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T S (Thomas Stearns) Eliot Biography | Poet

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Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26, 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri. He attended prominent academies through his youth, eventually getting accepted into Harvard. His drive for education led him to the Sorbonne in Paris, France for a time as well, on his way to a Ph.D. He was unable to take the final exam, due to the start of World War I, and never finished his course. He soon found himself married and living in London working as a bank clerk. It was during that time he really threw himself into his writings, producing some of his greatest works, Prufrock and Other Observations, and the instant cult classic The Waste Land. Eliot went on to found and edit a literary journal for several years, and left his bank job for a publishing position at Faber & Faber where he could work with young poets. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Eliot, who was a heavy smoker for many years, died of emphysema on January 4, 1965.

His Early Life and Education

As a very small child, Thomas Eliot suffered from an inguinal hernia, leaving him alone most of the time because he couldn’t play with the other children. Because of this, he was often found reading. His father, Henry, was a businessman while his mother, Charlotte, enjoyed writing poetry. Eliot first tried his hand at writing poetry when he was fourteen years old, deciding that his first attempts were dismal and pathetic. It was while attending Smith Academy in 1905 that his first poem was published, A Fable For Feasters, which was the result of a school assignment. Later that same year he published another untitled poem and three short stories. After he graduated, he attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts followed by Harvard University. He earned a Bachelor's degree in philosology in three years instead of the usual four.

He stayed on at Harvard working as a philology assistant from 1909 to 1910. From there he moved to Paris to further his studies at the Sorbonne for a year. Then it was back to Harvard to study Sanskrit followed by a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford. World War I had begun in Europe, and Eliot found himself spending a great deal of time in London. In 1915 he took a position teaching English at the University of London. That is also the year he met and married his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

His Life in England

By 1917, Eliot was working at Lloyd’s Bank, handling their foreign accounts. He stayed there for eight years, vacationing to Paris as often as possible. Also during his time working at the bank, he was granted a three month leave when he was diagnosed with a nervous disorder. His file stated he had a nervous breakdown, and he spend the three months traveling with his wife. It was in 1925 that he was recommended for a position at Faber & Faber, a publishing firm, to work with their English poets. He managed to turn the position into a career; he worked there for the rest of his employed life. He had known from the beginning of his marriage that he chose Vivienne in an attempt to stay in Europe forever. The final push came in 1927 when he renounced his American citizenship and officially became a citizen in 1927. He also converted to Anglicanism that year, further cementing his bond to the English people and culture.

It was also around this time that he realized he wanted to end his relationship with his wife. The two were separated for many years, the divorce never being finalized. Eliot became a widower in 1947 when Vivienne died after nearly a decade at the mental hospital. He stayed single until 1957 when he married Esme Fletcher, who was only 30. She had been working as his secretary at Faber & Faber, and their marriage ceremony was done very privately.

His Greatest Works

For being a well known and loved poet, T.S. Eliot has a remarkable lack of actually published works. This was even something that seemed to bother him during his lifetime. The first poem that launched Eliot into the literary spotlight was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. He began working on the piece in 1910 and it was published for the first time in 1915. Harvard has a recording from 1947 of Eliot reading this poem. Possibly the greatest poem that Eliot penned is The Waste Land. The poem itself is seen as one of the most important poems of the 20th century. It is thought he worked on the manuscript for several years before it first published in 1922. After his death, his second wife found the original manuscript and had it published at Faber & Faber in 1971. The original had nearly double the lines at the completed first published version. Eliot also wrote and published other great poems, including Ash Wednesday, Four Quartets, and The Hollow Man. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948 for his great contributions, not only as a poet but as a publisher and editor as well.

T.S. Eliot died on January 4, 1965. He had been ill, fighting bouts of bronchitis and other lung disorders. He passed away at his home in Kensington, London. It was his wishes that his cremated remains be sent to the village where his ancestors lived before they immigrated to the United States. Even though his own actual works are few, he has earned his place as one of the greatest poets in modern history. Where he was overly critical of his own work, he is seen as one of the greatest literary critics in the 20th century, his critical essays being works of art in their own right. He received several awards including his Nobel Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and three Tony awards, two of which were for his poetry used in Cats. 

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Book: Shattered Sighs