A Lot of Travail

Michael Wood

  • BuyThe Letters of T.S. Eliot, Vol. II: 1923-25 edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton
    Faber, 878 pp, £35.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 14081 7

‘I think,’ T.S. Eliot wrote in February 1923, ‘it will take me a year or two to throw off The Waste Land and settle down and get at something better which is tormenting me by its elusiveness in my brain.’ The something better was probably the never finished ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, since ‘The Hollow Men’, the only other poem he worked on between 1923 and 1925, must surely have been less elusive. The Waste Land, he said, was ‘neither a success nor a failure – simply a struggle’, and he teased Ford Madox Ford by telling him he thought there were ‘about thirty good lines in The Waste Land, can you find them?’ The poem has 434 lines. Ford thought the question was cruel, and said he didn’t know the answer. Eliot’s response was predictably impatient: ‘As for the lines I mention, you need not scratch your head over them. They are the 29 lines of the water-dripping song in the last part.’ This is the passage that begins, ‘Here is no water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road/The road winding above among the mountains’ and ends: ‘But there is no water.’ No water, and in a characteristic Eliot touch, not even the sound of water, not even the imitation of the sound of water by a bird, for example. Relief can’t even be faked.

Some would argue that Eliot never entirely threw off The Waste Land, and others that he did and to his cost, but either way it’s clear he wanted to work at getting beyond it. He had published the poem in October 1922 in the first issue of the Criterion, the quarterly journal he had just begun to edit – the first UK book publication was by the Hogarth Press in 1923 – and this is where we left him at the end of the first volume of the letters, now handsomely revised and reissued.[*] He had studied at Harvard and Oxford, completed his doctoral dissertation on F.H. Bradley, moved to London, abruptly married and turned his back on the academic career that calmly awaited him in America. As Lyndall Gordon nicely says, in her biography of Eliot, both he and Ezra Pound were ‘lapsed professors’. He was working full-time at Lloyds Bank, where he stayed until 1925, and editing the Criterion in the spare moments he didn’t have. This tale of time swallowed up, what Eliot calls ‘the prison-like limitation of my time’, is one of the two chief themes of the second volume of the Letters. The other is the competitive invalidism the Eliots have instead of a marriage.

The union must have been rocky in all kinds of ways from the start, and in one or two letters the indications are perfectly clear, but the main impression we get from the bulk of what the two of them wrote to others is a desperate but not unkind inability to speak about anything except their own and each other’s health. Vivien is direct and lively, she says what’s wrong with her, and often says it well. ‘I still feel so ill, so intolerably unsteady, weak, dizzy – reeling.’ ‘I should have answered, but was upset and ill over Tom’s operation.’ ‘Since coming back to London I have been in despair. I mean real despair, which isolates and freezes one. (I don’t much believe in despair which seeks sympathy and comfort, do you?)’ She had colitis, influenza, pneumonia, shingles and a whole array of mental disorders. Her doctors appear as saviours and are remembered as tormentors. Eliot has a couple of nervous breakdowns, an operation on his finger, an operation on his jaw and suffers from chronic fatigue, to say nothing of worry about Vivien, who also worries about him. He is not exactly direct, though – or oblique. He develops an art of complaint, so that if, like the rest of us, he opens most of his letters with an apology for not having written sooner, he quickly backs it up with a modest legend of unending martyrdom. ‘I have been ill in bed with influenza and bronchitis, hence the delay’; ‘I am feeling a little steadier, but was unable to write you last night’; ‘We have had a terrible month of it and in short my wife’s progress has been set back for a year’; ‘I am still hanging about after my illness. I don’t seem to have anything like the strength I used to have. It is quite impossible for me to go away, because Vivien is too ill to go and too ill to be left’; ‘I have just (yesterday) returned from Eastbourne, where I have been ill with influenza’; ‘Not yet up to reading stories. Sit up a bit every day, but very weak’; ‘I have had a sort of setback and don’t know when I shall be out, and will write again’; ‘This last illness of V’s has been indescribable’; ‘Most unfortunately I was ill all of last night’; ‘Vivien can’t move, with violent neuralgia and neuritis’; ‘The doctor said he had never seen so bad a liver on a woman’; ‘I feel like a shell with no machinery in it, the moment I try to use my mind at all; it’s no use, and then up goes the temperature.’

It’s not that we doubt the truth of any of these statements, or even that we feel Eliot may be oversharing, as some say these days – many of the recipients of these letters really wanted to know how he was. And to be fair, the cumulative effect is available only to readers of this volume, since the letters went out to separate persons one by one. Still, the effect is there, and this is a lot of travail in only three years, and the man who said ‘my own aim is to suppress my own biography’ is clearly writing his own pre-emptive life story: he is the man who suffered, the man who did too much, the man who always knew there was no water among the rock. But surely Eliot’s slow approach to formal Christianity, discernible in a number of remarks in these letters, means he came to think there was some sort of water in orthodoxy? Perhaps. Eliot’s poetry, all the way through to the last of the Four Quartets, suggests strongly that orthodoxy calls most persuasively to those who know, as Christ told the woman of Samaria in John 4.10, that there is no living water in this life.

