Introduction to T.S. Eliot: Author Background, Works, and Style
- 1:12 J. Alfred Prufrock
- 2:28 The Waste Land
- 3:32 The Hollow Men
- 4:20 Anglicanism
- 5:28 Four Quartets
Did You Know…
This lesson is part of a free course that leads to real college credit accepted by 2,900 colleges.
This video introduces T.S. Eliot and his major works. It outlines his early life and move to England, and traces his stylistic evolution over his most famous and significant poems.
We're talking about T.S. Eliot. He's a poet from the Modernist period, which is from around World War I to World War II. He wrote all through there, from 1915 all the way up into the 1950s, so a little bit after World War II.
He's kind of an interloper in this course because he's actually an American. But since he really, really wanted to be British, we'll let him in. I'm kidding. He actually did become a British citizen later on in life and he lived in London from 1914 onward.
So he really is considered more of a British poet even though he was born in St. Louis, actually. Then he went to Harvard, so he spent some time in Boston. Then, in 1914, just after World War I got going, he moved to England, and he just stayed there forever.
He went to Oxford for about a year. That's why he left. But he didn't really like it that much. He ended up going to London instead. And that's where he stayed for a very long time.
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Eliot's most famous works were published near the beginning of his career. They're definitely Modernist in style. When he's starting out, he publishes 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' in 1915. It's really kind of a meditative monologue of a dude, presumably J. Alfred Prufrock, though we're never actually told that. It's filled with these disjointed but striking images about this aging man wandering around a city.
This is sort of funny that he publishes this. This is really his first major published work and he was actually really young when he did it. He had just gotten married to his first wife. So he's sort of this young man at the start of his career and he's writing this poem about being old, decrepit and full of regret. So that's a little bit of an interesting kind of difference between his life and his work.
Non-Fiction and Essays
He wrote some non-fiction, some critical essays. One of his most famous ones, published in 1919, is called 'Tradition in the Individual Talent.' This sort of makes a controversial claim and people still debate what it really means. The claim is that poetry needs to be impersonal. You need to be able to interpret it without knowing anything about the author and his circumstances. So that's what he says in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent.'
The Waste Land
What he does next is publish 'The Waste Land.' That's really his big ticket poem. If you're going to read any Eliot, well, first read 'Prufrock,' but then read 'The Waste Land.' It's pretty cool. And that's in 1922.
This is really one of the most famous works of Modernism. It seemed to really embody the movement. It's highly referential; it references lots of other works. It's kind of directly about devastation and disorganization and how to regenerate that. That's sort of the preoccupation, with regeneration of something that is a waste land in metaphoric and literal senses.
It's also full of real juxtapositions between past and present. There'll be right next to each other in the same part of the poem. It's got a nice, basic five-part structure with some of Eliot's notes at the end. The poem is so complicated that he had to add his own notes to it so you might have a prayer of understanding what it means.
The Hollow Men
So then in 1925, Eliot publishes a little poem called 'The Hollow Men,' a sort of follow-up to 'The Waste Land.' It's still heavily allusive, but you can already see a beginning of change in his style. It's not quite as heavily ironic. It's less grounded in a particular place. 'The Waste Land' was really sort of grounded in London in a lot of senses. And it feels more hurried. It has shorter line lengths. It's got less long, meditative lines, essentially.
It also contains one of the most quoted lines ever in the history of literature:
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
You've probably heard that. And fun fact: it's T.S. Eliot, but it's from 'The Hollow Men,' not from 'The Waste Land' or 'Prufrock,' which are more famous poems.
So in 1927, kind of a significant thing happens for Eliot. He converts to Anglicanism and he becomes a British citizen. I think he was Unitarian before, so he really makes a recommitment to religion in the form of Aglicanism, which is the Church of England. So his poems after that - first of all, he starts writing plays, also - his poetry and his plays after that really start to be more religiously focused.
Religiously Focused Works
In 1930, he publishes a poem called 'Ash Wednesday,' which already you can see that's religiously focused right there in the title. And that's really a lot different in style than his past works. It's much less allusive and much more meditative. It's got lots of repetition of phrases in it. And it's also overtly religious in its themes and its preoccupations.
He also writes in 1935 a play called 'Murder in the Cathedral.' Again, you can also tell right there from the title that it's religiously focused. And this is about a martyr, Thomas Beckett, who gets killed in a cathedral. And that's what the play is about. That's what he's doing in the early 30s.
From 1936 through 1942, he publishes what's considered his final masterpiece, which is 'Four Quartets.' They're four poems. Their names are 'Burnt Norton,' 'East Coker,' 'The Dry Salvages' and 'Little Gidding.' These are all place names. These are actual places that exist.
This poem is still pretty religious. And each poem is also structured around a specific place that's in the title. But they're also each about an element. 'Burnt Norton' is about air, 'East Coker' is about earth, 'The Dry Salvages' is about water and 'Little Gidding' is about fire.
There are some consistencies with earlier poetry. They're each in five-part structure, which is like 'The Waste Land.' But especially with these later ones, it really starts to be influenced by World War II and by the experience of the Blitz in London, which was a pretty bad experience.
For this work and for his cumulative career, he wins the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. That's sort of a culmination of his career. Afterward, he's still active in literary circles. In 1957, he's 68 and he gets married to his 32-year-old secretary, whose name is Esme Valerie Fletcher.
She's actually still alive.* He dies in 1965, but she is still alive, managing his estate and dealing with who can use his works. And that's T.S. Eliot's life.
And just an extra fun fact, this isn't something you'd need to know for a test or anything, but he wrote a book called 'Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats' and that actually got turned into the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical 'Cats.' All the poetry's in there. If you listen to any of those songs, it's basically T.S. Eliot poetry in a musical.
So that's pretty cool. That's his lasting legacy. No, his lasting legacy is 'The Waste Land' and all his other stuff. But 'Cats' is sort of an interesting side note. Anyway, that's T.S. Eliot!
Note: Esme Valerie Fletcher Eliot passed away in late 2012.
Chapters in English 101: English Literature
People are saying…
"This just saved me about $2,000 and 1 year of my life." — Student
"I learned in 20 minutes what it took 3 months to learn in class." — Student
"I really enjoyed how the story was summarized. It is presented to students as a way to "connect" with them so that they are more apt to read this classic tale." — Ken S., Instructor
"Great exercises that will interest AND teach effective basic writing techniques for students whose motivation is low." — InstructorBusiness