'I don’t like reading other people’s private correspondence in print, and I do not want other people to read mine,” wrote T. S. Eliot to his mother in April 1927.
Sounds definitive enough, yet six years later, he would confess in a lecture that there was an “ineradicable” desire to hope one’s correspondence might be preserved for complete strangers to read: “We want to confess ourselves in writing to a few friends, and we do not always want to feel that no one but those friends will ever read what we have written”—put with a circumspection native to the man his friend Ezra Pound called Old Possum. Still, I think Eliot might have been slightly astonished that, with the publication of the third volume of his letters, their total page count reaches 2,700. Since that only brings us up to the end of 1927 (Eliot died in 1965), there’s a long way to go.
The new volume covers just two years of the poet’s life, which has not only to do with the fact that he wrote a lot of letters, but that they have been edited in the fullest, most scrupulous, and imaginative way by the project’s general editor, the remarkable John Haffenden. (Eliot’s widow Valerie, who died last month, was coeditor, but I suspect she did little of the heavy lifting.) Haffenden’s procedure is, whenever possible, to annotate any letter Eliot has written by providing pertinent sections, at the bottom of the page, of the letter or other communication he was responding to. In other words, none of these letters ever comes from out of the blue.
It would, however, be disingenuous to pretend that the bulk of the letters can be of interest to anyone but a fairly devoted student of Eliot, and not so much a student of his poetry but someone interested in his “prose” capacity as editor of his periodical, the Criterion, an organ that, beginning with its inception in 1922, Eliot hoped to make a forceful commentator on the art, politics, and religion of England and Europe. As with the previous volumes of letters, many of the correspondences concern Criterion business, and, although they are exemplary of the subtleties and complications of running a literary magazine, there is more than some sameness about them. There is also a good deal of business worries concerning the magazine’s future as it moves from a quarterly, to (in 1927) a monthly, then back again to quarterly status. At that point, Eliot had a position on the board of the publisher Faber & Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), so he had the added responsibilities of considering various books for possible publication and of informing their authors that (often) the book was not quite “right” for Faber—it would not be a salable item, but please consider us, and so on. He is masterly at this.
Earlier volumes prominently displayed Eliot’s wife Vivienne (sometimes spelled Vivien), whose sufferings were the stuff of melodrama, if not tragedy. For most of the two years covered in this volume she is a patient in a sanatorium on the outskirts of Paris, where her husband visits her periodically. We get a sad glimpse of her as she writes to John Middleton Murry, Eliot’s friend and intellectual antagonist, “I am quite alone & have nothing at all inside.” In a more sportive mood, she confides to Eliot’s brother Henry that, “Of all the ‘roles’ a woman enjoys & delights in, that of the browbeaten wife is the most delicious.”
Eliot’s own laments, less frequent than in earlier volumes, occasionally burst out as he writes (also to Murry), “I am oppressed by a sense of doom, against which I struggle.” But mainly he soldiers on, not without sometimes showing the effects. Aldous Huxley, if he can be trusted, notes that at a lunch, “Tom looked terribly grey-green, drank no less than five gins with his meal, and announced that he was going to join Vivien in the nursing home, to break himself of his addictions to tobacco and alcohol.” This did not come to pass.
Writing to his brother Henry, Eliot discusses the difficulty of getting Vivien into an asylum and says no doctor will commit anyone unless she has “either tried to commit suicide or committed a criminal assault. We must therefore wait until she either annoys people in the public street (which I am always expecting) or tries to take her own life.” It took six more years for him to eventually remove himself from the marriage.