'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.
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.”
Many of the letters are written to Bonamy Dobrée, a member of the Criterion phalanx who had accepted a teaching position in Cairo. There is some rather heavy joking in the slightly obscene mode of Eliot’s “King Bolo” poems, but also a couple of pertinent questions about life in Dobrée’s new setting: “The only thing I want to know about the camel is whether, as American authorities assert, it is always necessary to walk a mile for one.” Dobrée took that one more or less in stride, but it was followed by another query about the camel: “Do they fold their tents, and if so in how many folds, and if so is it always in the same folds like a napkin or serviette (as called in seaside hotels)?”
Dobrée couldn’t answer that one.
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.