The Magazine

Sincerely, T. S. Eliot

New letters from Old Possum

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.”

Swarms of flies and bluebottles clustering on the pits of offal. Wounded men lying in the shell holes among the decaying corpses; helpless under the scorching sun and bitter nights, under repeated shelling. Men with bowels dropping out, lungs shot away, with blinded, smashed faces, or limbs blown into space. Men screaming and jibbering. Wounded men hanging in agony on the barbed wire .  .  .

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 .  .  .”

I do not expect everyone to subscribe to all the articles of my own faith, or to read Arnold, Newman, Bradley, or Maurras with my eyes. It seems to me that at the present we need more dogma, and that one ought to have as precise and clear a creed as possible .  .  . but a creed is always in one sense smaller than the man, and in another sense larger; one’s formulations never fully explain one. .  .  . I do not, for myself, bother about the apparent inconsistency .  .  . between my prose and my verse. Why then should I bother about particular differences of formulations between myself and those whom I should like to find working with me?

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.”