Sincerely, T. S. Eliot
New letters from Old Possum
Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By EDWARD SHORT
In 1909 Henry James took thousands of letters that he had received over the years into his garden at Lamb House in Rye and committed them to a great bonfire. In his last years what time he could spare from refining his ever more rarefied fiction he devoted to confounding his biographers. Indeed, he instructed his nephew that since his “sole wish” was “to frustrate as utterly as possible the post-mortem exploiter,” he was insistent that his will include “a curse no less explicit than Shakepeare’s own on any such as try to move my bones.” T. S. Eliot also spent a good deal of time trying to thwart his biographers, stipulating in his will that no biography should be written until 50 years after his death. But as these two volumes of letters show, his epistolary candor was always at odds with his yearning for concealment, which now seems, in retrospect, to have been the unavailing protest of a profoundly confessional man.
Mr. Eliot at the typewriter, Faber & Faber, London, ca. 1950
Bettmann / CORBIS
In these adroitly annotated volumes, the poet’s conquest of literary London is brought brilliantly to life. Here we see Eliot assuming the mantle of that great tradition of poet-critics that had ruled English literature from Dryden to Arnold. We see him pushing the Georgian bookmen from their stools and touting the work of his friends, including Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and James Joyce. We also see him making alliances with Richard Aldington, John Middleton Murry, and Herbert Read, all in an attempt to introduce rigorous new critical standards, a campaign which often leaves him throwing up his hands. As he remarks to one correspondent, “There are so very few people who will take the trouble to write well.” Some sins can be laid at Eliot’s door but not that one.
The letters also take up his harrowing marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood and his always-arduous spiritual progress, which eventually leaves him on Margate sands connecting nothing with nothing. Here, the despair that underlies so much of Eliot’s early verse is ubiquitous: Correspondent after correspondent is regaled with his fiscal woes, physical woes, marital woes, editorial woes, social woes, familial woes. Then, again, his distress can have an oddly literary quality. Vivien once remarked how “poetry and literature are the very only things Tom cares for or has the faintest interest in.” In a letter to Murry, written in 1925, it is as if he can only approach the ruin of his marriage by resorting to literature.
In this one passage, he invokes Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Shakespeare’s Richard III, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, and Henry James’s The Sacred Fount, the inspiration for which was the novelist’s fascination with the beautiful Minny Temple, who died of tuberculosis at 24 and became the prototype for Isabel Archer and Milly Theale. As James told his brother, what he meant to capture in the novel was “the gradual change and reversal of our relations: I slowly crawling from weakness and isolation and suffering into strength and health and hope: she sinking out of brightness and youth into decline and death.”
The parallels to Eliot’s marriage are striking. When Eliot first met Vivien in a dance hall, she was bright and unconventional and promised to rescue him from the academic career that might otherwise have been his fate at Harvard. More than anyone, Vivien encouraged the poet in him. “I do think he is made to be a great writer,” she confides to one correspondent. Eliot, in turn, plundered Vivien’s insights and battened on her maladies. When Vivien claimed, for example, “As to Tom’s mind, I am his mind,” she was not entirely exaggerating, at least for the period covered in these letters. And yet no sooner did they marry (months after meeting) than Vivien began her long descent into madness while Eliot went from strength to strength as poet and critic. In one letter he boasts, “I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had, unless it be Henry James.” Thus, the vampirism of James’s novel reappears in Eliot’s marriage with eerie fidelity.
At the same time, apropos Eliot’s complex, tragic marriage, it is surprising to see the editors citing Carole Seymour-Jones’s entirely unreliable Painted Shadow: The Life of Vivienne Eliot (2001), which Ann Pasternak Slater demolished in Areté. Despite the guilt Eliot felt over the collapse of his marriage, he was a dutiful husband. Certainly, there are no grounds for blaming him for Vivien’s travails. Lyndall Gordon’s excellent entry on Vivien in the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which incorporates Pasternak Slater’s insights (albeit without acknowledgment), supplies a far more credible account.
Behind all the letters looms the Great War. “Everything looks more black and dismal than ever,” Eliot writes in March 1918. “The whole world simply lives day to day”—an observation that oddly recalls something once said by Jules Laforgue, whose poetry had such an indelible influence on Eliot: “Oh, what a day-to-day business life is!” For Eliot and his generation, however, the quotidian had become lacerating. “We feel sometimes as if we were going to pieces,” Eliot writes his mother, “and just being patched up from time to time.” Still, the suffering of civilians was nothing compared with that of combatants. Vivien’s brother Maurice, an officer in the Manchester Regiment whom Eliot found “very aristocratic and very simple too,” briefed his brother-in-law on the horrors of the trenches, painting “a picture of a leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackening corpses of hundreds of young men.”
