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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.'

‘Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity'

'Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage we did not take, towards the door we never opened, into the rose garden.'

'We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us... and we drown.'

'If you haven’t the strength to impose your own terms upon life, then you must accept the terms it offers you.'

'Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from these.'

'Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow’

'Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.'

'You are the music while the music lasts.'

'Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.'

'Humankind cannot bear very much reality.'

'These fragments I have shored against my ruins'

'What is hell? Hell is oneself.

Hell is alone, the other figures in it

Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from

And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.'

'Love is most nearly itself

When here and now cease to matter.'

'Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.'

'If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?'

'It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous.

Resign yourself to be the fool you are...'

'The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?