Earn like Eliot

Like many poets, T.S. Eliot was sensitive. He was “neurasthenic”, “tired and depressed”, headed for breakdown.

In 1921, under doctor’s orders, he took time off his job at Lloyds Bank to rest in Margate:

Eliot made connections by the sea. He hitched Shakespeare to Ovid; Buddha to the Fisher King. And a masterpiece began to form.

The Waste Land wasn’t a hit with critics. Not immediately, anyway. Eliot’s poem – they argued – was “a collection of flashes”.

But young readers cheered from Britain’s bomb craters. Eliot captured their post-war despair:

Generational angst, there. But The Waste Land was a personal poem, too. These next few lines are weighted with insomnia:

And Lloyds is present. You can catch glimpses of Eliot the dogged professional through his verse:

After the publication of The Waste Land, Eliot’s reputation ballooned. Soon he was declared – by people who declared such things – to be the greatest poet of the 20th century.

That had to be transformative, right? What did that mean for his job at Lloyds? I hate to break it to you, but… no. No and absolutely nothing.

From Monday to Saturday, Eliot descended the stairs to the basement office of the foreign transactions department.

He translated documents and interpreted the policies of distant governments. Even at its dullest, it suited his character.

Aldous Huxley found Eliot to be “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks”. And Virginia Woolf swore he’d attend informal lunches “in a four-piece suit”.

Ezra Pound couldn’t understand it: “It is a crime against literature to let him waste 8 hours of vitality per diem in that bank.”

Pound even started a fund to free Eliot from the shackles of employment. But I wonder whether Eliot could have coped without the stability of Lloyds.

Consider him: a gaunt man with jumbled nerves… a sick marriage… judgemental parents… How did he forge great works? How did he find the fire?

He lit it within himself. At the bank, he could stand apart from literary circles, “isolated and detached” and wholly original.

And, yes, his flame smouldered, rather than blazed; he wrote a few great poems, rather than much mediocrity. But, with a steady income and the respect of his colleagues, Eliot had time.

It wasn’t as if Eliot was incapable of spontaneity; he married in haste and in secret. And the results were predictably catastrophic:

“To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came ‘The Waste Land.'”

Eliot was more cautious with his literary career.

His tact keeps him from fitting with our stereotypes about revolutionary artists. Stereotypes inspired by Shelley and Byron, who were both – by the way – born rich.

But we can learn from Eliot’s patience. A robust study of entrepreneurs found that those who held on to their day jobs were 33% less likely to fail in their new venture.

That has to do with financial and psychological security I’m sure. Then, there are the skills you pick up in a gargantuan corporation. Networking and perseverance among them.

When Eliot left Lloyds, it was for the publishing house Faber and Faber. They hired him for his literary connections, and because – in the words of Eliot’s biographer – he “knew about money, which is what publishers want”.

The role demanded a banker and a poet; T.S. Eliot was it.

So Eliot earnt that success, as he had earnt many others. He put in the time, effort and suffering required to reshape the Western canon.

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