We Are the Hollow Men – T.S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
drawing by Simon Fieldhouse

On September 26, 1888, the publisher, playwright, literary and social critic and “arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century”, Thomas Stearns Eliot, aka T. S. Eliot, was born, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Although he was born an American, he moved to the United Kingdom in 1914 (at age 25) and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at age 39.

Born into a middle class family as the last of six surviving children, Eliot’s father Henry Ware Eliot (1843–1919), was a successful businessman, president and treasurer of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis. His mother, Charlotte Champe Stearns (1843–1929), wrote poetry and was a social worker. As a child, Eliot had to overcome physical limitations, struggling from a congenital double hernia, he was unable to participate in many physical activities and thus was prevented from interacting socially with his peers. Being isolated rather often, his love of literature developed and the young boy immediately became obsessed with books and was completely absorbed in tales depicting savages, the Wild West, or Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Eliot “would often curl up in the window-seat behind an enormous book, setting the drug of dreams against the pain of living.” as Eliot’s friend Robert Sencourt comments in his biography. …

Eliot was educated at Harvard and did graduate work in philosophy at the Sorbonne. After a year in Paris, he returned to Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, but returned to Europe and settled in England in 1914, where he was for a time a schoolmaster and a bank clerk. In 1927, Eliot became a British citizen and about the same time entered the Anglican Church. It was in London that Eliot came under the influence of his contemporary Ezra Pound, who recognized his poetic genius at once, and assisted in the publication of his work in a number of magazines, most notably “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in Poetry in 1915. His first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, was published in 1917, and immediately established him as a leading poet of the avant-garde. With the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, now considered by many to be the single most influential poetic work of the twentieth century, Eliot’s reputation began to grow to nearly mythic proportions; by 1930, and for the next thirty years, he was the most dominant figure in poetry and literary criticism in the English-speaking world.

T.S. Eliot is considered to be one of the most daring innovators of twentieth-century poetry. Never compromising either with the public or indeed with language itself, he followed his belief that poetry should aim at a representation of the complexities of modern civilization in language and that such representation necessarily leads to difficult poetry. Despite this difficulty his influence on modern poetic diction has been immense.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.
 (T. S. Eliot, from ‘The Hollow Men‘, 1925)

At yovisto you can watch a lecture of Prof. Langdon Hammer from Yale University on T. S. Eliot and his influential work.

References and further Reading:

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