Less Funny: The Letters of Young Tom Eliot

Robert Archambeau

Reviewed: Eliot, T.S. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume One: 1898-1922, revised edition. Ed. Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009, 704 pp.

                           skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny,
not just darker, not just grey.

Tom Eliot in 1910 (ASCII)It was Frank O’Hara, not T.S. Eliot, who wrote those lines about the diminishment of laughter and the darkening of the aging human spirit, but they might as well have been about Eliot’s life during the years covered in the first volume of his letters in the revised, multi-volume edition now out from Yale. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the letters chart a course of emotional decline, of course, since the volume ends not long after the appearance of The Waste Land, the poem that famously emerged out of Eliot’s emotional collapse. What does come as a bit of a surprise is the sprightly nature of the earlier letters. After a few pages of Tom Eliot’s schoolboy correspondence, the volume begins in earnest with his 1910 departure for France, where he will continue his Harvard philosophical studies at the Sorbonne (after some 800 pages of letters signed “Tom”—letters discussing such intimate matters as the state of the poet’s finances, libido, and underwear—I feel compelled to call him by his first name). The early letters are festooned with charming, comical line drawings, references to Tom’s private, libidinal-satirical “King Bolo” poetry, and literary jests such as a parody of the first issue of the Vorticist magazine Blast. Jean Verdenal’s letters show that Tom had found a kindred spirit in Paris, and Tom’s letters from Germany, where he’d gone to further his studies, are those of an amused young man enjoying student life in a university town. There is something of the innocent abroad in these early letters, and a special pathos when one considers Tom’s obliviousness to the gathering storm. Less than a month before Germany goes to war against Britain, for example, Tom writes in praise of the “perfectly commonplace happiness” he has found among the Herr Professors of Marburg, suggesting that it’s just the kind of calm and stress-free life he’d need for writing.


When war does come, Tom has a minor adventure in getting to England, and for a moment the coming tragedy shows its face in the expression of a woman he glimpses from a train’s window as she waves goodbye to her soldier husband from the platform. “I am sure,” writes Tom, “she had no hope of seeing him again.” But once Tom has established himself in England, youthful innocence reasserts itself, and we find the appetites of life awakened in our hero as he looks forward to a Chinese dinner with Yeats and Pound, begins to publish his poetry prominently, launches a vigorous campaign with editors on both sides of the Atlantic, and tries to decide between a career in philosophy and one in literature—yearning at times to have it both ways (“For me, as for Santayana,” he writes, “philosophy is chiefly literary criticism”). Sponsored by his old teacher Bertrand Russell, he eagerly moves among “all sorts of people—political and social as well as literary and philosophical,” as he almost certainly would not have done in America’s more atomized social structure. In one area his Americanness proves a real advantage: his St. Louis dancing technique is looser and more daring in the dip than that of the native English, and he enjoys alarming the young ladies with it in the artsy quarters of London, “the town of cubist teas.”

All is not entirely well, though. At times—as when he worries over the fate of an American friend detained by the Germans—the war can be “very real and very frightful” to him. And the outer sturm is matched by an inner or psychological drang, as Tom’s sexual hang-ups manifest in “nervous sexual attacks” during which he “walks about the streets with [his] desires” only to find that “refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches.” We needn’t read too closely between the lines to see family pressures added to libidinal ones: scholarly young Tom clearly fears he is a disappointment to his somewhat materialistic businessman father, whose very reassurances (“You have never been a burden to me, my dear fellow”) indicate the presence of the son’s anxieties. Those anxieties seem to have made Tom reticent about a direct confrontation with his father about the possibility of a literary life: included among the correspondence is a long letter from Ezra Pound to Tom’s father, beginning in Pound’s characteristically brusque style with “Your son asked me to write this letter, I think he expects me to send you some kind of apologia for the literary life in general, and for London literary life in particular.” It will not be the last time Pound’s less-than-subtle efforts on behalf of Tom’s career embarrass the intended beneficiary. Nor did it win the elder Eliot over to the cause of modern writing: we later learn that when he looked over a modernist journal he remarked that he “did not know there were enough lunatics in the world to support such a magazine.”

If the bourgeois papa loomed disapprovingly over one of Tom’s shoulders, the adoring mama hovered over the other, exerting pressures of another kind entirely. Charlotte Champe Stearns Eliot was a formidable figure, pious, proud, and something of an intellectual with largely thwarted literary ambitions. Those thwarted ambitions stayed with her, and morphed into hopes for her son, despite her lack of sympathy for some of his more outré work: early on she played the part of a literary version of the Little League dad, writing “I hope in your literary work you will receive the early recognition I strove for and failed” to receive. Perfectly commonplace happiness will elude Tom as war worries, financial uncertainties, sexual anxieties, and the stresses that come with literary ambition mount. As it turns out, though, it wasn’t perfectly commonplace happiness that Tom needed for writing: his was a talent that fed on foreboding.

