The importance of reading Eliot

I chose to study English Literature at A-level, not because I enjoyed it particularly (English at school was not exactly riveting or profound), but because I was good at it. What I was most excited about was studying A-level Psychology.

As it turned out Psychology became my least favourite subject (well, almost … let’s not even mention Law), and English rose to the top of the list. I studied Literature at university for 4 years, and there are two people I can thank for a significant part of my change of heart: my A-level teacher, Heather, and T.S Eliot.

First year, first term, first poem. ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. We spent ages just analysing the title – I had no idea that a few words could mean so many different things, but Heather picked it apart beautifully. We progressed through the poem, seeing how every word and every line was crafted to carry an enormity of meaning within it.

So when I read the following lines, they seemed to mean so much more than they said (and also summarised exactly what the poem was doing) that I nearly cried.

Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question

I didn’t cry, thankfully: not something for a teenager to do in a classroom full of teenagers. But I did remember the lines and they probably went some way to changing my life.