Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888 – 1965) was a British writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 for “his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry”. He is known for infusing poetry with high intellectualism and is regarded by many as the most erudite poet of his time in the English language. Born in the United States, Eliot converted to Anglicanism in 1927 and he took British citizenship the same year. His conversion marked a change of poetic style with his works becoming less ironic and focusing more on spiritual matters. Eliot was a highly influential poet whose works played a key role in the literary transition from 19th-century Romantic poetry to 20th-century Modernist poetry. He is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. Here are the 10 most famous poems by T. S. Eliot including Prufrock, Preludes, The Waste Land and works from his masterpiece Four Quartets.
#10 Ash Wednesday
I Because I do not hope to turn again Because I do not hope Because I do not hope to turn Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope I no longer strive to strive towards such things (Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?) Why should I mourn The vanished power of the usual reign? Because I do not hope to know The infirm glory of the positive hour Because I do not think Because I know I shall not know The one veritable transitory power Because I cannot drink There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again Because I know that time is always time And place is always and only place And what is actual is actual only for one time And only for one place I rejoice that things are as they are and I renounce the blessèd face And renounce the voice Because I cannot hope to turn again Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something Upon which to rejoice And pray to God to have mercy upon us And pray that I may forget These matters that with myself I too much discuss Too much explain Because I do not hope to turn again Let these words answer For what is done, not to be done again May the judgement not be too heavy upon us Because these wings are no longer wings to fly But merely vans to beat the air The air which is now thoroughly small and dry Smaller and dryer than the will Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still. Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death Pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Read Full Poem Here
Ash Wednesday is the first long poem written by T. S. Eliot after his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism. Its title comes from the Western Christian fast day marking the beginning of Lent, forty days before Easter. The poem deals with the struggle that ensues when one who has lacked faith acquires it. Ash Wednesday is referred to as Eliot’s “conversion poem” and it is written in a style entirely different from that of any of his earlier works. His post-conversion style continued in a similar vein as this poem. Though not well received by secular intellectuals, Eliot’s contemporary, Scottish writer Edwin Muir, called Ash Wednesday one of the most moving poems Eliot wrote, and perhaps the “most perfect”.
Here I am, an old man in a dry month, Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain. I was neither at the hot gates Nor fought in the warm rain Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass, Bitten by flies, fought. My house is a decayed house, And the Jew squats on the window sill, the owner, Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp, Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London. The goat coughs at night in the field overhead; Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds. The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea, Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter. I an old man, A dull head among windy spaces. Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign!’ The word within a word, unable to speak a word, Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year Came Christ the tiger In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas, To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk Among whispers; by Mr. Silvero With caressing hands, at Limoges Who walked all night in the next room; By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians; By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room Shifting the candles; Fräulein von Kulp Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. Vacant shuttles Weave the wind. I have no ghosts, An old man in a draughty house Under a windy knob. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, Guides us by vanities. Think now She gives when our attention is distracted And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late What’s not believed in, or is still believed, In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes. These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree. The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last We have not reached conclusion, when I Stiffen in a rented house. Think at last I have not made this show purposelessly And it is not by any concitation Of the backward devils. I would meet you upon this honestly. I that was near your heart was removed therefrom To lose beauty in terror, terror in inquisition. I have lost my passion: why should I need to keep it Since what is kept must be adulterated? I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch: How should I use it for your closer contact? These with a thousand small deliberations Protract the profit of their chilled delirium, Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled, With pungent sauces, multiply variety In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do Suspend its operations, will the weevil Delay? De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear In fractured atoms. Gull against the wind, in the windy straits Of Belle Isle, or running on the Horn, White feathers in the snow, the Gulf claims, And an old man driven by the Trades To a sleepy corner. Tenants of the house, Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
This work relates the opinions and impressions of a gerontic, or an elderly man, through a dramatic monologue in blank verse. The speaker, who has lived the majority of his life in the 19th century, describes post World War I Europe. The poem touches a number of themes, most prominently those of religion and sexuality. Apart from being one of the best known works of Eliot, Gerontion is also controversial as it has been cited by some critics as containing anti-Semitic rhetoric, like the lines “The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs.”
