The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volume 8: 1936-1938
T.S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, John Haffenden (eds.), Faber & Faber, 2019, 1,100pp + li, illus., £50
The Letters of T.S. Eliot. Volume 9: 1939-1941
T.S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, John Haffenden (eds.), Faber & Faber, 2021, 1,072pp + lxix, illus., £60
ALEXANDER ADAMS loses himself in a great litterateur’s letters
In the ongoing Faber & Faber publication of T.S. Eliot’s letters, the project has reached the late 1930s and the wartime years. These were years in which Eliot was involved in writing Four Quartets (1936-42), Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) and The Family Reunion (1939); this was in addition to his work as a director of Faber & Faber. Devotion played an important part in Eliot’s life, never less than in the dark years when his wife was confined to an asylum. The confinement was something for which Vivienne’s family were responsible and with which Eliot acquiesced, and that weighed on Eliot’s conscience. The punishing routine of work between early-morning prayer and late-night fire-watching during the Blitz seem at least in part a form of penance. Eliot’s engagement with the place of Christianity in a secular society is frequently the prompt for letters and solicitations for book reviews.
These letters cover Eliot’s private life, professional correspondence and publishing business. We get his letters to James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Henry Miller, Djuna Barnes, Louis MacNeice, Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Herbert Read and John Betjeman. Most are cordial and unrevealing. His long-standing correspondent Ezra Pound is ever present, mainly writing about publication matters. Eliot approves of a critical review of a collection of Pound essays, anticipating Pound’s reaction: ‘a furious letter, which I shall have to suppress in his own interest.’[i] In these volumes, Eliot seems wearied by Pound’s relentless passion, quixotic changes and prickliness.
A more regular correspondent was John Hayward, the brilliant and difficult English-literature scholar and editor, who would play a significant part in Eliot’s life. Hayward would become a housemate of Eliot’s in the 1940s and 1950s, an arrangement that lasted until Eliot’s second marriage. Hayward was assiduous in collecting letters, books and other Eliot material, which he later bequeathed to King’s College, Cambridge. In that case, Eliot was aware that his playful badinage was being preserved and would be read by others. Hayward consulted Eliot about bibliographical rarities and letters that appeared in booksellers’ catalogues.
Among numerous letters tactfully declining volumes of poetry by obscure writers and evading explaining ‘The Waste Land’, there are some more weighty letters. He declines publishing Céline’s anti-Semitic Bagatelles, while appreciating the inventiveness of the prose. An internal memorandum from Eliot to fellow Faber director Geoffrey Faber puts the case for publishing Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.
Lesbianism merely happens to be the variety of the dis-ease that Barnes knows the best, so it is through that form that she has to get at something universal (she has obviously a great deal of the male in her composition). […] And as for her style, it has what is for me the authentic evidence of power, in that I find myself having to struggle, directly after reading, not to ape it myself: and very few writers exercise that pull.[ii]
There are numerous letters displaying Eliot’s tireless support for poet George Barker. ‘[…] I believe in your genius, so far as one is ever justified in believing in genius except in retrospect, and I believe that it is genius if anything and not talent.’[iii]
There are flashes of wit and acerbic commentary. ‘[…] what horrifies me is that your young people should actually be set to study contemporary verse in qualification for the degree of B.A. They ought to be reading Aristophanes.’[iv] He includes general rules for poets. ‘Nobody ought to attempt free rhythms until he has served an apprenticeship in strict ones.’[v] Eliot states that poets must continually develop. Unlike a novelist, who can produce books that conform to a successful formula, a poet ought not to publish books too similar to previous ones, lest he bore his readership. His pragmatic business side took over when he recommended winding up the quarterly journal The Criterion, which he had edited for sixteen years. Facing a drop in subscriptions and the storm clouds of war, the journal was closed in 1939.
We get a few insights into Eliot’s verse writing during a period when he was moving to verse plays. He posted sections of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to the children of the family he stayed with in the countryside. Eliot never had children, and these children – and the children of his fellow director Geoffrey Faber – became his surrogate offspring. Enclosed is a pre-publication report from one reader of the manuscript of Practical Cats, damning it as ‘Personally, I find them pretentious, and cannot recommend publication.’[vi] There are mentions of visits to Little Gidding, East Coker and Burnt Norton, but these are arrangements rather than reflections. Even if he enclosed verses and composed nonsense verse to amuse recipients, Eliot was not given to poetic flights in his letters.
By and large, politics and current events go undiscussed in Volume 8. The abdication is mentioned but the events in central Europe cause barely a ripple in the volume. During the war, Eliot lived a peripatetic lifestyle, staying with Geoffrey and Enid Faber and others. He often travelled by train and bus, laden down by manuscripts and reference books, as he worked on the last of the Four Quartets. He joined the A.R.P. as a fire warden, seeing relatively little action in his allotted sector. We encounter little description of the impact of the Blitz, outside of the ways in which it disconcerted people and disrupted daily life.
The introduction of Volume 9 approaches discussion of the poet’s anti-Semitism. While it is true that Eliot published poems with disagreeable portrayals of Jewish characters and wrote in 1934 ‘reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable’, Eliot was solicitous of the safety of Jews he knew personally. The volumes contain many letters of recommendation supporting the candidacies of Jews (including refugees) for employment positions. He also was unable to allow Pound’s anti-Semitic screeds being included in Faber’s editions of the Cantos. Eliot preferred for Pound to rewrite the parts but Pound made a point of leaving the censorship apparent. The intensity of Jewish condemnation of Eliot seems to be due to the potency and prominence of his negative depictions of Jews. Eliot’s dislike of Jewish material success and cultural influence seemed a strong instinctive aversion rather than malevolence.
