Daily English
Cultural English
Practical English

319 Topics: Famous Americans: T.S. Eliot; log and log in/log on; explanation versus interpretation; pronouncing consonant clusters

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 319.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 319. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Our website is eslpod.com. Go there to download a Learning Guide for this episode to improve your English as fast as possible.

This episode is going to talk about one of the great American poets, perhaps the most famous American poet of the 20th century, T.S. Eliot. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

Our first topic on this Café is America’s most famous poet of the 20th century, Thomas Sternes Eliot, or as he is more commonly known, T.S. Eliot.

T.S. Eliot was born on September 26th in the year 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri. Missouri is located in the central part of the United States, right in the middle. He was born to a set of very educated parents. In fact, he came from a very distinguished New England family. When we say a family is “distinguished,” or someone is “distinguished,” we mean that they have done something important, something that people would recognize, they may be famous. Usually it is a word we use to describe someone who has done something excellent or has achieved something excellent. The Eliot family of Boston – Boston is in the State of Massachusetts, in the northeast part of the United States. We sometimes call the northeast part of the U.S. New England, and that’s why I mentioned Eliot coming from a New England family.

The Eliot family had been in the Boston area since the time of the American Revolution and had many very famous members. One of T.S. Eliot’s relatives was the President of Harvard, Charles Eliot, who really was responsible for changing Harvard into the great university that it became.

In any case, Eliot was living with his father, who was also an “intellectual,” someone who read a lot, someone who was smart, who wrote. He was living with his father and mother in St. Louis. He went to some very good private schools, and went to Harvard in 1906. He received his bachelor’s degree three years later, one year early, in 1909. He was a great student. He was influenced by some philosophers there at Harvard, and actually taught philosophy for one year.

In 1910, like a lot of American intellectuals of his day, he decided to go to Paris – to France. He studied at the Sorbonne, the University of Paris. He studied philosophy, and began a study of poetry including the great Italian poet Dante, as well as the great English poet John Donne. He returned to Harvard the following year and began studying Indian philosophy – the philosophy of the country of India, including the ancient language Sanskrit. He started working on his Ph.D. He had returned to England however, and although he finished his “dissertation,” his final, major work of writing that you do when you get a Ph.D., Eliot was unable to return to Harvard, as is required, and defend the dissertation. When you get a Ph.D., you have to then sit in front of a group of professors who ask you questions about that work that you did. So because of World War I, Eliot was unable to return to the United States. He never did finish his Ph.D. degree. He did however begin during this time, the time of World War I, a close association with another famous poet, Ezra Pound.

Eliot got a job working in a bank in London, but he had a real love and passion for poetry and began writing and publishing poetry. His first book of poems was published in 1917, called Prufrock (Prufrock) and Other Observations. Pufrock is the name of one of the characters, if you will, in his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock.” This was considered the first great modernist poem in the English language – “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock.” The poem was a break from previous English poetic traditions. When we say it was “a break from,” we mean that it started a new style, a new way of writing. Eliot was attempting to write poetry that matched the rhythms and the rhymes of modern speech. He didn’t want it to be considered pedantic or vulgar. “To be pedantic” (pedantic) means to be concerned about small or unimportant details, especially things that you might be studying in a university or be concerned about. It’s a negative way of describing someone who is trying perhaps to show how smart they are – how intelligent they are. The opposite would be “vulgar” (vulgar). Something that is “vulgar” is common, has a very low intellectual status, might even be considered rude or crude. So you had these two opposites that Eliot was trying to avoid; he was trying to go somewhere in the middle in creating this new voice for poetry.

Eliot is considered perhaps one of the most erudite poets in the English language. “Erudite” (erudite) means having a great deal of learning, a great deal of knowledge. Someone who has read all of the great classic works – books in a language might be called erudite. And, Eliot was certainly that, especially in his most important and famous poem that was published in 1922 called The Waste Land. The Waste Land is easily Eliot’s most famous poem, although some say it isn’t his best poem. The poem won him an international reputation. It came after the end of World War I, in the early 20s, where especially in Great Britain after having suffered so many losses during the war there was a great deal of what we might call “disillusionment.” The first three letters of that word, (dis), what we would call the prefix, has to do with “opposite” or “not.” So, “illusions” are dreams or ideas that you have, positive things about the future, perhaps not realistic. “To be disillusioned” means to be disappointed, to no longer have those dreams and those goals, and certainly that was something that was present in Great Britain in many parts of its culture after the Great War, as it was called – World War I.