Eliot could state this perception without complaint, and even joke about it in his sober way. He tells his brother about ‘the kink in my brain which makes life at all an unremitting strain for me, and which is at the bottom of a good many of the things about me that you object to’. ‘Life at all’ is pretty amazing, and makes me think Eliot would have liked Hardy’s work better if he had paid attention to a poem like the one that begins: ‘For Life I had never cared greatly,/ As worth a man’s while.’ Of course kink and caring are different, but the sheer dissident simplicity of thinking that life is either all a strain or an acquired taste is certainly striking. Eliot’s description of himself as ‘within measurable distance of the end of my tether’ combines distress with elegance. Writing to Herbert Read he says: ‘I have been of late exceptionally busy and exceptionally worried, even for me.’ And writing again to his brother he says his life is such a mess that it would make him laugh, ‘if any Eliot could ever laugh’. He likes this one so much he repeats it to Harold Monro a day later with a minor variation: ‘if any Eliot ever could laugh’.

But there is a sort of morality to all this that shifts it beyond complaint, kink and joke, and helps us to understand the poetry and the criticism. Eliot not only thought life was hard, he thought it ought to be hard, and with this verdict he joined all those other modern writers and thinkers who adopted or at least were tempted by what J.P. Stern in another context calls the ‘dear purchase’, the notion that sacrifice is worth nothing if it doesn’t cost too much. When he discovered that his theologian friend Paul Elmer More didn’t believe in hell, he was indignant and wrote: ‘Is your God some kind of Santa Claus?’ This morality literally erupts in two letters in the volume, producing moments of shock amid an otherwise totally absorbing (perhaps I mean absorbent) but not exactly gripping read. It’s as if a slow-moving epistolary novel suddenly and temporarily acquired a lurid and scary plot. In the first case some mixture of anxiety and ill-temper flares up and then leaks out through mythology; in the second, Eliot is asking if a man who has doggedly chosen the hard road might get a second chance and be allowed to think of easier, even pleasant paths.

As it happens, both of the letters are to John Middleton Murry, the editor of the Athenaeum and then the Adelphi, a long-time friend of Eliot’s and more recently his intellectual enemy. Murry was an ‘apostle of suburban free thought’, Eliot told another friend. He wasn’t to be taken as seriously as a distinguished foreigner like Ernst Robert Curtius might think; and Eliot wrote to someone else that he had ‘never found any writer whose views were so antipathetic to me as Murry’s’. Murry seems not to have understood that his polemical position meant they couldn’t have lunch, and must have been surprised to receive, in answer to his suggestion that the two might meet up when he came to London, only the following snarl:

Dear John,

If you are going to be in London, you will probably find a great many ‘friends’ to welcome you – and such a display of flags from ships not in stony places, that you may not find it necessary to recognise my ensign. So I shall not accept this letter as really a signal: but shall wait for another if, and when, you have use for me.

Murry must have used the phrase ‘stony places’ – borrowed from The Waste Land and thereby, it seems, triggering both Eliot’s mixed metaphor about the ships and some sort of censorious panic. In the poem ‘the agony in stony places’ refers to Christ’s arrest on the Mount of Olives (‘and being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground’ – Luke 22.44), and Eliot was presumably outraged by the suggestion, coming from a man he regarded as an atheist, that these stony places might be just a passing phase. The outrage allows Eliot to get indignant on Christ’s behalf as well as his own:

But do you really consider it a good sign that the ‘time of stony places is over’? If so, you are luckier than the Saviour, who found things pretty stony to the last – and would, I believe, have continued to find them so, had he not been removed at an age less ripe than yours or mine. I do not suppose that I share any other characteristic of the Founder of Christianity, but at least I have nothing but stony places to look forward to. This isolates me, of course, from those who can pass in and out of stony places with practised ease.

Yours ever,

Tom

‘Practised ease’ is very nasty, and it’s hard to imagine anything more sanctimonious, or devoted to what we might think of as the snobbery of suffering. But this is the writing of a man who thinks he has a vocation for unhappiness, who thinks unhappiness is a genuine vocation, and surely horror must await such a man if he wakes one day to see he is mistaken.

This is what happens in the other letter to Murry, written less than six months later. ‘In the last ten years’ may refer to many things but must principally mean the time of Eliot’s marriage to Vivien.

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. In leaving the bank I hope to become less a machine – but yet I am frightened – because I don’t know what it will do to me – and to V – should I come alive again. I have deliberately killed my senses – I have deliberately died – in order to go on with the outward form of living … Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying?

Eliot had other questions, or put the same questions in different words: ‘Can I exorcise this desire for what I cannot have, for someone I cannot see, and give to her, life, and save my soul? I feel now that one cannot help another by ruining one’s own soul – I have done that – can one help another and save it?’ ‘Her’ must be Vivien, and a footnote tells us that the ‘someone I cannot see’ is Emily Hale, whom Eliot had loved before he left for England, and with whom he was later to sustain a long correspondence – her letters to him were destroyed, on Eliot’s orders; his letters to her, sealed until 2020, are in Princeton Library. Murry has some good strong advice, marred only by a touch of gender bias (‘going forward is the man’s job’; ‘A woman’s direction is given only by her man: that is the law’).

