T.S. Eliot was poised to be the top poet of his generation. But first he had to be rescued from his day job.
(Image credit: Flickr user Seth Anderson)
In 1921, suffering from a “nervous disorder,” T.S. Eliot took a three-month hiatus from his day job. The 33-year-old had been working as a clerk in the London sub-basement of Lloyds Bank for four years. But with the luxury of time, the part-time poet focused his attention on completing his magnum opus, “The Waste Land.”
Released in 1922, Eliot’s haunting and defiantly oblique work is a landmark of modernism; even at its most impenetrable, one reviewer admitted that Eliot’s work possessed “the music of ideas.” Ezra Pound, too, was impressed. Convinced of Eliot’s genius, Pound reckoned that the grunt work was smothering his creativity. “Some of us consider Eliot’s employment in a bank the worst waste in contemporary literature,” Pound bemoaned.
Of course, financing poetry is a problem as old as poetry itself. For Emily Dickinson or Lord Byron, the answer was simple—being born into the right family relieved them of the worry. Others turned to hack writing to stock the till. Walt Whitman penned a temperance tract while guzzling cheap wine. Edgar Allan Poe cranked out newspaper filler like “Why Not Try a Mineralized Pavement?” When William Wordsworth landed a decidedly unromantic job as a tax collector, he could take comfort in the knowledge that Geoffrey Chaucer had been a customs comptroller in the 14th century. “There’s no money in poetry,” Robert Graves once observed, “but then there’s no poetry in money either.”