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 focussing 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
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”.
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?
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.”
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.
#8 Burnt Norton
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.
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.
#7 Macavity: The Mystery Cat
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.
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!
#6 Journey of the Magi
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.
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.
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.
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.
#4 Little Gidding
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.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
#3 The Hollow Men
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”.
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
#2 The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
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.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
#1 The Waste Land
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.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.