The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume Two

Saskia Hamilton

Reviewed: Eliot, T.S. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume Two: 1923-1925, revised edition. Ed. Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009, 912 pp.

“The Eliot family motto was ‘Tacuit et facuit’ (‘Be silent and act’),” reads a footnote to a 1924 letter from T. S. Eliot to Herbert Read.i Eliot is discussing editing The Criterion without pay:

It is true that I have laid myself open to the censure both of persons who assumed that I was making money out of the work, and of those who knew that I was taking nothing for it – and who consequently believe that I am running the paper for other discreditable reasons – which latter group of persons, by the way, includes my relatives in America. One does not like to explain oneself only to arouse the accusation of hypocrisy, to be associated with the other causes of impeachment, and one learns to keep silence.

The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 2It is characteristic of Eliot in these years that he would lay bare a fear—that speaking at all might open him to disparagement and indictment—and then cover it by moving from the personal “I” to the general “one.” To keep his silence, to keep his distance, he determinedly labored at The Criterion without explaining himself.

Awaited since 1989, when it was first promised,ii The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 2: 1923-1925 (2009), edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton under the general editorship of John Haffenden, covers three painful years in Eliot’s life, just after the publication of The Waste Land in 1922. The volume especially “documents the founding and early years of The Criterion, the dedicated and exacting day-to-day and quarter-to-quarter work of producing it,” as Haughton writes in the excellent and admirably efficient preface. Most of Vol. 2 is taken up with The Criterion’s business, which Eliot typed in the evenings after his day’s work in Lloyds Bank—every evening, and at weekends, and on holidays. The Criterion crowded his home pursuits—a photograph of Vivien in their kitchen at 9 Clarence Gate Gardens shows a bowl of fruit, a tea urn, china plates, and a typewriter. The book is a thorough record of the early intellectual history of that journal and its gathering of writers (since continued in the subsequently published Volumes 3 and 4). But its other mark is silence—despair and entrapment (at Lloyds, at home) at the heart of it, with Vivien’s chronic bad health the other terrible, unremitting constant.

Faced with shaping a book from the letters of these years—Eliot’s manner so markedly reserved, his prose given to “stiffness,” as he remarkediii—the editors have extended the range of voice by including letters written by his wife, other members of his family, and his friends (appropriate for a poet whose work is so allusive).iv And by providing as full an account of the years 1923-25 as possible, they silently answer any suspicions of a whitewash on the part of the Eliot estate due to Eliot’s political and racial views at the time. The letters contain anti-Semitic remarks, banter in reply to Ezra Pound’s blackface joshing (one is signed “Yours klansmanikally”v), his attraction to the Action française and admiration for Charles Maurras, and his giving Wyndham Lewis enthusiastic encouragement to write about Mussolini’s Fascist movement in 1923. Whether the violence of soul and body in racism and fascism were yet real to him is unclear, though his ability to imagine and voice humiliating anti-Semitism and anti-Irish prejudice in some of the poems is vivid. Other voices in the book throw these remarks into relief, at best, or keep them company, by being either more brutal—John Quinn’s blatant belief in white supremacy—or more strange—Ezra Pound’s encoded flights of ideas, Wyndham Lewis’s paranoia.

*    *    *

“Tacuit et facuit”: The Latin quoted in the footnote comes from Eliot’s dedication of The Sacred Wood (1920):

‘Tacuit et fecit’

which modifies the Eliot family motto, “Tace et Fac.”vi The dedication to Eliot’s late father, Henry Ware Eliot,vii is full of silences, with the abbreviation and the phrase in a dead language.viii It can be read either as tribute to his father or as pardon for himself—“He was silent and acted” or “He was silent and made (this)” (“fecit” being the artist’s markix).

Given Eliot’s industry and personal reticence in the face of the great unhappiness of these years, “be silent and act” may be read as an oblique commentary on the contents of Vol. 2 itself. Although the editorial notes are mostly points of information, as they should be, this note (with its small errors) is more suggestive critically than enlightening editorially. Perhaps the editors were mindful of Eliot’s joke about the family character in letters from earlier that spring (“if any Eliot could ever laugh”; “if any Eliot ever could laugh” x). “Fecuit” is a typo and partakes in a comedy of nonsense, empty of meaning while rhyming with the Latin verb for silence. And perhaps Eliot’s strained relations with his family in 1925 (there are those “who consequently believe that I am running the paper for other discreditable reasons—which latter group of persons, by the way, includes my relatives in America”) reminded the editors of the strained relationship with his father that lent poignancy to his dedication of The Sacred Wood in 1920. “When they parted for the last time at the end of his 1915 visit,” Valerie Eliot writes in the introduction to Vol. 1, “TSE was convinced that his father thought him a failure. This memory always tormented him.” Certainly during 1923-25, Eliot felt his father’s censure (particularly of the consequences of his decision to marry) continuously, since his father’s will stipulated that on Eliot’s death, any money from the family trusts would revert to the family, not to Vivien—which bore directly on Eliot’s decision to keep the job at Lloyds, more financially sound than a literary venture. In this context, editing The Criterion seems to have offered some kind of release, even if it would also prove a heavy obligation.

