Eliot was descended from a distinguished New England family that had relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. From Smith Academy in St. Louis he went to Milton, in Massachusetts; from Milton he entered Harvard. The men who influenced him at Harvard were George Santayana, the philosopher and poet, and the critic Irving Babbitt. From Babbitt he derived an anti-Romantic attitude that, amplified by his later reading of British philosophers F.H. Bradley and T.E. Hulme, lasted through his life.
He spent the year 1910–11 in France, attending Henri Bergson's lectures in philosophy at the Sorbonne and reading poetry with Alain-Fournier. Eliot's study of the poetry of Dante, of the English writers John Webster and John Donne, and of the French Symbolist Jules Laforgue helped him to find his own style. In 1914 Eliot met and began a close association with the American poet Ezra Pound. American-English poet, playwright, literary critic, and editor, a leader of the modernist movement in poetry in such works as The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943), he was probably the most erudite poet of his time in the English language. Eliot exercised a strong influence on Anglo-American culture from the 1920s until late in the century. His experiments in diction, style, and versification revitalized English poetry, and in a series of critical essays he shattered old orthodoxies and erected new ones. The publication of Four Quartets led to his recognition as the greatest living English poet and man of letters, and in 1948 he was awarded both the Order of Merit and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
From the 1920s onward, Eliot's influence as a poet and as a critic was immense. His criticism and poetry are so interwoven that it is difficult to discuss them separately. His creative energies were spent in writing plays in verse, mostly comedies or plays with redemptive endings. He was long a critic and fan of Elizabethian and Jacobean verse drama. During his lifetime his work was the subject of much sympathetic exegesis. Since his death and coinciding with a wider challenge to the academic study of English literature that his critical precepts did much to establish interpreters have been markedly more critical, focusing on his complex relationship to his American origins, his elitist cultural and social views, and his exclusivist notions of tradition and of race. Eliot, like their 18th-century counterparts, set about reforming poetic diction. Eliot struggled to create new verse rhythms based on the rhythms of contemporary speech. He sought a poetic diction that might be spoken by an educated person, being “neither pedantic nor vulgar.”
Eliot's poetic output was small. Typically, Eliot first published his poems in periodicals or in small books or pamphlets consisting of a single poem (e.g., the Ariel poems) and then adding them to collections. In 1925 Eliot collected The Waste Land. Composed during a period of personal difficulty for Eliot The Waste Land is often read as a representation of the disillusionment of the post-war generation.
The Waste Land expresses with great power the disenchantment, disillusionment, and disgust of the period after World War I. In a series of vignettes, loosely linked by the legend of the search for the Grail, it portrays a sterile world of panicky fears and barren lusts, and of human beings waiting for some sign or promise of redemption. The poem's style is highly complex, erudite, and allusive, and the poet provided notes and references to explain the work's many quotations and allusions. This scholarly supplement distracted some readers and critics from perceiving the true originality of the poem, which lay rather in its rendering of the universal human predicament of man desiring salvation, and in its manipulation of language, than in its range of literary references.
In his earlier poems Eliot had shown himself to be a master of the poetic phrase. The Waste Land showed him to be, in addition, a metrist of great virtuosity, capable of astonishing modulations ranging from the sublime to the conversational. In this essay Eliot expresses the hopelessness and confusion of purpose of life in the secularized city, the decay of urbs aeterna (the “eternal city. But The Waste Land is not a simple contrast of the heroic past with the degraded present; it is rather a timeless, simultaneous awareness of moral grandeur and moral evil).
Eliot said that the poet-critic must write “programmatic criticism”, that is, criticism that expresses the poet's own interests as a poet, quite different from historical scholarship, which stops at placing the poet in his background. Eliot asserts that tradition, as used by the poet, is not a mere repetition of the work of the immediate past (“novelty is better than repetition,” he said); rather, it comprises the whole of European literature from Homer to the present. The poet writing in English may therefore make his own tradition by using materials from any past period, in any language. This point of view is “programmatic” in the sense that it disposes the reader to accept the revolutionary novelty of Eliot's polyglot quotations and serious parodies of other poets' styles in The Waste Land. Eliot's theory of the objective correlative, that is the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art, consists in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula for that particular emotion; such that, when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
In two other essays he effects a new historical perspective on the hierarchy of English poetry, putting at the top Donne and other Metaphysical poets of the 17th century and lowering poets of the 18th and 19th centuries. Eliot's “dissociation of sensibility,” instead was invented to explain the change that came over English poetry after Donne and Andrew Marvell. This change seems to him to consist in a loss of the union of thought and feeling. The phrase has been attacked, yet the historical fact that gave rise to it cannot be denied, and with the poetry of Eliot it had a strong influence in reviving interest in certain 17th-century poets.