The first few lines of the poem – the first few sentences are quite famous:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire

“April is the cruellest month,” the most cruel. “Cruel” is the opposite of “kind,” of “nice.” “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land.” “To breed” (breed) means to grow something or to have animals that are producing other animals. In this case, we’re breeding lilacs. “Lilacs” are a kind of flower that you will see in the spring of the year. Remember, April, in the northern hemisphere, is the beginning of spring. April is breeding lilacs out of the dead land, the land that isn’t producing anything, “mixing / Memory and desire.” “Desire” is what you want in life. So, Eliot is setting the scene here; that is, he’s giving us a picture of something that doesn’t seem very happy. “April is the cruellest month,” we have lilacs coming out of the dead land, so you can see that he’s trying to communicate this notion of disillusionment.

The Waste Land is a rather complicated poem, and it has a great many references to other great works of literature in it. In fact, Eliot put footnotes for the poem in its original publication. I think he later thought that wasn’t such a good idea. But if you read The Waste Land you will see these footnotes – these explanations. That’s how difficult, in a way, the poem is in terms of its erudition – that is, it’s intellectual foundation.

Eliot continued publishing works of poetry throughout the 20s and 30s. He was also a great essayist. An “essayist” is someone who writes “essays” (essays), which are long pieces of writing – not as long as a book, something you might find in a magazine – about some topic of cultural or literary interest. Eliot was a great literary “critic,” somebody who commented on and gave his opinion about the quality of other works literature and art. He published a number of essays in famous magazines of the time about different types of literature. He was especially interested in some of the British poets, the English poets of the 17th century – the 1600s.

He began, also, during the 1920s to take a greater interest in Christianity, and in fact became a member of the Anglican Church, the Church of England, in 1927. He also became a member of the British nation; he became what we would call a British “subject” in 1927. He had both American and British citizenship. But really, he no longer identified with the United States at this time. He was living in England, he was writing in England, and he was writing in many cases about the great English poets and writers.

His conversion – his change from one belief to another – his conversion to Christianity was marked by a famous poem he published in 1930 called “Ash Wednesday,” where we see these struggles – the difficulties of his religious belief.

In addition to being a great poet, Eliot was also a playwright; he wrote famous plays. The most famous play he wrote was Murder in the Cathedral, about the death of St. Thomas Becket. His plays were not considered as good as most of his poetry, with perhaps the exception of Murder in the Cathedral.

His personal life was also not always very successful, in particular his marriage to a young woman by the name of Vivienne. They were married back in 1915, and it was not a happy marriage. In fact, Eliot later wrote that some of the themes of disillusionment that appeared in The Waste Land were in part a product of his marriage to Vivienne. To say it was “a product of” means that it was a result of or it was caused by something else, in this case his marriage. In the early 1930s, Eliot separated from his wife after going to the United States for a few years to become a professor again at Harvard, and his wife unfortunately went “insane.” That is, she became mentally unable to continue. She was put into a mental hospital, and died in 1947. Eliot, himself, remarried after her death, and remained married until his own death in 1965. There are some parallels between Eliot’s marriage and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s marriage, the great American novelist of the same period. His wife also had mental problems. There was a movie made about T.S. Eliot and his wife, Tom and Viv, about, oh, maybe 15 years ago, in the early 1990s I think.

Although Eliot lived until 1965, really his productive work as a poet ended in the late 1940s-early 1950s. He continued to write plays, none of them were very successful however.

His most important poem came at the end of his career, in the late 30s-early 40s, a poem called The Four Quartets. A “quartet” (quartet) is a group of four musicians or a piece of music written for four musicians. Eliot’s Four Quartets is, in my opinion, his greatest set of poems. It’s really four poems that were written and put together as one. This poem led him to win Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, and it was really his last great poem. It’s a poem about human history, about the place of Christianity, about Europe; it’s a very powerful poem. It’s hard to describe in just a minute or two. It’s certainly my favorite poem from Eliot.