One can hardly analyse these cries at a distance – one probably couldn’t analyse them up close either – but the tangle itself makes a horrible kind of sense. It’s not just that Eliot feels he got things wrong, he now feels he mistook that very wrongness for behaving well, and this is precisely the grim knowledge that the returning spirit in ‘Little Gidding’ sardonically places among ‘the gifts reserved for age/To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort’:

           the shame
  Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
  Which once you took for exercise of virtue.

The sadness here is that Eliot got his gift early – he had 40 years to go – and that his vocation for unhappiness was fulfilled, like the fate of John Marcher in Henry James’s story ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, because he couldn’t think of anything else until it was too late. Or almost too late. By all accounts, Eliot’s last years, and his second marriage in 1957 to Valerie Fletcher, were very happy.

Eliot’s relations with Murry have other interesting aspects and lead us into the question of Eliot’s politics. One of the reasons he could turn to Murry with his cri de coeur, apart from the fact that Murry seems to have ignored the snarl about his friends and the stony places anyway, is that Murry had in the meantime recommended Eliot for the Clark Lectures at Cambridge – which meant money, prestige, and in combination with a directorship at Faber, liberation at last from the bank. Eliot felt he had to redefine his idea of friendship. ‘Other people have offered things, gifts, but no one, except you, has ever come with them exactly at the right moment. What is this except friendship?’ Well, it sounds like a combination of friendship and luck, and the subtext here may be that Eliot didn’t believe till now that someone he disagreed with so violently could be so nice to him. He gets the point, though, and in the middle of his crisis of living and dying writes the following:

There are many things, my dear John, which I should like to ask you, because I know that in many ways – spiritually, you are much wiser than I. Intellectually, we are often, perhaps always, at opposite poles. To me and you … that is a small matter – it is comparatively easy to find intellectual sympathy.

‘Perhaps always’ is a fine touch, and this is what takes us to Eliot’s politics. He thought of himself as a pure old Tory, the kind that regards Disraeli as a bit of a backslider – as indeed he would have to be, in Eliot’s view, because he was Jewish, ‘that people’ being always ‘inclined to bolshevism in some form (not always political)’. Even without lingering over the prissy concept of non-political ‘bolshevism’, we get the picture. This is not politics but a stuffy fantasy about a non-existent world. It certainly has its disagreeable real-world aspect, notoriously in its anti-semitism – Eliot speaks of ‘racial prejudice’ as if it were optional but a good thing to have, like the right sort of taste in wine or shirts – but mainly it’s a full-scale retreat from the present tense. I’m prepared to believe the editors of the letters when they say Eliot was being ‘jocular’ when he said he was ‘anxious to see the Hapsburgs restored’. But when (in 1923) he claims he is ‘all for empires, especially the Austro-Hungarian empire’, you begin to think he is just hankering for the old days and another life, when a young American – he was only 35 at the time – could have an archduke for a cousin, like the girl called Marie at the beginning of The Waste Land, and a whole set of memories to go with such aristocratic connections.

There is a good deal of nonsense along these lines in the letters, but when Eliot says of the Criterion, ‘the policy of this paper … is strongly reactionary and anti-romantic,’ he must be speaking for what he would like the policy to be. The paper’s practice is purely eclectic and largely literary. Eliot publishes Woolf, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Proust, Dostoevsky, Cavafy, Yeats, Lawrence, Valéry, Forster, Richards, Joyce and many others. This is not The Communist Manifesto, but it includes the liberal left and almost all of the literary avant-garde. ‘I do not know what you mean about the left and the right in literature,’ Eliot says – although he appears to have been the one who raised the question in the first place. Very well, he contradicts himself. ‘It seems to me,’ he writes, ‘that at the present time we need more dogma’ – was any proposition ever less dogmatically made? He doesn’t even finally deny the charge, made by Murry and others, that he is a Romantic masquerading as a devotee of classicism, and a radical (in poetry) disguised as a conservative (in criticism). He was just trying to be as un-Romantic as he could, and upholding classicism was a signal and a provocation. He says, ‘I do not, for myself, bother about the apparent inconsistency … between my prose and my verse’ – nor does he insist very firmly that the inconsistency is really only apparent. What he does say, in a letter to Robert Graves, and again rather undogmatically, is: ‘It would not matter, I think, if we did not altogether agree, so long as we made our differences conspicuous and interesting.’ I need to stop these quotations now or I shall run the risk of turning Eliot into a good liberal – it’s certainly the way he looks in relation to contemporary conservatism. He wasn’t. He was an imaginary Tory, in the way some people have imaginary friends – not the most attractive of fantasies maybe, but as a way of arranging a disliked world in your head, a fiction as good as any. He had real friends too, and he managed to recognise them, with a little difficulty. Still, he loved difficulty, and even dying, as he puts it in The Waste Land, can only be done with ‘a little patience’.

[*] The new edition of Volume I is discussed by Lawrence Rainey in this issue.