100 years ago (15 October 1922) T.S. Eliot published his poem The Waste Land. Suddenly, everything written before that day seemed old-fashioned.
The versatile, talented, original and self-willed poet, (drama) writer, critic and publisher was born in Saint Louis, Missouri (US). In 1914, he received a scholarship to study at Oxford. There, Eliot felt so much at home that he continued to live in England for most of his life.
The Waste Land is a poem about a world that had been changed beyond recognition by the First World War. Eliot was inspired for his work by Dante’s Inferno and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, among others. Initially, the text was longer, lusher and less coherent than in the final version. The role of editor and friend Ezra Pound in this process is hard to overestimate. The also American-born Pound, who later admitted to having been quite jealous of this masterpiece, wielded a razor-sharp correction knife. After removing unnecessary lumber, he kept a powerful core of 433 lines in which the interwar generation recognized itself:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.
The poem perfectly matched the spirit of the times; The Waste Land was the ultimate reflection of ‘the starvation of civilization’. Eliot described a modern world in which certainties had fallen away, and critics called him a ‘modernist’. He was not happy with this label, though.
As publisher of Faber and Faber and editor-in-chief of The Criterion magazine, Eliot became the lynchpin of the English-language literary world. He felt at home in intellectual societies such as the Bloomsbury group, but never adjusted his views to suit others. In the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote high-profile essays on the place of literature in an adrift society. Although Eliot long tried to keep aloof from politics, this proved to be impossible for him.
The hopelessness he had described in The Waste Land was not a situation he wanted to resign himself to. Eliot believed humanity needed to learn lessons from the past and he was increasingly regarded as conservative for that reason. That image was only partially true. As a publisher, for instance, he opposed the banning of books with titillating or otherwise obscene content like D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s lover and James Joyce’s Ulysses. “If you want to ban all vulgar reading, you can go on and on,” he commented.
In 1928, Eliot aimed his arrows at fascism in one of his essays. He understood the appeal of the new popular movements. The disappearance of religion in public life created a spiritual void, he thought. Liberals saw secularization as an achievement. Eliot noticed that people were left empty-handed after rejecting church and faith: “Spiritual laziness and the desire for inspiration are the ideal breeding ground for totalitarian movements.” The apathetic masses, according to Eliot, could only be influenced by strong emotions. His cautionary words would not be out of place in today’s newspaper: “Liberalism wants to free people from annoying constraints and give them wide latitude. Where that road should lead, however, no one knows. This directionless pursuit of freedom destroys social ties and turns society into a marketplace where everything is for sale. In the long run, the distinction between wisdom and the delusion of the day will disappear.”
From the second half of the 1920s, T.S. Eliot grew convinced that Western civilization could only be restored and saved by the solid foundation of the Christian faith. Eliot’s conversion was not a spiritual lightning strike but an irrefutable outcome of keen observation and careful thought.
In the United States, Eliot had grown up as a Unitarian. He later mockingly described Unitarianism (a mild variant of Protestantism) as “the religion of blue skies, grass and flowers.” In 1927, he joined the Anglo-Catholic Church, a sub denomination of the Church of England. Eliot lamented the reformation that had resulted in England from a questionable conflict between Henry VIII and the Pope. Faith, society and culture belonged together, according to Eliot and he could join the Anglican Church via this bypass.
Because Eliot’s conversion had taken place so gradually, most people did not immediately see the change in his poetry. The message of the Christmas poem The Journey of the Magi (1927) escaped many critics’ notice. After all, in earlier poetry, Eliot had also referred to a variety of religious and cultural traditions. From the appearance of For Lancelot Andrews: Essays on Style and Order (1928), no one could fail to notice: Eliot described himself in one of the essays as ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion’.
Progressive friends of the literary Bloomsbury group, like Virginia Woolf, reacted with shock: they considered Eliot’s switch to Christianity to be an act of weakness, as treason even. Yet the quality of his poetry did not diminish. His poetic creed Ash-Wednesday (1930) was positively received. Most readers took its Christian character at face value. “Believing does not mean stop thinking,” Eliot made clear in several essays.
Eliot’s first marriage was a disaster. His drug-addicted wife Vivien Haigh-Wood had to be admitted to a psychiatric clinic. Meanwhile, Eliot had befriended (again) Emily Hale, a soul mate with whom he corresponded frequently. After Vivien’s death, he married his young secretary Esmé Valerie Fletcher. In his work Eliot was by no means flattering about women, although this improved somewhat after his conversion. On top of that, Eliot made some terrible anti-Semitic statements that are painful to read. No, Eliot was not a saint.
Eliot, did not exclusively write highbrow literary fare. Plays like Murder In The Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949) were loved by a wide audience. His cat poems, collected in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) were the basis of the successful musical Cats (Andrew Lloyd Webber, 1981). In America and the UK, Eliot’s poetry is still part of the school curriculum. References to his lyrics can be found in songs by Tom Waits, David Bowie, Van Morrison, Arcade Fire and Bob Dylan.
In 1948 T.S. Eliot received the Nobel Prize for literature.
Highlighted picture: ‘T.S. Eliot’ by Patrick Heron (National Portrait Gallery, London)