Biography Context

T.S. Eliot - Biography #

Eliot’s poetry, written in the early 20th C. reflects a sombre, bleak, tired, world-weary view of the urban world of an effete, decadent, exhausted society. Eliot is profoundly influenced by the realistic novels of Dostoevsky; Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov and French and German Novels and Poetry.

Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri to a respectable and distinguished family, when he arrived at Harvard at the age of 18, Eliot viewed Boston and modern cities like Paris and London with a critical disdain for their grimy industrial impersonality. You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. He became influenced by the French Poet Baudelaire, who attempted to find beauty in the ordinary, but found the rise of urbanisism unnatural, grubby and alienating. Ayn Rand wrote about the NY skyline as “the will of man made visible”.

From 1910 – 11, Eliot studied French Literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne, Paris before returning to Harvard in 1912 and going to Munich in 1914. Eliot dedicated Prufrock and Other Observations to the memory of his Parisian boarding-house companion Jean Verdenal, who died serving as a medical officer during the First World War in Gallipoli. Some suggest repressed homosexual feelings.

The threat of war brought Eliot to England in October where he taught in a Grammar school for two years before joining Lloyd’s Bank until 1925. His early poetry was written in Boston and Paris and published in 1915. He lived in England until his death in 1965. Eliot commented that teaching was twice as hard as working longer hours in a bank. Eliot’s letters, released in January, 2020, reveal a conflicted, socially insecure, buttoned-up private life, surrounded by highly mannered, but gossipy snobby hostesses. He reveals his pain at her decision as he feels a private man who finds it difficult to write about himself. His brief reference of the indebtedness to his father for the expense of three years at Harvard could indicate some guilt, which could be relevant to some of his personas. While his mother and sister came to his wedding in London, his father failed to make the trip. He was unlucky in love. His first unrequited love was meeting Emily Hale at a Harvard Tea Party in 1912. When he declares his love, he sees no signs of her returning it. He writes: “I was very immature for my age, timid, inexperienced with gnawing doubt. A proposal appears to have been rebuffed.

Eliot left America for Germany and then London where he suddenly married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. They shared an apartment with Bertrand Russell, who was renown as a confident ladies man. (it’s possible he and Vivienne enjoyed a brief fling). One account suggests Eliot came home one night to find them in bed together. Shortly later Vivienne is confined to a mental hospital and Eliot too, has a breakdown, spending 6 months in hospital in Lucerne Switzerland where he completes The Waste Land. When he returns to London, he continues to care for Vivienne, despite their mutual misery. She spends most of her time in mental hospitals until her death in 1947.

Meanwhile, during a year teaching in Harvard in 1934, he and Emily Hale re-ignite their love for each other and write passion letters for the next 13 years. He destroyed her letters, while she donated his to Princeton University, not to be opened for fifty years after the death of both. Eliot responded with an illuminating three page covering letter, justifying his decisions, revealing a pettiness, unworthy of a great poet. With the death of his wife, he decides not to continue the relationship with Emily because she would have killed the poet in him. His explains his surprising marriage to Vivienne: “All I wanted of Vivienne was flirtation or a mild affair. I was too shy and inexperienced. I was a divided man, as I had been from 1911 - 1915. Eliot accuses Emily of loving him his reputation but insensitive to his poetry and a lack of respect for his newly found religion.

In 1957, Eliot married his secretary, Valerie Fisher, and lived happily ever after; or at least, until his death in 1965. She wrote of him: : “There was a little boy in him that had never been released. Cats may have released it”.

Most early poetry reflects a world at the beginning of the 20th C with a sense of disillusionment as a result of a collapse of public and private values due to the decline of values and the later butchery and aftermath of WWI. Both Boston and Paris had degenerated from their former glory wearied and stifled by propriety and cultural decadence. New times marked a dislocation from rural life to the unreal muttering of the city; a fragmented impersonal world. City life was sterile, wearied, exhausted, enervated, effete, sapless, stuffy, over cultured, pretentious, buried, smothered ….. they had lost their heroic sense of revolution and dynamism. Entropy refers to cosmic decline.