Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965), a poet, critic, editor, and playwright, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the seventh child of Henry Ware Eliot and Charlotte Champe Stearns. He attended Smith Academy, founded by his grandfather William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian minister, until he was sixteen. In 1905, he left St. Louis to study for a year at Milton Academy outside Boston and then entered Harvard University in 1906. At Harvard, he received a B. A. in 1909 and an M. A. in 1910. In the autumn of 1910, he went to the Sorbonne in Paris for a year of postgraduate study.
Eliot returned to Harvard to pursue a doctoral degree in philosophy. He studied Eastern and Western philosophies and learned Sanskrit in order to read the original texts. In 1913, he read Bradley's Appearance and Reality, which became the basis for his dissertation entitled "The Nature of Objects, with reference to the philosophy of F. H. Bradley" (later published as Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley in 1964). 1914 saw his return to England, on a travelling fellowship. The following year he married Vivienne (Vivien) Haigh-Wood, whom he met through a mutual friend. He completed his dissertation in 1916 while living in England and submitted it to Harvard. Unfortunately, World War I had begun, and it became too dangerous to sail back to America, so he was not able to defend his dissertation for the Ph. D. degree.
In an effort to support himself and his new wife, Eliot took on a variety of positions including teaching at schools in High Wycombe and Highgate, London; writing book reviews; and through the University of London extension board, lecturing at evening extension courses. In addition, he became literary editor of the avant-garde magazine The Egoist. In the spring of 1917, he finally found steady employment; his language abilities qualified him for a job in the Colonial and Foreign Department of Lloyds Bank, in the City of London, where he worked on foreign accounts. The security of this position allowed him to return to his poetry, and later that year he published his first book of poetry Prufrock and Other Observations.
It was to be private pain that brought about his most famous poem "The Waste Land." January 1919 brought news of the death of his father, Henry Ware Eliot. Eliot's hasty marriage and settlement in England had created a rift between Eliot and his parents, and this news destroyed any hope of a full reconciliation. At the same time, Vivien's own physical and mental health were deteriorating and causing great financial and emotional strain on Eliot.
The success Eliot gained from "The Waste Land" provided him with the opportunity to edit his own literary journal, The Criterion. Lady Rothermere, wife of Viscount Rothermere, publisher of the Daily Mail, funded the venture.
The first issue of The Criterion appeared in October, 1922. Vivien was to contribute sketches, reviews, and poems to The Criterion under various pseudonyms.
Eliot's combined talent for literary endeavors and business sense brought him to the attention of Geoffrey Faber who, in 1925, recruited him as literary editor and board of directors' member of his new publishing firm, Faber and Gwyer; four years later it became Faber and Faber. Eliot left Lloyds and began a relationship with Faber and Faber that continued until the end of his career.
1927 was to be a personally momentous year for Eliot. In June, he was baptized into the Church of England and, in November, became a British citizen. His religion then became a central component of his life.
Eliot's poetry now reflected his religious conversion and includes his Ariel poems: "Journey of the Magi" (1927), "A Song for Simeon" (1928), "Animula" (1929), "Marina" (1930), and the longer poem "Ash Wednesday" (1930).
In June 1935 the church drama Murder in the Cathedral was performed in the chapter house of Canterbury Cathedral for the Canterbury Festival. It had been commissioned by the Bishop of Chichester, George Bell.
Three years later Vivien's brother, Maurice, had Vivien committed to Northumberland House, a mental hospital north of London. Eliot's Anglicanism would not allow for a divorce, but he never saw Vivien again. She died in 1947.
The start of World War saw the demise of The Criterion. During this time he wrote the play The Family Reunion (1939) and the three final poems that make up the Four Quartets (1943). "Burnt Norton" (1934) had been previously published in Collected Poems 1909-1935. "East Coker" (1940) was named after the Somerset village from which Eliot's ancestor Andrew Eliot had departed for America, circa 1669. "The Dry Salvages" (1941) recounted Eliot's experience as a boy sailing on the Mississippi River and on the coast of Massachusetts. "Little Gidding" (1942) is a village in Cambridgeshire visited by Eliot in 1936. Little Gidding was home to a religious community from 1625 to 1998.
After World War II, Eliot wrote no more major poetry. Instead he wrote cultural criticisms suchs Notes toward a Definition of Culture (1948); the plays The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1953) and The Elder Statesman (1958); and literary essays. In 1948, Eliot received both the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In January 1957, he married his secretary (Esmé) Valerie Fletcher, with whom he lived until his death on January 4, 1965, at his home in London.