The Magazine

Sincerely, Young Possum

T. S. Eliot on the threshold of eminence.

Dec 31, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 16 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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The most notable event in Eliot’s private life during these two years was his acceptance into the Church of England in the summer of 1927. This took place with some secrecy: He concealed it from his mother and later wrote his brother that he kept it from Vivien since it “might provide a fresh reason for domestic persecution.” Later that summer he wrote an extraordinary letter to his mother, who was now ill and living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and who feared she would never see her son again. Eliot said that he hoped to come to America soon, but that he had “a much more positive conviction than you have that I shall see you in a future life,” even though that life would be like nothing imaginable. He assures her that whatever he has done that the world thought good, “It was something that you and I did together or even something that you had dreamt of and projected before I was born.” He hopes to make “a deeper mark on English and European civilization,” but, at any rate, salutes her as “the finest and greatest woman that I have ever known.”  

His recent conversion may have strengthened his assurance in an afterlife, but the testament is as movingly heartfelt as anything to be encountered in the letters.

Among his literary remarks and judgments, a few on American writers stand out. He calls Whitman “a great master of versification” and compares him in this regard to Tennyson. While disliking George Santayana, with whom he took courses at Harvard, he likes Santayana’s fine essay “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy,” and notes shrewdly that Santayana is best when he is “slightly mischievous” and when his essays fall “on the borderline of literary criticism.” His admiration for Hawthorne grew ever stronger, not for his “preoccupation with American problems but in his preoccupation with general spiritual problems.” Hawthorne’s successor, Henry James, shared in this concern; but Hawthorne, Eliot says, is a much more “universal” writer, a “very much greater writer than James.” At first glance, this judgment seems a shocking one, especially when we remember Eliot’s praise of James for that writer’s mastery over and escape from “ideas” (“he had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it”). But Eliot’s main attraction was to the early Europeanizing James of Daisy Miller and The Europeans, and perhaps the later James interested him less; while, as Eliot’s own “spirituality” deepened, Hawthorne assumed more prominence.

The years 1926-27 show little new poetry. His Poems 1909-1925 (a book he told Leonard Woolf he was unhappy about) concluded with the desperate fragmentation of “The Hollow Men,” and the parts of Sweeney Agonistes, his unfinished verse drama, he published in the Criterion in 1926 and 1927 failed to bring things together. The only finished poem was “Journey of the Magi,” composed, he wrote Conrad Aiken, one Sunday morning in a 45-minute interval between church and dinner “with the assistance of half a bottle of Booth’s Gin.” Although he continued to review, and published an important essay, “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” “The Waste Land” proved a difficult act to follow. His turn toward religion, which would culminate in “Ash Wednesday” in 1930, was just beginning to make itself felt in his verse. As for stirring formulations about poetry, they are absent from the letters. He remarked to his spiritual counselor, William Force Stead, that he failed to see why so many people wanted to write about poetry: “God knows why; it seems to me the dullest subject going.”  

No other great poet has made such a statement.

But it is only one example among many of the original wit on display in all three volumes of letters, and that has kept this reader going as it lights up the correspondence with timely sparks. He writes F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose Great Gatsby Eliot had admired) that his letter had pleased him “in spite of the fact that you persist in misspelling my name.” When, during a discussion, a religious topic is brought up, he declares, “The only things I care for are dancing and brandy,” and he offers to introduce Virginia Woolf (who better?) to new forms of dance steps like the Grizzly Bear and the Chicken Strut. “I have a frightful attack of rheumatism,” he writes the day after a Criterion dinner party. “I’m afraid I sang too much.”