Ezra Pound had warned Eliot against editing The Criterion when the idea for the journal was floated: “I cant see that editing a quarterly will give you any more leisure to write poetry.”xi His advice was prescient. While one could not say that Eliot was silent on the page in the three years these letters were written, he was in the higher sense of a poetic silence—silence at the heart of repetition in both “The Hollow Men” and Sweeney Agonistes, written during this period—and in the sense of reticence or reserve.

Eliot’s force of will and character can be felt as much in his dedicated work on The Criterionas in his forbearing from speech on the personal matters that were torturing him. It is rare that his prose relaxes with candor. “Tace et Fac”; and indeed we find little face-to-face intimacy with his correspondents. He confided to his brother, but to others only when provoked. His letters to Pound exceptionally rise to Pound’s pitch of voice. He wrote about Vivien’s latest distress on 20 May 1923:

On contemplating suicide a short time ago she was going to leave you a letter. Hell.

But the most personally revealing letters were written in the winter and spring of 1925, when Vivien’s progressive illnesses, self-starvation (she weighed a little over eighty pounds at one point, Eliot records), addiction to chloral hydrate, and hallucinations, at once isolated him from company and drove him to confide in letters to John Middleton Murry and Bertrand Russell. Eliot’s anxiety about securing Vivien’s financial future had kept him trapped at Lloyds Bank, and his sense of daily responsibility to her (nursing and caring for her, encouraging her writing) had led him to turn down more intellectually rewarding work. But he seems to have felt guilty as much for his quandary of indecision as for the choices he made and did not make—all seemed to provoke Vivien further. When his own health broke down from nerves, flu, exhaustion, Vivien only worsened. He wrote to Virginia Woolf in February 1925:

It is time that I wrote to thank you for your last letter. I am rather in the doldrums at present – I feel like a shell with no machinery in it, the moment I try to use my mind at all; it’s no use, and then up goes the temperature. And Vivien is worse than I am by far, besides having to suffer now for the anxiety and strain of the first ten days of my illness.

Even illness was no temporary relief from his duty to his wife—she suffered doubly from “the anxiety and strain” of his as well as her own.

The figure of “a shell with no machinery” is an evocative bringing-together of the body and mechanism. The “shell” is for his feeling (a shell has no nerve-endings). But it is not the shell of a living creature; nor is it the shell of an ear; nor is it Hermes’ lyre. And his word for his innards is “machinery.” Hamlet being so important to Eliot, the figure of a machine can’t but call to mind the living body evoked in Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia:

‘Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, HAMLET.’

And a shell is an outward form—mere externality—but it does at least feel like something, if only like being without machinery, or like being a vehicle without the weight of its engine (the mind). Is it a feeling of emptiness or of anticipation (waiting to be filled)? The metaphor anticipates what he would write in April 1925 to John Middleton Murry:

In the last ten years – gradually, but deliberately – I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately – in order to endure, in order not to feel – but it has killed V. In leaving the bank I hope to become less a machine – but yet I am frightened – because I don’t know what it will do to me – and to V. – should I come alive again. I have deliberately killed my senses – I have deliberately died – in order to go on with the outward form of living –

Eliot was interested in the effect of machinery on sensation in modern experience (“Like a taxi throbbing waiting”). But Eliot’s language is also the language of spiritual transformation and its requirements: “I have deliberately died,” he writes; and, more explicitly, later in the same letter, “Is there a way in which I can lay down my life and gain it? Must I kill her or kill myself?” alluding directly to Luke 9:24 and Matthew 16:25. But in a terrible turn of logic, he finds in the sacrifice no salvation for himself, only the death of another. If he were to save his life, he would lose not his but hers:

Does it happen that two persons’ lives are absolutely hostile? It is true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying?

