So Different From the Poetry

The Letters of T.S. Eliot — Volume 2: 1923-25

John Gross

The long-delayed publication of the second volume of T. S. Eliot’s collected letters is at once a major event and a rather small one. Eliot was a central figure in the literary life of his time. The letters in the new volume, which covers the years from 1923 to 1925, were written when he was at the height of his powers (The Waste Land had been published in 1922), and they are interesting — how could they not be? — on many counts. But no one could say that they are a contribution to literature in their own right. They almost never stir one’s spirits or excite one’s imagination. Even as gossip their entertainment value is strictly limited.

Money worries and health problems (both his wife’s and Eliot’s own) are constant themes in the book. There is prolonged agonising about whether he should give up his job at the head office of Lloyds Bank, and an abundance of detail about the terms of his move to the newly established publishing house of Faber and Gwyer, soon to be Faber and Faber. But in terms of space it is his editorship of the quarterly review, the Criterion, which looms largest.

He had to find time for his labours for the Criterion after he had returned home from the bank. He wasn’t paid for them (though the journal itself received a subsidy from Lady Rothermere), and he was sorely overworked. But for all his groans he plainly felt the job was worthwhile.  It enhanced his intellectual authority, and he tackled it with unremitting dedication.

The correspondence provides a close-up of his editorial principles and practices. We can watch him pursuing favourite themes, wooing eminent potential contributors (often unsuccessfully), disengaging himself from undesirable ones, practising an editor’s necessary insincerities.

There are unexpected twists and turns. He wrote to D. H. Lawrence, for example, saying how pleased he was to hear that Lawrence liked the Criterion, only to receive a poke in the eye by way of reply. No, it had bored the novelist “to turn the very pages” of the current issue; the whole thing was “too literary“, “old barn-hen stuff”. It is plain from comments they made on other occasions that he and Eliot were instinctively hostile. But that did not stop them valuing one another as editor and contributor respectively: the Criterion published no fewer than five of Lawrence’s stories.

The magazine’s contributors, potential or actual, included authors as exceptional as Italo Svevo and Wyndham Lewis, Paul Valéry and Marianne Moore. Eliot’s dealings with them constitute what ought to be an absorbing chapter of literary history. But unfortunately most of the letters he addressed to them were stiff and formal. When he canvassed a contribution from Rebecca West, for instance, he admittedly hadn’t met her, but even so she must have been surprised to find him signing off: “I am, Madam, your obedient servant.” She might as well have been hearing from her solicitor.

It isn’t only when he is writing in the role of editor that the letters are notably buttoned-up. There are some nice dry touches — “Nobody likes being called a ‘highbrow'”, he tells a critic who has devoted a friendly essay to him — and even when he is being over-precise he at least has the virtues of precision: he expresses himself firmly and clearly. But what you hardly ever seem to get is the true voice of feeling.

One or two letters stand out in sharp contrast to the prevailing restraint. Writing to John Middleton Murry, Eliot pours out his heart, or his desperation: “In the last ten years — gradually but deliberately — I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately — in order to endure, in order not to feel — but it has killed V.” — Vivienne, his wife. (He didn’t much respect Murry, but somehow found it easier to confide in him than in people he respected more.) And there is a scary letter to Lady Rothermere, warning her against a madwoman who has been persecuting Vivienne and is “burning” to injure Eliot himself “in every way possible”. (The facts seem to be more or less as Eliot described them, but you feel a more general sense of panic at work as well.)

It would take a bold person to pass confident judgment on the rights and wrongs of Eliot’s first marriage — and quite a few such bold people have shown up in the past 30-odd years. There is no doubt a great deal that we shall never know. But on the evidence of the newly-published letters Eliot was caring and conscientious, preoccupied with trying to get help for Vivienne’s mental condition from doctors who didn’t fully understand it, and much of the time on the brink of a nervous breakdown himself.

Despite the glimpses of anguish, the man you encounter in these letters seems worlds away from the poetry. There is nothing new, of course, about the idea of a gulf between a writer and his work. When Henry James met Tennyson, he reported to a friend that “you must understand there is nothing personally Tennysonian about him”. Much the same point could be made about many other authors. But in Eliot the disparity seems particularly glaring. You wonder how such a gift came to be lodged in such a figure.

Eliot and his wife Vivienne 

Meanwhile, the new volume is a book to consult rather than one to read. And since the editors quote generously from Eliot’s correspondents, many of the best things in it are not by Eliot himself. There are some particularly attractive letters from his elder brother Henry. The aged George Saintsbury gives a genial and witty account of his reactions to Ulysses. And in an exchange between Eliot and Bertrand Russell about conceptions of culture, the last word must go to Russell: “Your opinion is different from mine, but why shouldn’t it be? Neither is founded on reason.” 

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