06/21/2013 02:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Recognizing That Poets Don't Peak Early: T.S. Eliot Reads Shakespeare

T.S. Eliot was the quintessential conceptual young genius. He published "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the most frequently anthologized American poem of the 20th century, at the age of 23, and The Waste Land, which many consider the most influential poem of the century, at 34. Younger poets were awed by Eliot's technical excellence and his precocity: Malcolm Cowley later recalled that "Essentially the picture he presented was that of the local–boy–makes–good...His achievement was the writing of perfect poems, poems in which we could not find a line that betrayed immaturity, awkwardness, provincialism or platitude."


Photo of T.S. Eliot (ca. 1920). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Like many conceptual prodigies, Eliot intuitively assumed that his own experience was typical: in 1940, in a memorial lecture for William Butler Yeats, he remarked "That a poet should develop at all, that he should find something new to say, and say it equally well, in middle age, has always something miraculous about it." Interestingly, academic psychologists would later agree with Eliot. In 1953, for example, Harvey Lehman wrote that "the golden decade for the writing of secular poetry occurs not later than the twenties," and in 1993 Howard Gardner declared that "lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, then peters out at an early age. There are few exceptions to this meteoric pattern."


Photo of T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf (ca. 1924). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

T.S. Eliot considered Shakespeare the greatest of poets and dramatists, and studied his work from an early age - when Eliot was 16, his mother wrote to the headmaster of Milton Academy that "He has read practically all of Shakespeare, whom he admires, and retains much in memory." Eliot never stopped pondering the nature of Shakespeare's development: he made references to it throughout his life, as Shakespeare's example became a focal point for Eliot's consideration of the relationship between age and creativity. Eliot marveled at the "slow, continuous development of mastery of his craft of verse" that never ceased: "To the last Shakespeare is inexhaustible. Whatever he did was new." Eliot saw an overall continuity in Shakespeare's art, "so that we may say confidently that the full meaning of any one of his plays is not in itself alone, but in that play in the order in which it was written, in its relation to all of Shakespeare's other plays, earlier and later."


William Shakespeare; engraving by Martin Droeshout (ca. 1632). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Shakespeare was a great experimental innovator. The critic Harold Bloom wrote that "If I could question any dead writer, it would be Shakespeare...I would blurt out: did it comfort you to have fashioned women and men more real than living men and women?" The scholar Stephen Greenblatt observed that Shakespeare's achievement was "not a sudden, definitive invention, but the subtle refinement of a particular set of representational techniques." Eliot's careful reading of Shakespeare made him recognize the life cycle of a great experimental innovator, as he contrasted Shakespeare's life cycle to that of a conceptual young genius who was his exact contemporary:

We can observe...that the plays of Christopher Marlowe exhibit a greater maturity of mind and of style, than the plays Shakespeare wrote at the same time: it is interesting to speculate whether, if Marlowe had lived as long as Shakespeare, his development would have continued at the same pace. I doubt it: for we observe some minds maturing earlier than others, and we observe that those which mature very early do not always develop very far.


Photo of T.S. Eliot (ca. 1959). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

In his last public lecture, Eliot remarked that "So great is Shakespeare...that a lifetime is hardly enough for growing up to appreciate him," and in one of his last essays he declared that "the development of one's opinions [of Shakespeare] may be the measure of one's development in wisdom." The extended and gradual growth of the experimental Shakespeare was clearly puzzling, and perhaps uncomfortable, to the conceptual Eliot, whose own life cycle of creativity was so different. But Eliot was too intelligent a reader not to recognize the growth of Shakespeare's powers over the course of his life, and too principled a critic not to consider the ways in which his creativity grew with age. In this, Eliot should be a model for anyone who is concerned with understanding the realities of creative life cycles.

Photo of T.S. Eliot (ca. 1956). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.