In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section T. S. Eliot

  • Introduction
  • Letters
  • Poetic Development and Creative Process
  • Criticism by Work: Drama

American Literature T. S. Eliot
by
Frances Dickey, Ria Banerjee, Christopher McVey, John Morgenstern, Patrick Query, Joshua Richards, Jayme Stayer, Aakanksha Virkar Yates
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0216

Introduction

Poet, dramatist, and critic Thomas Stearns Eliot (b. 1888–d. 1965) won fame for such poems as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and “The Hollow Men” (1925), which ushered in and helped define the modernist era of literature. His critical writings also shaped literary taste and study in the 20th century. Born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, by a Unitarian family with deep roots in American history, he was educated at Harvard and wrote his first significant poems during his year abroad in Paris, 1910–1911. After completing most of the work for a PhD in philosophy, he found himself abroad again during the outbreak of World War I, and he decided to marry an Englishwoman, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and put down roots in London. His first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), surprised readers with its modern vocabulary, free-verse rhythms, and compelling dramatic voices. While working as a teacher and then a banker, Eliot established himself as an authoritative new voice in literary criticism with essays including “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), “Hamlet” (1919), and “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921). He introduced terms that shaped literary study throughout the 20th century: “impersonality,” “the objective correlative,” and “dissociation of sensibility.” In 1920 he collected his early essays in The Sacred Wood and published another volume of poems, including “Gerontion.” His personal life was not happy; he regretted having married a woman he did not love instead of the American girl he left behind in Massachusetts, Emily Hale (during his lifetime he wrote over one thousand letters to her). Considered his greatest work and probably the most significant poem of the 20th century, The Waste Land (1922) expresses his personal emotional conflict in terms of the larger historical currents of the immediate postwar period: the aftershocks of war, a crisis of faith, changing gender roles, urbanization, and a sense of deracination from the past. Erudite, multilingual, and difficult to read, but also highly charged with feeling, this poem captured the spirit of the interwar era, received more sustained attention than any other literary work in the 20th century, and is known and quoted across the globe. Eliot further distinguished himself by converting to the Anglican church in 1927 and becoming its leading poet and dramatist with his conversion poem Ash-Wednesday (1930), the play Murder in the Cathedral (first performed 1935), and the long lyric sequence Four Quartets (1936–1941). He also became a British citizen, so he can be considered both an American and an English writer. In the 1930s and 1940s he turned more toward drama and engaged with cultural and social debates in his criticism from a Christian perspective. Eliot won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1948.

Reference

Eliot’s much-annotated and examined work has been the subject of numerous works of reference, including guides and introductions, a bibliography and a concordance, and several journals.

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