Eliot Agonistes: Letters to and from the editor

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.

Less shocking, after the publication in 1996 of Eliot’s juvenilia as Inventions of the March Hare, are the letters to Bonamy Dobrée about the “Bolovians”, an invented primitive negro people. There were two strands to this long-running Eliotic joke.  The first consisted of a series of puerile and indecent stanzas of doggerel (which nevertheless have their moments of technical interest related to the virtuoso handling of rhyme or stress). These poems tell of the sexual and scatological misadventures of King Bolo, his queen, and their discoverer Columbo. For the second strand, Eliot indulged his gift and taste for pastiche by writing at length about the complexities of Bolovian theology and the impossibly difficult pronunciation of the Bolovian language, thereby imitating and mocking the modes and postures of early 20th-century anthropology. Certainly, before the publication of Eliot’s juvenilia you could have got long odds had you wagered that this future Nobel Laureate had ever promised a correspondent “a Description of the Columbian Sport of: Fucking the Tortoise”. More puzzling perhaps is why Eliot in his late thirties thought the Bolovian joke worth reviving, some 12 years after the doggerel was originally composed.

One reason why Eliot may have found comfort in replaying the jokes, poor and crude though some of them may be, of an earlier and less complicated period of his life was that the emotional adversity which confronted him in 1926 and 1927 was so appalling. One of the valuable features of this edition is that it prints not only letters to and from Eliot himself, but also important letters written by those close to him. Vivien Eliot has fewer than two dozen letters here, but virtually each one has something memorable and terrible in it — they read like bulletins from the front line of a collapsing marriage and a disintegrating personality.  So it would be folly to take these letters in any straightforward way as reliable evidence of anything apart from Vivien’s own over-wroughtness. Yet beneath all the layers of anxiety and delusion, fragments of a credible reality seem somehow to be embedded within them, as for instance in this explanation to John Middleton Murry of the loneliness and terror she felt in her marriage:

…whenever he [Eliot] speaks to me, about himself, & his interests, work, thoughts, desires, I know so frightfully that I simply do not understand him, that sometimes, when I am tired or overwrought, it gives me the sensation that he is mad. Sometimes that he is mad or else that he is most frightfully & subtly wicked and dangerous. That he is a terrible menace. That I must either somehow cut free & run, run, run to somewhere where there is a clear sky & open fields & air. Or else that I shall be stifled, that I must sink down, down into a heavy vapour, & so gradually be stifled to death.

The end of this volume finds Eliot and Vivien still tethered to one another, although the marriage is plainly a matter of concern to their relations, as well as to its protagonists. Eliot’s sensible and loyal brother, Henry, who had visited the Eliots with his own new wife Theresa in 1926, wrote a long, careful and (for much of its length) painstakingly diplomatic letter devoted to analysis of his sister-in-law which nevertheless did not shrink from concluding that (as many readers of these letters may also conclude):

Nothing interests her more than a discussion of her own faults; they are her precious little offspring, they are interesting, they distinguish her from the crowd, they are indicative of a sensitive and complex organization. As a matter of fact, they are not pathological, they are not interesting, they are simply self-exaggerations of tendencies to be found in the majority of human beings, developed in her by giving rein to all self-control. They are the perversities of a spoiled child.

This letter crossed in the post with one from Eliot himself, in which he urged Henry and Theresa to write “a short line” to Vivien: “This is the more desirable, because she thinks from your silence that you are offended with her, or expressing disapproval.” Received just after this plea was posted, Henry’s long but finally decisive letter must have made difficult reading.  Unsurprisingly Eliot did not write again to his brother for four months. Like the vacancy following Faber’s receipt of the letter containing Eliot’s idea of the Good Life, this is another eloquent silence.

Distressing though Vivien’s condition clearly was for Eliot, it was not an ever-present worry for him, since in these years they spent long periods of time apart. For a while Vivien was confined in a sanatorium outside Paris, and although Eliot visited her, he also spent a good deal of time travelling, not only to Paris but also to Rome and on several occasions to Freiburg. His visits to Switzerland were in connection with his editorship of the Criterion, whose patron Lady Rothermere resided there. The majority of the letters in this volume are related to Criterion business, and they shed light on the care with which Eliot discharged his responsibilities, as well as the occasionally onerous nature of the responsibilities themselves. Over the years of its existence the Criterion changed its title on three occasions, first to the New Criterion, then to the Monthly Criterion, finally reverting to the plain Criterion. Those changes of title reflected underlying changes of ownership, as Lady Rothermere eventually lost interest in the journal and it was taken on by Faber.

