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.