Buffed-Up Scholar

Stefan Collini

  • Letters of T.S. Eliot, Vol. III: 1926-27 edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
    Faber, 954 pp, £40.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 14085 5

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.

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[*] Reviewed by Terry Eagleton in the LRB of 19 September 2002.

[†] The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, which includes the Turnbull Lectures as well as the Clark Lectures, was reviewed by Frank Kermode in the LRB of 27 January 1994.