September 26th – T.S. Eliot

“Unsatisfied desires can play a most important part in keeping the soul alive and urging one higher,” 

T.S. Eliot – letter to Emily Hale

Thomas Sterns Eliot was born on September 26 1888 in St. Louis Missouri, to a prominent family from New England. The youngest of six surviving children, Eliot lived his first sixteen years in St. Louis, and became absorbed in books from a young age. He entered Harvard in 1906, and completed his Bachelor’s and Masters Degree. He also completed his thesis, but did not finish his Ph.D.

Belonging to a New England family living in the South, and speaking with a Southern accent while he was living in the North, Eliot did not feel he fit in either place. In 1910 and 1911 he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, then returned to Harvard to study. While at Harvard in 1913 Eliot met Emily Hale. When he proclaimed his love more than a year later, she did not reciprocate, and Eliot left the States to study in England. 

In June 1915 his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published in Poetry magazine. It received widespread attention as a modernist masterpiece. Eliot had written much of the poem in 1910, when he was just 22. It was published two years later in his first collection Prufrock and Other Observations (1917).

On June 26 1915 he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a Cambridge governess he met just months before. Vivienne suffered from both physical and mental illnesses, and Eliot claimed that the misery he experience in his marriage is what allowed him to write The Waste Land (1922). Often read as a representation of the disillusionment of the post-war generation, The Waste Land was written while his marriage was falling apart and both Eliot and his wife were suffering from nervous disorders. 

During his most productive writing years Eliot worked a day job as a bank clerk, also supplementing his salary with literary reviews. From 1916 – 1921 he wrote a hundred reviews and articles for periodicals, and was as much a renown literary critic as he was a poet. He was not a romantic, flamboyant poet, but rather a quiet, grey, clerical type, eschewing bars and cafes for a quiet office. 

In 1925 he became the director of the publishing firm Faber and Gwyer, later Faber and Faber.

In 1927 he became a British citizen and renounced his American citizenship.

Eliot and Vivienne separated in 1933, and in 1938 Vivienne was committed to a mental hospital, where she remained until her death in 1947.

After his separation from Vivienne Eliot resumed his correspondence with Emily Hale, writing her hundreds of letters, much to her fatigue at the time. Then, once it seemed Hale had finally fallen in love with Eliot, Vivienne died,  and Eliot abruptly fell out of love with her. The shock drove Hale to the hospital. For all Eliot’s tight-buttoned outwardly composure, he was terrified that marrying Hale would kill his muse, and viewed his fraught marriage to Vivienne as fulfilling whatever suffering and angst he felt he needed to write. Hale later donated all of Eliot’s letters to Harvard, to be opened 50 years after their deaths. This date came January 2nd, 2020. Before his death Eliot wrote a four page statement to accompany the release of the letters. In his statement Eliot proclaims he never had sexual relations with Hale, and that she donated the letters as revenge for him not marrying her. 

In 1927 Eliot converted to Anglo-Catholicism, and his religion showed up strongly in his later works, including “Ash Wednesday” (1930) and  Four Quartets (1943). 

His 1939 book of light-hearted prose Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats served as the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 musical Cats. “Old Possum” was the nickname Ezra Pound had given to Eliot.

Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.  

He was also a noted playwright, The Cocktail Party being one of his best-known plays. 

On January 10, 1957, at the age of 68, he married Valerie Fletcher. Fletcher was thirty-years-old, and his secretary at his publishing firm. She had originally applied for the job because she was a little obsessed with Eliot. 

T.S. Eliot died January 4th, 1965 in London England. He was 76 years old. 

Lesson from Eliot

Would Eliot have killed his muse if he would have married Emily Hale, his true love? Who knows. Probably not. He wrote one of his best-known poems before he even met her or had a terrible marriage. More than likely his true love was his writing, and Hale merely represented a place of freedom that he could let his mind and heart give wing. That said, she had every right to donate all his letters to Harvard. 

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