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Book Review: The Letters of T. S. Eliot

By (August 11, 2013) No Comment

The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 4: 1928-1929eliot letters

edited by Valerie Eliot & John Haffenden

Yale University Press, 2013


Readers who’ve never had anything but weary impatience for most of the poetry of T. S. Eliot (and in our enlightened age, surely such heretics must be few) will turn to the ongoing Yale University Press publication of the great man’s complete letters with a sigh of relief – which in itself will be an incongruous reaction, since usually the elephantine implacability of such a project, the bombardment of memoranda and cabstand receipts, all annotated within an inch of their lives, is enough to induce hysterical despair in even the bravest postmodern heart.

And yet, it’s no despairing experience to read through this fat 800-page latest volume in the Yale series of Eliot’s correspondence. It’s not by any stretch uniformly fascinating (like, for instance, Seth Lerer’s great, antic Yale Companion to Chaucer), and although it is indeed annotated within an inch of its life – the poet’s late widow Valerie Eliot and stalwart John Haffenden leave no name undropped – it’s still as insular as a Brooklyn book-party. Aside from Eliot scholars and hapless completists, it’s hard to guess who would comfortably pay this volume’s $50 price tag. It’s a stultifying slog to read from first page to last, and it’s utterly inconceivable that anybody would ever do that twice – but there’s a bustling, intellectual, pragmatic, very intense little world on display in these pages, and smart general readers who take one look at the heft of the thing and decide that world holds no interest for them would be surprised how wrong they are.

They’d be wrong, and they’d also be surprised if they thought it would be a poetic world. Yes, Eliot is constantly hawking some poems; more than anything else, these volumes convey the non-stop hustling of a working writer and editor, so Eliot is forever firing off quick notes about the various works-for-sale that he’s got circulating in England and America. But there’s absolutely no sense in these pages of him actually writing any of the poetry for which he’s known today – the very idea of such sensitive composition seems utterly alien to the nuts-and-bolts professional jotting all these quick, businesslike notes, none of which warrant saving except in the vital but monkish ardor of archival completeness. There are scarcely any meditations on anything here – hardly anything that anybody would call personal correspondence – instead, it’s page after page of datebook stuff like a note typed to William Rothenstein in December 1928:

I have remembered a tentative agreement for lunch on Tuesday at 12.30 in the neighborhood of Bloomsbury. If this holds good, it prevents my coming to you at 12 on that day. May I ring up on Tuesday if I find I can come, but don’t bother to keep it open. I could certainly come on Thursday at that time, were you free.

In the short period covered by this volume, Eliot was working for the publishing firm of Faber & Faber and also the Criterion, the literary magazine into which he poured so much of his energy. He’s dealing with his wife Vivien’s severe mood swings and psychosomatic blatherings (as well as his own near-daily contractions of one or another strain of flu, worsened by the staggering severity of his tobacco addiction), but such personal elements are very much in the distant background. Center stage is the oddly appealing picture of a man deeply in the thick of the literary world all around him, sensitive to every ripple, reading everything, opinionated about everything.

People have opinions about him too, naturally. He’s nominated for prizes, offered speaking engagements, consulted about editions and venues for his works, and he’s sometimes the subject of the printed ruminations of others – ruminations which the indefatigable Haffenden hunts down and reproduces in full, like Vita Sackville-West’s 30 November 1928 Radio Times article “The Formidable Mr Eliot,” which catches its author at her hilarious, inimitable best, trying valiantly not to say what she’s trying to say:

Mr Eliot … is not a popular poet; he is too difficult, and too selfish, to achieve general popularity … Nevertheless, I do not think I shall exaggerate if I say that Mr Eliot has had more immediate influence than any other living poet on the younger generations of his fellow poets … [F]or my own part, much as I admire Mr Eliot as a poet, I think that his influence as an intellect has had many disastrous consequences … (He is, I may add incidentally, as well as being a poet, a fine and fastidious critic.) But it is perhaps on account of his American birth that his culture has gone slightly to his head. English literature, with all its implications, is not his by birthright, as it is ours; he acquired it, so to speak, and the draught proved a little too heady for him … being a man of severe intelligence, endowed with a highly susceptible sense of literature, he must have found himself almost forced into adopting an attitude of his own, where another and less coldly intellectual man would have been content with mere intoxication and surrender. The result is manifest in his poetry; it is a strange compound of indebtedness and independence … He is, in short, an intellectual poet … Mr Eliot within his own limitations is undoubtedly a genuine poet … I mean that he has a genuine poetic attitude towards life, and has evolved a means of expression exactly suited to his purpose.

Our editors, with mandarin self-control, call this “rude enough.”

For fans of the occasional donnish dust-ups that feature in the letters page of the TLS, there are also plenty of bookish quibbles, as when Eliot refers to Charles Doughty, author of Travels in Arabia Deserta, as “a highly sophisticated professional writer” and draws a snarky response from the remarkable poet and critic John Freeman:

… how can Doughty be reckoned professional, even if he be reckoned … sophisticated? He must have chosen the wrong profession, for no man ever took such pain to succeed as Doughty took to fail in it. He – this professional writer, wrote one book in prose, which began to be valued when it couldn’t be bought, & several poems which haven’t yet begun to win a value except among secret worshippers In prose and in verse he was an experimenter, an amateur, writing almost exclusively for the only audience he found – himself.

And the editors of literary journals – those lowly, despised creatures – will nod in recognition of Eliot’s serialized tribulations while handling every aspect of keeping the Criterion afloat, from courting monied backers to catching up on correspondence with freelancers to wheeling and dealing for review copies … not always a foregone conclusion even when one is the formidable T. S. Eliot, as he assured Ottoline Morrell (who, as usual in any even vaguely Bloomsbury setting, crops up just everywhere in this volume) at one point:

Certainly The Greville Papers come within the scope of the Criterion. I have to two or three reviewers who I think are competent and will be very glad to get it. I am having my secretary write to the publishers for it, but I have not had much from them before; and they are not among the firms who send me books without being asked; so it would assure their compliance if Philip cared to let them know what we should have a review copy.

That review copy of Leaves from the Greville Papers could turn up tomorrow on the rain-speckled bargain carts of the Strand Bookstore priced at $1 – such is the pomp of yesteryear – but there’s an odd low-key excitement in seeing all these literary men and women working away in a ferment of caring about books, busily building the 20th century’s first golden age. And at the heart of it all is this pretentious, near-omniscient, weirdly vulnerable, and ultimately somewhat likable Eliot himself, promising payments, awaiting payments, canceling lunches, and eating, sleeping, and breathing books, books, books.

When this Yale series of the complete correspondence is finally finished – about twenty years from now – some editor will make an 500-page “Selected Letters” out of it all, and that volume will be blazingly great. May some of us live to see it.