The great Anglo-American Modernist poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) had strong links to the East Coast, and specifically New England, that most spiritually English of American regions, a distinction it shares with the South, with which Eliot was linked through his mother, the poet Charlotte Champe Stearns, originally from Baltimore in Maryland. Although he was actually born in St Louis, a Midwestern city in which it could be said that the wildly divergent cultures of the North and South, Midwest and East Coast are somehow mysteriously fused.
He was a scion of the famous Eliots, a family of Brahmins, or top families of largely Anglo-Saxon extraction, based in Boston, but originally from the little Somerset village of East Coker, subject of one of Eliot's most famous poems, and who came to dominate the American education system. And after graduating from the exclusive Milton Academy, Eliot himself attended Harvard between 1906 and 1909, earning his B.A. in what may have been Comparative Literature by his third year and his M.A., in English, by his fourth.
He also discovered Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature, which introduced him to the French Symbolists and Decadents, such as Verlaine, Rimbaud and Laforgue, all of whom went on to exert a profound impact on his work, as did Symbolist founding father Charles Baudelaire, more of whom later.
After Harvard, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, where he attended lectures by Henri Bergson, to whose philosophical ideas he was drawn, as he was to those of the ultra-conservative writer Charles Maurras. And he came to know Alain-Fournier, ill-fated author of a single much loved novel, Le Grand Meaulnes, and Jean Verdenel, a brilliant medical student with whom he forged an exceptionally close friendship, cut short by the latter's death in the First World War.
But it was when he was awarded a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford in 1914 that his artistic life could be said to have truly begun, almost as if, by arriving in England, he came home in a spiritual sense. Yet he quit Oxford after only a year, and this academic restlessness persisted into 1916, when after having completed a PhD dissertation for Harvard, he failed to return to the college to defend it; and so never received his doctorate.
However, by this time, he was already a published poet, The Love Song of J Arthur Prufrock having been published in Chicago in 1915 at the behest of his soon-to-be mentor, fellow Modernist titan Ezra Pound, and dedicated to Verdenel.
Prufrock has been cited as the point where modern poetry begins, and its famous third line, in which the night sky is likened to "a patient etherised on a table," remains a startling and even disturbing image to this day. However, the literature of shock was hardly new in 1914, possessing as it did multiple precedents among the French Symbolist and Decadents, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont foremost among them.
Eliot had a special admiration for Baudelaire...Symbolist forefather and first great poet of the modern urban landscape...as he did for Rimbaud, the angel-faced enfant terrible whose ferociously beautiful free form verse contained in his last two volumes, Une Saison en Enfer and Illuminations, exerted an influence on the evolution of 20th Century poetry that exceeds even that of Eliot. While their ecstatic, visionary quality is an obvious precursor of Eliot's own poetic vision.
However, with its doleful emphasis on regret and frustration, failure, exhaustion and decay, Prufrock could be said to have to some degree anticipated Camus' Theory of the Absurd, as well as the theatre that came in its wake, which attained its possible apotheosis in the shape of Beckett's Waiting for Godot from 1955.
Although needless to say, the Absurd was nothing new, having pre-existed for example in French literature in the shape of the vast array of Decadent sects that proliferated in the second half of the 20th Century.
He was also a married man, having wed the attractive and vivacious Vivienne Haigh Wood in June 1915, a move which evidently dismayed his family, who expected him to make an imminent return to the US in order that he might take up his rightful place as a Harvard professor.
Instead, after a brief period spent teaching at various academic institutions, he embarked upon a successful eight-year career as a banker for Lloyds of London, working on foreign accounts. And it was during his tenure at Lloyds that he wrote some of the most earth-shaking poems of the 20th Century, which have caused his name to become almost synonymous with Modernism, which prompts the question, what precisely is Modernism?
One possible definition of Modernism is the avant-garde, but the avant garde translated into a worldwide artistic movement of some half century's duration, lasting from ca. 1880-1930.
However, there are those cultural critics who'd insist that Modernism is far more than a mere artistic phenomenon, is in fact a spirit, with roots in the Enlightenment, the great 18th Century movement which saw age-old conceptions, specifically related to the Divine origins of Creation, being questioned as never before.