We get a few retrospective glimpses of the poet in earlier years. Eliot wrote to his brother Henry of his early life in London:
I was of course too much engrossed in the horrors of my private life to notice much outside; and I was suffering from (1) a feeling of guilt in having married a woman I detested, and consequently a feeling that I must put up with anything (2) perpetually being told, in the most plausible way, that I was a clodhopper and a dunce. Gradually, through making friends, I came to find that English people of the sort that I found congenial were prepared to take me quite as an ordinary human being, and that I had merely married into a rather common suburban family with a streak of abnormality which in the case of my wife had reached the point of liking to give people pain.[viii]
He goes on to comment that the only blasphemous poem that he ever wrote was ‘The Hollow Men’. ‘[…] this is blasphemy because it is despair, it stands for the lowest point I ever reached in my sordid domestic affairs.’[ix]
The shadow of Vivienne’s instability looms large in Volume 8. Eliot apologises to Henry for her sending a Christmas card from her and her husband. He notes that (even though long separated) she has put his residence as hers, in the telephone directory.[x] Her letters are included here. She wrote to the Faber office about her husband’s health and offered herself as an illustrator for one of his poems. Her communications are odd and inappropriate, mainly. Sometimes there are glimpses of darker thoughts, such as when she announces to a Faber employee that she is being followed.
Printed in full is a letter from Vivienne’s brother, dated 14 July 1938.
V. had apparently been wandering about for two nights, afraid to go anywhere. She is full of the most fantastic suspicions & ideas. She asked me if it was true that you had been beheaded. She says she has been in hiding from various mysterious people, & so on. It would be deplorable if she were again to be found wandering in the early hours & taken into custody.[xi]
As a result of a pattern of alarming behaviour, Vivienne was committed to a secure residential home, Northumberland House. Eliot did his best to punctiliously sort out her financial and legal affairs, as discretely as possible. Even though he did not visit her – such an encounter would have been too distressing and destabilising – Vivienne was never too far from Eliot’s conscience.
This review is written in the shadow of the impending publication of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale (on 1 June 2023, by Faber & Faber), which seems set to be a publishing sensation. That collection of 1,131 letters was deposited by Hale at Princeton University and was only unsealed on 2 January 2020. That book promises to show the most intimate side of Eliot, that which was so carefully hidden by the poet. It was during the late 1930s, while Eliot was living in London and Hale was teaching in Massachusetts, that they corresponded most often. In a rather defensive statement of 1960, Eliot wrote of the difficulty of marriage for him as a poet. After explaining that his marriage to the unstable Vivienne would inevitably seem inexplicable, he conceded that the tensions of an unhappy marriage provided inspiration for poetry.
Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Viviennene nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive. In retrospect, the nightmare agony of my seventeen years with Viviennene seems to me preferable to the dull misery of the mediocre teacher of philosophy which would have been the alternative.
He went on the state that Hale did not understand or love his poetry, even though it seems they discussed his poetry at length and that ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936) of Four Quartets was written as a coded love poem to her. It should be noted that when Eliot wrote this statement he was defending his decision to marry his second wife, Valerie, and aiming to downplay his commitment to Hale and hers to him. Hale does appear indirectly in the letters in Volume 8. She visited Eliot in England and there are comments from him about her arrival, departure and activities during her time with him. In his statement of 1960, Eliot affirmed that he had never had sexual relations with Hale.
The publication of this separate volume will be significant in its revelations about the life and ideas of a great poet, showing him at his most unguarded. The ethics of publishing such letters is redundant. As the letters were deposited at Princeton University and due to be the subject of study, it is the correct decision to publish them in full, annotated, rather than allowing salacious snippets from circulating out of context.
The preceding review does not do full justice to the pleasure of having to hand such first-hand testimony of such a major figure. Being presented with such a huge body of letters – not even all of them, apparently – is a sort of treasure store, one unavailable for most cultural figures. One is impressed at Eliot’s indefatigable diligence; writing to colleagues and strangers, editing, reading, publishing, serving his church, not to mention finding time for his own writing, Eliot’s work rate is formidable.
We get an understanding of Eliot the man – driven by a moral core of Christianity, passionate about culture (especially literature), a loving godfather, cautious in his romantic attachments. Being such a prominent figure – author, publisher, cultural commentator, public intellectual – Eliot knew that his most private and informal communications would be bought, sold and scrutinised. Although Eliot bore the burden relatively lightly, there remains the suspicion that Eliot was curbing his most cutting comments for the sake of his posthumous legacy.
The editing is exemplary. I spotted only one error (in footnote numbering, on p. 626) in over 2,000 pages. There are notes on recipients, context provided and often extensive quotes. These quotes are of letters that Eliot was replying to or extracts of books and journals. The editors have dug through archives of journals and newspapers and long-forgotten books. Letter text not in English is translated and many passing references tracked down. The only failing is omitting to indicate the place of writing. That sort of information seems more pertinent than the location of the letter manuscript. Unfortunately, this seems Faber policy regarding letter publication, so there seems no hope of the publisher revising its practice. Great care has been taken in the printing and binding. This series provides an unparalleled view of multiple aspects of the greatest poet in the English language of the Modernist era and gives us a glimpse of history as it was being made.
[i] Vol. 8, p. 585
[ii] Vol. 8, pp. 151-2
[iii] Vol. 8, p. 665
[iv] Vol. 8, p. 83
[v] Vol. 8, p. 676
[vi] Vol. 8, p. 871
[vii] Vol. 9, pp. 517-8
[viii] Vol. 8, P. 10
[ix] Vol. 8, P. 11
[x] Vol. 8, P. 52
[xi] Vol. 8, p. 91
ALEXANDER ADAMS is an artist, art critic, novelist and poet. His most recent book is Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism (Societas/Imprint Academic, 2022)