Popular Quotes Attributed to T. S. Eliot

Quotation
 
Source
A toothache, or a violent passion, is not necessarily diminished by our knowledge of its causes, its character, its importance or insignificance.
Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley (1916 doctoral dissertation in philosophy)
After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
"Gerontion" (1919 poem)
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.
Choruses from The Rock (1934 play)
All significant truths are private truths. As they become public they cease to become truths; they become facts, or at best, part of the public character; or at worst, catchwords.
Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley (1916 doctoral dissertation in philosophy)
Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.
Not Eliot
Apparently a quote from animator Chuck Jones.
April is the cruellest month.
The Waste Land (1922 poem)
The opening line.
As for us, we know too much, and are convinced of too little. Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion.
"A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry" (1928 essay)
At the still point of the turning world.
"Burnt Norton" (1935 poem, from Four Quartets) & "Triumphal March" (1931 poem)
Bad artists copy; great artists steal.
Misquotation
The correct wording is here, top line.
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
"The Hollow Men" (1925 poem)
Books. Cats. Life is good.
Not Eliot
Correct source: Edward Gorey in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer (2011). Gorey illustrated Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats in 1982.
Christ is the still point of the turning world.
Misquoted
In "Burnt Norton" (1935 poem, from Four Quartets), Eliot writes, "At the still point of the turning world." Although the still point can be interpreted as a reference to God or to Christ, Eliot does not say that Christ is the still point.
Business today consists in persuading crowds.
Not Eliot
Correct source: Gerald Stanley Lee, Crowds: A Moving Picture of Democracy (1913).
Classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.
"Preface to For Lancelot Andrewes (1928 collection of essays)
In context: "The general point of view [of these essays] may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion. I am quite aware that the first term is completely vague, and easily lends itself to clap-trap; I am aware that the second term is at present without definition, and easily lends itself to what is almost worse than clap-trap, I mean temperate conservatism; the third term does not rest with me to define."
Distracted from distraction by distraction
"Burnt Norton" (1935 poem, from Four Quartets)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1910 poem, published 1917)
Do I dare to eat a peach?
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1910 poem, published 1917)
Every moment is a fresh beginning.
Misquoted from "East Coker" (1940 poem, from Four Quartets)
Eliot wrote "For the pattern is new in every moment / And every moment is a new and shocking / Valuation of all we have been," and he wrote "And so each venture / Is a new beginning." Someone seems to have combined these two passages from "East Coker" to produce a sound bite.
For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
"Little Gidding" (1942 poem, from Four Quartets)
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
"East Coker" (1940 poem, from Four Quartets)
Friendship should be more than biting Time can sever.
Murder in the Cathedral (1935 play)
Spoken by the First Tempter, an odious character
Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.
"Dante" (1929 essay)
In context: "What is surprising about the poetry of Dante is that it is, in one sense, extremely easy to read. It is a test (a positive test, I do not assert that it is always valid negatively), that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood."
Gin and drugs, Madam—gin and drugs.
Quoted as a possibly apocryphal anecdote in Edmund Wilson, The Bit Between My Teeth (1965)
Often misreported as Eliot's answer to a question about his source of inspiration, and usually with the addressee changed to "dear lady" or "my dear." In context: "At the conclusion of a lecture or a reading of his poetry at some town not far from Boston, an enthusiastic lady is supposed to have expressed surprise at his radiant and youthful appearance and to have asked him how he ever managed it. 'Gin and drugs, Madam—gin and drugs!' the poet is supposed to have replied."
Half of the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.
The Cocktail Party (1949 play)
The lines (spoken by the character Henry Harcourt-Reilly) continue: "They don't mean to do harm—but the harm does not interest them. / Or they do not see it, or they justify it / Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle / To think well of themselves."
He is satisfied with nothing short of everything.
Misquoted from "Little Gidding" (1942 poem, from Four Quartets)
Eliot wrote of "A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)." The parenthetical line has been recontextualized and simplified to refer more explicitly to Christian commitment.
Hell is oneself,
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections.
The Cocktail Party (1949 play)
Spoken by the character Edward Chamberlayne.
Home is where one starts from.
"East Coker" (1940 poem, from Four Quartets)
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
"Lines for Cuscuscaraway and Mirza Murad Ali Beg" (1933 poem)
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.
Murder in the Cathedral (1935 play) & "Burnt Norton" (1935 poem, from Four Quartets)
Humour is also a way of saying something serious.
Note on James Thurber (1951)
I always feel it's not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.
"The Art of Poetry" (1959 interview with Donald Hall)
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1910 poem, published 1917)
I knew a man once did a girl in
Any man has to, needs to, wants to
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in.