The editors’ note asks us to compare this sentence, or the tortured articulation of the entire paragraph, to lines from Sweeney Agonistes:

He didn’t know if he was alive
            and the girl was dead
He didn’t know if the girl was alive
            and he was dead
He didn’t know if they were both alive
            or both were dead

The lines bear more directly on this passage than the Eliot family motto did on the words “keep silence”—for their content but also for their tiny changes of wording that try to push through to insight but instead confound and entrap. Note, for instance, Eliot writing the self-condemning “deliberately” four times in the letter, repeating himself “in order” (three times), and discovering in the act of writing the self-revelation he has discovered in the word.

The force of the letter comes equally from its surprising addressee—a surprise to Eliot too it would seem—as from its revelations. Eliot was opposed to Murry intellectually, and had little respect for Murry’s late wife, Katherine Mansfield, as the letters and the notes make clear. One letter, written on 19 [April] 1924, is particularly memorable for its unexplained strength of feeling:

My dear John,
            You know it is impossible for me to come to your wedding, as I am in a bank and cannot get away at such an hour. I am sure that you have done the best thing for yourself in marrying again, but you know that it has always been impossible for me to understand any of your actions.
            Ever yours
                        T. S. E.

The salutation and the subscription, “My dear” to “Ever yours,” are particularly funny.

*    *    *

That Eliot was working on “The Hollow Men” and Sweeney Agonistes begins to be clear in the fall of 1924, nearly five hundred pages into the volume. The one ends without resolution, in pain; the other doesn’t end (it is unfinished). Two passages from the letters are particularly revealing about his work in those registers of voice, silence, and repetition. Writing on 6 October 1924 to Jane Heap, who had sent him some work by Gertrude Stein, Eliot says:

I have read them through several times and think I have grasped some at least of the intention: and they certainly produce a peculiar hypnotic effect upon me. But I do not think that they would do for us in the Criterion; and they seem to me much more for the professional, as a technical study, than for the ordinary reader. They are extremely interesting to me, as I have been working in a method of repetition and variation lately myself

The ordinary reader was in his mind for The Criterion; but as an extraordinary reader, he was alert to the effects of Stein’s work. His own “working” in that mode was both a technique (or skill) and a spiritual exercise. He remarked to Humbert Wolfe on 17 February 1924:

it seems to me that all artistic skill means going just to the frontier, and never a hair’s breadth beyond the frontier, on the other side of which is some dreadful vice

To not go too far, to not go far beyond, is an exercise of artistic judgment and inner preparation. Six years later, he would write in a review of Harry Crosby:

Of course one can ‘go too far’ and except in directions in which we can go too far there is no interest in going at all; and only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out just how far one can go. Not to go far enough is to remain ‘in the vague’ as surely and less creditably than to exceed.xii

The method of repetition and variation he was using in 1924 allowed him to imagine and voice a consciousness that is very much “‘in the vague’”xxiii:

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.

This crowd of ghosts (in whose diminished cry we can faintly hear another’s ghostly father, King Hamlet, saying “Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me”) is unable to cross a frontier and is thereby condemned to repeat the entrapping self-condemnation. In the estimation of the poem, “lost / Violent souls” would at least be in a more memorable circle of hell than

The hollow men
The stuffed men

stranded there. Or perhaps a greater force of evil would be more purifying, as he would later write:

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul

Eliot’s imagination of hollow and stuffed souls is coterminous with a period when Eliot himself could find no way out of his predicament. He would write to to E. R. Curtius, 13 Mar 1946, about Four Quartets:

I have always been very anxious to write only from the stage I had actually reached and not to fall into the temptation of writing from a more advanced stage of spiritual life than I had mastered.

Eliot’s experiments with repetition and variation of “The Hollow Men” and Sweeney Agonistes record and do not move beyond a particular moment of mastery. Technically, the experiments were not Steinian. But there are similarities in their mutual interest in the realistic, reached for by different means. The poem and the fragments of a play that Eliot wrote in 1924 point the way to Eliot’s work with repetition in Burnt Norton, the turning and turning and crossing of a phrase that finally unlocks it, “Time present and time past,” and “Time past and time present.” His intention was not to write towards greater formal abstraction but towards transparency, as he remarked had been his “long” aim (in a lecture on “English Letter Writers” in 1933):

to write poetry which should be essentially poetry, with nothing poetic about it, poetry standing naked in its bare bones, or poetry so transparent that we should not see the poetry, but that which we are meant to see through the poetry, poetry so transparent that in reading it we are intent on what the poem points at, and not on the poetry, this seems to me the thing to strive for. To get beyond poetry, as Beethoven, in his later works, strove to get beyond music. We never succeed, perhapsxiv

The vision of lost souls unable to cross over in “The Hollow Men”:

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

would return in the vision of people in the Gloucester Road Tube station, “tumid” modifying not a river but an internal condition:

Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.

