Writer #1 – The Most Influential English Poet of His Time

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888 in Missouri, to a distinguished family. His family tree includes three US presidents and a president of Harvard university! Eliot’s family had only recently moved to Missouri from Massachusetts when he was born and as result he felt an outsider, something that would influence his entire life and creative work.

A young T.S. Eliot

He was an intelligent young man studying for a bachelors and masters degree at Harvard, and then studying further at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and Oxford University in 1915. His application to enlist for the army in WW1 was rejected multiple times due to him failing the medical examinations.

Moving to London in 1916, he begun to mix in literary circles, and his first published poem “The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock” was published in 1917. As well as poetry and plays he wrote articles and literary criticisms to supplement his meagre salary. In 1922, following a complete breakdown and with his marriage failing apart, he published “The Wasteland”, arguably the most important of post first world war poems.

In 1927, Eliot became a British Citizen and a member of the Church of England; he described himself as an “Anglo-Catholic” and became a member of the Society of the Charles the Martyr. He would continue writing articles and poetry throughout the 1930’s, his Modernist style challenging some more traditional poetic styles and conventions. His poetry increasingly dealt with ideas of death, rebirth and emerging from the twilight, ideas that would reach their epitome in his masterpiece “Four Quartets”.

Pamphlet attacking the Ferrar Community published in 1641

———

Three hundred years previously in 1626 the Ferrar family had moved from London to their newly purchased estate at Little Gidding, where they planned to live a life “dedicated to prayer and piety”. The high-church nature of their community, in line with Archbishops Laud’s form of Anglicanism, would have ruffled local Puritans. However, the household does seem to have got along with its neighbours; local gentry sent their sons to study with the Ferrars and the poor came for alms. The biggest problems for the fledgling community were the popular pamphlet press in London and the attentions of Parliamentarian soldiers during the civil war.

Eliot would have read about the religious community at Little Gidding. The strict Protestant lifestyle glorifying God would have appealed to Eliot with his strong faith and Anglo-Catholic stance. His interest in visiting the village was sparked by reading an acquaintance’s play-script based around King Charles’ final visit to Little Gidding after the rout at Naseby.

Little Gidding Church with the Tomb of Nicholas Ferrar outside.

In May 1936, Eliot visited Little Gidding with the Dean of Magdalene College, Cambridge University, of which Eliot was fellow. They visited the small church on a late May day, and his experiences can clearly be seen in the published poem;

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from, If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.

Drawing upon his visit to the place, his own experience of the London Blitz, and the loss of several dear friends, “Little Gidding”, was published as the final poem in the “Four Quartets” in 1942. A poem based around cleansing fire, rebirth, the timelessness of England and the present, and the need for spiritual salvation, it was a poem most definitely of its time. Eliot considered the “Four Quartets” his finest work and this his best poem.

The Four Quartets.

T.S. Eliot would publish no further poetry in his life. Lauded as one of the most influential living writers he received honorary doctorates and fellowships from universities across the world, and in 1948 he received the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He married a second time in 1950, and spent the rest of his life lecturing and writing articles.

When he died in 1965 of emphysema, his obituary in The Times was titled; “The Most Influential English Poet of His Time”.

You can find the poem “Little Gidding” in full at the link below:
http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

T.S. Eliot in later life

This is the first in a series of short posts about writers with a connection to Huntingdonshire, look out for our post next Saturday!

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

Bibliography:
Eliot, T.S. “Collected Poems 1909-1962”, Faber and Faber, London, 1974, 3rd Edition

Poetry Foundation, “T.S. Eliot 1888 – 1965”, 2020, Via: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/t-s-eliot, Accessed April 1st 2020

Wickes, M. “A History of Huntingdonshire”, Phillimore & Co. Ltd, Chichester, 1995, 2nd Edition

Wilkinson, J. “People – T.S. Eliot at Little Gidding”, 2006, Via: http://www.littlegiddingchurch.org.uk/lgchtmlfiles/lgpeople2.html, Accessed: April 1st 2020

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