Man of many letters: T.S. Eliot (credit: Getty)
In a frank exchange of letters with Geoffrey Faber in September 1927, T.S. Eliot set out his notions of the "Good Life". A few days before Faber had established what for him was the keynote of this topic (although, with significant variation, he referred to it in the lower-case plural): "The good things of life have set me thinking: & much upon the part they play in my world. A comfortable house, a car, good food, some sport, domestic interests, pleasant companionship, practical curiosities..." Eliot pointedly did not follow Faber's lead: "My own ideal Good Life (state) would be to be such a person that I should, by my nature and without special effort, inspire other persons towards heroism and saintliness."
It must have been a freezing reply for Faber to have opened over the breakfast table, even in his comfortable house and over some good food — this being the Faber whom Osbert Sitwell would meet at a dinner party given by the Eliots in 1931 and would disparage as "a typical publisher and university-man, a pillar of Church and State... When he talked, he hit the right nail on the head so often that it became like a man playing the xylophone"; and also the well-meaning but intellectually-occluded Faber who encouraged Eliot in his poetry to "make the way a little plainer for the earnest reader". So comparatively ordinary and downright a man might easily have been disconcerted by Eliot's dramatic shifting of the key of their exchange from his own concrete menus plaisirs towards the lofty and altruistic ambitions of heroism and saintliness. Unsurprisingly, Faber did not reply — or, at least, apparently no reply has survived. The latest volume of Eliot's letters (The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume Three: 1926-27, edited by John Haffenden, Faber, £40) contains no letter from Faber to Eliot for the final three months of 1927.
Eliot's ideal of the "Good Life" points us towards that curious phase of mid- and late-20th century English culture when "Ash Wednesday" and certain portions of Four Quartets seemed to be candidates for inclusion in the Book of Common Prayer, so often did one hear them read out in church. Eliot did indeed become in the popular mind a kind of saint, even if in some quarters there were doubts about the nature and quality of his religious commitments. Those sceptics will find much to encourage them in this volume of letters, written at a time of life when, if saintliness was already an ideal for Eliot, it was nevertheless a distant ideal. He confesses to Faber about the strength of his carnal appetites (but is there not a touch of implausible bragging here, reminiscent of Pope's posturing as a libertine rake in "A Farewell to London. In the Year 1715", where he assures the whores of the capital that they may now "sleep at Ease" since he has left for the country?):
I like good food, probably more than you do: I remember a dinner in Bordeaux, two or three dinners in Paris, a certain wine in Fontevrault, and shall never forget them; I remember also minor pleasures of drunkenness and adultery, and of these things, after repentance, I can still say
it doth min hertes gode
That I have had my lyf as in my time.
That Eliot should ever have compared himself to that paragon of energetic animality, the Wife of Bath (whose words he slightly misquotes to Faber) is just one of the agreeable shocks imparted by this volume of letters.