Thomas Stearns Eliot, OM (September 26, 1888 – January 4, 1965) was an American (naturalised British) poet, dramatist, and literary critic, whose works, such as The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, "The Hollow Men", and Four Quartets, are considered defining achievements of twentieth century Modernist poetry. In 1948 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was one of the most influential poets of the 20th century.
Early life and education
Eliot was born into a prominent family from St. Louis, Missouri. Later, he said that "having passed one's childhood beside the big river" (the Mississippi) influenced his poetry. His father, Henry Ware Eliot (1843–1919), was a successful businessman, president and treasurer of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis; his mother, née Charlotte Chauncy Stearns (1843–1929), taught school prior to marriage, and wrote poems. He was their last child; his parents were 44 years old when he was born. His four surviving sisters were about eleven to nineteen years older than he, and his brother, eight years older.
William Greenleaf Eliot, Eliot's grandfather, was a Unitarian minister who moved to St. Louis when it was still on the frontier and was instrumental in founding many of the city's institutions, including Washington University in St. Louis. One distant cousin was Charles William Eliot, President of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, and a fifth cousin, another Thomas Eliot, was Chancellor of Washington University. Eliot's works often allude to his youth in St. Louis (there was a Prufrock furniture store in town) and to New England. (His family had Massachusetts ties and summered at a large cottage they had built in Gloucester, MA. The cottage, close to the shore at Eastern Point, had a view of the sea and the young Eliot would often go sailing.)
From 1898 to 1905, Eliot was a day student at St. Louis's Smith Academy, a preparatory school for Washington University. At the academy, Eliot studied Latin, Greek, French and German. Although, upon graduation, he could have gone to Harvard University, his parents sent him, for a preparatory year, to Milton Academy, in Milton, Massachusetts, near Boston. There, he met Scofield Thayer, who would later publish The Waste Land. He studied at Harvard from 1906 to 1909, where he earned his B.A.. The Harvard Advocate published some of his poems, and he became life-long friends with Conrad Aiken. The following year, he earned a master's degree at Harvard. In the 1910–1911 school year, Eliot lived in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne and touring the continent. Returning to Harvard in 1911 as a doctoral student in philosophy, Eliot studied the writings of F.H. Bradley, Buddhism, and Indic philology, (learning Sanskrit and Pāli to read some of the religious texts.) He was awarded a scholarship to attend Merton College, Oxford in 1914, and before settling there, he visited Marburg, Germany, where he planned to take a summer program in philosophy. When World War I broke out, however, he went to London and then to Oxford. Eliot was not happy at Merton and declined a second year of attendance. Instead, in the summer of 1915, he married, and, after a short visit to the U.S. to meet with his family (not taking his wife), he took a few teaching jobs. He continued to work on his dissertation and, in the spring of 1916, sent it to Harvard, which accepted it. Because he did not appear in person to defend the thesis, however, he was not awarded his Ph.D. (In 1964, the dissertation was published as Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley.) During Eliot's university career, he studied with George Santayana, Irving Babbitt, Henri Bergson, C. R. Lanman, Josiah Royce, Bertrand Russell, and Harold Joachim.
Later life in England
In a letter to Aiken late in December 1914, Eliot complained that he was still a virgin (he was 26), adding "I am very dependent upon women. I mean female society." Less than four months later he was introduced by a fellow American at Oxford, Scofield Thayer,  to Vivienne Haigh-Wood (May 28, 1888–January 22, 1947), a Cambridge governess. On 26 June 1915, Eliot and Vivien (the name she preferred), respectively aged 26 and 27 years old, were married in a register office. Bertrand Russell took an interest in Vivienne while the newlyweds were staying with Russell in his flat. Some critics have suggested that Vivien and Russell had an affair (see Carole Seymour-Jones, Painted Shadow), but these allegations have never been confirmed. In the 1960s, Eliot would write: "I came to persuade myself that I was in love with [Vivienne] simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her the marriage brought no happiness. To me it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land."
After leaving Merton, Eliot worked as a school teacher, most notably at Highgate School where he is famous for teaching the young poet Sir John Betjeman and also at The Royal Grammar School, High Wycombe where he taught in room 26, and, to earn extra money, wrote book reviews and lectured at evening extension courses. In 1917, he took a position at Lloyds Bank in London where he worked on foreign accounts. In 1925, he left Lloyds to become a director of the publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber) where he remained for the rest of his career.