The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Vol. 2—swollen as it is with business letters—also seems swollen in its contents with unspoken anguish. The editors of the edition are our guides through it, and as Pound says, we can’t get through hell in a hurry. Eliot’s diligence with The Criterion is indeed its dominant note, and his sense of personal paralysis its overtone:

Is there a way in which I can lay down my life and gain it? Must I kill her or kill myself?

His vision of the consequences of his spiritual death (or of his spiritual renewal, or both), and his refusal of intimacy keep him at some threshold he dare not cross.

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear

SASKIA HAMILTON is the author of three books of poetry, including Corridor, published in May 2014. She is also the editor of The Letters of Robert Lowell and co-editor of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. She teaches at Barnard College.


i. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 2: 1923-1925 [2009], [18 October 1924], pp. 513-14. // back
ii. As Valerie Eliot wrote in 1988, “I intended the first volume to run to the end of 1926, which seemed a natural break…but the physical extent of the book would, in my publisher’s opinion, have been too bulky for the reader’s comfort. We hope, by publishing the second part next year, to restore the balance” (The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1: 1898-1922 [1988], introduction). // back
iii. “If I can write English prose – and I imagine that there are more Americanisms in my prose than you wish to see – it is due to two causes: an intensive study of two years of the prose of Bradley, and an inherited disposition to rhetoric, from innumerable ancestors who occupied themselves with the church, the law, or politics! On the other hand, this gives my prose, I am aware, a rather rheumatic pomposity – I am conscious of this stiffness, but I do not trust myself elsewhere.” TSE to Richard Aldington, 8 October [1924]; p. 506. // back
iv. A precedent set by Valerie Eliot with the original publication of Vol. 1, carried on by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton in Vol. 2, and by John Haffenden in the subsequent Vols. 3 and 4. The editors of Vol. 2 include contextual annotation; an excellent, valuable, detailed Biographical Commentary based primarily on quotation from the letters; a generous Glossary of Names of major figures; the manuscript or typescript location for each letter; and twenty-one photographs of Eliot and some of his correspondents. // back
v. 14 September 1923; p. 215. // back
vi. Translated as “Be silent and act” by various commentators—for example, Frank Kermode: “The Eliot family motto is tace et fac, be silent and act, or, with some licence, keep separate the man who suffers from the artist who creates,” “Bearing Eliot’s reality: T. S. Eliot by Peter Ackroyd,” The Guardian, Thursday 27 September 1984. In Charlotte Eliot’s book about Eliot’s grandfather, she writes, “The motto on Dr. Eliot’s family crest was ‘Tace et Fac”; Charlotte Champe Stearns Eliot, William Greenleaf Eliot: Minister, Educator, Philanthropist (1904), p. 358. (Her dedication is “For my children, ‘lest they forget’.”) // back
vii. Who had died in 1919. The dedication is not to Eliot’s brother—as Valerie Eliot mistakenly noted in the first edition of Vol. I—though father and elder son shared the same initials and full name. // back
viii. Christopher Ricks writes on this, and asks how a poet can “live up to such a family motto, since a poet has to do with words.” He suggests Eliot’s reconciling of the motto’s command with his art was an impersonal effort to reach “that intensity at which language strives to become silence,” beautifully unfolding in the line from East Coker: “And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto” (T. S. Eliot and Prejudice, p. 246). The family motto, as a point of information, would bear directly on the line from East Coker. // back
ix. “came no church of cut stone, Adamo me fecit,” as Pound would later write in Canto XLV. // back
x. “The present position with the Criterion is a farce to make one laugh, if any Eliot could ever laugh”; to Henry Eliot, 1 May 1924; p. 391 The “other discreditable reasons” and “other causes of impeachment” are unstated in this letter, but in another, he writes that he was thought to be “a lunatic for doing this,” that is, editing The Criterion without pay (to Harold Monro, 2 May 1924): “The whole thing is enough to make me laugh, if any Eliot ever could laugh” (p. 393). // back
xi. From Ezra Pound to T. S. Eliot, 14 Mars [1922], Vol. 1. // back
xii. Preface to Harry Crosby, Transit of Venus (1931), p. ix. // back
xiii. A phrase that comes from Carlyle (“A gifted amiable being,…in danger of dissipating himself into the vague”; see the OED entry for “Vague,” 9.a.) and Matthew Arnold’s Oxford lecture on translating Homer (“Let not the translator, then, trust to his notions of what the ancient Greeks would have thought of him; he will lose himself in the vague”), among other sources. // back
xiv. Quoted in F. O. Matthiessen, The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (1958), p. 90. // back