As you can probably tell, I’m a great fan of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. I took a course when I was an undergraduate, oh, maybe 20-21 years old, at the University of Minnesota. And, I took a course in T.S. Eliot’s poetry, where we read the entire quarter nothing but poems from Eliot and talked about them and wrote about them, and I really grew to love his poetry. He was a person, like all people, with faults, but as a poet, one of the greatest, and certainly someone you might want to try to read. Poetry is often difficult in another language, but Eliot is a modern poet, and in many ways speaks to a modern audience in a way that is closer than, say, a poet from the 19th or 18th century would.

One more thing about T.S. Eliot: He wrote a book of poems for children; it was a poem about cats. Many years later, a British composer wrote a musical based on these poems called Cats. It became one of the most famous Broadway musicals – musicals that were in New York City, and it ran for I believe 18 years, beginning in 1982. I haven’t seen the musical, and I actually have never read the children’s poems by Eliot. When I said I read all of his poems, I meant everything but the Cats poems I guess. I wonder why?!

Now let’s answer some of your questions.

Our first question comes from Francisco (Francisco) in the country of Brazil. Francisco wants to know the meaning of the word “log” (log). You have probably all seen “log in,” “log out,” “log on.” What is this word “log?”

Well, let’s start with the noun “log” (log). One meaning of “log” is a long piece of wood, wood that is cut from a tree that has been cut down. A “log,” as a noun, can also mean a record or recording of something, writing things down about the past. It’s similar to a journal; it’s a listing of things that have happened. It’s not exactly a history; it’s more of a list of things – a description of things that have happened. So, “log” can be the piece of wood, it can be a written record of events.

When we use it in referring to computers, however, it takes a very different meaning, nothing related to a piece of wood. “To log in” means to sign in or to become a member of a website or some organization on a website. You could also say, “to log on,” although I think “log in” is more popular. “To log out” would be to take yourself out of a program, out of a website, to remove yourself. So, “log in” and “log out,” or “log on” and “log off,” are verbs typically spelled as two words: “log” and then “in.”

You could also have a word “login” (login – one word) as a noun. “Login” is used either as a noun to refer to what we would sometimes call your “credentials,” your password and your user name. Or it could be used as an adjective: “This is my login user name,” or “my login password.”

Ahmed (Ahmed) in Egypt wants to know the difference between “interpretation” and “explanation.” Let’s start with “explanation.”

“To explain” (explain) means to make something understandable, something comprehensible to other people: I try to explain the meaning of “explanation.” “Explanation,” then, is the noun; it’s the action of making something understandable. It’s something that makes an idea understandable.

“To interpret” (interpret) means to not just describe what something is like an explanation, but to give the meaning or the purpose of something. You’re taking some fact or some idea and you’re going further than just an explanation; you’re giving the meaning or the purpose of it. When we read a piece of poetry, we may try to interpret the poetry. What does it mean? What is this poem about?

“To interpret” can also mean to represent something in a different form, through art or through language. An “interpreter” is a person who translates what you are saying in one language into another language. Or, an artist could interpret certain ideas in their works of art.

“Interpretation,” then, like “explanation,” is a noun; it’s the process or act of interpreting. An “explanation” helps someone understand something. An “interpretation” gives some of your own ideas, your own opinions about something to give them the purpose or meaning of that thing.

Finally Luis (Luis), originally from Venezuela now living in Puerto Rico – how’s my Spanish? Luis wants to know how we pronounce certain what are called “consonant clusters” (clusters). A “consonant cluster” is a group of “consonants,” letters that are not vowels, that are put together in a word such as (sks) or (sts). In the word “costs” (costs) the consonant cluster at the end is (sts). In the word “tasks” (tasks) the consonant cluster is (sks).

Pronunciation questions are difficult because, first of all, different people will pronounce the same words differently in English, and we pronounce words when we are speaking slowly and carefully differently than if we were pronouncing them normally in fast or native rate speech. So for example, the word (costs) when pronounced carefully would be “costs,” and notice you hear two “s’s” including the “s” at the end. But if I’m pronouncing it more quickly, it may come out more something like “coss” – “the coss of going.” You notice you don’t even hear much of a “t” sound there. The same would be true with a word like “tasks.” Notice in pronouncing it very carefully I have an “s,” a “k,” and an “s” sound at the end – “sks.” However, in normal pronunciation the plural of “tasks” would probably come out something closer to “tass.” “I have a bunch of tass to do today.” You can almost not even hear a “k” or not hear a “k” at all.

