How T. S. Eliot Found a Book That Changed His Life

“Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being”, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche—“something that is not ultimately amenable to education or cultivation by anyone else.” Nietzsche’s essay (which I’ve quoted often) is in one sense a paean to Arthur Schopenhauer, who changed his life. In another sense it is a description of the power of a single book and a single thinker to shape us and change the course of our lives, if we are lucky enough to come across them.

I’ve been reading a great deal of T. S. Eliot lately, and in one biography came across a Nietzschean description of how Eliot found his educator.

Where for Nietzsche it was Schopenhauer (a man whose philosophy grew out of an awful first job), for Eliot it is Jules Laforgue, the French symbolist poet who died the year before Eliot was born. In 1908, when Eliot was twenty, he went to the Harvard Union Library, one of his favourite spots for reading. Crawford describes in his biography:

T S Eliot poetry Jules Laforgue Nietzsche educator“There, upstairs, warmly protected from the December weather outside, he (Eliot) was looking through recently received books. Alert University library staff helped stock the Union’s shelves. Tom’s eye was caught by the name of Arthur Symons, and by his book’s title, The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It was a small second edition published earlier that year and just imported from London…”

Much later in his Paris Review Interview Eliot would describe that book by Symons as one that introduced him to Laforgue and therefore changed the course of his life.

Robert Crawford describes in his biography of Eliot how

“Before late 1908, Tom had never heard of Laforgue. By late 1909 he was almost his reincarnation. The experience was like falling in love. A decade later, when his marriage was in trouble, Tom used strikingly erotic language to describe the vital, transformational reading, implying, perhaps, that (though the object of attention was a dead man) it had been better than falling in love. 

Eliot described the process by saying,

“When a young writer is seized with his first passion of this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks, from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person.”

It is a Nietzschean description of a true educator—an experience we should all hope to have. Crawford certainly believes that had Eliot not stumbled across Symons’ book on French symbolist poetry in the Harvard Union, he never would have become the poet he was. This reminds me of a quotation of Mark Greif, who in an essay on his own educator, philosopher Stanley Cavell, said that “What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found.”

Why T. S. Eliot Considered Himself a “Victim” of College Elective Courses

During his time at Harvard the twentieth century’s most famous poet, T. S. Eliot, was the epitome of a liberal arts student. He studied almost everything, from art history and Greek philosophy to logic, German language, Pali and Buddhism. All of this would later combine to make his poetry an eclectic mix of global philosophies and ideas.

But twenty years after graduating, Eliot thought that the elective system at Harvard, common to all liberal arts colleges today, had let him down. In a letter to his mother he wrote:

“I was one of the victims of the “elective system”. I have always regretted that as an undergraduate I did not stick to Latin and Greek, and some mathematics, and leave alone all the things I dabbled in year after year…

I had been so interested in many things that I did nothing thoroughly, and was always thinking about new subjects that I wanted to study, instead of following out any one.”

His comment speaks to the division between American colleges and undergraduate programs in other countries—in the former dabbling is encouraged, even required, while at the latter it is made extremely difficult.

Each system has its advantages, though I’ve long come down on the side of supporting intellectual exploration in one’s undergraduate years. It was interesting to come across this very different perspective.


From The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 4T S Eliot letters liberal arts college electives

T. S. Eliot: “The thing is to be able to look at one’s life as if it were somebody’s else”

In 1914 Thomas Stearns Eliot was four years out of Harvard and had completed his first masterpiece, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The poem was not yet published, but he knew it was good, and Ezra Pound had promised to help him get it placed in print (it soon would be). Eliot was living in London and was soon to head to Oxford for a year of study.

T. S. Eliot letters and his careerIt’s easy for us to look at Eliot at that point in his life and see his success as given—to wish that we had a piece of great work behind us, as he did, and to be free from financial worry, as he was, with years of further study ahead of us. But this was not at all Eliot’s state of mind at the time. In a letter of September that year to his good friend and fellow poet from Harvard Conrad Aiken, he was full of worry:

“The devil of it is that I have done nothing good since J. A. P. and writhe in impotence. The stuff I sent you is not good, is very forced in execution, though the idea was right, I think. Sometimes I think—if only I could get back to Paris. But I know I never will, for long. I must learn to talk English.

Anyway, I’m in the worry way now. Too many minor considerations. Does anything kill as petty worries do? And in America we worry all the time. That, in fact, is I think the great use of suffering, if it’s tragic suffering — it takes you away from yourself — and petty suffering does exactly the reverse, and kills your inspiration.

I think now that all my good stuff was done before I had begun to worry — three years ago. I sometimes think it would be better to be just a clerk in a post office with nothing to worry about — but the consciousness of having made a failure of one’s life. Or a millionaire, ditto. 

The thing is to be able to look at one’s life as if it were somebody’s else — (I much prefer to say somebody else’s). That is difficult in England, almost impossible in America. — But it may be all right in the long run, (if I can get over it), perhaps tant mieux (so much the better). 

Anyway, I have been living a pleasant and useless life of late, and talking (bad) French too…


From The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1: 1989—1922. Yale University Press. Pages 62-4.

T. S. Eliot Defines Stoicism

Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile world too big for him…”

In 1927 T. S. Eliot sought in an essay to explain the connection between Shakespeare and the Roman playwright and man of letters Seneca. Or rather, by pre-empting the idea that Shakespeare could be explained by Seneca, Eliot mocks the growing number of voices in literary history seeking to explain Shakespeare’s thought in terms of one thinker or another. (Recent attempts had been made to explain him in terms of Montaigne and Machiavelli).

In the midst of the essay Eliot passingly defines stoicism:

“Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile world too big for him; it is the permanent substratum of a number of versions of cheering oneself up. Nietzsche is the most conspicuous modern instance of cheering oneself up. The stoical attitude is the reverse of Christian humility.”
It’s a remarkable definition for its unexpectedness. One imagines stoics undertaking a much deeper struggle than merely “cheering oneself up”, and yet Eliot shows us that in such a philosophy that is all we really attempt to find.
I also think it worth quoting Eliot’s not so favourable review of Seneca’s Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (or Letters from a Stoic) just for interest’s sake:

“I think it quite unlikely that Shakespeare knew anything of that extraordinarily dull and uninteresting body of Seneca’s prose, which was translated by Loge and printed in 1612.”