The Words of T. S. Eliot


British essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888 – 1965) was one of the twentieth century's major poets. Born in the United States, he moved to England in 1914 at the age of 25, and was eventually naturalised as a British subject in 1927, renouncing his American citizenship. His poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), was seen as a masterpiece of the Modernist movement. This was followed by The Waste Land (1922), ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925), ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), and Four Quartets (1945), some of the most famous poems of the Twentieth Century. He also wrote plays including Murder in the Cathedral (1935). Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, particularly for Four Quartets, which is made up of four long poems, published at first separately: Burnt Norton (1936), East Coker (1940), The Dry Salvages (1941) and Little Gidding (1942), each of which has five sections. They address theological, historical and physical concepts in relation to the human condition.

In Burnt Norton, a narrator walks through a garden, describing the images and sounds - a bird, the roses, clouds, and an empty pool. The goal is seemingly a ‘still point’ and ‘a grace of sense’. The narrator later contemplates the arts as they relate to time and the poet's art of manipulating words, concluding that ‘Love is itself unmoving, / Only the cause and end of movement, / Timeless, and undesiring.’

East Coker continues with the theme of time and meaning. Eliot suggests an answer for those who despair: ‘I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope.’

The Dry Salvages explores images of river and sea and makes efforts to contain opposites: ‘The past and future / Are conquered, and reconciled.’

In Little Gidding, Eliot imagines meeting Italian master-poet Dante during the German bombing of Britain in the war, and, like Dante, comes to see Love as the driving force behind all human experience.

The Quartets end with the affirmation of Julian of Norwich, an English Christian mystic and theologian: ‘All shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well.’ Indeed, the Four Quartets cannot be understood without reference to Christian thought: Eliot draws upon the theology, art, symbolism and language of Dante and others, and mystics like St. John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich on his journey towards a ‘deeper communion’.

Here are some of his words, from his poetry and other writings:

'Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.'