in 1919, which began to highlight the theme of disillusionment in the post-war world, a major theme of his next great work “The Waste Land” which he published in 1921. The Waste Land is a massive five-section poem which is heavily allusive and abruptly switches speakers so that it can be very difficult to navigate. The speakers create a dramatic dialogue that highlight a frustration with the Victorian ideals and the desire to push forward into modernity. The Waste Land is Eliot’s most well-known and important work to the poetry world, but he himself called Four Quartets (published in 1943) his best work. The Quartets are meditative reflections of man’s place in the universe, and his relationship with time, the Christian religion, and the divine. Around this time, the general Modernist disillusionment with religion started to become a more prominent theme, so Eliot’s focus on religion in his work after this point began to seem less relevant.
Eliot was also a playwright. He wrote Murder in the Cathedral which detailed the murder of Thomas à Becket, who was later declared a saint for his martyrdom. However, the most well-known play associated with Eliot is not one he actually wrote himself. He published a book of whimsical poems called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats in 1939. Andrew Lloyd Webber later adapted this book of poetry into the hit Broadway show Cats.
Eliot died from emphysema in London in 1965, leaving behind a legacy of groundbreaking poetic form and language for the 20th century.
“To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man’s life.”
“I don’t think good poetry can be produced in a kind of political attempt to overthrow some existing form. I think it just supersedes. People find a way in which they can say something. ‘I can’t say it that way, what way can I find that will do?’”
“A play should give you something to think about. When I see a play and understand it the first time, then I know it can’t be much good.”