For them, the Modern embraces all aspects of human endeavour: the arts, religion, philosophy, science, politics; while others would assert that the Modern lives on, confounding the notion of a Post Modern age in which the pursuit of the absolutely modern has exhausted itself beyond recovery.
But whatever the truth, few would disagree that of all the masters of literary Modernism, Eliot remains the most famous and most quoted.
And all thanks to a mere handful of masterpieces, starting with Prufrock, which in 1917 became the title piece of Prufrock and Other Observations. And going on to include Gerontion, which contains one of Eliot's most famous and desolate lines in the shape of "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" which has been sporadically referred to since by writers seeking to convey the utter enormity of Man's inhumanity to Man.
While the third of these, The Waste Land, was published in 1922, a year which has been cited by at least one cultural critic as the very acme of the Modern, as it produced not just Eliot's obra maestra, but James Joyce's equally seismic Ulysses.
It was received by the youth of the inter-war years as some kind of clarion call to arms...a cry to the young to rise; and as such, could be likened to Allen Ginsberg's Howl, which ignited the Beat Generation in 1955, that totemic year in which Rock started to make serious inroads into the mainstream for the first time. And James Dean took his place as the prototype of youth in revolt for the entire late 20th Century simply by dying while still young and beautiful at the flaming height of his fame.
While the following year of '56 witnessed the onset of Britain's Angry Young Men, led by playwright John Osborne, and among whose manifestos could be said to have been The Outsider by Colin Wilson, which included several quotations from Eliot's poetry.
And Eliot himself was perceived as "wild" according to fellow poet Stephen Spender, which of course could not have been further from the truth, for all throughout the '20s, he faithfully worked from 9 to 5 as if he were the very epitome of middle class propriety.
Yet, he became an idol to a wild generation of gilded privileged youth...sonnenkinder such as Harold Acton, who famously declaimed The Waste Land from the balcony of his room at Christ Church, Oxford, an incident which Evelyn Waugh included in his much loved elegy to his own generation at Oxford, Brideshead Revisited.
However, according to Waugh, the novel's chief aesthete, Anthony Blanche was based not on Acton, but another of Waugh's contemporaries at Oxford, that Bright Young Thing par excellence, Brian Howard, whose single published volume of verse revealed exceptional poetic gifts. Although unlike Eliot, he remained in decorous obscurity.
As a poem, The Waste Land remains quite inscrutable, although rightly or wrongly, it conveys a powerful sense of disgust with the Established Order latterly responsible for sending millions of young men to their deaths in a pointless conflict, with its unforgettable opening lines starting with "April is the cruellest month."
Eliot's next major poetic work, The Hollow Men, was from 1925, also the year of the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the quintessential Jazz Age novel, which serves as an exquisitely wrought evocation of the despair that underlay its frenzied hedonism. Little wonder that Eliot admired it so much.
Hollow Men contains lines which are if anything even more mythically desolate than those of The Waste Land, such as "We are the Hollow Men / We are the Stuffed Men," which opens the poem, and "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper," which closes it.
Many are familiar with the former through their inclusion in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam-era version of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, in which they are recited by the character of Captain Kurtz, which is apt, given that Eliot's original poem was prefaced by a quotation from Conrad's novel, "Mistah Kurtz - he Dead."
But this is just one of the seemingly endless allusions to The Hollow Men that have haunted the arts and popular culture since the midpoint of what Fitzgerald famously called "the greatest, gaudiest spree in history." In fact, references to the poem, not just in literature, but music, the cinema, television, even video gaming, etc. are so numerous as to verge on the plethoric.
Yet, it boggles the mind that the most influential poet of modern times was such an unlikely revolutionary, was in fact the most impeccably respectable of men. For also in '25, he left Lloyds of London to begin a new career as a publisher for Faber and Gwyer - later Faber and Faber - where he remained for the rest of his professional life, eventually becoming one if its directors.
Two year later, he joined the Anglo-Catholic communion, so that thereafter, his work was informed by his deep Christian faith, and he became a British citizen in the same year, ultimately declaring himself to be "classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion."
