In the latest issue:

An Ordinary Woman

Alan Bennett

Anglo-America Loses its Grip

Pankaj Mishra

Short Cuts: John Bolton’s Unwitting Usefulness

Mattathias Schwartz

Smells of Hell

Keith Thomas

Mrs Oliphant

Tom Crewe

Tippett’s Knack

Philip Clark

At Tate Modern: Steve McQueen

Colin Grant

Catherine Lacey

Nicole Flattery

Churchill’s Cook

Rosemary Hill

The ‘Batrachomyomachia’

Ange Mlinko

On Dorothea Lange

Joanna Biggs

Paid to Race

Jon Day

Poem: ‘Traveller’s Tales: Chapter 90’

August Kleinzahler

The Soho Alphabet

Andrew O’Hagan

Old Tunes

Stephen Sedley

Victor Serge’s Defective Bolshevism

Tariq Ali

The Murdrous Machiavel

Erin Maglaque

Diary: Insane after coronavirus?

Patricia Lockwood

Buffed-Up ScholarStefan Collini
Letters of T.S. Eliot, Vol. III: 1926-27 
edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden.
Faber, 954 pp., £40, July 2012, 978 0 571 14085 5
Show More
Show More

Writing in his best haughty-provocative manner, T.S. Eliot described Coleridge as ‘one of those unhappy persons … of whom one might say that if they had not been poets, they might have made something of their lives, might even have had a career’. Although the syntax allows a little ambiguity about whether the unhappiness is independent of, or consequent on, being a poet, the obvious reading suggests a somewhat laboured sarcasm about the way the propensity for writing poetry can blight the exercise of other talents, talents that might have led to success in more orthodox careers. Coleridge had, according to Eliot, been ‘visited by the Muse’ during his early manhood, but, the visitor having departed, he was ‘thenceforth a haunted man’. He had a talent for metaphysics and similar studies, but ‘he was condemned to know that the little poetry he had written was worth more than all he could do with the rest of his life. The author of Biographia Literaria was already a ruined man. Sometimes, however, to be a “ruined man” is itself a vocation.’

Eliot, it could be said, ‘made something’ of his life largely by not being a poet. His published output was not large, and for long periods he seems to have written no poetry at all. At the same time, there were various pressures on him, internal as well as external, to make something of his life, and the greater part of any biography has to be devoted to those other somethings. But were there moments along the way when he felt himself to be not just ‘a haunted man’ – he certainly was that – but ‘already a ruined man’? It could scarcely be said that he made a vocation out of being a ruined man: in his later years he was garlanded with recognition of several kinds and he became a byword (or notorious) for his cultivation of social respectability and worldly status. But at the beginning of 1926, the start of the period covered in this volume of his letters, the shadow of more than one kind of ruin still hung over him. Ten years earlier he had abandoned his promising academic career as a philosopher in order to stay in England to ‘write’, the start of a decade of economic insecurity that had been only partly alleviated by taking an uncongenial job in a bank. More ruinous still had been his hasty marriage: by 1926 it was becoming clearer that Vivien’s psychological and physical problems required long-term professional treatment. Whatever his feelings for his wife by this point – some commentators may have come to firmer conclusions than the evidence warrants – worry and guilt were substantial elements in the mix. And then there were the uncertainties arising from his irregular relations with the Muse. He had written practically no verse between mid-1915 and mid-1917, again from early 1919 to early 1921, and then for a couple of years following The Waste Land. It seemed as though another period of estrangement was beginning after the completion of ‘The Hollow Men’ in 1925, and this time the break might be permanent. He had recently given up his bank job (at the time the epitome of secure and respectable employment) to take on a role in Geoffrey Faber’s new publishing firm, and he was about to expose the patchiness of his scholarship by giving a set of lectures to an exacting audience of Cambridge dons. Ruin was still a possibility, even if not a vocation, and the main interest of the third volume of this much anticipated, much delayed edition lies in the daily evidence of Eliot’s attempts to make something of his life.