In 1927 Eliot took British citizenship and converted to Anglicanism (on June 29). Eliot separated from Vivienne in 1933, and in 1938 Vivienne was committed to Northumberland House, a mental hospital north of London where she died in 1947 without ever having been visited by her husband.
From 1946 to 1957 Eliot shared a house with his close friend, the editor and critic John Davy Hayward, who gathered and archived Eliot's papers and styled himself Keeper of the Eliot Archive. He also edited a book of Eliot's verse called Poems Written in Early Youth. When they separated their household in 1957 Hayward retained his collection of Eliot's papers, which he bequeathed to King's College, Cambridge in 1965.
Eliot's second marriage was happy, but short. On January 10, 1957 he married Esmé Valerie Fletcher, to whom he was introduced by Collin Brooks. In sharp contrast to his first marriage, Eliot knew Valerie well, as she had been his secretary at Faber and Faber since August, 1949. As was his marriage to Vivienne, the wedding was kept a secret in order to preserve his privacy. The ceremony was held in a church at 6:15 a.m. with virtually no one other than his wife's parents in attendance. Valerie was thirty-eight years younger than her husband, and the years of her widowhood have been spent preserving his legacy; she has edited and annotated The Letters of T.S. Eliot and a facsimile of the draft of The Waste Land.
Eliot died of emphysema in London on January 4, 1965. For many years he had health problems owing to the combination of London air and his heavy smoking, often being laid low with bronchitis or tachycardia. His body was cremated and, according to Eliot's wishes, the ashes taken to St. Michael's Church in East Coker, the village from which Eliot's ancestors emigrated to America. There, a simple plaque commemorates him. On the second anniversary of his death a large stone placed on the floor of Poets' Corner in London's Westminster Abbey was dedicated to Eliot. This commemoration contains his name, an indication that he had received the Order of Merit, dates, and a quotation from Little Gidding: "the communication / Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond / the language of the living."
Later in his life, Eliot exchanged numerous letters with the comedian Groucho Marx. A portrait of Marx, which Eliot had requested, was proudly displayed in Eliot's home next to pictures of the poets Yeats and Valery.
Eliot made his home in London. After the war, in the mid 1920s, he would spend time with other great artists in the Montparnasse Quarter in Paris, where he was photographed by Man Ray. French poetry was a particularly strong influence on Eliot's work, in particular Charles Baudelaire, whose clear-cut images of Paris city life provided a model for Eliot's own images of London. He dabbled early in the study of Sanskrit and eastern religions and was a student of G. I. Gurdjieff. Eliot's work, following his conversion to Christianity and the Church of England, is often religious in nature and also tries to preserve historical English and broadly European values that Eliot thought important. In 1928, Eliot summarised his beliefs well when he wrote in the preface to his book For Lancelot Andrewes that "The general point of view [of the book's essays] may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion." This period includes such major works as Ash Wednesday, The Journey of the Magi, and Four Quartets.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
In 1915, Ezra Pound, overseas editor of Poetry magazine, recommended to Harriet Monroe, the magazine's founder, that she publish "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Although Prufrock seems to be middle-aged, Eliot wrote most of the poem when he was only 22. Its now-famous opening lines, comparing the evening sky to "a patient etherised upon a table," were considered shocking and offensive, especially at a time when the poetry of the Georgians was hailed for its derivations of the 19th century Romantic Poets. The poem then follows the conscious experience of a man, Prufrock, (relayed in the "stream of consciousness" form indicative of the Modernists) lamenting his physical and intellectual inertia, the lost opportunities in his life and lack of spiritual progress, with the recurrent theme of carnal love unattained. Critical opinion is divided as to whether the narrator even leaves his own residence during the course of the narration. The locations described can be interpreted either as actual physical experiences, mental recollections or even as symbolic images from the sub-conscious mind, as, for example, in the refrain "In the room the women come and go."
Its mainstream reception can be gauged from a review in The Times Literary Supplement on June 21, 1917: "The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to anyone, even to himself. They certainly have no relation to poetry..."  .
The poem's structure was heavily influenced by Eliot's extensive reading of Dante Alighieri (in the Italian). References to Shakespeare's Hamlet and other literary works are present in the poem: this technique of allusion and quotation was developed in Eliot's subsequent poetry.
