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Eliot, Thomas Stearns
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Eliot, Thomas Stearns

Journey of the Magi [Poetry]


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Thomas Stearns Eliot (September 26, 1888 - January 4, 1965), was an Anglo-American poet, dramatist, and literary critic.

Eliot was born into a prominent Unitarian Saint Louis, Missouri family; his fifth cousin, Tom Eliot, was Chancellor of Washington University, and his grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, was the school's founder. Eliot's major work shows few signs of St. Louis, although there was, in his youth, a Prufrock furniture store in town.

Eliot graduated from Harvard University in 1909. Following a tour of Germany which was curtailed by the outbreak of World War I, Eliot made his life and literary career in Britain. After the war, in the 1920s, he would spend time with other great artists in the Montparnasse Quarter in Paris, France where he was photographed by Man Ray. He dabbled in the study of Sanskrit and eastern religions and was a student of G. I. Gurdjieff.

In 1915, through the assistance of Ezra Pound, Eliot was able to publish a poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which brought him to prominence. His style was noted at the time for its freshness and modernism.

In 1922, Eliot published the long poem The Waste Land. Composed during a period of enormous personal difficulty for Eliot -- his ill-fated marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood was already foundering, and both he and Vivien suffered from precarious health -- The Waste Land offered a bleak portrait of post-World War I Europe, sometimes laced with disgust, but also hesitantly gesturing towards the possibility of (religious?) redemption. Despite the famous difficulty of the poem -- its slippage between satire and prophecy, its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, its elegaic but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures -- the poem has nonetheless become a familiar touchstone of modern literature. Among its famous phrases are "April is the cruellest month"; "I will show you fear in a handful of dust"; and "Shantih shantih shantih." Ezra Pound contributed greatly to the poem with his editorial advice (the facsimile edition of the original manuscript with Pound's queries and corrections, published in 1971, is essential reading for admirers of the poem); in acknowledgement, Eliot later dedicated the poem to him: "For Ezra Pound, 'Il miglior fabbro'" (the better craftsman).

Eliot's later work, following his conversion to Anglicanism on June 29, 1927, is often but by no means exclusively religious in nature. This includes such works as The Hollow Men, Ash-Wednesday, The Journey of the Magi, and Four Quartets. Eliot considered Four Quartets to be his masterpiece, as it draws upon his vast knowledge of mysticism and philosophy. It consists of four poems, "Burnt Norton," "The Dry Salvages," "East Coker," and "Little Gidding." Each of these runs to several hundred lines total and is broken into five sections. Although they resist easy characterization, they have many things in common: each begins with a rumination on the geographical location of its title, and each meditates on the nature of time in some important respect--theological, historical, physical, and on its relation to the human condition. A reflective early reading suggests an inexact systematicity among them; they approach the same ideas in varying but overlapping ways, although they do not necessarily exhaust their questions.

"Burnt Norton" asks what it means to consider things that aren't the case but might have been. We see the shell of an abandoned house, and Eliot toys with the idea that all these "merely possible" realities are present together, but invisible to us: All the possible ways people might walk across a courtyard add up to a vast dance we can't see; children who aren't there are hiding in the bushes.

Eliot's plays, mostly in verse, include Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958).

Murder in the Cathedral is a frankly religious piece about the death of St Thomas Becket. He confessed to being influenced by, among others, the works of 17th century preacher, Lancelot Andrewes. Later, he was appointed to the committee formed to produce the "New English" translation of the Bible. In 1939 he published a book of poetry for children, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats ("Old Possum" being a name Pound had bestowed upon him), which after his death became the basis of the hit West End and Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cats.

On November 4, 1948, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

After his death, his body was cremated and, according to Eliot's wishes, the ashes taken to St Michael's Church in East Coker, the village from which Eliot's ancestors emigrated to America. A simple plaque commemorates him.

As a note of trivia, late in his life, Eliot became somewhat of a penpal with comedian Groucho Marx. Eliot even requested a portrait of the comedian, which he then proudly displayed in his home.

"The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock" is a greatly quoted and referenced piece. References have appeared in Hill Street Blues, The Long Goodbye by private-eye novelist Raymond Chandler, and the film Apocalypse Now..

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