The first sentence of the editors’ introduction says this volume ‘brings the poet to the age of 39’, but he is not much in evidence as a poet in these nine hundred pages. Writing to Wyndham Lewis in January 1926, he acknowledged that his recently issued Poems 1909-25 would not do much to alter critics’ views of his work: ‘But I wanted 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.’ Even if we don’t take this at face value (he sometimes resorted to this reductive idiom to ward off any suspicion of self-importance; he was in fact delighted that Faber’s new firm was willing to publish, in effect, an interim ‘collected’), the need he felt to make a fresh start poetically seems genuine enough. But it didn’t come easily: in fact, in the years covered here it didn’t come at all. Practically the only poetry he completed was the slight ‘Journey of the Magi’ (the first of the ‘Ariel’ poems). ‘I wrote it in three quarters of an hour after church time and before lunch one Sunday morning with the assistance of half a bottle of Booth’s gin,’ or so it pleased him to tell Conrad Aiken, with more than a touch of drinking-buddy braggadocio. He also tinkered with some fragments intended to form part of a (never completed) drama of modern life called ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, as well as a translation of Saint-John Perse’s prose poem Anabase, which didn’t appear until 1930. ‘I thought my poetry was over after “the Hollow Men”,’ he acknowledged later. It was some years before he discovered that this wasn’t the case.

Overwhelmingly, these letters give us Eliot as editor. In 1922 he had become the (unpaid) founding editor of the Criterion, conceived as a serious highbrow literary quarterly subsidised by the arts-dabbling socialite Lady Rothermere, wife of the younger of the Harmsworth press barons. He had quickly made it both the leading journal for mainstream modernism in literature and the home of an anti-liberal, anti-romantic form of classicism in culture and politics more generally. The journal was put on a new business footing following his move in mid-1925 from Lloyds Bank to Faber and Gwyer (and he was paid a salary), though Lady Rothermere remained co-proprietor. Relaunched early in 1926 as the New Criterion, it continued to make a loss, leading to the experiment of appearing as a monthly early in 1927. This involved more editorial labour but brought scarcely any greater commercial success, and at the end of 1927 relations with Lady Rothermere, who had long been disappointed that the journal wasn’t more of a chic high-society arts magazine, reached a crisis. She withdrew her support, and contributors were told in early December that the journal might have to cease publication.

After the move to Faber and Gwyer, Eliot had proper secretarial support, though he still edited the journal single-handedly. Inevitably, this means that the bulk of his surviving correspondence has the character of office memos, never the most exhilarating reading. To all contributors and (even more) would-be contributors Eliot is unfailingly polite: variants on ‘However, it is not quite suitable for the Criterion’ would probably top any phrase-search of these pages (closely followed by ‘I am sorry that I had to hold over your article’). There are a number of more substantial, or more revealing, or just more personal, letters, but they are few and far between. Eliot scholars will no doubt find much grist for their finely grinding mills here, just as historians of literary journalism will be able to bulk out a largely familiar story; but readers drawn to the volume because of their admiration for Eliot’s poetry may find themselves doing a great deal of skipping.

Writing to Pound in December 1926 to try to discourage him from starting yet another ‘little magazine’, Eliot declared: ‘All reviews are worse than useless and my only excuse is that I derive the larger part of my income from this source.’ It’s advisable not to take obiter dicta of this kind too literally. Eliot had, after all, slaved at his editorial task for the first three years without deriving any income from it, and elsewhere in his letters, as well as in his published writings, we see him taking the whole thing much more seriously. He well knew that it only reached a small readership (circulation hovered around eight hundred to a thousand at this point, declining in later years), but he believed it was important to sustain a journal of the highest literary and critical standards which would combat the slack, back-scratching puffery that dominated mainstream London literary journalism. But what gave the journal its distinctive identity was the elusive ‘point of view’ these standards were held to entail, a point of view initially inimical to various forms of progressivism but increasingly marked by a frankly reactionary political and religious stance. Although the Criterion ‘certainly does not associate itself with any existing political party’, he explained to a potential contributor in June 1927, ‘it has I think a definite character in the world of ideas’.

