Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Memento mori: "If we judge a man by the vacancy that his absence from his time would have caused, T.S. Eliot was a giant."

Thoms Stearns Eliot, a Missouri boy who grew up to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and outstodge the stodgiest man in Britain, died on this day in 1965.

He was educated at Harvard and did graduate work in philosophy at the Sorbonne, Harvard, and Merton College, Oxford. He settled in England, where he was for a time a schoolmaster and a bank clerk, and eventually, literary editor for the publishing house Faber & Faber, of which he later became a director. He founded and, during the seventeen years of its publication (1922-1939), edited the exclusive and influential literary journal Criterion.

In 1927, Eliot became a British citizen and about the same time entered the Anglican Church. The Nobel Academy wrote of his life's work,
Eliot has been one of the most daring innovators of twentieth-century poetry. Never compromising either with the public or indeed with language itself, he has followed his belief that poetry should aim at a representation of the complexities of modern civilization in language and that such representation necessarily leads to difficult poetry. Despite this difficulty his influence on modern poetic diction has been immense. Eliot's poetry from Prufrock (1917) to the Four Quartets (1943) reflects the development of a Christian writer: the early work, especially The Waste Land (1922), is essentially negative, the expression of that horror from which the search for a higher world arises. In Ash Wednesday (1930) and the Four Quartets this higher world becomes more visible; nonetheless Eliot has always taken care not to become a «religious poet». and often belittled the power of poetry as a religious force. However, his dramas Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Family Reunion (1939) are more openly Christian apologies. In his essays, especially the later ones, Eliot advocates a traditionalism in religion, society, and literature that seems at odds with his pioneer activity as a poet. But although the Eliot of Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) is an older man than the poet of The Waste Land, it should not be forgotten that for Eliot tradition is a living organism comprising past and present in constant mutual interaction. Eliot's plays Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1954), and  The Elder Statesman (1959) were published in one volume in 1962; Collected Poems 1909-62 appeared in 1963.
Thanks to the ferocious protectiveness of his second wife, Valerie- who survived him by forty-seven years, dying at 86 in 2012- a true appreciation of Eliot in the round remains a project for future scholars.

Still, as The New York Times observed in the line quoted in this post's title, he was a man to be reckoned with, and as the world moves into a time that harkens back to the disillusioned interwar era that gave rise to his best work, I'm betting on Old Tom to make a big comeback.

Henry Bemis Books' Poet's Corner has some Eliot in stock. Here's a sample:

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Eliot, T.S. , Collected Poems 1909-1935 (2nd ed., Harcourt Brace & Co., 1936). Poetry was a young man’s game for Eliot; this volume sums up his life’s work, the best of which was behind him. At 47, Eliot’s plinth was erected, but he was a decade away from ascending it. Hardcover, no dust jacket, very good condition. Blue buckram boards with gilt titling on the spine. Some age darkening of the top edge. 8.5” x 5.5”; 220 pp.  HBB price: $50.

Eliot 1935 title page.jpg

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Eliot, T.S., Murder in the Cathedral (Harcourt, Brace & Co, 1st ed. 1935).

Written on commission of the Anglican Bishop of Chichester, Murder in the Cathedral was drawn from eyewitness accounts of the assassination of Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, by agents of the English King in 1170. His first play, it represents Eliot's meditation on individual resistance to rising state power as fascism spread across Europe. The play was popular from its first publication; was adapted into a television program for the nascent BBC in 1936, and a film in 1950. The play remains the most-revived of Eliot's stage works.

Cloth boards; near-fine book with very good unclipped dust jacket. Some edgewear to the unclipped dust jacket. Octavo, 86 pp. Dramatization of the murder of Thomas a Becket in 1170. HBB price: $250.

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