TS Eliot
The Waste Land

"How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut,
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But."
(T.S. Eliot, "Five-Finger Exercises").

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri. He was immaculately educated at Harvard and Oxford, becoming friendly with F. H. Bradley whilst at Harvard, whose philosophical writings were to have a profound influence upon him. Another philosopher who left his mark upon Eliot was Henri Bergson, whose theories about time influenced many of the foremost Modernists. Eliot attended Bergson's lectures at the Sorbonne whilst living in Paris. In 1914, Eliot met Ezra Pound, who was to be his friend and mentor for much of his early career. Eliot wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in 1917. Already we are made aware of Eliot's dissatisfaction with modern life. The poem is couched in clever conceits which make it rather unfulfilling, knowing the masterpieces which Eliot would shortly produce. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" does, however, mark the emergence of Eliot and the Modernist movement, and the first blow in a poetic revolution which was to overthrow the stranglehold of nineteenth century Romanticism.

In 1917, Eliot began to work at Lloyd's bank in order to finance his poetic career. He found the job deeply uninspiring and it was during this time that he watched men scuttling over London Bridge like ghosts which inspired The Waste Land. This was published in 1922 and saw Eliot pushed to the forefront of the Modernist movement. It was at this time that his critical writing began to be noticed and accepted. It revolutionized literary criticism, moving away from the Romantic focus on the author to a consideration of the text in the light of literary tradition. Eliot wrote superb critical essays on Hamlet, Dante and the Metaphysical poets. He also wrote "Tradition and the Individual Talent", perhaps the most influential critical work of the twentieth century. His best essays can be found in The Sacred Wood (1920). His essays on Marvell and the Metaphysical poets can be found in Selected Essays (1932).

Eliot became a member of the Church of England and a British national in 1927. The crisis that prompted these changes is recorded in Ash Wednesday (1930), which is far more personal and religious than his earlier work. Its more open and spiritual tone pointed the way towards what many consider Eliot's masterwork: Four Quartets (1943). These four poems are philosophically complex works which mingle an exploration of Eliot's own past (the titles of the poems are places which have a personal signification for Eliot), a meditation upon humanity, and an study of the power of the past.

After Four Quartets, Eliot moved towards the theatre as an outlet for his creative talents. His plays are notably inferior to his verse, with the exception of Murder in the Cathedral (1935), which is a religious drama which treats the death of Thomas a Becket. The Cocktail Party was first performed in 1949. It is a rather dry comedy based upon the Alcestis of Euripides, and is the most conventional and uninspired of Eliot's work. Eliot died in 1965.

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