To understand Eliot’s poetry we really have to understand his biography. He didn’t like this idea. He was a very private person and believed the poetry should stand on its own without reference to the life of the poet. Despite this, his poetry is extremely personal and when you understand what was going on in his life at the time suddenly the obscurity and difficulty of his poems lift. Therefore, if you want to learn more you ought to read a biography of Eliot. There are a good number out there, but I think the best is by Lyndall Gordon. T.S.Eliot – An Imperfect Life. Gordon also wrote Eliot’s Early Years and Eliot’s New Life. I believe An Imperfect Life is a newer edition that combines the earlier two books.
T.S.Eliot was born in 1888 in St Louis Missouri. His father was a well to do businessman and his mother a poet and social worker. He was the youngest of six children. The Eliots were from an established upper class Boston family and T.S.Eliot’s grandfather had moved to St Louis to establish a Unitarian Church. The Unitarians were a Christian offshoot. They believed in a progressive religion that got rid of superstition and what they considered antiquated beliefs. They were called Unitarian because they rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. They also rejected the concept of original sin and predestination. They eventually merged with the Universalists and you will find Unitarian Universalist churches scattered about still. The Eliot family would therefore have followed an educated, sophisticated and well off way of life. With a family home in Massachusetts and strong links with the “Boston Brahmin” upper class at Harvard University, they were staid, respectable, wealthy, well connected, somewhat Puritanical, clean living people who believed in a God who existed, but did not interfere in their lives…a God who was happy for them to be respectable, well behaved, polite, urbane, educated and involved in helping the poor and needy as they were able. As such, Eliot’s wealthy businessman father and social working-poet mother were typical examples.
I’m relating this part of his biography because it sheds light on these first poems: Aunt Helen, The Boston Evening Transcript, Morning at the Windows and Preludes.
- Aunt Helen is here.
- The Boston Evening Transcript is here.
- Morning at the Window is here.
- Preludes is here.
Eliot’s Early Years is the first full post in the T.S.Eliot Book Club. The club is open to all levels of Donor Subscribers, and there will be a general post with reading assignments for all readers. If you want to join in the full Book Club with discussion in the combox and further commentary sign up here. However, there will be plenty of content for all readers as we go along too.