T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) as a poet and critic came to define the modernist movement and still dominates the literary landscape of the last century. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri to a prominent local family. He attended Harvard where his eclectic course of studies introduced him to Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and a working knowledge of Sanskrit (he already knew Latin, Greek, French and German). After a year in Paris, Eliot began work at Harvard on his doctoral thesis on the philosophy of F. H. Bradley. A career in academia beckoned, but whilst studying for his PhD Eliot had a revelatory encounter with the work of the French Symbolist poets, in particular Jules Laforgue, and began composing poetry under their influence. In 1914 Eliot took up a post at Merton College, Oxford, as a visiting fellow in philosophy. Although he didn’t intend it at the time, this move was to prove decisive: England became his home for the rest of his life and, as a writer, Eliot came to align himself with the European rather than American tradition. In 1915, after a short courtship, Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood, a charming but emotionally unstable woman from a conventional upper-middle class English family. The marriage was to be deeply unhappy, punctuated by breakdowns in Vivien’s mental and physical health, culminating in her commitment to a mental hospital in 1938. The newly-wed poet struggled to earn a living, as a teacher, reviewer and lecturer, eventually gaining a measure of financial security when he joined Lloyd’s Bank in London in 1917. The war years in the capital were formative for Eliot’s career, particularly with regard to his friendship with Ezra Pound which connected him to leading figures in the international avant garde. It was Pound, in his role as a friend, editor and promoter, who did most to establish Eliot as the pre-eminent figure in the modernist movement, particularly through his decisive editorial intervention in ‘The Waste Land’. Eliot’s literary career now gained momentum: Prufrock and Other Observations appeared in 1917 and made a strong impact. However, growing professional success masked personal suffering as the Eliots’ marriage disintegrated, prompting a nervous breakdown in Eliot which resulted in three months’ enforced rest. It was during this period that ‘The Waste Land’ was composed, his bleak masterpiece of psychic fragmentation. With its collage of voices, its violent disjunctions in tone and wealth of cultural allusion, ‘The Waste Land’ also resonated as a depiction of the ruins of post-war European civilisation. It was published in The Criterion, a quarterly cultural that Eliot edited until 1939. This role, along with his involvement with another important journal, The Egoist, and his position from 1925 as one of the Directors of Faber & Faber established Eliot as the leading literary critic of his time, as well as its most famous poet. His essay on the impersonality of the poet and his concept of the “objective correlative”, to name but two of his best known ideas, have been part of the critical currency ever since. However, the 1920s also saw Eliot become increasingly conservative in outlook, particularly following his conversion to the Anglican Church in 1927, the same year he became a British Citizen. His religious conversion was to have a far-reaching impact on the rest of his career, culminating in the Christian meditations of Four Quartets (1943), his last major poetic achievement and the work which secured him the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature. From the 1930s, inspired by his love of Shakespeare and the Jacobean dramatists, Eliot poured much of his creative energy into attempting to revive the verse drama to varying success, with Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party usually considered the most effective of these experiments. By then he’d affected a separation from Vivien who died in a private mental hospital in 1947. A decade later Eliot married Valerie Fletcher and enjoyed a measure of personal happiness which had previously eluded him. He died, of emphysema, in 1965 ad was buried at East Coker, the Somerset village which gave its name to one of the ‘Four Quartets’ and from where his ancestors had emigrated to America in the 17th Century. For the man who wrote “in my end is my beginning” this circularity was profoundly resonant. Aspects of Eliot’s reputation have been debated since, but he remains a pervasive presence in poetry in English.

The Archive is delighted to present a significant amount of recorded material. ‘Journey of the Magi’ was written soon after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927. It is a dramatic monologue of Browningesque ambition and subtlety and is therefore particularly suited to being read aloud. ‘Four Quartets’, Eliot’s moving meditation on time and its relationship to the human condition, draws on his deep knowledge of mysticism and philosophy. In these extracts from ‘East Coker’ and ‘Little Gidding’ can be seen the interweaving of theme and motif which characterises the sequence as a whole and which gives ‘Four Quartets’ the dense aural patterning of music. Listening to this urgent interpretation blows the dust of this iconic poem and helps us encounter it afresh.

The recording of 'The Waste Land' presented here is a particularly exciting find. It dates from 1933, a decade earlier than the well-known and much more widely available 1946 recording. Whilst the sound quality is understandably not so good, the recording is fascinating for Eliot's faster, more energetic rendition.

The date of the recording was once thought to be 1935, but recent scholarship has shown that this is incorrect. For those who want to know more about the recording, Richard Swigg's Quick, Said The Bird: Williams, Eliot, Moore and the Spoken Word (University of Iowa Press, 2012) and Jason Camlot's Phonopoetics: The Making of Early Literary Recordings (Stanford University Press, 2019) provide detailed discussion. We thank Dr Lacy Rumsey of the ENS de Lyon for providing this information.

Poems by T. S. Eliot

The Waste Land Part I – The Burial of the Dead - T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land Part II – A Game of Chess - T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land Part III – The Fire Sermon - T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land Part IV – Death by Water - T. S. Eliot
The Waste Land Part V – What the Thunder said - T. S. Eliot
Journey of the Magi - T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets – Extract - T. S. Eliot

Books by T. S. Eliot

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