The Works of T.S. Eliot 02: Eliot's biography



hello I'm Victor Strandberg and we're ready to proceed with our course in TS Eliot in this file I want to say something about TS Eliot's biography I think it's necessary to understand any artists that we know something about his life and the formative influences on his work TS Eliot was born in 1888 in st. Louis Missouri the reason he was born there is that his grandfather William Greenleaf Eliot emigrated from Boston where the Eliot's had been living since the 17th century and where they had become you might say upper-class society in the Boston area with one Eliot have become president of Harvard and with other Eliot's in similar positions of distinction including a line of clergymen in the Unitarian Church William Greenleaf Eliot the poet's grandfather went to Missouri to bring the light of his Unitarian faith into the darkness of that Roman Catholic city of st. Louis one of the adventure is that he undertook to facilitate their project was to help found one of our great universities Washington University in st. Louis Eliot's father Henry where Eliot was a prosperous owner of a brick family his mother Charlotte Stearns Eliot gave birth to the poet when she was 45 years old he was a youngest of seven children and I think because his parents were almost at the age of grandparents there was a gap a serious time gap between parent and child and I think this exacerbated the feeling of loneliness that shows up so importantly in Eliot's poetry in effect Eliot reversed his ancestors migration that is to say he got out of st. Louis as soon as he could when he was a teenager he went to Milton Academy in Massachusetts and after that he went to Harvard to get his bachelor's degree at Harvard at that time around the years 19 6 to 19 10 there was a galaxy of eminent professors George Lyman Kittredge the great Chaucer and Shakespeare scholar George Santayana the philosopher was teaching there William James was there though he didn't teach classes nonetheless perhaps our greatest genius in America for psychology religious thinking and philosophy Bertrand Russell was there the man who won the Nobel Prize in 1950 and who became an important influence on TS Eliot in several ways including in his personal life other professors including urban Babbitt and Josiah Royce at Harvard his most important discovery by happenstance was a book he came across under a staircase among a stack standing there outside the editor's office of the undergraduate literary magazine this book was by Arthur Symons sym ons the symbolist movement in literature dated 1899 in particular the French symbolist poets exerted a very large influence TS Eliot's early years on his formation as a poet and he singled out one of these friends symbol it's poets in a comment later in his life in fact he was an old man really he said that he owed more to any than to any other writer living or dead he owed more to jewel La Forge la fo r gu e he owed more to that man than to any other poet including Dante and Shakespeare whom he praised lavishly and if you look at the poetry of jewel afford look it up on the Internet perhaps if you can get a translation and you'll see that it resembles very substantially Eliot's early poems such as the love song itself or Prufrock or Rhapsody on a windy night the same style the same tone the same sort of imagery and so we can see why Eliot made that comment he also studied the Elizabethan dramatists at Harvard and later he taught some of them when he briefly served as a teacher in England writers like John Webster Christopher Marlowe Beaumont and Fletcher and similar figures in 1910 after he graduated from Harvard he obtained a an appointment as a student at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris he was flute enough fluent enough in French so that he went there for a year he went to lectures he could understand and perfectly delivered in French by the likes of on Rebecca's own the very eminent French philosopher and of course he could study even more deeply the French symbolist poets while he was living in Paris the most important thing that happened in Paris was his encounter with another young man in the boarding house where they both lived in Paris that man's name was Jean Verena and they were you might say soulmates literary soulmate certainly cultural soulmates you could say Vernon ah was a medical student but he loved literature and I think for the first time in his life TS Eliot met somebody who really understood Eliot and what he was tempting to do wanted to do as a writer and thinker someone who would of course in that fashion uh sure in the modern period in English poetry as time went on he and Elliot and his friend Jean Verdun all went to opera together they traveled about parts of Europe together and were indeed very close friends predictably some scholars would declare that there was a homosexual relationship between them although that might be possible I don't think it's necessary to attribute that sort of connection to these two men I think what Elliot found was something he had never experienced in America or among his other contacts in Europe someone who would understand and sympathize and facilitate Eliot's Eliot's efforts as an artist in 1911 he under his year at the Sorbonne went back to Harvard to study for a PhD in philosophy and indeed Harvard