The Waste Land
In October 1922, Eliot published The Waste Land in The Criterion. Composed during a period of personal difficulty for Eliot--his marriage was failing, and both he and Vivienne suffered from disordered nerves--The Waste Land is often read as a representation of the disillusionment of the post-war generation. Even before The Waste Land had been published as a book (December 1922), Eliot distanced himself from the poem's vision of despair; "As for The Waste Land, that is a thing of the past so far as I am concerned and I am now feeling toward a new form and style" he wrote to Richard Aldington on November 15, 1922. Despite the alleged obscurity of the poem--its slippage between satire and prophecy; its abrupt changes of speaker, location, and time; its elegiac but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures--it has become a touchstone of modern literature, a poetic counterpart to a novel published in the same year, James Joyce's Ulysses. Among its famous phrases are "April is the cruellest month"; "I will show you fear in a handful of dust"; and "Shantih shantih shantih," the utterance in Sanskrit which closes the poem.
Eliot's work was hailed by the W.H. Auden generation of 1930s poets. On one occasion Auden read out loud the whole of The Waste Land to a social gathering. The publication of the draft manuscript of the poem in 1972 showed the strong influence of Ezra Pound upon its final form, prior to which it had been entitled "He Do the Police in Different Voices". Part IV, "Death by Water," was reduced to its current ten lines from an original ninety-two--Pound advised against Eliot's thought of scrapping it altogether. Eliot thanked Pound for "helping one to do it in one's own way."
Although many critics prefered his earlier work, Eliot considered Four Quartets his masterpiece. The Four Quartets draws upon his knowledge of mysticism and philosophy. It consists of four long poems, published separately: "Burnt Norton" (1936), "East Coker" (1940), "The Dry Salvages" (1941) and "Little Gidding" (1942), each in five sections. Although they resist easy characterization, each begins with a rumination on the geographical location of its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect — theological, historical, physical — and its relation to the human condition. Also, each is associated with one of the four classical elements: air, earth, water, and fire. They approach the same ideas in varying but overlapping ways, and are open to a diversity of interpretations.
"Burnt Norton" asks what it means to consider things that might have been. We see the shell of an abandoned house, and Eliot toys with the idea that all these "merely possible" realities are present together, but invisible to us: All the possible ways people might walk across a courtyard add up to a vast dance we can't see; children who aren't there are hiding in the bushes.
"East Coker" continues the examination of time and meaning, focusing in a famous passage on the nature of language and poetry. Out of darkness Eliot continues to reassert a solution ("I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope").
"The Dry Salvages" treats the element of water, via images of river and sea. It again strives to contain opposites ("...the past and future/Are conquered, and reconciled").
"Little Gidding" (the element of fire) is the most anthologized of the Quartets. Eliot's own experiences as an air raid warden in The Blitz power the poem, and he imagines meeting Dante during the German bombing. The beginning of the Quartets ("Houses.../Are removed, destroyed") had become a violent everyday experience; this creates an animation, where for the first time he talks of Love - as the driving force behind all experience. From this background, the Quartets end with an affirmation of Julian of Norwich "all shall be well and/All manner of things shall be well."
Eliot is considered by some to be one of the great literary critics of the twentieth century. His essays were a major factor in the revival of interest in the metaphysical poets. A preoccupation with Elizabethan and Jacobean verse drama (for instance, John Webster, who is mentioned in his poem Whispers of Immortality) is also central to his critical writing, and greatly influenced his own forays into drama.
Eliot's plays, mostly in verse, include Sweeney Agonistes (1925), Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1950), The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958). Murder in the Cathedral is about the death of Thomas Becket. Eliot admitted being influenced by, among others, the works of 17th century preacher Lancelot Andrewes. The dramatic works of Eliot are less well known than his poems, but worth investigating, e.g. in the recorded version of The Cocktail Party with Sir Alec Guinness in the lead role of An Unidentified Guest (Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly). Murder in the Cathedral has been a standard choice for Anglican and Roman Catholic curricula for many years.
