Thomas Stearns Eliot, widely known as ‘T.S.Eliot’, was born in 1888 in St Louis, Missouri, in the USA. He died in London, aged 76, in 1965. By then, he was a world-famous poet, playwright, literary critic, and editor. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.
Many people have found Eliot to be a difficult poet to read. His poems are full of sometimes obscure imagery and allusions to literature of the past, history, religion, and myth. Some readers may wonder if the complexity of poems like The Wasteland (1922) or Four Quartets (1943) is a kind of showing-off, part of a carefully concocted elitist act. This view would seem to fit in with Eliot’s expressed conservative views, as when he referred to himself as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion”. Yet, most modern critics have argued convincingly that the complexity of the poems comes from the complexity of their themes. Eliot wasn’t showing-off, he was exploring a dark, troubling universe and at it’s heart – the nature of great intangibles, including – belief, time, and Spirituality. You don’t have to agree with any of his political views to marvel at the unique power of his poetry and how he dealt with his themes.
I was 3 years old when Eliot died. I was 15 years old when I first read The Wasteland, at school in1977. This was before I knew that Eliot was a Conservative , and before I found out what some forms of that political belief were capable of. I would learn the hard way, in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, and started closing down factories, shipyards, and mines. It was those kinds of events which dominated my life; and later, the poll tax, where I played a small role in toppling the Iron Lady.
As well as the politics of class struggle, I was also fascinated by other things, including – words, reading, and literature of many kinds. I read Eliot and responded as I would do when I first heard Bob Dylan singing. I was moved more deeply than I could understand. I wasn’t sure what Eliot’s words were saying to me, but I wanted to know, because I guessed that any words arranged so beautifully and powerfully must mean something important. I sensed that Eliot’s words were full of honesty – a real attempt to report back from exploring uncertainty and sometimes a kind of hell.
Over the years, I came back again and again to Eliot’s poems. Each time, I had learned something about the almost magical effects they had upon me and what he was trying to convey. I felt that his poems reflected something strange but also familiar: the ways in which moments in an ordinary street or in a room or in a dusty church can sometimes reveal visions of other times, depths and complexities of meanings, and a sense of timelessness. I read biographies, essays by and about him, and works by his friends – including Ezra Pound, and I began to read the 8 huge volumes which have been published of his Collected Letters (several more are planned, as they only reach 1938, so far). I read about his tragic marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, their separation in 1933, and how she was committed to a lunatic asylum in 1938, where she died in 1947. Ten years later, Eliot remarried – to Esme Valerie Fletcher, who played a huge role editing his letters after Eliot’s death.
In January 2020, over 1000 letters Eliot wrote to Emily Hale began to be released to the public. There’s a wonderful blog about this release which you can read here. The letters illustrate a kind of doomed love story, which influenced some of Eliot’s poems.
I’ve added below a few photographs from my own collection of books by or about Eliot. I’ve included his only light book: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I think the best place to start reading Eliot is the Selected or Collected Poems, and cheap paperbacks can be easily found. Or, several of the poems are free online.