T.S. Eliot: Pioneer of Modernism

By Vijh, Surekha | The World and I, February 2006 | Go to article overview

T.S. Eliot: Pioneer of Modernism


Vijh, Surekha, The World and I


A poet is not one who can compose poetry--called by some the highest and noblest art form--but one who is so exalted that he can passionately feel what can be beautifully expressed as a poem. Anyone who seeks can find moments of beauty, love, harmony, and meaning through poetry on dull days. And good poetry never fails.

Poetry, said Thomas Stearns Eliot, "may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly constant evasions of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible world."

Eliot (1888-1965), better known as T.S. Eliot, was an American-English poet, playwright, editor, literary critic, and a leader of the modernist movement in literature. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the seventh and youngest child of a prominent family of New England origin. His family tree included the Reverend William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of Washington University in St. Louis, and on his mother's side, Isaac Stearns, one of the original settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Eliot's father was an affluent industrialist and his mother was a writer, who produced among other works, the biography of William Greenleaf Eliot.

T.S. Eliot was privileged to receive the extensive education available in his time due to a very supportive family. He almost had no pressure from his father to be "practical" or to go into business. That helped him climb the academic ladder quickly. From Smith Academy in St. Louis he went to Milton, in Massachusetts; from Milton, he entered Harvard in 1906; he received a B.A. in 1909, after three instead of the usual four years. In the academic year 1909-10 he also was an assistant in philosophy at Harvard.

A few men who influenced this young man at Harvard included George Santayana, the philosopher and poet, and the critic Irving Babbitt. Eliot derived an anti-Romantic attitude from Babbitt that was augmented by his later reading of British philosophers F.H. Bradley and T.E. Hulme. The influence lasted through his life.

Eliot was an accomplished sailor because of his keen interest in crabs from an early age. He traded the Mississippi River in the warm months for the rocky shoals of Cape Ann. With an early exposure to adventure he developed an alienation from both of the regions he once called home. He often mentioned he felt like a New Englander in the Southwest and a Southwesterner in New England. Despite his sense of detachments to both the regions, Eliot was surprisingly at social ease when he began his studies at Harvard in the fall of 1906.

Among many other influences, there was a book Eliot found in the Harvard Union library in 1908, which changed his life. Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1895) introduced him to the poetry of Jules Laforgue, and Laforgue's combination of ironic elegance and psychological nuance gave his yet immature literary efforts a voice. By 1909-1910, however, he was a confirmed poet by any standard. He joined the board and as a secretary of Harvard's literary magazine, the Advocate, and developed a lifelong friendship with Conrad Aiken.

In 1910 and 1911 Eliot established himself as a poet by copying into a leather notebook the poems: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Portrait of a Lady," "La Figlia Che Piange," "Preludes," and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." Developing a style of his own and dexterously combining some of the boldness of Robert Browning's monologues with the natural elegance of symbolist verse, he mixed Laforgue's poetry of alienation with the moral earnestness of what he once called "Boston doubt." These poems venture into the subtleties of the unconscious with a scathing wit. Their effect was both unique and convincing, and their sense of assurance surprised his contemporaries who were the first ones to read them in manuscript.

Eliot's stay in France in 1910-11 while attending Henri Bergson's lectures in philosophy at the Sorbonne and reading poetry with Alain-Fournier also helped him develop a style.

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