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Becoming T. S. Eliot, for Better and for Worse

Eliot's Letters from 1926-1927

“About my letters,” T.S. Eliot snarled at his mother, when she innocently offered, in early 1927, to return the trove she had received over the years. “For heaven’s sake don’t send them to me. If there is one thing more depressing than reading other people’s old letters it is reading one’s own.” He wanted the letters kept from others as well, he told her, and even destroyed if necessary. “I do not want my biography, if it is ever written—and I hope it won’t—to have anything private in it. I don’t like reading other people’s private correspondence in print, and I do not want other people to read mine.”

One can understand why Eliot was so touchy. Approaching forty, he was the most admired poet writing in English. He had reason to think that people were curious about the man behind the work. What private experiences could possibly lurk behind those two extraordinary and enigmatic poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land? Eliot’s emerging style—the linguistic opacity in several languages (“to scare off the superficial reader,” according to Eliot’s German translator Ernst Robert Curtius); the borrowings from a wide array of cultural sources, from Dante and the Buddha to music-hall ditties; the world-weary, sexually neurotic persona (“I grow old ... I grow old ... / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”)—could certainly be taken to be an impersonal construct worked up for the occasion, as Eliot claimed, a “representative” figure of a decadent and dying civilization.

But might all this Sturm und Drang express, in however disguised a form, the “real” Eliot—evidence of “some stuff,” as Eliot said of Shakespeare in Hamlet, “that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art”? In his own influential conception of poetry, Eliot managed to encourage both answers: that his poetry was at once supremely artificial and nakedly confessional. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion,” he insisted; “it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course,” he added coyly, “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Eliot left little doubt that he was one of “those” so burdened.   

Eliot’s dashing forays into literary criticism—explaining in a few glancing sentences why Hamlet was “most certainly an artistic failure,” or why Shelley was unreadable, or why a masterpiece (such as The Waste Land, by implication) changed the literary landscape of everything that came before it—complicated the mystery. Like his friend Lytton Strachey, Eliot had an astringent impatience with Victorian piety and poetry, reserving a special hostility for utopian popularizers such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Like Strachey, Eliot seemed to be clearing the ground for bold new experiments in temperament, tone, and style. Such audacious interventions seemed like fragments of a whole new variety of literary criticism (soon to be institutionalized and routinized in hundreds of English departments in America), fusing the closest possible attention to stylistic detail with an encompassing overview of canonical European literature from Heraclitus to the present.

Eliot’s efforts to appear outwardly ordinary merely added to his allure. He had abandoned a promising academic career in philosophy at Harvard to work first in a London bank and then in a publishing house; he had made a respectable if increasingly miserable marriage to a well-born Englishwoman; he favored the top hats and waistcoats of a British barrister; he moved easily in the rarified literary circles of Bloomsbury and the academic enclaves of the other Cambridge. Despite such camouflage, he had every reason to suspect that every scrap of his writing was being hoarded for posterity.

Posterity has arrived. Are we still so curious about T.S. Eliot? Barriers that withheld his letters from an eager public for decades, such as the well-publicized refusal of the Eliot estate to allow Peter Ackroyd to quote from the correspondence in his perfectly respectful biography in 1984, are now being removed, and the letters released, though not with a flood but a trickle. It is to be feared, however, that the interest isn’t quite what might have been hoped for.

There are many reasons for this. Eliot’s criticism, with its probing of individual passages and its fixation on a specifically literary tradition, predominantly European and Christian, is out of key with current academic approaches based on such “contextual” categories as race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, post-colonialism and social class. Eliot’s poetry, with its learned footnotes that themselves require footnotes, reeks of the “elite.” Influential critics of poetry, including those who do not subscribe to the prevailing critical fashions, have not rallied to Eliot’s defense. Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom have pointedly championed Wallace Stevens as the supreme twentieth-century American poet. Bloom (whose view of literature as a ruthless competition among individual writers closely resembles Eliot’s) has been dismissive of what he calls Eliot’s “churchwardenly” criticism.

