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BBC Poetry Season: T S Eliot

As part of the BBC's Poetry Season we take a look at one of the nominees for the nation's favourite poet: T S Eliot.

By Professor William Rowe
Birkbeck, University of London

London is inextricably intertwined with T S Eliot's poetic imagination.

It gave him the landscape, soundscape and generally the sensual ambience of most of his best poetry.

T S Eliot in September 1958.
T S Eliot in September 1958.

The 'yellow fog' of 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock', written before he left America, is the fog blowing from the factories across the Mississippi toward the town of St Louis where he was born.

It becomes 'the brown fog' of The Waste Land, transposed to London. London became the central scenario of his imaginary geography.

He had begun to live there in 1914 but in a sense it was already known to him through his reading of Henry James (Eliot's poem, 'Portrait of a Lady', written in America, begins with 'Among the smoke and fog of a December afternoon').

But it is doubtful whether his unique combination of moral conviction and scepticism of all values could have flourished in America.

London offered him a multi-layered society, and language, where cockney voices and music hall could be heard
William Rowe

London offered him a multi-layered society, and language, where cockney voices (the first title of The Waste Land) and music hall could be heard alongside those of polite Edwardian society, audible especially in his plays, and could echo with Dante, Shakespeare, Spenser, in fact with the whole of European literature.

America was marked by the strong levelling force of the demotic, and indeed it was precisely this that his American contemporary, the poet William Carlos Williams, accused Eliot of running away from.

When he first came to London, Eliot lived in Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, Greek Street Soho, and later in Baker Street. This was the cosmopolitan London of Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley and later on (for Eliot) Virginia Woolf.

This was the time of his unhappy first marriage, his job in Lloyd's Bank, and, in The Waste Land, his vision of commuters crossing London Bridge as the condemned souls of Dante's hell, the place without hope.

Social climbing

He gave lectures on English literature at Southall for the University of London Extension Board and also taught at the County Secondary School in Sydenham.

Piccadilly Circus encased in fog in 1925.
Foggy London was an inspiration to T S Eliot.

From the mid 1920s he became an editor at Faber and Faber, in Russell Square, and by then was tending to move in more conservative social circles.

During the Second World War, by which time he had been received into the Anglican Church, he was living in a vicarage in Kensington, and serving at nights as an air raid warden.

The Four Quartets, originally to have been called 'The Kensington Quartets', were mostly written during the war, and meditate on a time when Eliot feared the destruction of European civilisation.

Though in the final part of his life, time of his second and happy marriage, he reconnected with his American childhood, London, the 'unreal city', was to Eliot what Alexandria was to Kavafis and Lisbon to Pessoa.

This was in spite of, or perhaps because of the fact that he always saw himself as a resident alien.

Article by:

William Rowe, Anniversary Professor of Poetics and co-director, with Carol Watts, of the Poetics Research Centre at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Professor Rowe's latest book "Three Modern Lyric Poets: Harwood, Torrance & MacSweeney" is published by Northcote House in their Writers and Their Work Series.

BBC Poetry Season: Christina Rossetti
17 Jun 09 |  Arts & Culture



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