To help develop and sustain this character, he gathered round himself a small nucleus of like-minded younger contributors with whom he discussed books, ideas and policy for the journal at ‘Criterion dinners’ at a Soho restaurant. The most constant members of the group during this period were Bonamy Dobrée, F.S. Flint, Herbert Read and Orlo Williams, all of whom were frequent contributors (and, therefore, frequent recipients of letters from Eliot), with several others participating more sporadically. In practice, Eliot still seems to have made the decisions and carried on the editorial business himself, but the idea that this was a more than merely personal enterprise mattered to him. It could also be convenient to invoke the collective persona when communicating editorial decisions, as when he turned down some essays by Laura Riding because ‘they are not closely enough in relation to the point of view of the Criterion and its principal collaborators’. The weaselly formulation (‘not closely enough in relation to’) gestures towards unexpressed criticisms, just as his careful reference to ‘and its principal collaborators’ signifies that something more than individual taste is involved.

He put the point more emphatically in a letter to Richard Aldington, who had initially been a very close collaborator but who by this date was showing signs of the touchiness and divergence of views which would eventually lead him to break with Eliot. Aldington had submitted a wayward, impressionistic essay on D.H. Lawrence, to which Eliot responded, apologetically though firmly, that ‘I do not think that it falls in with the general position of the Criterion.’ This, he went on to explain, might be thought of as ‘the consensus of opinion of the people who attend the Criterion dinners’, and so not just a matter of Eliot’s own preferences. He emphasised that he himself refrained from publishing in the journal ‘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.e. the TLS] I can say things which I would not say in the Criterion.’ He would, he conceded, occasionally be willing to carry a piece expressing a contrary position by someone acknowledged to be in opposition to the Criterion line, such as Middleton Murry, but he feared that Aldington, given his known connections with Eliot, would be taken to be speaking for the Criterion group, and this would be damaging. It is an exceptionally careful letter, even by the standards of this habitually careful writer, and its mixture of precision and deliberate vagueness perfectly captures his sense of the journal as a concerted cultural campaign. (Like many other letters here it bears out the contention in Jason Harding’s book on the Criterion that critics have too readily taken everything in the journal to be the expression of Eliot’s personal views.*)

Eliot as editor is familiar ground: one of the more surprising ‘somethings’ that these letters show him almost making of himself was an academic. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism says of Eliot that ‘he is the first non-academic critic who sounds like an academic critic.’ The tag catches something of the air of learning and scholarly precision (as well as asperity) in his early critical essays, but it may suggest that these identities were more fixed and distinctive than was the case in this period. It is clear that at times in the mid-1920s Eliot imagined himself, and was imagined by others, as a possible candidate for an academic appointment.

He had, of course, been working towards a career as a philosopher when he came from Harvard to spend the academic year 1914-15 at Oxford, but, having burned those bridges by not returning to defend his dissertation, he embarked on an institutionally unanchored life. Yet in less than a decade, he was being thought of for academic posts in English literature, despite having no formal qualifications and having made no scholarly contribution to the field. But ‘scholarly’ is both the puzzle and its solution here. It’s true that Eliot had only published a series of review-essays in literary periodicals, but the best of these pieces managed to suggest that reserves of learning underwrote his casually authoritative prose (especially when he was writing about Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and poetry). His judgments had an ex cathedra finality about them even though their author occupied no chair. The slim gathering of such pieces that he published as The Sacred Wood in 1920, and the still slimmer pamphlet, Homage to John Dryden, that the Hogarth Press issued in 1924, acquired near cult status among the advanced young. His reputation stood highest at Cambridge, where he already seemed to figure as one of the informing spirits of the newly founded English course despite never having studied or taught there. The fact that his friend I.A. Richards, the most evangelical of the young lecturers, energetically championed his cause obviously helped, but Eliot’s impact on younger academic critics in the 1920s remains a striking and, in some respects, underexplained episode in the history of English as a discipline.