These changes took their toll on Eliot, but throughout these years his editing is a model of tact and meticulousness. Difficult contributors are dealt with forbearingly, dull would-be contributors are rejected courteously, late contributors are encouraged subtly. Eliot associated a few others with the editorial line of the journal (Orlo Williams, Herbert Read, Bonamy Dobrée and F. S. Flint), and he was careful to explain to Richard Aldington (on this occasion, a difficult contributor) that this inner group was bound together by a kind of “cabinet responsibility” which demanded discipline:

You see, I try to be very careful — I do not say that I always succeed —not to express in the Criterion any opinions of my own with which others of our more important colleagues would be in real opposition. If I want to say such things, I try to say them elsewhere; even in The Times I can say things which I would not say in the Criterion. And it seems to me only fair to ask the same of my colleagues; and when I say things myself in the Criterion which do not represent the consensus of opinion I want them to criticise me for it. For I am aware that even when I write things signed by my own name, if I print them in the Criterion it will be assumed that they represent not only my own personal views but the official views of the paper.

All the conscious diplomacy demanded of Eliot by the fact that the Criterion did not “represent the finest siftings of my own taste” (as he put it to Ezra Pound) must at times have weighed heavily on him, and so it is not surprising to find him admonishing Pound: “For God’s sake don’t start another review… All reviews are worse than useless.” That exasperation with the business of setting up and running a literary review is also detectable in a public reprimand to Arnold Bennett, who with the insouciance of the very rich had deplored the fewness of literary periodicals before blandly inquiring “But who is to pay for them?”:

I should like to tell Mr Bennett, in reply, exactly how such periodicals as he likes are at present paid for. There are four “payments”, and of these the smallest payment is that made by the person who buys a copy. The people who pay are the enlightened patron of intellect, who pays in money; the enterprising publisher, who pays in labour and worry, and perhaps in money too; and finally the contributors, who “pay” by being underpaid.

Clearly, the passage of over 80 years has not brought about great changes in the economics of the publication of literary magazines.

Looking back after it folded in 1939, would Eliot have said that the whole adventure of the Criterion had been worth it? In 1926 he had written to Wyndham Lewis that the publication the previous year of Poems 1909-1925 had arisen from his wish “to collect all my stuff and get rid of it in one volume so as to get it out of my own way and make a fresh start.” But the desired “fresh start” was slow in coming. The opening lines of section V of “East Coker” are apposite:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

Over the next two years Eliot was to write little poetry, and it would be easy to deplore the clerical burdens imposed on him by the editorship of the Criterion as constituting the obstacle to composition.  

Easy; but, for two reasons, I think mistaken. The first is that in the course of routine correspondence connected with the Criterion Eliot was nevertheless refining his poetic sensibility. An example might be when he comments on some poems in the manner of Pope submitted to him by a Cambridge undergraduate, James Smith:

The desire to imitate or emulate Pope is itself rare and commendable. To imitate Pope is in itself highly useful for anyone who wishes to write poetry. I have done it myself, not so very long ago either, and with the exception of one or two lines I do not think that my verses were any better than yours, and perhaps not so evenly good. I destroyed mine and recommend you to do the same. Nothing in this style of verse is of any value except as an exercise: and this for the reason that it has already been done literally to perfection. You cannot improve on Pope, nor can you get anywhere by burlesquing him or ragging him because there is just sufficient element of burlesque in Pope himself to render him immune.

Recalling his own imitation of Pope in a rejected section of “The Fire Sermon”, Eliot passes beyond the commonplace observation that Pope perfected the heroic couplet to the brilliant insight that Pope’s most effective defence against later would-be imitators lies, not so much in his perfection, as in his anticipatory seasoning of his poetry with elements of burlesque. These letters contain a number of other instances when clerical routine unexpectedly leads to literary and poetic refreshment.

The second is that Eliot’s editorial correspondence encouraged him towards a gymnastics of style. We all write in different ways to different people, but in Eliot the need to prepare a repertoire of stylistic faces to meet the faces he would meet was particularly marked — compare his letters to Pound with those to, say, Geoffrey Faber. Once again, in retrospect routine seems to prepare the way for later, greater achievements. In his correspondence for 1926 and 1927 Eliot often writes like a trapped man.  Today’s reader, however, can glimpse in these letters the beginnings of the paths that would eventually lead Eliot into brighter and more open mental landscapes.

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