Fifty years ago this past Sunday January 4th, one of the most influential literary figures of the XX century passed away. His name was Thomas Stearns, though he would be universally known and acclaimed by his initials followed by his surname: T. S. Eliot. By the time he dimmed out his physical existence at the age of 76 in his home in Kensington, London, Eliot had composed some of the most emblematic poems of the century, including The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, “Ash Wednesday” and Four Quartets; he had scripted seven plays, among them Death in the Cathedral, The Cocktail Party and Elder Statesman; and he had been awarded the British Order of Merit, the Swedish Nobel Prize in Literature, the French Legion d’Honeur and Ordres des Arts et des Letres, the German Goethe Prize and the American Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Most importantly, however, he had successfully managed to marry a vast number of seemingly incompatible concepts—American and British, to start with, but also classic and modernist, form and content, intellectual and commonplace—many of which remain relevant in our lives to this day. Which is not to say that Eliot invented these concepts, or even their association: what he did, and perhaps where he excelled beyond others around him, was in finding the means to manifest the inherent contradictions of modern life in a form that was appealing, if not always accessible, to his readers.
Born in St. Louis in 1888 to a family with solid middle class and intellectual roots, Eliot read philosophy at Harvard before heading across the Atlantic in 1909 for a spell in Paris. Infatuated and influenced by the free verse of Jules Laforgue (who in turn had been influenced by Walt Whitman’s—just a preamble to the loop of undercurrents and contradictions that would punctuate Eliot’s life), the young American attended lectures at the Sorbonne, famously crossing paths with Henri Bergson, who at the time taught philosophy at the university. Eliot returned to Harvard a year later and embarked on the study of Indian philosophy—but the Old World had left its mark on him, and in 1914 he was off again to the other side of the pond.
Initially intent on studying in Germany, the outbreak of war meant Eliot had to choose a new location. He chose Oxford. It was a choice that would change the outlook of English literature forever and that likely enabled him to develop more richly, more fully, than he would have elsewhere in different company. For in England Eliot met up with the other American whose presence would drastically alter the course of English literature: Ezra Pound.
Pound was the cultural agent, the enterprising whirlwind in the middle of a remarkable group of intellectuals. His first reaction upon reading what might well be Eliot’s very best piece of work, the long meditative poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, was one of admiring stupefaction. “This is as good as anything I have ever come across”, he reputedly wrote to Eliot. It was the start of a fruitful friendship that took them from the publication of Prufrock in the magazine Poetry, co-edited by Pound, to the creation of Blast, the short-lived mouthpiece of the Vorticist movement in which Eliot was involved and of which Pound was the founder (together with Wyndham Lewis), and culminating in the considerable input Pound had on Eliot’s most famous poem: The Waste Land.
Cross-cultural references have never been as present—and as cryptic—as they are in this piece of work, where whole verses are included in other languages, and thoughts, conversations, situations entwine in what would appear to be unconnected and inconclusive fashion. Indeed, if you found The Waste Land online and you pasted it onto a blank document in your computer, in all likelihood Word’s grammar check would underline every single verse in green suggesting changes to each line and citing the entire list of errors keyed into the program, including, of course, the infamous “Fragment (consider revising).” Back in the 1920s, when Eliot was composing The Waste Land, there was no Microsoft Word, which meant all those suggestions had to be made by a human being. That human being was Ezra Pound, who famously urged Eliot (ordered, almost) to change, shorten and on many occasions even suppress whole sections of the piece. This process resulted in the pinnacle of Modernist literary expression, a poem of exhaustion (and revival?) that remains both relevant and uncannily groundbreaking, even today, almost a hundred years after it was published (in 1922).
The original Waste Land. Source: Wikipedia.
Trans-Atlantic relations and cross-cultural references were only the tip of the iceberg in Eliot’s complex reimagining of the world, though, for the poet of St. Louis held strong to a curious conception of tradition that was more fluid, more lively than the word would suggest. In Eliot’s opinion, times past and present interact constantly and actively not as forces that stand in direct contraposition to one another but rather as part of the same pool of valuable material (literary works of art, for instance) that need to adjust and be reassessed with every alteration of the whole.
This, perhaps, is where Eliot’s journey back from the desolation of The Waste Land begins, because if this poem marks a watershed in Western literature it would be unkind to expect it to be anything but a turning point in the intellectual production of its author. Eliot’s work after The Waste Land can be seen as a quest for some sort of reconciliation with the workings of life, which takes him to the doorstep of religion. In 1927 Eliot converted to Anglicanism and later that same year he renounced his American citizenship to become British. “Ash Wednesday,” a long poem published in 1930 with an evidently religious backdrop gives full expression to such reconciliation: spiritual aspirations and concerns suddenly displace the conflicts of human existence in Eliot’s poetry, making it less chaotic, less polyphonic, less disheartening but also less unforgettable.
With the exception of the seminal poem Four Quartets (1945), Eliot’s poetical output after “Ash Wednesday” moved away from regular structures, shifting towards alternative forms of artistic expression, such as the theatre and children’s literature. His verse drama Murder in the Cathedral, an account of the murder of Thomas Beckett in 1170, is touching, although it’s accomplishment lies rather on language than on the dramatic action. In this respect, his most successful play was the 1949 comedy The Cocktail Party, which received a Tony award the following year. Unlikely as it might seem, though, Eliot, the deeply pensive, rather gloomy, circumspect intellectual found in children’s literature a valuable outlet to produce some of his most remarkable work: Old Possum, Eliot’s alter ego in the animal kingdom, introduces a number of friends in his classic Book of Practical Cats, which almost half a century later would be taken by Andrew Lloyd Weber as the basis for what is still perhaps the most celebrated musical of all times, Cats.
Shy, physically weak, socially reclusive and altogether strange, Eliot’s irresistible mind turned him, implausibly, into a cultural icon. But beyond the myth and the legend, Eliot was above all a complex man—as complex as any other—and perhaps his greatest and most overlooked legacy is the way in which he was able to pull together all the contradictions of his interests, his talents and his shortcomings in his own life: Eliot, the genius, was also a clerk at Lloyds bank from 1917 until 1925, three years after he had written the most important poem in English language. Eliot, the wholehearted Anglican followed his conversion in 1927 with his separation in 1933 from his troubled wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, with whom he had been married for 18 years. She was interned in a mental hospital in 1938 and died nine years later, but her husband—for they were still officially married—never took the trouble to pay her a single visit. I guess we all have our demons, and there is no reason why Eliot should be an exception. Indeed, perhaps the fact that he was so insightful, so talented, so eccentric is rather a source of more demons than a reason to have less—be that as it may, it certainly is a reason to celebrate his work and his life, even on the fiftieth anniversary of his