Much his most substantial engagement was the delivery of the Clark Lectures in English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge. Between late January and early March 1926 he gave eight lectures on ‘The Metaphysical Poetry of the 17th Century with Special Reference to Donne, Crashaw and Cowley’, lectures which, almost in passing, proposed an ambitious reinterpretation of the intellectual and literary history of Europe, but more especially of England, from the 13th century to the present. His correspondence for this period is full of his weekly trips to Cambridge to deliver his lectures on Tuesday afternoons and then to be available for discussions with students on Wednesday mornings. Various reminiscences of the latter occasions have long been in the public domain, not least because the young William Empson occasionally attended (he did so, with characteristic Empsonian brio, without actually going to any of the lectures). The lectures were eventually published, in an exemplary edition by Ronald Schuchard, in 1993, and since Schuchard had access to letters that were at that point unpublished (and, for most scholars, inaccessible), the present volume does not add much to our understanding of this particular episode, though Eliot’s subsequent exchanges with H.J.C. Grierson and Mario Praz show how anxious, and deferential, he could be when exposing his work to the critical eyes of the professionals in the field.

This volume is more revealing about an episode in which Eliot came even closer to academia, albeit in the rather peculiar form of All Souls College, Oxford, where Geoffrey Faber was a fellow. It has long been known that in the spring of 1926, Faber proposed Eliot for a research fellowship at the college, but this volume now makes available Faber’s well-judged letter of support, Eliot’s statement of his intended research, and testimonials from Bruce Richmond, the editor of the TLS, and Charles Whibley, a conservative literary journalist, stalwart of Blackwood’s Magazine and fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. In his research proposal, Eliot explained how he would extend and, with an eye to the college’s reputation in history, substantiate the case he had sketched in his Clark Lectures, a project he characterised as lying ‘in an unexplored territory where the frontiers of philosophy, history, literature and the technique of verse meet’, a buffed-up scholarly pitch that goes considerably beyond his faux-humble self-description (when declining an invitation to lecture on aesthetics) as ‘only a writer of verse and a literary critic’. In pressing Eliot’s case, Faber had already had to counter the objection of one fellow that Eliot was merely a ‘light skirmisher’ rather than a true scholar, but the truth was that during these years Eliot opportunistically shuttled between these identities, trying to fend off expectations while simultaneously pulling rank.

Hitherto, our understanding of the All Souls episode has largely been dependent on A.L. Rowse’s entertaining account of Eliot’s eventual rejection. According to Rowse, who had recently been elected to a prize fellowship at the age of 22, Eliot’s application was being regarded favourably until Rowse lent his copy of Eliot’s verse to two or three elderly fellows who were so scandalised by the ‘indecency’ of some of the early poems that they blackballed his candidature. The story is now partly supported by Faber’s soberer post-mortem analysis, though he laid more weight on the (dispiritingly familiar) doubts of a number of senior historians about Eliot’s proposed work on the 17th century in relation to its medieval inheritance and whether it would be ‘properly’ historical. Many years later, the Grand Old Man of Letters could wave the episode aside: ‘I am happy to say that the college was spared the ignominy of electing an unscholarly member and I was spared the waste of energy involved in pretending to a scholarship which I did not possess.’ In 1926, however, he had been altogether needier, and had also, perhaps, persuaded himself that he did possess, or would in the right circumstances acquire, the necessary scholarship. Although prone to present himself, when convenient, as ‘a plain man of letters’, Eliot was responsive to the claims of literary scholarship and went some way towards satisfying them. ‘I do not suppose that there is any need to collate the Tenne Tragedies text with the original texts of the separate plays?’ he wrote to Whibley when preparing his edition of the Senecan plays for a volume in the series the latter edited, ‘but I shall in any case examine the first editions at the [British] Museum.’ It was with some pride that he later referred to his introduction to this edition as ‘the most scholarly piece of work that I have done’. In his reviews written during these years he is insistent that ‘literary criticism must be judged in relation to the scholarship of its time,’ confiding to Aldington: ‘That is certainly a point which I want to hammer as much as I can.’

