Happy birthday, Mr. Eliot!
Dr Nicoletta Asciuto, Associate Lecturer in English Literature, writes about T.S Eliot who was born 129 years ago this month.
|T.S Eliot in 1934. Public Domain image by Lady Ottoline Morrell|
‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.’ (I, ll. 1-3). Of Four Quartets, I have always found ‘Burnt Norton’, where these lines are taken from, the most soothing one. Written before the outbreak of World War II (1935-36), ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of the four quartets, carries the rewarding promise that our past lives, present experiences, and future hopes all merge into one fluid experience of personal time, where nothing is lost and everything redeemed, pointing to ‘one end, which is always present’ (l. 10). No other Eliot poem, I feel, expresses such fluidity in a more serene, peaceful way. Memories from his American childhood and his most recent British life mingle with preoccupations about the future, breaking through during the poet’s walk in the rose garden of Burnt Norton. He visited Cotswolds in 1934, to meet with his old friend Emily Hale, who came over from America.
This is what has made me a passionate reader and scholar of Eliot’s poetry throughout the years: how his poetry, always so very preoccupied with time, manages to be timeless yet profoundly set in history and tradition. ‘There will be time, there will be time’ (l. 26), says the poet in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, but only until ‘the taking of toast and tea’ (l. 34): after that quintessential moment of British and New England turn-of-the-century sociability, imprisoning the poet, there will be no more time to change our minds and, for him, to ever be free again.
Time and history were much on Eliot’s mind. But they are also literally accumulated and deposited in his verse, and not just as reflections of poet’s intellectual preoccupations. Writing cannot happen in a historical vacuum, and Eliot’s poetry especially engages, both directly and indirectly, with the rich poetic tradition that preceded it, whilst at the same time branding itself as new, modernist, and a breakaway from the old. Reading Eliot’s poetry does not mean simply reading the words and thoughts of an Anglophone poet living in the first half of the twentieth century; rather, it entails entering a literary time and a complex game of allusions and references, in which poets of different ages and cultures can somehow “cohabit” in one single, atemporal space. This timelessness of Eliot’s poetry has contributed to its allure, recognized by hundreds of students, scholars, and poetry readers over the last century.
This year, we not only celebrate the 129th anniversary of Eliot’s birth in St. Louis, Missouri, but also the 100th anniversary of the publication of Eliot’s first poetry collection, Prufrock and Other Observations, with the Bloomsbury-based Egoist Press, which also published works by Ezra Pound and James Joyce. Happy birthday, Mr. Eliot, and thank you for gifting us with such extraordinary, timeless poems.
The Eliot Collection
(University of York library Rare Books Collection)
The University of York library was gifted a small number of books by and about T.S. Eliot by the library of King’s College, Cambridge in the early seventies. This was the result of a bequest to King’s College by Eliot’s friend, John Hayward, and consisted of those books in the Hayward Collection of which King’s College already owned copies. The collection has since been expanded, both through the acquisition of new books by gift and purchase, and through transferring to it books previously on the open shelves. It now covers such authors as W.B. Yeats, Robert Graves, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Seamus Heaney, Christopher Hill, and Paul Muldoon.
To arrange to view items in our rare books collection please contact the Borthwick Institute