Thomas Stearns Eliot was raised in St. Louis, Missouri and spent his childhood summers on Boston’s north shore. Born with a congenital double hernia, Eliot was forced to spend his childhood reading rather than participating in physical activities.
T.S. Eliot matriculated at Harvard in 1906, where he published several poems in The Harvard Advocate and was involved in the Signet Society. Completing his bachelor’s degree in philosophy in just three years, Eliot worked as an assistant at Harvard for a year before going to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. He would later return to study philosophy for three more years, with a special focus on Indian philosophy and Sanskrit. Eliot studied during the golden age of Harvard philosophy, working among a group including William James, Josiah Royce, and the visiting Bertrand Russell.
After being awarded a scholarship, T.S. Eliot took a year to study at Merton College, Oxford. While in London, Eliot was introduced to Ezra Pound, a poet who recognized Eliot’s genius and offered assistance in publishing and publicity. In 1915, Eliot married Vivienne Haigh Wood, a Cambridge governess who suffered from debilitating mental and health issues. It is likely that their troubled marriage offered Eliot much of the inspiration for his later poetry. Eliot completed his doctoral thesis, “Experience and the Objects of Knowledge in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley” but never received his degree because he failed to return to Harvard to defend his dissertation. His first poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was published in 1915. Initially criticized for its avant-garde style, “Prufrock” later became known as one of the models of modernist poetry due to its stream-of-consciousness style.
The Waste Land
Eliot and his wife would soon suffer through several nervous breakdowns and be forced to rest. During this time, Eliot finished The Waste Land, one of his most enduring works. The Waste Land is known as an iconic work of modernist literature because of its disillusionment, philosophical despair, unannounced shifts in narrator, and disjointed structure.
Eliot joined the publishing firm Faber and Faber in 1925 and became a British citizen two years later. He delivered the 1926 Clark Lectures at Cambridge University as well as the 1932 Norton Lectures at Harvard before completing a fellowship stay at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. Despite his professional success, his marriage to Vivienne slowly failed and they separated until her death in 1947.
The Four Quartets
His masterpiece the Four Quartets, composed after his conversion to Anglicanism, offers theological, historical and metaphysical meditations that ultimately won him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Criticized for its overt Christian orthodoxy, the Four Quartets served as a new foundation for modernist religious literature. Eliot not only demonstrated his prowess as a poet, but also proved to be influential in the world of literary criticism, prompting a new interest in the metaphysical poets including John Donne.
Eliot passed away in 1965, marking his grave with an epigraph from the Four Quartets – “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning.”