The Unlikely Muse: How T. S. Elliot Found Inspiration in Coffee Spoons

A lot of people think that the genius poet and playwright T. S. Elliot was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but it was actually more like a coffee spoon. For T. S. Eliot, it was his favorite spoon—it was small and brown and had a nice heft to it—that gave him the idea to write The Waste Land in 1921, which revolutionized poetry as we know it today.

T.S. Eliot

Sometimes, even after you’ve given yourself permission to be creative and pursue your passion as a career—and accepted that it takes hard work and discipline—it can still be hard to go from day-to-day with much purpose or inspiration. You don’t have to wait for inspiration to get going on your next project; rather, you can force yourself to work towards your goals with these strategies. In his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, American poet T. S. Eliot writes:

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

While Eliot wasn’t talking about being an artist per se (in fact he was talking about love), his words are still very relevant to artists today who struggle to keep their spirits up when they feel like they aren’t making any progress. As an artist and writer myself, I know how easy it is to sit around waiting for inspiration instead of actually working towards my goal. I also know that one doesn’t just happen without another – creativity needs discipline if it’s ever going to see daylight.

Eliot spent years trying to figure out what specifically made some objects beautiful and symmetrical, but he finally found it in humble spoons that he admired at restaurants while he was waiting for his food. He began using them as writing prompts, taking notes on their shapes and then eventually incorporating those notes into one of his most well-known poems.

At first glance, it may seem odd that one of literature’s most revered poets would find his muse in a simple coffee spoon, but Eliot’s perspective on these tiny objects was much more complex than anyone could have imagined. As many fans know, he had a unique obsession with minutiae, and spent hours memorizing seemingly useless facts from encyclopedias to impress friends and potential lovers alike. When he heard about an elderly inventor who manufactured spoons for measuring coffee grounds for brewing his own beverage of choice—coffee—Eliot set out to meet him immediately.

At their first meeting, Eliot revealed himself as a poet and asked for permission to write about him if anything interesting happened during their friendship. The inventor agreed without hesitation, and over time they became close friends. It turns out that despite being well into his seventies at the time, Eliot was quite infatuated with his new friend’s daughter, Vivienne Haigh-Wood. He invited her to several social gatherings where she met other writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. In fact, she even began dating Hemingway until she found out he had been unfaithful to her (the story goes that she caught him cheating while spying on them through binoculars).

After Vivienne broke up with Ernest Hemingway, Eliot stepped in once again and proposed marriage soon after. The couple were married after three months, on June 26, 1915, at Hampstead Register Office in London. Eliot signed, “no occupation”, on the certificate and described his father as a brick manufacturer. Neither of them told their parents. She later published two books about her life before and after Eliot, both titled Coffee Spoons in reference to how she met her husband.

At a time when he was known as a rising poet, Eliot had yet to even become famous and publish his most celebrated works. He was a struggling writer who subsisted on small grants and loans from friends. Vivienne eventually committed suicide. He was depressed, and consistently broke and felt stuck.

“For several months after Vivienne’s death I could not write at all”, he recalled later in life: “I tried to work on a poem of Keats’s but it would not come right. Then one morning I found by my plate, when I came down to breakfast, a little pile of silver spoons. The maid had bought them out of her own money…and laid them beside my plate. They were very pretty spoons; and they lay there shining in the sun with an effect that enchanted me…I took up one of them and examined it closely…and suddenly a phrase began to shape itself in my mind…I saw how everything fitted together…”

This is only one example of how, for Eliot, things around him became sources of inspiration for his poetry. In another instance, he wrote about being struck by a particular shade of blue while walking through London: “It was just off Oxford Street—at about the spot where Shaftesbury Avenue begins now—that I noticed that curious darkish-blue colour which is so common in London skies…It seemed to be everywhere and on everything – chimney pots, walls, pavements…This blue colour has always remained associated in my mind with those early days.”

It appears again and again in poems written during those years – notably The Waste Land. If you read that section carefully, you can see echoes of these experiences. Even though he didn’t know it at first, these experiences led to what we now consider some of his greatest writing.

“I’m very superstitious about certain things”, he told one interviewer, “I always have a particular brand of pencils I use, because they are soft enough not to scratch my hand as I write.”

He also swore by a certain brand of paper (not named) and always used fountain pens. It’s possible that these choices contributed to his immense productivity; at one point, Eliot averaged more than 2,000 words per day for years on end!

The poet and critic Vivian Stromberg once wrote that, “we’re most alive when lost in an uncalculated adventure, something most artists know to be true—but few realize it quite like T.S. Eliot did, who drew inspiration from an unlikely source: silverware.”

This piece was inspired by a friend saying, “there’s only enough spoons in a day”, a verbal shortcut in popular parlance that references T. S. Eliot.

The header image used in this piece is public domain.

T. S. Elliot inspired the song Afternoons & Coffee Spoons, a song by Canadian rock band Crash Test Dummies and is the third single from the 1993 album God Shuffled His Feet. Afternoons & Coffee Spoons has been called the band’s most popular song amongst fans.

T.S. Eliot & April /2 | The Waste Land | The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock | Portrait of a Lady | T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land And Four Quartets | T. S. Eliot In The 21st Century


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