BY SAM KILKENNY
I. T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)
T.S. Eliot is one of the most recognized poets of the 20th century. His work attracted widespread attention during his lifetime and is still taught in schools around the world. In 1948 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “For his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry.” But he was also much more than a poet. He was an essayist, playwright, critic, editor, publisher, and, at one time, a bank clerk.
II. Famous Poet Loves 9 to 5
In the years leading up to his appointment as a bank clerk, Eliot was juggling the typical artist/hustler lifestyle.
In his twenties, “He [was] devoting all his energies to writing reviews and essays, teaching school, and delivering an ambitious lecture series–a devouring workload that left him little time for poetry and, worse, barely earned him enough money to scrape by.”
When he finally settled for a typical 9 to 5 at Lloyds bank, Eliot felt a great sense of relief. He wrote to his mother:
“Perhaps it will surprise you to hear that I enjoy the work. It is not nearly so fatiguing as school teaching, and is more interesting.”
He was making a good wage and finally had the time to work on his poetry. In fact, it was during this time that Eliot wrote one of his greatest works, The Waste Land, which is still regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th century.
III. Why Not A Subscriber Model?
In Eliot and His Age (1971), Historian Russell Kirk writes that even after the publication and success of The Waste Land: “Eliot woke to find himself famous; but still he labored in the cellars of Lloyd’s bank.”
After a few years, the monotony of working at the bank was catching up to Eliot. He wrote, “the prospect of staying there for the rest of my life is abominable to me.” His friends agreed. What was a once-in-generation talent doing toiling away at a bank? So his friends devised a plan. They would put together a subscription model for him, a sort of 20th-century Patreon account, and secure enough money to free Eliot from employment.
But surprisingly Eliot liked having a 9 to 5. He politely rejected their offer and worked at the bank for a few more years before moving to the publishing firm Faber and Faber where he was responsible for publishing poets including W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Charles Madge, and Ted Hughes. Eliot remained at the firm for the rest of his career.
IV. In Praise of the 9 to 5
Instead of wanting to escape the 9 to 5 grind of jobs, Eliot found benefits in its routine and security. Many artists and writers want nothing more than to escape the need to maintain a typical job, but Eliot found that stable jobs helped him become a better poet and writer. The sense of security may have helped give him the courage to take bigger chances with his work. Edmund Wilson wrote that Eliot was “one of our only authentic poets.”
This article is heavily indebted to the work of Mason Currey. Check out his book Daily rituals or his newsletter.