What Eliot Means to Me

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To mark the fiftieth anniversary of T. S. Eliot’s death, the great and the good of the literary world have rolled out tributes, readings, books and exhibitions. As a compliment to all this reverence, we asked Lauren Hepburn, young playwright and lifelong Londoner, why Eliot’s works – long-since absorbed into the unimpeachable canon of Great Literature – still hold so much vitality and inspiration for her. 

It’s been fifty years since Thomas Stearns Eliot passed away. How do we remember him? As the founding father of modern poetry; as the author of the The Waste Land; for his articulation of a cold and hardened post-war world; as one of the most influential writers of the Twentieth Century.  By the age of seventy-six, he had lived an astoundingly rich and multi-faceted life. Raised a Unitarian in Missouri by a religiously devout mother and wealthy factory-owning father, the youngest of six siblings, he was born with a congenital double hernia which would plague him all his life. He spent summers sailing in Massachusetts; he studied at Harvard, then Paris and Oxford; he rubbed shoulders with Freud, Picasso, Huxley and Stravinsky; his friends included the Woolfs, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis; in the beginning he was an academic and philosopher, then a formidable literary critic and editor, next a banker, a publisher and, finally, arguably the Twentieth Century’s greatest poet — and one of the greatest poets of all time. He lived in London for most of his life; spoke English, French, German, and studied Latin, ancient Greek and Sanskrit; he underwent therapy in Switzerland; he married twice; he naturalised as British and converted to the Church of England; he lived ‘l’entre deux guerres’, and his estate has probably made more money from the use of his Old Possum poems in Cats, the Musical than from anything else he did. But what does T. S. Eliot mean to me, a twenty-something literature graduate, born and raised in the city which Eliot so determinedly made his home?

Eliot straddled countries, nationalities, languages, faiths, literary genres, careers and history. I find him utterly fascinating and inspirational. Determined to succeed and intelligent beyond belief: these are the characteristics that we know well. But Eliot’s fierce erudition came only after years of, as Robert Crawford puts it in his new biography, ‘loafing’ at Harvard and surprisingly frequent close shaves with failure. Eliot was sensitive, awkward and shy but could be downright intimidating. He could be formidable; according to Virginia Woolf he could be cold and impenetrable. But whilst we celebrate him for his creative genius, we must also acknowledge the discomfiting elements of anti-semitism, misogyny and racism in his work. It has been alleged that he was responsible for the forced incarceration of his first wife in a mental institution. Eliot was a man with many sides. And then there is the polyvocality in his poetry, from his rude and aggressive 1915 poem, ‘The Triumph of Bullshit’, to the quiet velleities of Prufrock, staunch patriotism of ‘Little Gidding’ (‘History is now and England’) and the sweet sensuality in his poems devoted to Valerie Eliot.

TS Eliot with Virginia Woolf, centre, and his wife Vivienne in 1932. Photograph: CSU Archv/Everett /Rex Features
TS Eliot with Virginia Woolf, centre, and his wife Vivienne in 1932. Photograph: CSU Archv/Everett /Rex Features

Eliot’s life and literature sneak into my consciousness often. His social commentaries continue to be shockingly, amusingly, depressingly perspicacious. I hear his poetry in a restaurant, as patrons say farewell without a hint of irony, ‘Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight. // Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.’ It happens again as a friend listlessly describes an experience they should have enjoyed: ‘well now that’s done…’ and I’m glad it’s over. I hear Prufrock when peers fear failure, the future and their inadequacy: ‘I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker’. I watch a current of tired commuters flowing through the underground and picture Eliot’s London Bridge: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many.’ His Unreal City persists. In places unexpected, I think of T.S. Eliot. Even watching Breaking Bad, I was reminded of Eliot’s many voices: in his life, in The Waste Land and across his oeuvre. The writers of the hit series captured our attention with the many identities of Walter White — or, Mr. White, Walter, Walt and Heisenberg. The loving husband and father, the chemistry teacher, the untrusted colleague, the loyal friend and, finally, the ruthless drug lord. Walter White constructs himself according to circumstance, each name representing a new voice, and the other characters do the same, holding up a mirror for him to look at.

This year has seen a host of events celebrating this great London poet. In September I went with the The London Magazine to watch none other than actor and poet, Viggo Mortensen, read The Waste Land in twelve languages and a remarkable number of accents. It was sung, whispered and delivered with more force than I had anticipated and moved me deeply. As with so much poetry, Eliot’s poems are meant to be heard. Hosted by the British Library and Eliot’s very own publishing house, Faber & Faber, Mortensen read from Faber’s new and beautiful hardback edition of The Waste Land, which includes previously omitted lines.

Viggo Mortensen reading Faber's new edition of The Waste Land. Photos c/o The British Library
Viggo Mortensen reading Faber’s new edition of The Waste Land. Photo c/o The British Library

As I have already mentioned, the first part of Robert Crawford’s two-part biography was published at the beginning of this year. The author was given much greater freedom by the Eliot estate to quote and reference than anyone before him, and Young Eliot proves a vivid and elucidating account of the poet’s early years. Likewise, this month marks the publication of Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue’s six-year project and nearly two thousand pages worth of Poems of TS Eliot. For anyone interested in the allusive and cross-cultural nature of all of Eliot’s poems, this is the place to look.

I always learn new things about Eliot, man and author, compelling me to reassess my opinions and experience his writing in new ways. It is ironic that a writer so dedicated to the principle of impersonality in literature never fails to attract interest in his personal history. I constantly forge connections between his life and poetry and have to stop myself. But this is about what Eliot means to me. To me, his work is powerfully astute, engaging and emotive, and, yes, I see him in it very much indeed.

By Lauren Hepburn