There’s other consonant clusters like this; they often occur at the end of words with plurals, and sometimes the “s” is difficult to hear or the consonant in between the two “s’s.” For example, there’s a word (clasps), the plural of “clasp.” When pronounced carefully is “clasps” – “sps” (sps). However, when pronounced normally in normal conversation it would probably sound something more like “class.” “I have a bunch of class I need to put on this coat.” The “p” almost disappears in more normal, rapid pronunciation.

If you have a question or a comment, you can email us. I’ll try to give you a good explanation of it. Our email address is eslpod@eslpod.com.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse, copyright 2011 by the Center for Educational Development.

distinguished – having the qualities of a person who is successful, worthy of respect, and a leader

* Jim looks very distinguished in a business suit and tie.

disillusionment – feeling disappointment after one discovers that something is not as good as one believed it to be

* The people had high hopes when the new president took office, but are now feeling a sense of disillusionment.

New England – an area in the northeastern coast of the United States, including the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut

* We took a road trip last year, driving through most of New England.

to break from – to separate oneself from something; to do something different from what others have done

* Pablo broke from his domineering parents and started a life of his own.

pedantic – caring too much about minor details or rules; wanting too much to show one’s academic or school learning

* Dolores is unpopular with the other students because of her pedantic ways.

vulgar – without sophistication; without having or showing good taste

* There is no tolerance for vulgar language in the workplace.

erudite – having or showing a lot of knowledge or learning

* The conference speaker gave an erudite speech about the latest developments in the field.

to breed – to cause something to happen, usually over a period of time

* If you don’t want to breed unhappiness in your employees, you’d better not cut salaries and vacation days.

essay – a short piece of writing on a particular topic; a short piece of writing used to explain, to give information, or to give one’s opinion about something

* Didi wrote an essay about Jane Austen’s novels for her English class.

critic – a person whose job is to judge or to give an opinion about writing, art, film, music, and other things people create

* The critics agree that Jeff McQuillan’s new CD is his best music ever.

a product of (something) – having had the influence, support, and/or guidance of someone or something, so that it is reflected in the result

* When Wen accepted the award, she said that her success is the product of her parents’ and teachers’ support and encouragement.

insane – mentally ill; a state of mind that prevents one from seeing and behaving normally

* In the movie, the main character went insane and killed everyone in town.

log – a written record of events; a large section of a cut or fallen tree

* The clerk at the lumberyard keeps a log of how many logs are sold each day.

to log in / to log on – to sign onto a computer or website; to make or to become a member of a website

* Before you can visit the rest of the pages on this website, you have to log in.

explanation – the act of making something understandable; something that makes an idea understandable

* The teacher’s explanation of the science lesson helped students better understand the chapter in their textbook.

interpretation – explaining the meaning or purpose of something; representing meaning in another form, such as through art or through a different language

* Each political party had a different interpretation of the president’s speech.

What Insiders Know
The Musical Cats

What if you like the poetry of T.S. Eliot and had the talent to “compose” (write) music? You might do what Andrew Lloyd Webber did: Put them together into a “musical” (a play with songs) called Cats.

Andrew Lloyd Webber is a successful composer of many musicals, including The Phantom of the Opera and Evita. He has received many awards and is considered one of the greatest “living” (still alive) composers.

When Andrew Lloyd Webber was a child, one of his favorite books was T.S. Eliot’s book of poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. This was a volume of poetry Eliot published in 1930 of “light verse,” or funny poetry.

Most of the songs Cats include parts of Eliot’s poetry “set to” (matched with) music. There was one exception, however: the most famous song from the musical, called “Memory.” However, the “lyrics” (words in a song) were still influenced by T.S. Eliot’s poetry, by a poem called “Rhapsody on the Windy Night.”

Cats first “premiered” (was shown for the first time) in London’s theater “district” (section of town) called the West End in 1981. It premiered in the U.S. one year later in New York City’s theater district, Broadway. The musical has won many awards. The musical “ran” (continued to have shows) for 18 years on Broadway and is the second longest-running musical in the history of Broadway. The show has been translated into 20 languages and been performed around the world many times.