The political and religious positions that Eliot dramatically adopted around 1926 and 1927 (the period covered by this latest installment of his letters, in the sluggish increments adopted by the Yale University Press, under the auspices of Eliot’s protective second wife, the recently deceased Valerie Eliot, and the scholar John Haffenden) could hardly be less in vogue. “The general point of view,” Eliot proudly announced in 1928 in the preface to the essays he assembled in For Lancelot Andrewes, “may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” These letters do not yet exhibit the virulent anti-Semitism to which Eliot gave his most complete expression in the notorious lectures that he delivered at the University of Virginia, in 1933, under the title After Strange Gods. He seized that occasion to denounce the United States as “worm-eaten with Liberalism,” “invaded by foreign races,” and endangered by the noxious presence of “free-thinking Jews.” It is charming, though hardly reassuring, to learn that Eliot, in 1926, had no objections to having two of his essays translated into Yiddish. 1

And then, of course, there is the declining interest in our time in poetry itself, at least of the high modernist variety that Eliot wrote. Young readers are far more likely to be excited into writing poetry by the colloquial and anti-intellectual William Carlos Williams (who deplored Eliot’s verse, which he found un-American and un-modern), among Eliot’s contemporaries, or by the more engaging Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, among his successors. Older readers can no longer be expected to spice their reflections with weighty passages from Four Quartets—“Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future....” as Christopher Walken, playing an aging cellist, does at the start of the recent film A Late Quartet.

It should be said that those four magisterial poems, with their lightning shifts of mood and versification, and their anxious and moving response to the German bombing of London, retain their spellbinding power, especially in their moments of self-lacerating reflection on writing poetry during the unpropitious period between the world wars.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Into this changed atmosphere comes this latest installment of Eliot’s correspondence, which covers only two years but runs to nearly nine hundred pages. Eliot had little to fear that this particular volume would reveal anything deeply private, shameful, or surprising. The Eliot we encounter here, circa 1926, was spending a great deal of time editing a superb cultural quarterly, with all the enticing and cajoling that such an exacting job entails. Addressed to “neither dilettantes nor pedants,” The Criterion was subsidized by a wealthy society woman; under the publisher Geoffrey Faber, with more frequent issues that burdened Eliot even more, it was re-named The Monthly Criterion. Eliot was finding time to write his Clark Lectures on English Metaphysical poetry, many long essays for various journals, and short anonymous notices for the TLS on such favorite topics as seventeenth-century Anglican sermons and current detective novels. He was also translating an extremely difficult long poem by the French poet St. John Perse.

On the more private front, Eliot was searching for order and balance in a life alarmingly subject to “undisciplined squads of emotion.” His ailing, paranoid wife, Vivien, was suffering from escalating mental illness of some as yet undiagnosed variety. She accused Eliot of various infractions, telling their friend John Middleton Murry that her Byronic husband was “mad or else that he is most frightfully & subtly wicked and dangerous.” Unsurprisingly, she showed few signs of improvement amid her quack doctor’s regimen of starvation, psychoanalysis, and regular injections of milk. In 1938, after living apart from her husband for extended intervals, Vivien was committed to an asylum for the insane, where she died in 1947.

Religion provided a refuge from domestic disorder. “Born & bred in the very heart of Boston Unitarianism,” as he put it, Eliot had recently experienced a spiritual awakening—friends witnessed him falling to his knees before Michelangelo’s Pietà on a visit to Rome in 1926. He prepared for baptism and confirmation in the Church of England, making arrangements at the same time for naturalization as a British citizen. Religion and nationality were paired in Eliot’s mind. “In the end I thought: here I am, making a living, enjoying my friends here,” he wrote. “I don’t like being a squatter. I might as well take the full responsibility.”

Eliot’s conversion to reactionary politics, less private than his baptism, remains disturbing. He enthusiastically attended dinners in Paris of the proto-fascist and anti-Semitic movement called Action Française, and eagerly solicited contributions to The Criterion from such close friends and notorious future Nazi collaborators as Henri Massis and Charles Maurras. In 1925, he had hoped to write a book about Maurras and “the social importance of the Church.” After the war, Eliot would testify in Massis’s defense, musing naïvely: “I cannot believe that so passionate a nationalist can be suspected seriously of having used his editorship of La Revue Universelle in order to ensure anything but the consolidation of an intellectual resistance to the plans of Germany for the subordination of his country.”

Had things gone slightly differently, Eliot himself might have been in the dock, relying, like his friend Ezra Pound, on the friendly testimony of others. He was saved in part by his own carefully cultivated nationalism, placing his loyalty to England above his authoritarian sympathies. He also had little fondness for German culture, except for Wagner and a grudging respect for Goethe (more “sage” than poet, in his view). He thought the poet and translator Edwin Muir uncultured since Muir, whose education was “chiefly teutonic,” knew all about German literature but less about the Christian and Latinate culture that Eliot preferred. With “his lack of tradition,” Eliot sniffed, “I feel that as a guide for the young he is not altogether a safe one.” (He also thought Muir, known for his versions of Kafka, translated too many Jews: “I am always prejudiced against such people.”)

