Too New For T. S. Eliot (2016Feb17)
Wednesday, February 17, 2016 11:03 AM
The new millennium is here — everything is online! Or maybe not. We expect Wikipedia to have every single factoid in it — and due to its popularity and it frequency of use, it seems to have almost everything. But the rest of the interweb can be surprisingly new and lacking in context. Take Medium, for instance — just this morning I thought to myself, “Let’s see what Medium has about T. S. Eliot…” and I searched for that hash-tag. I expected a few ‘stories’ because I’ve done a few myself, on my WordPress blog — and I know I’m not alone on WordPress when it comes to blogging with T. S. Eliot hash-tagged content.
But zip was all I got — nada on the Eliot-man. So, here we go, Medium readers — this is what I know about the guy:
T. S. Eliot was born in St. Louis Missouri around the turn of the last century to a family whose patriarch was a founder of the Unitarian Church in early America. He spent his summers on the Atlantic coast — so he was an Easterner to those in St. Louis, and a hick to those in New England — the typical isolated youth of a creative genius. He studied philosophy at Harvard but then went to England, from which he never returned — preventing him from ever receiving his doctoral degree, in spite of completing all the work except for the in-person presentation.
He fell in love with England once he got there — the English often joked that he was more English than the English, wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella. He married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, but theirs was a troubled marriage, partly due to her mental instability — there’s an excellent bio-pic about the marriage, “Tom and Viv” (1994), which is enjoyable both as cinema and as educational material.
Eliot’s early successes in poetry included “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock”, which created a small stir, but it was his “The Waste Land” that exploded onto the literary scene in 1922, making him a household word. This was followed by “Ash Wednesday” and “The Hollow Men” — and eventually my favorites, the “Four Quartets”. But in his later life he turned to playwriting in verse, creating “Murder in the Cathedral”, “The Cocktail Party”, and “The Confidential Clerk”, among others. In 1948, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. A reporter asked him what poem he was being given the prize for and Eliot responded, “I believe it’s for the entire opus.” And the reporter asked, “When did you write that?”
As the greatest poet of the last century, Eliot’s output is surprisingly small — his poems can all fit into a small volume. It is the quality of each poem that makes him so great. Another surprising fact is that his most renowned work is a book of children’s rhymes entitled “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”, which provided the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway musical, “Cats”.
I studied poetry in my youth. In the end, I grew tired of the lyrical stiltedness of poetic expression — at its worst, poetry can be quite similar to talking with a fake accent — nothing new is being said, it’s just being said in an unusual way. T. S. Eliot remains favored reading material for me, however, because while all other poets were creating artistic expressions, he created philosophical expressions — poems that were more about thinking than feeling. That appeals to me.
As with many artists, there are troubling aspects to T. S. Eliot — some claim he may have been a closet homosexual, some claim he was a staunch anti-Semite, some feel he did badly by his first wife when he had her committed for life. This happens — many of my favorite artists turn out to be, upon reading their biographies, mere humans with feet of clay. All I can say is: read the poetry.
Here’s the first bit of his Burnt Norton (from “Four Quartets”):
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.”