It is obvious that we can no more explain a passion to a person who has never experienced it than we can explain light to the blind.
Eliot was born into the Eliot family, a Boston Brahmin family with roots in England and New England. His paternal grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, had moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to establish a Unitarian church there.
His father, Henry Ware Eliot (1843–1919), was a successful businessman, president and treasurer of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis; his mother, Charlotte Champe Stearns (1843–1929), wrote poetry and was a social worker, a new profession in the early twentieth century. Eliot was the last of six surviving children; his parents were both 44 years old when he was born. His four sisters were between eleven and nineteen years older; his brother was eight years older. Known to family and friends as Tom, he was the namesake of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Stearns.
Several factors are responsible for Eliot’s infatuation with literature during his childhood. First, he had to overcome physical limitations as a child. Struggling from a congenital double inguinal hernia, he could not participate in many physical activities and thus was prevented from socialising with his peers. As he was often isolated, his love for literature developed. Once he learned to read, the young boy immediately became obsessed with books and was absorbed in tales depicting savages, the Wild West, or Mark Twain’s thrill-seeking Tom Sawyer. In his memoir of Eliot, his friend Robert Sencourt comments that the young Eliot “would often curl up in the window-seat behind an enormous book, setting the drug of dreams against the pain of living.” Secondly, Eliot credited his hometown with fuelling his literary vision: “It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done. I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London.” Thus, from the onset, literature was an essential part of Eliot’s childhood and both his disability and location influenced him.
[see_also link=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elliot” target=”_blank” label=”More about”]Elliot[/see_also]
From 1898 to 1905, Eliot attended Smith Academy, where his studies included Latin, Ancient Greek, French, and German. He began to write poetry when he was fourteen under the influence of Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a translation of the poetry of Omar Khayyam. He said the results were gloomy and despairing and he destroyed them. His first published poem, “A Fable For Feasters”, was written as a school exercise and was published in the Smith Academy Record in February 1905. Also published there in April 1905 was his oldest surviving poem in manuscript, an untitled lyric, later revised and reprinted as “Song” in The Harvard Advocate, Harvard University’s student magazine. He also published three short stories in 1905, “Birds of Prey”, “A Tale of a Whale” and “The Man Who Was King”. The last mentioned story significantly reflects his exploration of Igorot Village while visiting the 1904 World’s Fair of St. Louis. Such a link with primitive people importantly antedates his anthropological studies at Harvard.
Following graduation, Eliot attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts for a preparatory year, where he met Scofield Thayer who would later publish The Waste Land. He studied philosophy at Harvard College from 1906 to 1909, earning his bachelor’s degree after three years, instead of the usual four. Frank Kermode writes that the most important moment of Eliot’s undergraduate career was in 1908 when he discovered Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899). This introduced him to Jules Laforgue, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine. Without Verlaine, Eliot wrote, he might never have heard of Tristan Corbière and his book Les amours jaunes, a work that affected the course of Eliot’s life. The Harvard Advocate published some of his poems and he became lifelong friends with Conrad Aiken the American novelist.
After working as a philosophy assistant at Harvard from 1909 to 1910, Eliot moved to Paris, where from 1910 to 1911, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. He attended lectures by Henri Bergson and read poetry with Alain-Fournier. From 1911 to 1914, he was back at Harvard studying Indian philosophy and Sanskrit. Eliot was awarded a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford in 1914. He first visited Marburg, Germany, where he planned to take a summer program, but when the First World War broke out, he went to Oxford instead. At the time so many American students attended Merton that the Junior Common Room proposed a motion “that this society abhors the Americanization of Oxford”. It was defeated by two votes, after Eliot reminded the students how much they owed American culture.