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T.S. Eliot Had a Day Job Too, Ya Know!

By Harriet Staff

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We’re grateful to the Paris Review blog for linking over to this article at Full Stop, by Robert Fay, discussing T.S. Eliot’s bank years at Llyod’s Bank of London. Fay also has a lot to say about poets’ day jobs in general (did we know that poets had day jobs?, we thinks we did!), but we love the lead-in to the story with this profile of Mr. Eliot, the banker:

When the most influential poet of the 20th Century penned The Waste Land in 1922, he was also dutifully employed as a clerk in a London bank. And by “bank” I don’t mean your neighborhood credit union where they raffle-off family getaways to Disney and give lollipops to cute kids, but an austere English bank with officers who wore bowler hats and secretly idolized the pre-transformation Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

T.S. Eliot worked in the foreign transactions department at Lloyd’s bank from 1917 until 1925 (from the age of 29 until he was 37). He punched in Monday through Friday (plus one Saturday a month) from 9:15 am to 5:30 pm. Like many Americans today, he only qualified for two weeks of vacation a year.

Historian Russell Kirk ,in his essential book on Eliot, Eliot and His Age (1971), writes that the publication and success of The Waste Land both changed, and didn’t change Eliot’s circumstances: “Like other poets before him, Eliot woke to find himself famous; but still he labored in the cellars of Lloyd’s bank.” And by referring to the cellar here, Kirk is not being metaphorical. The novelist Aldous Huxley visited Eliot at Lloyd’s and wrote: “(Eliot) was not on the ground floor nor even on the floor under that, but in a sub-sub-basement sitting at a desk which was in a row of desks with other bank clerks.”

And while Eliot’s banking days are no secret, what is less appreciated is that he was really good at his day job. Huxley observed that Eliot was indeed “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” And an officer of Lloyd’s, upon hearing of Eliot’s success with his “hobby,” remarked that Eliot had a bright future at Lloyd’s if he wanted it. “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become Branch Manager.” Eliot eventually took a post with famed publisher Faber & Faber where he worked for decades, eventually earning the title of Director. And Eliot was no figurehead at the publishing house; this was not a “writer-in-residence” gig — Eliot had to bring his business acumen to work each day. Faber colleague Frank Morley remembered that “Eliot had a theory you were not likely to lose money on the books you didn’t publish.”

Fay goes on to talk about other day jobs occupied by famous writers, and much more, so jump over and read all about it!

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, January 18th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.