Globe Editorial

Eliot at Harvard: Less bang than whimper

June 28, 2010

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T.S. Eliot graduated from Harvard 100 years ago this month. To celebrate the occasion, the university dug up from its archives some of the poet’s personal effects and displayed them in the basement of the Houghton Library. A few of the items in the exhibit, which ended Saturday, were what a visitor would expect: for instance, an early copy of his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’’ But a handful of documents focused on a little-known fact: Eliot almost flunked out.

Consider Eliot’s paper on the “Defects of Kipling,’’ marked up by the red pen of an unimpressed professor. “A mouth-filling sentence’’ reads a comment next to the essay’s opening line, in which Eliot had jammed 52 words and 5 distinct clauses. Then there was Eliot’s final transcript, with just three A’s but eight B’s, six C’s, and one D. These grades, coupled with Eliot’s shoddy attendance, landed him on academic probation in 1906.

However striking they seem now, Eliot’s academic troubles stand as a symbol of hope for others — and not just for grade-obsessed Harvardians like future Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. It’s comforting to know that the mind which created some of the 20th century’s most memorable poetry also failed a few English exams. Like much of Eliot’s work, this episode reminds us that life is messy and unpredictable. As he once put it, success is “what we can make of the mess we have made of things.’’

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