T.S. Eliot was born in America, moved to England in the early 1900s and became a citizen, then returned to America years later to teach at Harvard. Though considered one of the foremost poets of the 20th century, his writing is broad, including not only poetry, but also essays and plays.
But he’s best known for his poetry.
Much like John Donne, part of Eliot’s interest, especially to believers, springs from his conversion to Christianity later in life, and the fact that his most notable poems can be found both pre- and post-conversion. Perhaps one of the best-known pre-conversion poems is The Wasteland, which some read as a description of the cynicism following World War I.
Eliot’s poetry is thoroughly modernist in style, and often in outlook. It was for this that C.S. Lewis disliked his writing (though Eliot highly respected Lewis). Eliot’s poems are abstract and often obscure—but the beauty of his language and word pictures is undeniable. He heavily employs simile and metaphor to tell stories and paint word pictures.
His most notable post-conversion poem is probably The Four Quartets, a long poem divided into four parts: “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” Each part tells a different story or encircles a different metaphor.
Of the four, my personal favorite is “Little Gidding.” It is certainly not because I understand it completely, or perhaps even in majority. Understanding T.S. Eliot would require intensive study into his time period and literary allusions, an enterprise that, while certainly worthwhile, would take years.
But all poetry takes some level of patience, and even a college student like me can find nuggets of insight and beautiful language when I take the time to read slowly (something I rarely do, but never regret).
Just to whet your appetite, here is one of my all-time favorite passages from near the end of “Little Gidding,” which I have found especially pertinent upon returning to my home state for the summer.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.