Glossary: Eliot, T. S.

Glossary entry for
Eliot, T. S.

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was one of the most influential and innovative Modernist poets. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, was educated at Harvard and later at Oxford University, England. He arrived in England shortly before the outbreak of WWI, and stayed for the duration. Having married an English writer, Vivian Haigh-Wood in 1915, he chose to remain in England permanently. Eliot's first wife was highly neurotic and suffered increasingly bad health. The strain brought Eliot to the verge of a nervous breakdown, and he spent time in a Swiss sanitorium. Eliot left his wife in 1937, and didn't remarry until 1957.

He had already written the first of his major poems, The Love Song of Alfred Prufrock in 1915, but after his return from Switzerland to England in 1922, his tour de force, The Waste Land (set in a mythological London), was published after some editorial help from his friend, fellow poet and rival, Ezra Pound.

Other major works of Eliot's are The Hollow Men (1925), a critique of Western civilization, and Four Quartets (1936, 1943). All these poems are dense and difficult to appreciate without guidance, partly because they refer extensively to other literary texts and (predominantly) Christian mythology. Eliot became a British subject and joined the Church of England in 1927. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

As a sample of his work, here is "Burnt Norton" (from Four Quartets)

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present.
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden.

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