These letters contain several further, tantalising instances of contact and attraction between Eliot and academia, with much mock modest eyelash-fluttering on his part. We see him acting as an external examiner for both PhD and fellowship dissertations; he gives several talks to undergraduate societies; he prevaricates over invitations to give lectures or even to consider some more permanent attachment. ‘I had much rather get a job at Cambridge than at Oxford,’ he tells his mother in November 1927, perhaps to reassure her that some kind of conventional career is still a possibility, but perhaps also because he hasn’t entirely ruled out the idea himself. In his next letter to her he talks of lunching with the master of a Cambridge college and of an upcoming visit to Oxford to address undergraduates; two weeks later he is corresponding with Richards about the latter’s celebrated lectures on ‘Practical Criticism’; the following week he receives another invitation to speak at Oxford; Richards at one point draws his attention to a vacant post at Liverpool; the New School in New York repeatedly extends an invitation to him to give a course of lectures there; and so on. The possibility that he might one day have become ‘Professor Eliot’ does not, during these years, seem an absurdity, however much the next couple of generations grew used to thinking of ‘Mr Eliot’ as representing the pinnacle of non-academic literary culture.

The worlds conventionally designated as ‘academia’ and ‘Grub Street’ were far from being sealed and self-contained in the mid-1920s. Only the rudiments of a career path as a professional scholar in English literature existed at this date, and several of the (still few) professors of the subject had first made their mark as men of letters – Saintsbury, Raleigh and Quiller-Couch were among the more prominent examples. In this connection, it is revealing to see how Eliot characterised the class of contributor whom he believed reviews such as the Criterion had to rely on, describing them as ‘doing two men’s work. That is to say, they are supporting themselves and their families in the Civil Service, or in museums, or in universities, or in banks and commercial houses; and are thus able to think, and read, and write independently of a livelihood.’ Bonamy Dobrée became a professor in Cairo, F.S. Flint worked in the civil service, Herbert Read was a curator at the V&A, Alec Randall served as a diplomat and Orlo Williams was clerk to the House of Commons. Eliot more or less equates these ‘day jobs’ for his purposes, seeing them all as providing a man of literary inclinations with economic security and at least enough time to write well-informed essays and book reviews (as Eliot himself had done during his eight years at the bank). Today this equation no longer holds; there is now a much sharper contrast between a university post and the other occupations, and we hardly think of a job in a bank or commercial house, or even perhaps in the civil service, as allowing much leisure to ‘think, and read, and write’ about literary and intellectual matters.

