TS Eliot grew up a sickly and lonely but privileged and loved child in St Louis, Missouri as the child of a long-established and well-connected Unitarian family. His mother was an amateur poet and his father a financialluy successful leader of the community. Eliot attended Harvard University where he studied East Indian Philosophy, wrote a draft of "The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock" and then went to Oxford University on a fellowship. Here he found himself more deeply at home in the genteel world of European studies and he began to explore his passion for French Medieval literature ( particularly the Arthurian legends). He met the vivacious but deeply troubled Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who shared his love for literature. After a whirlwind courtship, they eloped together and began what was to become one of the truly most disastrous unions in all of literary history. Elio worked by day in the "ordinary and mundane" world of banking and publishing; at night, the couple would socialize with the Bloomsbury Group. In their inner circle of friends included the intense Ezra Pound (whose skills as an editor and writer have been eclipsed in history by his rabid Anti-Semitism and Fascist tendencies that emerged in WW2) and Virginia Woolf, whose depression ultimately led to suicide
Vivienne suffered from acute mental illness and the strain of their relationship drive Eliot to his own nervous breakdown. It was in the aftermath of this that he peened what has become known as the "anthem" of the Modernist movement, " The Wasteland". The title refers to the agony and sterility of the Kingdom of the Impotent and Suffering Grail King Anfortas of the story of Parsifal and the the Grail. IN the five movements, we hear a cacophony of voices that take us on a journey of despair and fear-- not unlike a schizophrenic breakdown.
Many of the lines in the poem were actually quotes from Vivienne herself- woven with characters ranging from Teresias ( the blind sage from Greek myth and thee Odyssey), a Tarot-reading madam and quotes of St Augustine, amongst others. Latin, French, Provencal, German are but a few of the languages woven inside the poem, along with a plethora of snatches from popular songs
Click here for an article about The Wasteland and Mental Illness
Below is Fiona Shaw's astonishing performance of The Wasteland, the masterpiece Eliot wrote after his breakdown which gave voice to the despair of the "Lost Generation" .
In addition to his training in Cognitive Behavior Threapy and mindfulness practice under the tutelage of a Swiss psychiatrist, Eliot's salvation from this abyss of depression hinged on a few critical discoveries: the Late Quartets of Beethoven, a deeper dive into Dante's Divine Comedy and an immersion into the Christian Mystical tradition.
It was in contemplative retreat and specifically, the immersion into the Liturgy of the Hours, that Eliot brought order to the chaos of his inner life and balm to his aching ( and guild ridden) spirit. HIs immersion in Anglo-Catholic Christianity, however, drove away his closest friends. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that he "“is dead to us all from this day forward… there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”
His faith was given voice in his poems of the following years in which Eliot sought to juxtapose lines and images from liturgy with his daily life. "Ash Wednesday" and "The Journey of the Magi" are the two most striking poems from this post-conversion period. Click here to listen to TS Eliot reading his poem "Journey of the Magi"
Psychological and Spiritual Refernces: Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Second Half of Life, Fr. Richard Rohr The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri- purchase the recorded retreat by Kayleen Asbo here