Anglo-American poet and critic, Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) exerted a major influence on modern English poetry and became a prominent literary figure during the post-World War I to World War II period. His poetry opposed the major intellectual worldviews of modern Europe, going against the current of modernism in philosophy. Eliot’s concept of time develops and plays a prominent role in several of his most popular poems: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), “Gerontion” and The Satires (1920), “The Waste Land” (1922), “The Hollow Men” (1925), “Ash Wednesday” and the Ariel Poems (1930), and Four Quartets (1943). The themes of time, timelessness, and eternity, as they relate to the Christian concept of salvation, reappear in his works as he questioned the disintegration of modern European culture and approached the concept of time according to his own faith. Eliot also founded the journal Criterion in 1922 (which he edited until 1939), worked as an editor for the London publisher Faber and Faber, and wrote plays and literary criticism. His most popular drama, Murder in the Cathedral (1935), depicts the events surrounding the death of Saint Thomas Becket.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in September of 1888, Eliot received his education and training as a writer from Harvard University and Merton College, Oxford, and during brief studies abroad in France and Germany. Eliot studied the French symbolists, the English metaphysical poets, Elizabethan drama, and Dante. In September 1914, Eliot became friends with the American expatriate writer Ezra Pound, who supported Eliot as a rising poet and helped him to publish some of his earlier poetry; Eliot would later dedicate The Waste Land to Pound. In 1915, Eliot married a British woman, Vivien Haigh-Wood, and he became an British subject and member of the Anglican Church in 1927. The marriage was troubled and ended in separation; the couple had been apart for several years at the time of Vivien’s death in 1947. Eliot received the Order of Merit and Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. In 1957 he married again, to his long-time secretary, Valerie Fletcher.
Throughout Eliot’s poetry, one can see a transformation in the treatment and interpretation of the concept of time. The characters in his earlier works were conscious of the passing of time and the recurring patterns of monotonous daily routines. For Eliot, the modern temporal world offered no hope or salvation, and these early poems reflected that despair, loneliness, and sense of meaninglessness. He perceived 20th-century Europe’s concept of progress as offering people false hope and deceiving the world about the reality of life beyond the temporal. Therefore, his later works explore the possibility of transcending earthly existence and finding timeless eternity, full of meaning, purpose, and hope.
One of Eliot’s most complex works, Four Quartets, offers the best expression of his concept of time. Four Quartets is a collection of poems that offer a different and changing perspective on time and how humans experience that time. In “Burnt Norton,” time is eternally present with no beginning or ending; in “East Coker,” time represents cycles with seasonal and life changes; in “The Dry Salvages,” the mood shifts to a meaningless view of time without purpose or direction; and in “Little Gidding,” the theme of time reappears as eternity but is seen as past, present, and future time. In Eliot’s personal experience, the faith of Christianity offered hope and gave meaning to the temporal world. Although he did not openly identify Christianity in his poetry, the language and ideas reflect Eliot’s emphasis on humanity and God, timeless eternity, and the Incarnation of Christ.
Leslie A. Mattingly
See also Christianity; Donne, John; Novels, Time in; Poetry; Salvation; Shakespeare’s Sonnets
Bergsten, S. (1973). Time and eternity: A study in the structure and symbolism of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. New York: Humanities Press.
Eliot, T. S. (1952). The complete poetry and plays 1909-1950. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace.
Gish, N. K. (1981). Time in the poetry of T. S. Eliot: A study in structure and theme. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books.
Weitz, M. (1952). T. S. Eliot: Time as a mode of salvation. Sewanee Review, 60(1), 48-64.