The letters also throw an interesting light on the relation between Eliot’s literary journalism and his volumes of essays, demonstrating that by this stage of his career he accepted commissions with an eye to composing a future collection. For instance, having published his article on Lancelot Andrewes in the TLS in September 1926, he replied to the editor of another journal later that year that he would be willing to write something ‘if the subject fitted in with my general programme … Two persons whom I have in mind to write about (with a view to a volume in which the essay on Andrewes would be included) are Hooker and Laud.’ The volume in the making here is For Lancelot Andrewes, which appeared towards the end of 1928. In the event he wrote about Archbishop Bramhall, but he clearly still has his planned volume in mind in April 1927 when he writes to Bruce Richmond asking if he can review a biography of Laud and the reissue of Bradley’s Ethical Studies, the latter request yielding one of the best essays in that uneven collection. For Lancelot Andrewes contains, in addition to the Andrewes piece itself, five essays written during 1927 and two from the first half of 1928, and rereading them alongside the letters gives sharper focus to the picture of Eliot making, or remaking, something of himself. In particular, we can watch his attack on various forms of secular liberalism, including its roots in the proto-individualism of earlier centuries, becoming more sustained and unyielding. Much of the essay on Bramhall, for example, is given over to denouncing Hobbes, including this memorable piece of social and intellectual condescension: ‘Thomas Hobbes was one of those extraordinary little upstarts whom the chaotic motions of the Renaissance tossed into an eminence which they hardly deserved and have never lost.’ This is the sound of Eliot walling himself in his chosen cell. Conrad Aiken’s unsparing review of For Lancelot Andrewes identified the dominant note of the essays written during this period: ‘Mr Eliot seems to be definitely and defeatedly in retreat from the present and all that it implies. A thin and vinegarish hostility towards the modern world is breathed from these pages.’ In writing to members of his ‘phalanx’, urging them to pursue and cut down some liberal quarry, Eliot sounds a good deal less vinegarish than he does when posturing in print, but the same animus is repeatedly in evidence.

There is a fair amount of meat here for future biographers, from the fond yet carefully controlled letters to his mother to the camped-up obscenities of his elaborate ‘Bolovian’ letters to Dobrée (the Bolovians were an invented primitive people; ‘Dear Buggamy’ gives the tone of the larking). There are his reports that Vivien is in a sanatorium in France ‘by her own wish’ (which may not have been Vivien’s entire view of the matter), and the undeniable evidence of how much more settled and contented he seemed when living a de facto bachelor existence. His passing admission, in the course of a rather philosophical set of reflections on ‘the good life’ in which ‘saintliness’ and a good dinner both feature, that ‘I remember also minor pleasures of drunkenness and adultery’ will no doubt set some biographical hares scurrying.

The exchange with Geoffrey Faber in which this phrase occurs is one of the most engaging things in the book, partly because Faber took the risk of pushing beyond the usual polite pleasantries. While on holiday in September 1927, he sent Eliot a long rumination on his understanding of ‘the good things of life’, casting himself as l’homme moyen sensuel, but actually displaying exceptional reflectiveness, including some thoughtful warnings to Eliot about where his work and his life were heading. Having warmed up with some plainmanish objections to aspects of Eliot’s poetry, he plunged further:

Lastly, I will be even more impertinent, and make a personal criticism – one which I feel strongly, but am rather at a loss to phrase. I do think that, for whatever reason, you are putting yourself in some danger by the rigidity of your way of life. It is not right that you should chain yourself to a routine – it will cramp your mind, and ultimately be fatal to you both as poet and critic, if for no other reason than that it will divorce you further and further from the common man.

Taking a long view of Eliot’s writing career, Faber’s anxiety may not seem groundless, but at this point Eliot desperately needed the security of a rigid routine if he was not to relapse into one or other kind of ruin (his own admiring description of Tennyson may be pertinent; ‘the most instinctive rebel against the society in which he was the most perfect conformist’). In his reply, Eliot does not seem to have addressed this affectionately intended criticism, keeping (self-protectively?) to a more abstract level of analysis, while throwing in the occasional dictum that might be thought also to bear on his own situation: ‘If anyone asked me what I take to be the good things of life, I should say, primarily, heroism and saintliness.’ For the most part, the two men, working in the same building each day, had little cause to write letters to each other, but the marked rise of intensity in this exchange compared to most of the letters gathered here makes one hope that in future volumes Faber will be taking many more holidays.