As he pursued his new religious, national, and political allegiances, Eliot maintained a facade of normalcy amid a complicated network that encompassed English high society, literary figures such as Pound and Virginia Woolf, and international scholars of the highest stature such as Ernst Curtius and Mario Praz.2 He found moments of release from all the seriousness in small dinners with an admiring coterie of younger male writers associated with The Criterion; in reading detective fiction, a particular passion—he described himself to Woolf as “a person who specialises in detective fiction and ecclesiastical history”; and in racy, racist, and scatological fantasies, shared with his young friend Bonamy Dobrée, on an imaginary African tribe called the Bolovians, “a race of comic Negroes wearing bowler Hats” who lazily named both their gods “Wux.” “DONT try to pronounce Wux,” he warned Dobrée. “Else you will suffer the same fate as dear old Profer. Krapp of Koenigsberg, who died a Martyr to the cause of Bolovian Phonetics. He lived for 3 months on Beans, then on Asparagus, then on Chestnuts etc. trying to get the right accent.”

How did Eliot have time for it all? On a single day, February 3, 1927, he writes to the American-born churchman William Force Stead regarding details of his confirmation (including the thorny question of whether a Unitarian baptism “counted”—it didn’t); to Marianne Moore about a piece he is writing for her on Baudelaire; to the director of the British Museum for a library card to pursue his scholarly researches on the seventeenth century; to Lady Rothermere, disenchanted donor for The Criterion, regarding the change from quarterly to monthly; to the editor handling the proofs for his important essay on Seneca and Shakespeare; and to his old friend and sometime antagonist Middleton Murry, who has come down with pneumonia.    

In his letters, Eliot is more eager to elicit interesting literary opinions from his contributors than to impart his own. But when he is worried that an essay might go off in the wrong direction, he does not hesitate to lobby for a change of course. Concerned that his young colleague Orlo Williams might overvalue the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James, with their superficial fixation (as he told Herbert Read) on “civilization” and its “complexities,” Eliot suggests that Hawthorne should be the standard. “I don’t know whether anyone agrees with me, but I do think Hawthorne a very much greater writer than James.” Despite his often-quoted claim that James had “a mind so fine no idea could violate it”—perhaps not as much of a compliment as has been thought—Eliot admired Hawthorne’s sense of human failing, of original sin. “Hawthorne represents, not so much America in the modern sense, as a particular development of conscience and sensibility which existed everywhere and which merely found its most precise and general realisation in one part of colonial America.”

As criticism, these letters should be read in conjunction with Eliot’s contemporaneous slim volume For Lancelot Andrewes, which carried the telling subtitle “Essays on Style and Order,” and appeared  in 1928. It announced on almost every page his newly adopted manner, themes, and prejudices. The book is partly built up of contrasting intellectual portraits: Donne versus the lesser-known Anglican ecclesiastic Andrewes; Montaigne versus Machiavelli. In each case, the figure we are meant to admire stands for order and self-discipline while the disheveled alternative is castigated for our spiritual benefit.

Donne—and here Eliot confines himself to Donne’s sermons and devotional poems, not his erotic verse—comes in for a predictable inquisitorial whipping. “Donne is a ‘personality’ in a sense in which Andrewes is not: his sermons, one feels, are a ‘means of self-expression.’” Donne is the kind of person (and surely Eliot feared that he might have been such a person himself) “who seek[s] refuge in religion from the tumults of a strong emotional temperament.” “About Donne there hangs the shadow of the impure motive,” Eliot remarks. “He is a little of the religious spellbinder ... the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy.... he lacked spiritual discipline.” 

The essay on Machiavelli, whose prose is judged more “mature” than Montaigne’s, pushes such aesthetic and religious convictions into the realm of politics. The essay, primarily assertion and summary buttressed by scant quotation, builds up an intellectual portrait of a clear-eyed, dry-eyed nationalist, a defender of the national church (“for Religion produced good order”) committed to discipline above all things. “Liberty is good,” Eliot summarizes Machiavelli, “but more important is order; and the maintenance of order justifies every means.”

To get the full flavor of Eliot circa 1927, at once seductive and slightly sinister, one must quote at length, as in this steadily building crescendo on the pathologies of our time and the strong medicine that Andrewes, who prayed five hours a day, has to offer:

To persons whose minds are habituated to feed on the vague jargon of our time, when we have a vocabulary for everything and exact ideas about nothing—when a word half understood, torn from its place in some alien or half-formed science, as of psychology, conceals from both writer and reader the utter meaninglessness of a statement, when all dogma is in doubt except the dogmas of sciences of which we have read in the newspapers, when the language of theology itself, under the influence of an undisciplined mysticism of popular philosophy, tends to become a language of tergiversation—Andrewes may seem pedantic and verbal. It is only when we have saturated ourselves in his prose, followed the movement of his thought, that we find his examination of words terminating in the ecstasy of assent. Andrewes takes a word and derives the world from it; squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess.