His next major work was his first long poem published since his conversion, Ash Wednesday (1930), which while being almost entirely devoid of the darkness and cynicism of its better-known predecessors, deals with the struggle of one who, hitherto lacking faith, strives to move closer to God.
Also published that year were Eliot's contributions to Faber and Gwyer's Ariel Poems, a series of pamphlets containing illustrated poems by Eliot and several other poets.
But after 1930, rather than the poetry that made his name, he'd devote himself to a sporadic succession of plays, from The Rock, which was first performed for churches of the diocese of London in 1934, to his final play, The Elder Statesman from 1959, via Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), and The Confidential Clerk (1953).
In 1932, he accepted the Charles Eliot Norton professorship for the 1932-'33 academic year that had been offered him by Harvard, and when he returned he formally separated from his wife. In 1938, she was committed to the Northumberland House mental hospital, Stoke Newington, where she died at the tragically early age of 58 in 1947.
A year later, a collection of comical poems about cats written by Eliot throughout the decade was published under the title, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, while also in '39, he contributed two poems to The Queen's Book of the Red Cross, sponsored by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Consort, these being The Marching Song of the Pollicle Dogs, and Billy M'Caw: The Remarkable Parrot.
To say nothing of The Idea of a Christian Society; for Eliot's greatness was tripartite, being rooted not just in his poetry and his plays, but his essays and other non fiction works, of which he published many between 1920 and 1957, with one being published posthumously. And together with Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,it sets forth Eliot's conservative Christian world view, which while unfashionable among intellectuals at the time, is even more so today and on a far wider scale.
For to Eliot, modern Britain was what could be termed Laodicean, or lukewarm, a society which while tolerant of Christian principles, yet fell lamentably short when it came to living by them, and if that was true in 1939, it's even more so today.
By the beginning of the Second World War, Eliot had already begun work on his final poetic masterpiece, Four Quartets, another markedly Christian work centring on various phenomena related to Eliot's belief in the necessity of Christian faith.
The first of these, Burnt Norton, was named after a manor house in the Cotswolds, and published as part of his Collected Poems 1909-1935 in 1936. The second, East Coker, took its name from the little Somerset village whence Eliot's ancestors, a father and son named Andrew Eliot, emigrated to Beverly, Massachusetts, between 1668 and 1670, and was published in The New English Weekly. As was the third, The Dry Salvages, written in 1941 at the height of the Blitz on London, and named after a rock formation known to Eliot. While the fourth, Little Gidding, owes its title to a former Anglican community in Huntingdonshire established by the scholar and courtier Nicholas Ferrar.
And the remainder of Eliot's life saw him being showered with honours for his services to literature, such as the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, the Legion of Honour in '51, the Hanseatic Goethe Prize in '55, the Dante Medal in '59, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in '64, as well as honorary doctorates from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, the Sorbonne, and nine other universities.
On the 10th of January 1957, at the age of 68, he married the 32 year old Esmé Valerie Fletcher, his secretary at Faber and Faber since 1949, and the marriage brought him much happiness, lasting until his death from emphysema in 1965.
Since that totemic year, in which Pop music started to mutate piecemeal into Rock and disseminate the Modernist world view throughout the world as never before, a development one can't help thinking would have appalled the ultra-conservative Eliot, Valerie Eliot has devoted herself to her husband's legacy, which, by any standards known to Man, has been phenomenal.
For Eliot has haunted contemporary culture to a degree surely unparalleled by any other 20th Century poet.
Yet, some would argue that Dylan Thomas is the supreme poet of our age, and while he's undoubtedly a more colourful figure than Eliot, his cultural influence is surely but a fraction of Eliot's, and the same could be said of Sylvia Plath...although many would disagree.
And there seems to be no end to its depths, leading one to come to the conclusion that he's one of the greatest icons of our culture, taking his place as "the poet" alongside fellow giants...such as Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, JFK, Martin Luther King, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Princess Diana. But what would Eliot make of such a list? One can't be certain...but after surveying it, he might have wondered, "Where's Groucho?"
For if the portraits on the wall of his London home were anything to go by, there were few icons Eliot himself rated higher than his beloved Groucho Marx, the only man Eliot ever deemed worthy enough to ask for his autograph. Ridiculous? Not to Thomas Stearns Eliot, it wasn't.
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