Sweeney Agonistes (1926-27 play)
Spoken by the character Sweeney.
I should be glad of another death.
"Journey of the Magi" (1927 poem)
I want to be cured / Of a craving for something I cannot find / And of the shame of never finding it.
The Cocktail Party (1949 play)
Spoken by the character Celia Coplestone.
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The Waste Land (1922 poem)
If one can really penetrate the life of another age, one is penetrating the life of one's own.
Introduction to The Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (1928 essay)
If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?
Source unknown
If you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby "it."
Not Eliot
Correct source: Jerome K. Jerome, Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886).
If you haven't the strength to impose your own terms
Upon life, you must accept the terms it offers you.
The Confidential Clerk (1953 play)
Spoken by the character Sir Claude Mulhammer.
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
"Philip Massinger" (1920 essay)
Often misquoted (e.g., "Bad artists copy; great artists steal" or "The immature poet imitates; the mature poet plagiarizes"). Sometimes misattributed to William Faulkner, Pablo Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, or Lionel Trilling. In context: "One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."
In a world of fugitives
The person taking the opposite direction
Will appear to run away.
The Family Reunion (1939 play)
Spoken by the character Agatha.
In life there is not time to grieve long.
Murder in the Cathedral (1935 play)
Spoken by the play's chorus.
In my beginning is my end.
"East Coker" (1940 poem, from Four Quartets)
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1910 poem, published 1917)
It is obvious that we can no more explain a passion to a person who has never experienced it than we can explain light to the blind.
Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley (1916 doctoral dissertation in philosophy)
It's strange that words are so inadequate.
Yet, like the asthmatic struggling for breath,
So the lover must struggle for words.
The Elder Statesman (1959 play)
Knowledge is invariably a matter of degree: you cannot put your finger upon even the simplest datum and say "this we know."
Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley (1916 doctoral dissertation in philosophy)
Let's not be narrow, nasty, and negative.
Not Eliot
Sometimes attributed to Vernon Grounds, source unspecified.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table
"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1910 poem, published 1917)
Most editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.
Eliot's publisher, Robert Giroux, asked Eliot "if he agreed with the definition that most editors are failed writers." Eliot replied, "Perhaps, but so are most writers."
Quoted by Giroux in "A Personal Memoir," T. S. Eliot: The Man and his Work, ed. Allen Tate (1967): 339.
Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.
Misquotation
The correct wording is here, top line.
My greatest trouble is getting the curtain up and down.
Quoted in "Mr. Eliot," Time 6 Mar. 1950: 26
In context: "As a playwright, Eliot is still a little dazed by the footlights. He resorts to chalk and blackboard to work out his plots. Says he: 'My greatest trouble is getting the curtain up & down.'"
O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.
Choruses from The Rock (1934 play)
Only by aceptance
Of the past will you alter its meaning.
The Cocktail Party (1949 play)
Spoken by the character Henry Harcourt-Reilly.
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
"Preface to Transit of Venus," a 1931 book of poems by Harry Crosby
In context: "Of course one can 'go too far' and except in directions in which we can go too far there is no interest in going at all; and only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out just how far one can go."
Our difficulties of the moment must always be dealt with somehow: but our permanent difficulties are difficulties of every moment.
The Idea of a Christian Society (1939 treatise)
Our high respect for a well-read man is praise enough of literature.
Not Eliot
Correct source: Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Quotation and Originality" (1859).
People to whom nothing has ever happened
Cannot understand the unimportance of events.
The Family Reunion (1939 play)
Spoken by the character Harry Monchensey.
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion.
"Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919 essay)
Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.
Misquotation
The correct wording is here, top line.
Sometimes things become possible if we want them bad enough.
Source unknown
Success is relative:
It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things.
The Family Reunion (1939 play)
Spoken by the character Agatha.
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Ash-Wednesday (1930 poem)
[Television] is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.
Quoted in Leonard Lyons, "The Lyons Den"
A comment made in an interview (New York Post Magazine 22 Sept. 1963: 7).
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
The Waste Land (1922 poem)
The communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
"Little Gidding" (1942 poem, from Four Quartets)
These lines appear on Eliot's memorial in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror.
"Little Gidding" (1942 poem, from Four Quartets)
The Indian philosophers make the European philosophers sound like infants.
Misquotation
In After Strange Gods (1934 lecture series) Eliot writes of his graduate studies in Sanskrit and Eastern metaphysics: "A good half of the effort of understanding what the Indian philosophers were after—and their subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys—lay in trying to erase from my mind all the categories and kinds of distinction common to European philosophy from the time of the Greeks."
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Murder in the Cathedral (1935 play)
Lines spoken by the play's hero, the sainted 12th-century Archbishop of Canturbury Thomas Becket.
