Review of The Letters of T.S. Eliot: Volume 3: 1926–1927, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
‘I am back again in London and smothered in work.’ Volume Three of T.S. Eliot’s letters opens to the poet working ‘hours [that] are long and late’, ‘under great pressure’ as a newly appointed professional editor and publisher. Eliot resigned from Lloyds Bank in late 1925 to join the board of Faber and Gwyer. The publishing house bought part of the Criterion, the literary periodical that Eliot produced alongside his banking job, and reissued it in January 1926 as the New Criterion, with Eliot as full-time, salaried editor.
Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden’s collection shows Eliot’s consolidation as a professional man of letters during 1926 and 1927. The poet’s artistic output was relatively slim in these years, and the reason is self-articulated: ‘I don’t suppose the [new] job will last more than a year or two more, and I’d like to do it thoroughly.’ Alongside editing and publishing, he was involved with criticism, translation, and giving the Clark Lectures at Cambridge, leaving him ‘very little room for poetry’. He published two fragments of the verse play, Sweeney Agonistes, and ‘Journey of the Magi’, written, apparently, in ‘three quarters of an hour … with the assistance of half a bottle of Booth’s gin’.
Eliot’s focus on non-artistic literary work does not disappoint: his daily editorial correspondence provides a living picture of the literary world in the late 1920s. Alongside letters to regular Criterion contributors such as Bonamy Dobrée, Herbert Read, and John Middleton Murry, he wrote often to the Bloomsbury group. There are letters to Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, ‘Bertie’ Russell, John Maynard Keynes, and Ottoline Morrell at Garsington. Volume Threeshows, too, Eliot’s interaction with the American expatriate community in Paris. He responds to a kind letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald – ‘In spite of the fact that you persist in misspelling my name your letter gave me very much pleasure’ – and signs off as ‘Possum’ to his great friend and influence Ezra Pound (‘Rabbit’). Letters to or about Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway are here also. This correspondence with writers, particularly aspiring ones, offers glimpses into Eliot’s own process. ‘[R]emember,’ he writes to a young poet with a day job, ‘always keep a corner of your mind working on poetry.’ ‘I am a very slow and costive writer,’ he says of himself, and disclaims authority to pronounce on his poetry: ‘the only legitimate meaning of a poem is the meaning which it has for any reader.’
Some core events in Eliot’s biography are found in Volume Three. Covert preparations to break with his family’s Unitarianism and join the Church of England – a move so significant for his later poetry – commence with a letter to W.F. Stead that asks ‘practical assistance in getting Confirmation with the Anglican Church’. ‘I rely upon you not to mention this,’ Eliot says, ‘it concerns me alone, & not the public – not even those nearest me. I hate spectacular “conversions”.’ The poet was baptised secretly on 29 June 1927 and confirmed the next day. ‘Unitarianism,’ he writes to his brother Henry, ‘is a bad preparation for brass tacks like birth, copulation, death, hell, heaven and insanity: they all fall within the classification of Bad Form.’
Eliot’s British naturalisation was a similarly significant, yet tight-lipped, affair. Henry was told only days before the year-long process finished on 2 November 1927: ‘I am waiting (PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL) for my British Passport, as I have applied for Naturalisation and been accepted … If this shocks you, I will present you my reasons; in any case, don’t tell mother.’ Eliot nearly joined another English establishment: All Souls, Oxford. Geoffrey Faber put him up for a Fellowship in April 1926, but the poet was unsuccessful – ‘What did you in was alas! your Poems, which had shocked some professorial old women’ – and he remained, for the moment, ‘a plain man of letters’.
Eliot’s difficult relationship with his first wife, Vivienne, is another vital aspect of the life charted by these letters. ‘[It] seems to me … bizarre,’ he tells Henry, ‘that a person of my antecedents should have had a life like a bad Russian novel.’ In May 1926, Eliot left Vivienne with Ezra Pound in Paris, ‘too ill’ to continue home to London. ‘In 3 days the Pounds were at the end of their resources & wired for me. The hallucinations (voices etc.) had got worse etc. She had been sleeping on the floor of their room, in terror.’ During 1926 and 1927, Vivienne broke down, attempted suicide, and was treated at Malmaison, a French sanitarium ‘almost synonymous with insanity’. Eliot’s letters show a mix of frustration, commitment, blunt discussion of Vivienne’s committal, and fear: ‘I must not leave her, even for a night … [it] is not a matter of mere sentiment or conscience, but a matter of duty and almost daily anxiety and necessity.’ The pieces of correspondence to Eliot (and about him) included throughout Volume Three allow diverse voices to speak on the controversial topic of Vivienne. Most important is her own, often unflattering but plainly haunted: ‘O I know I am utterly worthless, a sparrow. I know it does not matter what becomes of me. But I am in pain, in pain.’
The letters show the man, too, perhaps most vibrantly through incidental detail: his enjoyment of detective stories, jazz, a chop for lunch; the fondness for gin and his old servant, Janes. And Virginia Woolf’s Tom ‘in a four piece suit’ is contradicted by his ribald sense of humour. He salutes Bonamy Dobrée as ‘Buggamy’ (‘Please do not address me as Thomarse’) and sends him instalments of often outrageous doggerel about his imagined civilisation, the Bolovians, and their adventures with Christopher Columbus. The poet of ‘The Waste Land’writes in gleeful ballad metre about ‘Bung Hole[s]’ and farting in barrels.‘Our Next Installment,’ he concludes one letter, ‘will be a Description of the Columbian Sport of: Fucking the Tortoise.’
Notwithstanding these lighter moments, Volume Three is oriented more toward the scholar than general reader. Much of the correspondence has the feel of an (exquisitely written) in-tray which, while invaluable for academic work, requires a doughty lay reader. Although footnotes quote extensively from referenced sources, an introductory essay could have bridged the gap in readership by highlighting and contextualising letters of significance. From a scholarly perspective, the want of substantive comment on editorial methodology in what remains a selected letters (the editors’ two-page preface describes it as the ‘major’ correspondence) is problematic, particularly given the inclusion in Volume One (2009) of letters now considered relevant that were, in the previous edition, withheld as ‘minor’.
But these are not defeating criticisms. Valerie Eliot’s last published work is a tribute both to her and the husband whose legacy she worked tirelessly to preserve. She and Haffenden have produced an excellent volume, exhaustively collating and footnoting the letters, and detailing major correspondents’ biographies. The letters enrich our understanding of Eliot and document his literary life in two important years. Possibly this understanding will deepen further if, following Valerie Eliot’s recent death, greater access to the archive is permitted. Regardless, Volume Threewill remain an important and engaging resource for scholars and Eliot aficionados prepared to put in the time.