T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.
Often said to be the chief representative of modernist poetry, he is also considered by many to be the most significant poet of the 20th century.
T.S. Eliot, for the sake of his fans and for that of academics with a vested interest in his legacy, now has his life further displayed to the eyes of the world. The massive project of publishing his correspondence has reached its eighth volume, and two more years of his life (1936-1938) are now further open to scrutiny. The supreme irony here is that Eliot, who stipulated in his will that there never be a biography written of him, would not have thought very kindly of the idea of prying into his personal life in order to interpret his poetry.
In fact, he preached an entire theory of poetry opposed to such an idea.
In his 1919 essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent", he argues at length that, when judging the value of a work of poetry, the work's authorship is totally irrelevant. The reader should value the work in and of itself. Thus we arrive at a purer form of encountering art, one supposes; this was a solemn creed for the modernists. The reader of Joyce's "Ulysses" or Eliot's own "The Waste Land" either becomes comfortable with the paradox of not understanding as itself a form of understanding or rejects the work as something as far as possible from "Art" as it can possibly be. This is a form of experiencing art that places the experience at the forefront. Art is not meant to mean anything; rather, it is meant to be experienced, or, rather, the experience of it is its meaning. The text is what is important, and discussing the history behind it or the context of its creation is useless, weighing the reader down. Let the poet empty himself entirely of self, Eliot urges in his essay, and let the poetry be poetry.
Eliot was an imperfect man, but one flaw that he definitely lacked was stupidity. How could a man famous the world over seriously request that no biography be written of him; how could he stand so firmly and purely for an artistic posture as to propose that it be translated into a code of conduct? The answer, I suspect, is a beautiful one, and one just as complex as his best poetry.
When Eliot converted from (agnostic) Unitarianism in 1927 to the Church of England and set himself on the path of spending the rest of his life as a committed Anglo-Catholic, he completely scandalized his literary circle. Not only did such people as Virginia Woolf consider it offensive for someone to go in for organized religion, it seemed totally incomprehensible that someone like Eliot, who so eloquently demonstrated the beauty of artistic iconoclasm, would go in for what seemed to be the very essence of an aesthetically useless, dying, old world order. Eliot, however, never considered his conversion to be a break; rather, he simply thought of it as development. "Ash-Wednesday" is certainly not written in the same style as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". That they have themes in common is undeniable.
The Unitarianism that Eliot inherited from his family was not at all concerned with the Incarnation of Christ; Anglo-Catholicism, however, was obsessed with it. There is no personality behind divinity in the former; in the latter, it is essential that the creator be accessible through the creation. The distance between the work and the author is emphasized in the former, while the proximity is stressed in the latter. There is nobody behind the poem in the theory articulated in "Tradition and the Individual Talent". In Anglo-Catholic theology, the world revolves around the presence of the Body behind the work.
Orthodox Christianity rejoices in paradox; thus, Christ's self-emptying (kenosis) in becoming Man is a complete unclothing from the state of divine exaltation, even as the state of divinity is simultaneously retained. If the author of a work is a god and the work is his creation, then the theory of poetry Eliot encourages us to hold is analogous to agnosticism or atheism. Yet Eliot believed in a type of Christianity as far from agnosticism as possible, refusing to ignore the presence of God and the saints. Eliot's play "Murder in the Cathedral" portrays martyred archbishop Thomas Becket as a man who empties himself of self, yet he is a man whose name is after death immortalized by those who venerate him, while the physical remains of his earthly existence become objects of devotion. Eliot preached anonymity, yet the world is hardly going to forget him any time soon. Eliot might have outwardly wished that his name be forgotten and his poetry remembered, but he may have inwardly wished that he be both forgotten and remembered at one and the same time, that his name remain forever caught up in the glorious paradox that is itself really the essence of poetry. We can, I venture, make good use of our opportunity to pry into Eliot's life, even while recognizing that he would have protested, even while recognizing that such prying is fully connected to a side of his art that is totally indispensable.
We can, in a word, be totally atheistic believers in his art, recognizing that only in such a way can we recognize the greatness of poetry capacious enough to go beyond itself even while remaining itself and nothing else.