What to Make of T. S. Eliot?

Beneath the formal exterior of a banker-scholar beat the heart of a tormented poet.

By Garrick Davis
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what-to-make-of-t-s-eliotIn 1914, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was introduced to a student at Harvard University who greatly impressed him, and who would later become quite famous himself. Russell left behind his first impressions of T. S. Eliot in a letter that possibly inaugurated the now-standard fiction of the poet as representing a final, repressed branch of the old Boston Brahmans:

My pupil Eliot was there—the only one who is civilized, and he is ultra-civilized, knows his classics very well, is familiar with all French literature from Villon to Vildrach, and is altogether impeccable in his taste but has no vigour or life—or enthusiasm.

Eliot struck many of his contemporaries as a person not unlike J. Alfred Prufrock, “politic, cautious, and meticulous.” Virginia Woolf mentioned him in a letter to her brother-in-law: “Come to lunch. Eliot will be there in a four-piece suit.” With his fine manners and noble bearing, Eliot was all too restrained by his own sense of decorum and propriety. The novelist Aldous Huxley even called him “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks” after visiting Eliot at his office at Lloyd’s in London, reporting that he “was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.” Many years later, the poet was still fostering this bloodless caricature of himself, preferring to pretend that he was just “a mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter.”

Read the complete article
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An early reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing more of  T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our March session. On March 23 we will focus on “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.

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