One feels here that it is the poor undisciplined reader, who may have neither the time nor the inclination to become “saturated” in Andrewes’s prose, who is being squeezed into assent.

The letters include an interesting example of Eliot “squeezing” a word. W.F. Stead, who advised Eliot on baptism and confirmation, pushed him for a “repudiation” of The Waste Land, presumably on the grounds that the poem, with its Buddhist and nihilistic trappings, might be taken as unchristian, leading unsuspecting readers astray. Stead asked whether he was right in his hopeful impression “that you had conquered your sceptical mood and were going to come out clearly on the side of theism.” Eliot firmly demurred:

One may change one’s ideas, sentiments and point of view from time to time; one would be rather atrophied if one did not; but change of mind is a very different thing from repudiation. Certainly I am “dissatisfied” with everything I have done; but that also is a very different thing from repudiation. I do not see why one should “repudiate” anything that one has written provided that one continues to believe that the thing written was a sincere expression at the time of writing. One might as well repudiate infancy and childhood.

The vehemence here is revealing. Eliot knew that he was more like Donne than like Andrewes. When he wrote about Donne, he was drawing a self-portrait: “It seemed as if, at that time, the world was filled with broken fragments of systems, and that a man like Donne merely picked up, like a magpie, various shining fragments of ideas as they struck his eye, and stuck them about here and there in his verse.” Eliot was “a man like Donne” in at least two ways. His own relation to religious belief was anguished rather than settled. And he himself was a magpie hoarder of shining bits, in both The Waste Land and in his explicitly Christian verses.3 He picked up shining fragments of Andrewes’s prose, lined them up as bits of verse, and made them the opening of a poem called “Journey of the Magi,” written for a Faber Christmas offering in 1927: “A cold coming we had of it./Just the worst time of the year./For a journey, and such a long journey./The ways deep and the weather sharp./The very dead of winter.”

Was Eliot a great letter-writer? Not on the basis of this collection. If Eliot’s mother had burned the lot, his reputation would not be significantly diminished. Scholars will be grateful to have them, as will some casual readers, though more for reference than for delight. There is a wariness here—Eliot can already feel the presence of future biographers sniffing for secrets, in search of “great” and collectible letters on the order of Keats or Dickinson—that forbids self-revelation. Any single page of Eliot’s criticism, and there are hundreds from these years, has more to say about Eliot’s mood than the great bulk of these letters.

There are glimpses here and there of something more, something more lasting, as when Eliot ruminates about the group of younger men, including Dobrée, Orlo Williams, and Herbert Read, that he has assembled around him in London. What, he wonders, will survive from all this industry, all this expense of spirit? “I attach some importance to this: to forming a group of men which will hold together, and persist in the same direction, after I am gone.” In this aim, Eliot was to be disappointed. The names, even Read’s, have all but vanished from literary posterity. “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.”

But he admonished himself that “one must not try to gain or keep ‘disciples’: that is a house of cards, and is only vanity and pride anyway,” sounding the note of self-castigation, of humble heroism against increasing odds, which would dominate Four Quartets. “One must efface oneself as much as possible, to have any genuine influence. But as for ‘lasting sort of happiness’ ... I don’t know. One realises that one never arrives at anything, but must just go on fighting every day as long as the strength lasts.”

  1. Eliot’s anti-Semitism has been comprehensively addressed by Anthony Julius in T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (1995). Writers cannot be excised from literary history for their abhorrent political views. Time, in Auden’s classic formulation, “Worships language and forgives/ Everyone by whom it lives.” But Auden later excised these lines from his elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.”

  2. Praz and Curtius are best known for comprehensive syntheses of great swaths of unfamiliar European literature. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953) is one of the founding classics of comparative literature; his very fine Essays on European Literature (1973) includes two illuminating studies of Eliot and a superb account of Emerson from a European perspective. Praz’s once much admired The Romantic Agony (1933) remains a rewarding journey through the dark side (vampires and femmes fatales) of European Romanticism.
  3. The Waste Land should be attributed to Eliot and Ezra Pound, to whom it is dedicated. Among the most astonishing documents of 20th-century literature is Eliot’s draft of the poem as marked up by Pound (published in facsimile in 1974). Pound’s excisions converted Eliot’s monologues in the vein of Robert Browning into a fragmentary and oblique collage. A comparable example of an editor changing the aesthetic nature of a literary work is the surgery that Gordon Lish performed on Raymond Carver’s stories. The evidence can be examined in the recent Library of America edition of Carver (which I reviewed in these pages).