The Nobel is a ticket to one's own funeral. No one has ever done anything after he got it.
1948 remark to fellow poet John Berryman after he congratulated Eliot on winning the prize
Quoted by Eileen Simpson in Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir (1982): 173.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
"East Coker" (1940 poem, from Four Quartets)
The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.
Misquotation
In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1932-33 lecture series), Eliot speculates that writing for the theater might give poets "immediate compensation for the pains of turning blood into ink. As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug's game." He does not say that turning blood into ink is the purpose of literature.
The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.
Source unknown
Though it seems plausibly Eliot's in both language and substance, this saying remains untraced.
The years between fifty and seventy are the hardest. You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.
Quoted in "The Calloused Hand," Time 23 Oct. 1950: 44
There is no method except to be very intelligent.
"The Perfect Critic" (1920 essay)
In context: "[Aristotle] provides an eternal example—not of laws, or even of method, for there is no method except to be very intelligent, but of intelligence itself swiftly operating the analysis of sensation to the point of principle and definition.
There is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause.
"Frances Herbert Bradley" (1927 essay)
In context: "If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause."
There is not a more repulsive spectacle than an old man who will not forsake the world, which has already forsaken him.
Not Eliot
This dictum predates Eliot's birth by at least two decades. Nineteenth-century texts attribute it to J. Tholuck but do not specify a source.
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
The Waste Land (1922 poem)
Things don't go away. They become you. There is no end.
Partly misattributed
In his 2010 memoir Half a Life, Darin Strauss writes: "Things don't go away. They become you. There is no end, as T. S. Eliot somewhere says." Because Strauss does not use quotation marks, it is unclear whether he is attributing all three of these short sentences or only the last one to Eliot. As a result, the full quote is sometimes attributed to Strauss and sometimes to Eliot. In "The Dry Salvages" (1941 poem, from Four Quartets), Eliot writes: "There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing" and "There is no end, but addition." However, "Things don't go away. They become you" is Strauss, not Eliot.
This is one moment,
But know that another
Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy
When the figure of God's purpose is made complete.
Murder in the Cathedral (1935 play)
Lines spoken by the play's hero, the sainted 12th-century Archbishop of Canturbury Thomas Becket.
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
"The Hollow Men" (1925 poem)
The final lines of the poem. Italicized in the original.
Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season.
"Gerontion" (1919 poem)
Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.
Not Eliot
This aphorism has been attributed to John Lennon, Bertrand Russell, Soren Kierkegaard, and Laurence J. Peter, as well as Eliot. On his website Quote Investigator, Garson O'Toole notes that it appears in the 1912 novel Phrynette Married, by Marthe Troly-Curtin. Whether the saying precedes Troly-Curtin or was invented by her is unknown.
To do the useful thing, to say the courageous thing, to contemplate the beautiful thing: that is enough for one man's life.
The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1932-33 lecture series)
War is not a life: it is a situation, / One which may neither be ignored nor accepted.
"A Note on War Poetry" (1942 poem)
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
"The Hollow Men" (1925 poem)
We read many books, because we cannot know enough people.
Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948 treatise)
In context: "In our time, we read too many new books, or are oppressed by the thought of the new books which we are neglecting to read; we read many books, because we cannot know enough people; we cannot know everybody whom it would be to our benefit to know, because there are too many of them.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
"Little Gidding" (1942 poem, from Four Quartets)
What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?
Wrong Eliot
Correct source: George Eliot, Middlemarch
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
"Little Gidding" (1942 poem, from Four Quartets)
Whatever you think, be sure that it is what you think; whatever you want, be sure that it is what you want; whatever you feel, be sure that it is what you feel.
Address by T. S. Eliot, ’06, to the Class of ’33, June 17, 1933
Spoken to the graduating class at Milton Academy, a Massachusetts prep school Eliot had attended years earlier.
When a Cat adopts you ... there is nothing to be done about it except to put up with it and wait until the wind changes.
Letter to Polly Tandy (9 Dec. 1937)
In context: "When a Cat adopts you, and I am not superstitious at all I don't mean only Black cats, there is nothing to be done about it except to put up with it and wait until the wind changes, and perhaps he will go away of his own accord and never be heard of again; but as I say there is nothing you can do about it. You must for the present provide liver and rabbit, and a comfortable seat by the fire; and perhaps he will disappear. I am sorry to give such cold consolation, but one might as well face facts."
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Choruses from The Rock (1934 play)
You are the music while the music lasts.
"The Dry Salvages" (1941 poem, from Four Quartets)
In context: "For most of us, there is only the unattended / Moment, the moment in and out of time, / ... or music heard so deeply / That it is not heard at all, but you are the music / While the music lasts."