thought so well of him that there was an understanding that after he obtained his PhD in philosophy he would become a faculty member teaching philosophy at Harvard he studied not only philosophy but religion assiduously he even learned some Sanskrit so that he could study the Hindu religion in the original language and there are some scraps of Sanskrit that appear in the wasteland in July 1914 Elliott won a scholarship to study in that Great mecca for philosophers Germany and he went to Marburg a city where he hoped to take up his studies in the summer of 1914 in August of that year World War one broke out so Eliot's could not complete his studies in Germany instead he went to London and in September 1914 a classmate Harvard classmate of his introduced him to as rebound than living in London Ezra Pound was perhaps the most influential man of his time in English and American literature he guided and mentored a number of artists offering them into the modern period which he propagated I think more avidly than anyone else and we can say that he and TS Eliot together brought about a revolution in poetry that we now dubbed the modern period in poetry among the people that TS Eliot mentored very importantly were William Butler Yeats a considerably older man but one that TS Eliot excuse me that Ezra Pound drew into modern poetry through his ministrations he also was a very important help to Robert Frost who came to England for a couple of years and Ezra Pound helped him become successful in famous as a published poet in England after which Frost went back to America as a famous poet also to Ernest Hemmingway was a an acolyte of Ezra Pound and Hemingway he gave pound a lot of credit for helping him come into his own as a young artist it was as a pound who helped Elliott publish his first published poem the love song of joy alfred Prufrock five years after was written in 1915 the poem came out in a little magazine called poetry magazine two years later TS Eliot published a collection prufrock and other observations dedicated to that same soul mate of his back in Paris to Jean Verdun al now at this time in 1917 John Vernon all had been dead for two years he had been sucked up into World War one as a soldier he had been sent to the Dardanelles campaign and that was a misconceived idea sometimes attributed to Winston Churchill that the ally should attack the soft underbelly of Europe namely Turkey not a not a very soft underbelly and when the Allied soldiers stormed the beaches of Turkey they were slaughtered by the thousands a catastrophic failure of a campaign it was thought that John Vernon all drowned in that effort to storm the beaches and I think that idea shows up in Elliott in a number of occasions in the motif of death by water one of the sections of the wasteland in any case the death of his soulmate in April 1915 might have influenced the opening line of the wasteland April is the cruelest month in any case it affected Elliott in that the great vacancy his life left by his deceased friend was filled he thought by Elliot getting married he married a young woman had only known for two or three months a young woman named Vivian Haig would and in June they got married after having met perhaps in April or a little earlier he married her without even introducing her to his family which led to very unhappy situation back in America enough after that he really was tied down in England he I think enjoyed England immensely felt that it had a superior culture to what he experienced in America and in particular through Ezra Pound in London he would have a network of other artists that he could hobnob with or a community such as he had never previously experienced the sort of community I think that John Vernon all had supplied while he was still alive so he stayed in England through most of world world one there was a fear of submarine warfare which kept certainly kept his wife there in England and I think kept TS Eliot from voyaging back home for several years in 1916 he settled into an apartment with his wife that was furnished by his old professor Bertrand Russell they had met each other in the street in London and Russell asked how his former student was doing and Eliot said that he was somewhat hard up for money because of this unhappy relationship with his family back home part of the reason so Bertrand Russell offered them the use of his flat and one of the outcomes of that arrangement was at the three of them live together for a while and Bertrand Russell a ladies man at the time seduced Elliott's bride they went off for a week or so at the beach at Margit Beach a term that shows up in the wasteland also and it turned out indeed that this was a very bad marriage for both parties both TS Eliot and his wife had nervous breakdowns his wife became in the end a permanent situation she had to be confined to an institution and Elliott himself under underwent his breakdown at the time he was writing The Waste Land in the early 1920s ironically Eliot's breakdown enriched his poem The Waste Land in effect the hold culture in the Western world as he saw it was undergoing a breakdown because of the cultural collapse that pertained following an indeed during world war mon the old certitudes the old social hierarchy had been broken to pieces by the war and the beliefs that people live by were no longer tenable in a number