In his critical and theoretical writing, Eliot is known for his advocacy of the "objective correlative," the notion that art should not be a personal expression, but should work through objective universal symbols. There is fierce critical debate over the pragmatic value of the objective correlative, and Eliot's failure to follow its dicta. It is claimed that there is evidence throughout his work of contrary practice (e.g. part II of The Waste Land in the section beginning "My nerves are bad tonight"); but of course the worth of the idea is by no means negated by alleged lapses in practice, here as elsewhere.
In 1958 the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed Eliot (and also C.S. Lewis) to a commission which resulted in "The Revised Psalter" (1963). In 1939, he published a book of poetry for children, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats – "Old Possum" being a name Pound had bestowed upon him. After his death, this work became the basis of the hit West End and Broadway musical by Andrew Loyd Webber, Cats.
Criticism of Eliot
Eliot's poetry was first criticized as not being poetry at all. Another criticism has been of his widespread interweaving of quotes from other authors into his work. "Notes on the Waste Land," which follows after the poem, gives the source of many of these, but not all. This practice has been defended as a necessary salvaging of tradition in an age of fragmentation, and completely integral to the work, as well adding richness through unexpected juxtaposition. It has also been condemned as showing a lack of originality, and for plagiarism. A prominent critic once published an essay called 'Eliot's Poetry of Pseudo-Learning'. Eliot himself once wrote ("The Sacred Wood"): "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."
Canadian academic Robert Ian Scott pointed out that the title of The Waste Land and some of the images had previously appeared in the work of a minor Kentucky poet, Madison Cawein (1865–1914). Bevis Hillier compared Cawein's lines "...come and go/Around its ancient portico" with Eliot's "...come and go/talking of Michelangelo." Cawein's "Waste Land" had appeared in the January 1913 issue of Chicago magazine Poetry (which contained an article by Ezra Pound on London poets). But scholars are continually finding new sources for Eliot's "Waste Land," often in odd places.
Many famous fellow writers and critics have paid tribute to Eliot. According to the poet Ted Hughes, "Each year Eliot's presence reasserts itself at a deeper level, to an audience that is surprised to find itself more chastened, more astonished, more humble." Hugh Kenner commented, "He has been the most gifted and influential literary critic in English in the twentieth century." C. S. Lewis, however, thought his poetry ludicrous, and his literary criticism "superficial and unscholarly".
Charges of anti-Semitism
Although he is regarded throughout the English-speaking world as one of the chief poets and critics of modern times, he has sometimes been charged with anti-Semitism. The poem "Gerontion" contains a seemingly negative portrayal of a greedy landlord known as the "Jew [who] squats on the window sill." Another much-quoted example of anti-Semitism in his work is the poem, "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar", in which Eliot implicitly finds the Jews responsible for the decline of Venice ("The rats are underneath the piles. | The Jew is underneath the lot"). In "A Cooking Egg", he writes, "The red-eyed scavengers are creeping | From Kentish Town and Golder's Green" (Golders Green was a largely Jewish suburb of London). And this from "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" is the most ambiguous instance in his verse: "Rachel née Rabinovitch, | Tears at the grapes with murderous paws." Even so, Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia Woolf, who was himself Jewish and a friend of Eliot's, judged that Eliot was probably "slightly anti-Semitic in the sort of vague way which is not uncommon. He would have denied it quite genuinely." 
Nevertheless, in his minor work "After Strange Gods" (1933), Eliot deprecates the presence of "free-thinking Jews," who are said to be "undesirable" in large numbers. The philosopher George Boas, who had previously been on friendly terms with Eliot, wrote to him that, "I can at least rid you of the company of one." Eliot did not reply. In later years Eliot expressed his regret over these remarks (disavowing the book, and refusing to allow any part to be reprinted), saying he was not in good health when he gave the lectures in which they were first expressed.
Eliot also wrote a letter to the Daily Mail in January 1932 which congratulated the paper for a series of laudatory articles on the rise of Mussolini. In The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) he says "... totalitarianism can retain the terms 'freedom' and 'democracy' and give them its own meaning: and its right to them is not so easily disproved as minds inflamed by passion suppose." In the same book, written before World War II, he says of J. F. C. Fuller, who worked for the Policy Directorate in the British Union of Fascists:
In 2003 Professor Ronald Schuchard of Emory University published details of a previously unknown cache of letters from Eliot to Horace Kallen, which reveal that in the early 1940s Eliot was actively helping Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria to re-settle in Britain and America. In letters written after the war, Eliot also voiced support for modern Israel.