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Happy birthday, T.S. Eliot

September 26, 2008 |  1:30 pm

Tseliotbook_0926 Poet T. S. Eliot was born on this day in 1888. He once said that "A poet must take as his material his own language as it is actually spoken around him." But for Eliot, that was perhaps more complicated than it seems: he was born and raised in Missouri, then studied in New England and Paris before moving to England at 25. In 1959, he told the Paris Review, "[My poetry] wouldn't be what it is if I'd been born in England, and it wouldn’t be what it is if I'd stayed in America. It's a combination of things. But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America."

Eliot's work was groundbreaking and widely appreciated; he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. His life and work have continued to be examined by scholars for decades. Peter Ackroyd published "T.S. Eliot: A Life" in 1984. Lyndall Gordon combined two of her earlier biographical works into "T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life" in 1988. Louis Menand's "Discovering Modernism: Eliot and His Context," originally published in 1986, was reissued last year. 2007 also saw the publication of "T.S. Eliot: Image, Text and Context" by Craig Raine.

But of course the best way to appreciate the poet is through his poetry. The first stanzas of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which I first read and college and still love, after the jump.

Thanks to Books, Inq. for the reminder.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

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.

The complete poem is online at the Poetry Foundation.

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