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Creator / T. S. Eliot

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I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

Thomas Stearns Eliot OM (26 September 1888 4 January 1965) was an American-born English poet, essayist, playwright, and literary critic. Considered one of the 20th century's major poets, he is a central figure in English-language Modernist poetry. The Waste Land is his most famous poem.

He was born on 26 September 1888 in St Louis, Missouri to Henry Ware Eliot (1843-1919), a successful businessman; and Charlotte Champe Stearns (1843-1929), a poet and social worker, then a new profession in the US during the early 20th century. The Eliots were a Boston Brahmin family (members of Boston's traditional upper class). Eliot was the last of six surviving children. Known to family and friends as Tom, he was the namesake of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Stearns.

He lived in St Louis for the first 16 years of his life, during which he developed an infatuation with literature. He soon entered Harvard University in 1906, attaining his M.A. in 1910. He then moved into the Sorbonne and stayed there for a year. He then returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but left before getting the degree; he returned to Europe and settled in England in 1914. The following year, he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood and began working in London, first as a teacher, and later for Lloyd's Bank.

It was in London that Eliot came under the influence of his contemporary Ezra Pound, who recognized his poetic genius at once, and assisted in the publication of his work in a number of magazines, most notably The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in Poetry in 1915. The literary friendship between the two would remain an important influence on Eliot.

From 1917-1919, Eliot edited the "little" magazine Egoist. During that time, he published his first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, published in 1917, and immediately established him as a leading poet of the avant-garde. In 1922, he founded the Criterion, a quarterly review of literature and philosophy, which he also edited, all while working as an editor and director for Faber & Faber Ltd. It was in the October 1922 issue of the Criterion that he published The Waste Land in 1922, now considered by many to be the single most influential poetic work of the twentieth century. Eliot's reputation began to grow to nearly mythic proportions; by 1930, and for the next thirty years, he was the most dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in the English-speaking world. In addition, he became a British subject in 1927 and was confirmed in the Church of England, his religious beliefs influencing and finding reflection in his later poetry and other writings.

T.S. Eliot also achieved eminence as an essayist writing on literary criticism, social, philosophical, and theological issues and as a playwright with such works as Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. He died in London on January 4, 1965.

Major Works by Eliot

  • The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915): Eliot's first major poem, published at the instigation of Ezra Pound. At the time of the publication, it was deemed outlandish, but it is now seen as a shift from Romanticism to Modernism.
  • The Waste Land (1922): One of Eliot's most famous poems. He makes a lot of allusions to literary works like Ovid's Metamorphoses, Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, and Charles Baudelaire.
  • The Hollow Men (1925): Another major poem, focusing on Europe under the Treaty of Versailles (which Eliot despised), hopelessness, religious conversion, redemption, and (probably) his failing marriage with Vivienne Haigh-Wood. It was published two years before his conversion.
  • Ash Wednesday (1930): A long poem that Eliot wrote after his conversion to Anglicanism. It focuses on the struggle that ensues when one who has lacked faith in the past strives to move towards God.
  • Murder in the Cathedral (1935): A play based on the martyrdom of St Thomas Beckett.
  • Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939): A book of light verse (Old Possum was Ezra Pound's nickname for Eliot). The musical Cats set the poems to music.
  • Four Quartets (1936-1943): A set of four poems published over a six-year period. These poems reflect on man's relationship with time, the universe and the divine, and Eliot blends his Anglicanism with other ideas from other Western and Eastern religious traditions, alluding to the Bhagavad-Gita, the Pre-Socratic philosophers, St John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich.

Other works by Eliot provide examples of:

  • Bathos: This is used frequently in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", starting with comparing a sunset to "a patient etherised upon a table".
  • Bonfire Dance: Mentioned in "East Coker":
    On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
    Of the weak pipe and the little drum
    And see them dancing around the bonfire
    The association of man and woman
    In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie?
    A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
  • A Chat with Satan: In the first act of Murder in the Cathedral, Becket is visited by "tempters" who plead with him to give up his feud with the King of England. The first tempts him with hedonistic pleasures, the second with a restoration of his former authority, and the third with political power. He rejects them all, but the fourth tempter surprises Becket by asking him to seek out martyrdom for the glory that comes after it. In most productions, the fourth tempter is presented as being separate, more enticing than the first three, and possibly the Devil in disguise.
  • Close-Knit Community: Discussed in "Choruses from The Rock"
  • Dances and Balls: Described in "East Coker".
  • Ironic Nursery Tune: The first few lines of the last stanza of "The Hollow Men":
    Here we go round the prickly pear
    Prickly pear prickly pear
    Here we go round the prickly pear
    At five o'clock in the morning.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Aside from inspiring many of these, Portrait of a Lady is a reference to a novel by Henry James.
  • Misaimed Fandom: In-universe from Prufrock
    It is impossible to say just what I mean!
    But If a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
    Would it have been worth while
    If one, setting a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
    And turning towards the window, should say
    'That is not it at all,
    That is not what I meant at all.'
  • Nothing Is the Same Anymore: "The Journey of the Magi" is a reminiscence, many years after the fact, of one of the three magi ("wise men") who travelled westward across Asia in search of the Christ Child at the first Christmas. After finding and visiting the baby Jesus, he returns home to find that his former pagan beliefs no longer satisfy him, and that he suddenly feels spiritually unfulfilled. He never grasped the significance of what he saw, and has become so depressed that "I should be glad of another death."
  • One-Book Author: More like maybe three/four-book-author. Eliot is best known for being a poet, but his Collected Poems 1909-1962 is a very short volume and, of it, most people know only "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Waste Land". A good few people know the cat poems. Some people have read Four Quartets, a later poem, long by Eliot's standards, but not very long. A few people have read, or maybe seen, Murder in the Cathedral. As for his other plays, such as The Rock, The Cocktail Party and The Elder Statesman; his other poems, including collections of his juvenilia which are longer than his actual Collected Poems; his many essays on literary subjects, including important ones on Rudyard Kipling, Dante Alighieri, and Charles Baudelaire, as well as massively influential pieces such as "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and collections of articles such as After Strange Gods and For Lancelot Andrewes; loads of book reviews; stand-alone books such as Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley, Notes Towards a Definition of Culture and The Idea of a Christian Society, not to mention six volumes (and counting) of his letters, which themselves form a picture of the literary history of his time and place...well, most of it doesn't get read.
  • Shout-Out: Many of his poems don't just allude to previous works, but are skilful collages of actual quotes from previous works, from Dame Julian of Norwich via various Tudor divines to Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, music hall songs and other sources. Eliot's genius was to make all his Shout Outs sound like they belonged to one voice.
  • Sirens Are Mermaids: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each."
  • Sophisticated as Hell: The unpublished-in-his-lifetime The Triumph of Bullshit is the most conspicuous example, but The Waste Land also counts, ranging from barely-paraphrased Shakespeare to overheard gossip from London pubs.
  • Stepford Smiler: J. Alfred Prufrock attends parties and formal events to try to be accepted by his peer group but ultimately feels dead inside, and that he has never done anything significant with his life.
  • Turbulent Priest: Murder in the Cathedral dramatises the story of the Trope Namer.