After sharing these images with Eliot, Maurice admitted how “these are only words, and probably only convey a fraction of their meaning to their hearers.” Of course, Eliot would spend most of his life immersed in what he called “the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings,” though the evils of the First World War gave this “wrestle” an entirely new consequence, one with which we struggle still.
The letters chronicle the formative years of the Criterion, the magazine with which Eliot put his cosmopolitan stamp on the criticism of the age. In one letter, he describes his exemplary vision for the magazine: “I wish, certainly, to get as homogeneous a group as possible: but I find that homogeneity is in the end indefinable . . .”
The Criterion letters show what unrelenting demands the review placed on its unsalaried editor, though the biographical index here furnishes too scanty a profile of Lady Rothermere, without whose largesse the magazine would never have been launched.
Several letters take up the theme of aboulie (“want of will”), a major preoccupation of Eliot’s poetry from “Prufrock” onwards. In one letter, the ruthlessly practical Eliot observes how “there can be no contemplative or easy chair aesthetics . . . only the aesthetics of the person who is about to do something.” This might serve as an epigraph for Eliot’s handling of the related themes of atonement and conversion. The theme also appears in the family letters, for failure of will was wired into the very DNA of the Eliot family. “It is almost impossible,” Eliot says at one point, “for any of our family to make up their minds.” Their letters related to travel, for example, are of a Byzantine indecisiveness. In one, the poet nicely describes the Eliot penchant for putting on “climbing irons to mount a molehill.”
Proof of the strength of Eliot’s own will can be seen in the success he made of his position at Lloyd’s Bank, where he handled all of the firm’s foreign correspondence in an underground office on Henrietta Street. “Within a foot of our heads when we stood,” the critic I. A. Richards recalled, “were the thick, green glass squares of the pavement on which hammered all but incessantly the heels of the passers-by.” Before leaving the bank, Eliot was making £500 per annum, a good salary in mid-twenties London. Nevertheless, it is startling to see how much Eliot connived in Pound’s scheme to free him from the bank by enabling him to live off the bounty of his friends. If there was a capable businessman in Eliot, there was also something of a chancer.
The acid pen of Virginia Woolf serves as a kind of mocking chorus throughout these pages. In one aside, for example, she astutely observes of Eliot, “I suspect him of a concealed vanity & even anxiety about this,” and in another she describes Mrs. Eliot as “so scented, so powdered, so egotistic, so morbid, so weakly” that it almost makes her want to “vomit.” Caritas was not one of Virginia’s strong suits.
Yet unlike Seymour-Jones, Woolf had no illusions about the unbearable burden that the increasingly insane Vivien placed on Eliot, exclaiming in one journal entry, “But oh Vivienne! Was there ever such torture since life began! to bear her on one’s shoulders, biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered, insane, yet sane to the point of insanity. . . . This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck.” That Woolf, the darling of the feminists, should confute the feminism that instigated Seymour-Jones’s assault on Eliot is an amusing irony.
The poet’s brother, Henry Ware Eliot, brings welcome comic relief to a series of letters that can be unremittingly grim. In one 1925 letter this wonderfully good-hearted, generous man holds forth on the subject of marriage, at exactly the point at which Eliot’s own marriage is in tatters.
Of course, Henry’s brother found his marriage to Vivien equally appalling, though his matrimonial troubles led to musings of a more meditative cast:
When Eliot looked back on The Waste Land from the perspective of his later, happier years, he dismissed it as “a grouse against life.” In many letters here, the poet’s grousing is fierce. After his father dies, he writes, “I feel that both he and mother in spite of the strength of their affection were lonely people, and that he was the more lonely of the two—he hardly knew himself . . . in my experience everyone except the fools seem . . . warped or stunted.” In quite a few of the letters, Eliot himself appears “warped and stunted.” He is arrogant, pompous, and thin-skinned, reminiscent of Gilbert Osmond, the supercilious aesthete in James’s Portrait of a Lady who subordinates everything, except his vanity, to his dedication to art.
Yet if these pages reveal the flawed man of talent in T. S. Eliot, they also reveal the emerging moralist, who does not flinch from confronting his flaws, or his demons, which he wrote so much of his finest work, including “Ash Wednesday” and Four Quartets, to drive out. The man who emulated Dante by setting out “to purify the dialect of the tribe” never forgot that this would require purifying himself.
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries.