The Magazine

Sincerely, T. S. Eliot

New letters from Old Possum

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By EDWARD SHORT
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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. 

Good God, how does anyone get married? I would not accept a job as a traffic manager or shipping clerk because I know nothing about it, and yet here is a job which every man accepts apparently on the blithe assumption that knowledge of the business is innate in him. Should I take a course in obstetrics, infant feeding and household management? On top of my present duties [Henry worked in printing, publishing, and advertising], and the necessity of making a change in my whole mode of life, I cannot casually pick up these things. I have often puzzled over the marriage relationship, which seemed to me the most incongruous, impossible, and inconsistent thing ever conceived. One has to translate an iridescent fantasy into the hardest and ugliest of facts.

Of course, Henry’s brother found his marriage to Vivien equally appalling, though his matrimonial troubles led to musings of a more meditative cast:

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this, and this only, we have existed

Which is not to be found in our obituaries

Or in memories draped by the beneficient spider

Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor

In our empty rooms.

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.