of areas socially politically religiously and in that sense that breakdown certainly affected Eliot a great deal along with the problems in his marriage and with his health at the time he was writing his great poem in a 1919 he published a little book of essays the sacred wood and this book together with some later essays and his editorship of a magazine for 20 years the criterion all enabled him to influence the entire cultural understanding of his reading audience because he was so famous as a poet he had a large reading audience the most important part of that audience would be other artists and through writing these essays in very large measure he was able to propagate the revolution in poetry that he and Ezra Pound were bringing off in the years after World War one a new kind of poetry whose precepts will get you in the next file meanwhile we need to proceed with TS Eliot's biography he published The Waste Land late in the year 1922 initially without the notes at the end of the wasteland then he brought off the poem as a sort of a pamphlet standing on its own to which he added the notes there have been arguments about the notes to the wasteland whether they should be there or not in my opinion they add a very valuable coda to the poem not only for helping us understand the wasteland which they do but as a sort of opening of a door of the artists workshop this is a stuff out of which I made the poem I have a look at an honest open look at what goes on in the artists workbench in 1925 he followed up the wasteland with me Hollow Men it was said in Time magazine's obituary of T SLE in 1965 that he gave us the cathartic utterances of the age and among those cathartic utterances would have to include several of these titles the wasteland the hollow man now these would be metaphors by which the age could understand itself in this time of a breakdown of culture of beliefs to live by and that concept of metaphor I think is very important in modern literature at large way back in Aristotle's Poetics chapter 22 aristotle declared that the greatest thing by far for a poet is to be a master of metaphor it is a certain sign of genius it is something that cannot be learned from others he also added that the interpretation of metaphor on the part of a meter is one of the surest signs of intelligence so Elliot did strike off the master metaphors of his age in lines like The Waste Land the Hollow Men and regard of course to get more specific as we get into the poems striking off new metaphors by which people could attain a better understanding of the life they are living in 1927 he made an astounding announcement for many of his audience namely that he had become a Royalist in politics as conservative as you can be a classicist in literature Oh everyone thought he was a revolutionary in literature but no I am a classicist I revere tradition and most surprisingly I have become an Anglo Catholic in religion that is to say a Christian at that time also when he entered the Church of England he took a vow of celibacy which he would maintain we believe through the rest of his marriage until his wife died in 1947 in an institution he published another major poem Ash Wednesday reflecting this experience of conversion to the Christian faith and then in the 1930s he began will become his final and something his greatest work for quartets begun in the 1930s and completed in 1943 in 1947 as I mentioned his wife died in 1948 at the age of 60 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in January 1957 to everyone's surprise he got married the second wife was a young woman who had obtained a job at TS Eliot's publishing house Faber & Faber where Elliot was a part owner and she managed to wangle away across the office to become TS Eliot's personal secretary and it seems that they hit it off so well that at one point TS Eliot gave her as her boss a stack of papers and asked her to look through them while he stood by and on one of the pages Eliot had written will you marry me she obliged and they were married in January 1957 it was a very happy marriage unlike the first marriage unfortunately TS Eliot's health was going bad and he gradually deteriorated in his health until he died in January 1965 that will conclude thumbnail sketch of his biography I recommend several books of biography Lindell Gordon's two volume biography is excellent Peter Ackroyd's one volume biography also was very fine and I recommend also a book by a woman named Carol Seymour of Jones the title is painted shadow a life of Vivian Eliot it is a marvelous book I recommend it very highly for the biography of Charles Eliot an account and an account of this supremely important thing in his life his marriage to his first wife we'll end a biography there and proceed with another file shortly

4 thoughts on “The Works of T.S. Eliot 02: Eliot's biography

  1. He spent some time in Quebec, just north of Vermont, U.S.A. I visited the location
    were he and some of his family and friends were there to relax. This was quite a while
    ago. However, the location still exists, very close to a large lake in Quebec. On the other
    side of the lake is an old, large Roman Catholic Church. I spent time there, as do many
    in Quebec. T.S. Eliot would have seen the Church from his side of the Lake. Very beautiful.

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