#8 Burnt Norton
Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present All time is unredeemable. What might have been is an abstraction Remaining a perpetual possibility Only in a world of speculation. What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present. Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose-garden. My words echo Thus, in your mind. But to what purpose Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves I do not know. Other echoes Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow? Quick, said the bird, find them, find them, Round the corner. Through the first gate, Into our first world, shall we follow The deception of the thrush? Into our first world. There they were, dignified, invisible, Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves, In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air, And the bird called, in response to The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery, And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses Had the look of flowers that are looked at. There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting. So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern, Along the empty alley, into the box circle, To look down into the drained pool. Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged, And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight, And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, The surface glittered out of heart of light, And they were behind us, reflected in the pool. Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty. Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter. Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind Cannot bear very much reality. Time past and time future What might have been and what has been Point to one end, which is always present. Read Full Poem Here
In 1943, T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets was published. It was a set of four interlinked poems with the common theme being man’s relationship with time, the universe, and the divine. Four Quartets is widely regarded as the greatest work of Eliot and Burnt Norton is the first of the four quartets. Created while he worked on his renowned play Murder in the Cathedral, Burnt Norton was first published in his Collected Poems 1909–1935. The central theme of the poem is the nature of time and salvation. In it Eliot lays particular emphasis on the present moment as being the only time period that really matters, because the past cannot be changed and the future is unknown.
#7 Macavity: The Mystery Cat
Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw— For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law. He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair: For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there! Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity, He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity. His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare, And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there! You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air— But I tell you once and once again, Macavity’s not there! Macavity’s a ginger cat, he’s very tall and thin; You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in. His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed; His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed. He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake; And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake. Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity, For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity. You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square— But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there! He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.) And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard’s. And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled, Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled, Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair— Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there! And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray, Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way, There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair— But it’s useless to investigate—Macavity’s not there! And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say: ‘It must have been Macavity!’—but he’s a mile away. You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs; Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums. Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity, There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity. He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare: At whatever time the deed took place—MACAVITY WASN’T THERE! And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known (I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone) Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!
A collection of whimsical poems about the psychology and sociology of cats, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is the only work written by Eliot for a younger audience. It is one of the most popular poetry collections by Eliot and Macavity: The Mystery Cat is its best known poem. Macavity, referred to in the poem as the Hidden Paw and Napoleon of Crime, is a master criminal who is too clever to leave any evidence of his guilt and always a step ahead of the Secret Service. The character of Macavity is modelled on Professor James Moriarty, the super-villain of the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
#6 Journey of the Magi
“A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year For a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter.” And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory, Lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, And the silken girls bringing sherbet. Then the camel men cursing and grumbling And running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly And the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, Sleeping in snatches, With the voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly. Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley, Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation; With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness, And three trees on the low sky, And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow. Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel, Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver, And feet kicking the empty wine-skins. But there was no information, and so we continued And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory. All this was a long time ago, I remember, And I would do it again, but set down This set down This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.
This poem was a part of Ariel poems, a collection of 38 illustrated poetic works by various authors to which Eliot contributed 5 poems. As its title suggests, Journey of the Magi retells the story of the Magi who travelled to Palestine to visit the newborn Jesus. The speaker of the poem is one of the three magi who laments outliving his world, and instead of celebrating the wonder of the journey, focusses on its challenges. He speaks to the reader directly and his revelations are a result of emotional distress. Prominent themes of the poem include alienation and a feeling of powerlessness felt by the narrator in a world that has changed.
I The winter evening settles down With smell of steaks in passageways. Six o’clock. The burnt-out ends of smoky days. And now a gusty shower wraps The grimy scraps Of withered leaves about your feet And newspapers from vacant lots; The showers beat On broken blinds and chimney-pots, And at the corner of the street A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps. And then the lighting of the lamps. II The morning comes to consciousness Of faint stale smells of beer From the sawdust-trampled street With all its muddy feet that press To early coffee-stands. With the other masquerades That time resumes, One thinks of all the hands That are raising dingy shades In a thousand furnished rooms. III You tossed a blanket from the bed, You lay upon your back, and waited; You dozed, and watched the night revealing The thousand sordid images Of which your soul was constituted; They flickered against the ceiling. And when all the world came back And the light crept up between the shutters And you heard the sparrows in the gutters, You had such a vision of the street As the street hardly understands; Sitting along the bed’s edge, where You curled the papers from your hair, Or clasped the yellow soles of feet In the palms of both soiled hands. IV His soul stretched tight across the skies That fade behind a city block, Or trampled by insistent feet At four and five and six o’clock; And short square fingers stuffing pipes, And evening newspapers, and eyes Assured of certain certainties, The conscience of a blackened street Impatient to assume the world. I am moved by fancies that are curled Around these images, and cling: The notion of some infinitely gentle Infinitely suffering thing. Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh; The worlds revolve like ancient women Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
Preludes contains four parts and can be seen as a series of four short poems. It is written in free verse and the four sections don’t conform to any consistent structure. Prelude is by definition an introduction to something more important and Eliot’s poem, one of his earliest, consists many of the themes which were prevalent in his later works. The first poem is set on a winter evening, the second takes place in the morning, in the third the narrator speaks to the reader directly and describes to him his insomnia, and the last part takes us to the business centre of the town at the end of a workday. Preludes is usually seen as a poem which portrays the monotony, dreariness, isolation and suffering of modern urban life.