Still, it would have needed more than a bit of good-natured chaffing to pierce the many protective layers Eliot placed between himself and the world, and it is expressive of this deep guardedness that the two most dramatic decisions he took during 1927 leave scarcely any trace in his correspondence. A letter to Whibley in November thanks him for his support in enabling Eliot to become a British subject, surely a momentous decision for an American, albeit one who was shortly to describe himself as a ‘royalist in politics’. ‘I was only disappointed to find the oath of allegiance a very disappointing inferior ceremony’ is his single, designedly sardonic reference to the event: ‘I expected to be summoned to the Home Office at least, if not before the Throne.’ Similarly, when this lapsed Unitarian was received into the Anglican Church, his letters largely confine themselves to the practicalities of dates and places. Having been baptised by his friend William Force Stead and confirmed by the bishop of Oxford the following day, Eliot sent the kind of polite bread-and-butter letter that makes the whole thing sound as though it had been a slightly stiff lunch party: ‘My dear Stead, Besides my gratitude for the serious business and the perfect way you managed every part of it, I must say how thoroughly I enjoyed my visit to you, and meeting several extremely interesting and delightful people.’ We must look elsewhere for evidence of both the turmoil and the hard-won joy that were part of this troubled man’s spiritual life.

In his retrospective tribute to Bruce Richmond, written in 1961, Eliot observed: ‘Good literary criticism requires good editors as well as good critics.’ Richmond must have performed some such role for Eliot, who did much of his best critical writing for the TLS (he was a particularly frequent contributor during these years, with 14 reviews and other pieces in 1926 and 15 in 1927, several of them substantial essays of three thousand words or more). Eliot, in turn, was an able occupant of the office for his stable of Criterion regulars, and these letters provide further documentation of his careful blending of thoughtful commissioning, timely encouragement and tactful correction (ostensibly praising a review by the young Dadie Rylands as ‘learned, allusive and indirect’, then adding: ‘rather too much so perhaps for a critical review, in which directer if cruder methods, though always according to the Queensberry rules, are more effective’). One can see, more clearly than ever, why he was once described as ‘the last great periodical editor of the 19th century’. And now his own letters have benefited from enormously thorough yet judicious editing. The installation of John Haffenden as general editor of this sometimes vexed edition has brought a new level of authority and precision to the annotation and other editorial matter.

Already aware in 1927 that future generations might have an interest in ‘the man behind the poetry’, Eliot urged his mother to make sure that his letters to her were to be destroyed after her death. ‘I don’t like reading other people’s private correspondence in print, and I do not want other people to read mine.’ One might, pedantically, try to argue that there are very few ‘private’ letters here: the proportions reflect his working life and the chance of what has survived rather than editorial decision, though the fact that his secretary kept carbon copies of his typed office correspondence means that that category was almost bound to predominate. But some letters are included that are, by any standards, ‘private’, not least letters by and about Vivien that speak of utterly desolating unhappiness on both their parts. And Eliot’s letters to close friends – Pound, Aiken, Aldington, and increasingly Faber, as well perhaps as Read and Dobrée – shift from the playful to the serious to the heartfelt to the businesslike and back to the bawdy in the way letters to friends do. But no one, I think, could object to or regret their publication now. Eliot has not thus far been well served by biographers and other speculators about his ‘private life’ (restrictions on access to much of the unpublished material have not helped), and if the letters, at least those included in this volume, don’t throw much direct light on the poetry, they do enable us to understand the texture of his public life and to witness him exercising his considerable talents as businessman, polemicist and networker, as well as getting glimpses of him as son, brother, husband and friend.

Poets have to do something in the many hours that writing poetry doesn’t fill (a plight they share with mathematicians, philosophers, sprinters and other specialists in intensity). In these pages we see Eliot – former poet, future poet, but for the moment a resting poet – beginning to assemble around him the stockades of a life that would protect him against the various kinds of ‘ruin’ (economic, social, sexual, spiritual) he had flirted with in the previous decade. At the end of December 1927 he is writing to one contributor in reassuring terms about the future of the yet again imperilled Criterion – ‘we are hopeful of enlisting sufficiently powerful support to enable the review to continue indefinitely’ – while also confiding to his Anglican spiritual adviser that he now takes communion three times a week. With these props in place there seemed to be some prospect that he might yet make something of his life.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences