The T S Eliot International Summer School has achieved a rare status within the world of literary intensives. Neither a peer conference nor a school in the strictest sense, it is a diverse meeting of enthusiasts which brings poetry, prose and drama out of the Academy whilst maintaining the rigour and excitement of intellectual revelation.
The Summer School is hosted by the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. The lecture programme has benefitted from the new availability of critical and biographical material, made possible by the ongoing Eliot Research Project and the Eliot Estate. As a result, Summer School participants are often treated to the public debut of hitherto unpublished Eliot material, as well as the novel critical readings of Eliot's poetry that this occasions. In addition to the lectures, the afternoon seminar series allows participants to maintain a daily dialogue with their seminar leader, reflecting on the substance of the lectures whilst conducting an in-depth study of a given facet of Eliot's work.
Over the School's three-year history, director Professor Ron Schuchard has brought together a programme of scholars that reveals the breadth and internationalism of Eliot scholarship. Highlights have included Robert Crawford (St. Andrews) reading Marina as a poem of yearning for unrealised children, Hermione Lee (Oxford) on the difficult relationship between Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Christopher Ricks (Boston) and Jason Harding (Durham) on differing aspects of Eliot's Shakespeare criticism, and Ron Schuchard (Emory), on forms of possession in the poetry of Ted Hughes and T S Eliot. Nancy and Guy Hargrove (Mississippi) have repeatedly delighted attendees with their live performances of the contemporary songs that fed Eliot's imagination.
The Summer School very valuably provides an immersive experience of the many contexts of Eliot's writing, from the intellectual traditions informing his criticism, to the unexpected popular cultural roots of some of his best-loved images and rhythms, to the living, breathing London that shaped Eliot's career as poet, critic and dramatist. The week-long academic programme is supplemented by poetry readings, public lectures and walking tours that make the most of the School's Bloomsbury location and literary links with organisations such as the London Library, the Poetry Book Society, and the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour. Dramatic readings of The Waste Land, Sweeney Agonistes, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and Portrait of a Lady have been performed by talented and celebrated actors such as Jeremy Irons, Dominic West, Eileen Atkins, Edward Fox and Ian McDiarmid.
The School is based at Senate House, which looks out across Russell Square to Eliot's former offices at Faber and Faber. There is a palpable sense, too, of Eliot's legacy as poet and publisher in the sustained presence of poets and playwrights at the School. In its inaugural year the School was opened by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. In 2010, Sir Tom Stoppard gave the opening address, and this year the School was opened by Simon Armitage. Poets Paul Muldoon, Robert Crawford, Robin Robertson and Stephen Romer have all given extraordinary readings of their own or Eliot's works.
The Summer School also looks beyond London to the rural English landscapes of Eliot's later poetry. The School is bracketed by visits to Cambridgeshire and Somerset, the former timed to coincide with the annual Eliot Festival held at Little Gidding, the Cambridgeshire church which gave its name to the last of Eliot's war-time Quartets. Participants can enjoy the grounds and sense the quiet of the place between readings and panel discussions with the Friends of Little Gidding. The School ends with a trip to East Coker, the location for Eliot's ancestral ruminations, and his burial site. There is also a very special group visit to the rose gardens of Burnt Norton, now in private hands and otherwise very difficult to find. Hosts Caroline and Conroy guide guests through the tessellated garden beds and long grasses to the dry pool, and wander along the silent avenues of yew that have such a powerful presence in Eliot's poem.
The T S Eliot Summer School has already created an intellectual legacy and ongoing sense of excitement amongst those lucky enough to have attended. That legacy can only get stronger.
Next summer's T S Eliot International Summer School will take place in early July. All students and enthusiasts are welcome, please contact Zoe Holman or Wim Van Mierlo, or see the website for more information.
Sarah Kennedy is writing a doctoral dissertation at St. John's College, Cambridge, entitled ‘The "Shaping Spirit of Imagination": Metaphors of creation and creativity in the poetry of T. S. Eliot'. She has honours degrees in English literature, politics and law from the University of Melbourne, Australia. She worked as a lawyer in Australia before coming to the UK to pursue her literary studies. She lives in Cambridge with her family.