#4 Little Gidding
Midwinter spring is its own season Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown, Suspended in time, between pole and tropic. When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire, The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches, In windless cold that is the heart's heat, Reflecting in a watery mirror A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon. And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier, Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom Of snow, a bloom more sudden Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading, Not in the scheme of generation. Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer? If you came this way, Taking the route you would be likely to take From the place you would be likely to come from, If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness. It would be the same at the end of the journey, If you came at night like a broken king, If you came by day not knowing what you came for, It would be the same, when you leave the rough road And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for Is only a shell, a husk of meaning From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled If at all. Either you had no purpose Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws, Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city-- But this is the nearest, in place and time, Now and in England. If you came this way, Taking any route, starting from anywhere, At any time or at any season, It would always be the same: you would have to put off Sense and notion. You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity Or carry report. You are here to kneel Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more Than an order of words, the conscious occupation Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying. And what the dead had no speech for, when living, They can tell you, being dead: the communication Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living. Here, the intersection of the timeless moment Is England and nowhere. Never and always. Read Full Poem Here
Little Gidding is the fourth and final poem of Four Quartets, the work Eliot regarded as his masterpiece and which led to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. The title of the poem refers to a small religious community in Huntingdonshire, England. The first three poems of the Four Quartets: Burnt Norton, East Coker and The Dry Salvages; had taken air, earth and water as their subjects respectively; and Little Gidding is a poem of fire with an emphasis on the need for purification and purgation. It contains some of the most acclaimed passages ever written by Eliot like its second section in which the narrator encounters a compound ghost of various poets, including Dante, Swift, Yeats and others.
#3 The Hollow Men
I We are the hollow men We are the stuffed men Leaning together Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when We whisper together Are quiet and meaningless As wind in dry grass or rats' feet over broken glass In our dry cellar Shape without form, shade without colour, Paralysed force, gesture without motion; Those who have crossed With direct eyes, to death's other kingdom Remember us - if at all - not as lost Violent souls, but only As the hollow men The stuffed men. Read Full Poem Here
The Hollow Men, the narrators of this poem, are trapped in a go-between world, a sort of twilight world between “death and dying”. Eliot perhaps uses them to personify the spiritual emptiness of the world. The poem is regarded by critics to be primarily about post-World War I Europe and the difficulty of hope and religious conversion. The Hollow Men contains some of Eliot’s most famous lines, most prominently its concluding lines: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper”, which have been called “probably the most quoted lines of any 20th-century poet writing in English”.
#2 The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question ... Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit. In the room the women come and go Talking of Michelangelo. The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, And seeing that it was a soft October night, Curled once about the house, and fell asleep. Read Full Poem Here
Commonly known as just Prufrock, this work was the first professionally published poem of T. S. Eliot and he wrote most of it at the age of 22. Prufrock is a dramatic monologue of an urban man, stricken with feelings of isolation and an incapability for decisive action that is said “to epitomize frustration and impotence of the modern individual” and “represent thwarted desires and modern disillusionment”. The speaker is a sexually frustrated and indecisive middle aged man who wants to say something but is afraid to do so, and ultimately does not. At the time of its publication, Prufrock was considered outlandish and was berated by critics. However, it is now considered the first masterpiece of Modernism in English, a poem which marked a monumental literary shift between 19th-century Romantic poetry and 20th-century Modernist poetry.
#1 The Waste Land
I. The Burial of the Dead April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers. Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch. And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s, My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled, And I was frightened. He said, Marie, Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. In the mountains, there you feel free. I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter. What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water. Only There is shadow under this red rock, (Come in under the shadow of this red rock), And I will show you something different from either Your shadow at morning striding behind you Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust. Frisch weht der Wind Der Heimat zu Mein Irisch Kind, Wo weilest du? “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; “They called me the hyacinth girl.” —Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, Looking into the heart of light, the silence. Oed’ und leer das Meer. Read Full Poem Here
The Waste Land is divided into five sections: The Burial of the Dead; A Game of Chess; The Fire Sermon; Death by Water; and What the Thunder Said. The style of the poem is marked by hundreds of allusions and quotations from other texts of the Western canon, Buddhism and the Hindu Upanishads. The poem shifts between voices of satire and prophecy featuring abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time. It is notable for its seemingly disjointed structure, indicative of the Modernist style of James Joyce’s Ulysses. The Waste Land is widely regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th century and a central work of modernist poetry. While it is not considered as Eliot’s masterpiece by many critics, it is undoubtedly his most famous poem.