Vivien Haigh-Wood proves the catalyst in the chemistry of Tom’s troubles: his father never approves of Tom marrying her, and the young married couple soon find themselves struggling. As Tom writes at the beginning of 1916, “I have been taken up with the worries of finance and Vivien’s health” and the crushing news that Jean Verdenal had been killed in the war. Financial worries bulk large in the letters, often crowding other subjects to the margin. At first it’s a matter of earning, borrowing, and repaying a few pounds or dollars at a time, with an eye on making the rent. But even after Vivien’s family connections (and the wartime shortage of qualified clerks) land Tom a place at Lloyd’s bank, the obsession with money continues. Soon it’s less a matter of food and rent than it is of Vivien’s medical expenses, finding a less-cramped flat, purchasing socially acceptable clothing, and eking out a way to fund cottage holiday rentals intended to calm the couple’s ever-fraying nerves.

Bohemian to the very core, Ezra Pound could not but see Tom’s position at Lloyd’s as a horrifying chasm into which a budding literary talent could vanish forever. “The greatest waste in ang-sax letters at the moment is waste of Eliot’s talent,” declares Pound, and Tom must at all costs be liberated from the bank. The solution, Pound thought, was something called Bel Esprit, a fund to which various well-off people would subscribe in support of Tom. Pound impresses, here as always, as both visionary and crackpot. In some ways, Bel Esprit anticipated the vast growth of cultural foundations and grants later in the century (and watching him hatch the scheme reminds us how little there was, in the teens and twenties, by way of institutional support for non-commercial writers). In others, it seems hopelessly naïve, predicated on little more than boyish confidence and energetic letter writing. The whole affair perturbed and embarrassed Tom. His background made anything that resembled the receipt of charity shameful, but his money worries made it impossible for him to reject Bel Esprit outright. When Pound’s plans finally foundered, Tom was relieved. Though he never quite says so, he was clearly unhappy at the thought of leaving Lloyd’s: the bank offered an identity, respectability, and prospects of the sort his father understood. What is more, it offered a set of orderly routines very much in contrast to the fraught domestic scene with Vivien back at the flat: indeed, Vivien notes that when Tom started at the bank, he was suddenly “more bright and happy and boyish than I’ve known him to be for two years,” and that he became more prolific as a poet.

Moments of bright happy boyishness aside, the years of the war and its aftermath were not good ones for Tom’s mental health. Fears that he may be conscripted to fight pile atop his usual domestic and financial troubles, and everything is compounded by trans-Atlantic red tape: at one point he nearly leaves his place at the bank in order to accept an American naval position that turns out not to exist. Then, just after the war comes to an end, Tom’s father dies, depriving Tom of the chance to show he was not the failure he was sure his father thought him to be. A day before his father dies, we find young Tom pleading with John Quinn, the New York lawyer and patron of modernist writing, to help see a planned collection of his poems and essays into print:

I am coming to visit my family some time within the summer or Autumn, and I should very much like to have it appear first. You see I settled over here in the face of strong family opposition, on the claim that I found the environment more favorable to the production of literature. This book is all I have to show for my claim—it would go toward making my parents contented with conditions—and towards satisfying them that I have not made a mess of my life, as they are inclined to believe.

The sad irony is that mere days before, old Mr. Eliot had written his brother expressing approval of Tom—not for his poetry, but for being promoted at the bank.

Throughout all this, Tom was writing furiously—writing poems, to be sure, but far more often writing essays, reviews, and lectures on assignment for one or another of London’s literary journals or educational societies. He seemed always to be under deadline, and it is often unclear whether the long nights spent writing were foxholes into which he dove in search of shelter from his anxieties, or intensifiers of those anxieties. Perhaps, in the manner of an addiction, they are both. Whatever the case may be, all of that writing got Tom noticed, and, as he entered his thirties, people began to think of him as a leader of literary opinion. In 1921 this led Lady Rothermere to seek him out as editor of a new journal, The Criterion, but two years earlier another possibility had arisen: Tom was offered the number two position at the revived Athenaeum. He declined, thinking the journal wouldn’t last. As it happened, the Athenaeum did encounter troubles, merging with its competitor The Nation to stay afloat, and eventually being taken over by the New Statesman. Had he taken the position and survived the mergers, we’d have seen the avowedly Royalist, Classicist, Anglo-Catholic poet highly placed in the most prominent magazine of the British left, a counter-factual prospect worthy of its own sitcom.

Reading the letters from this period of intense productivity, we see various ideas familiar from the published essays. We read that Tom likes “to feel that a writer is cool and detached, regarding other people’s feelings and his own, like a God who has got beyond them,” and we know we’re on the trail of the objective correlative. We read of his dream of a “civilization which is impersonal, traditional (by ‘tradition’ I don’t mean stopping in the same place)” and we get a sense of the dialogue with the living past that informs “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” We read “In writing for a paper one is writing for a public, and the best work, the only work that in the end counts, is written for oneself” and we are reminded of what Tom will call the first of the “three voices of poetry.” Interesting as these traces of the published works are, and welcome in a collection largely comprised of grievances about personal issues, none of them pulls focus like the references to a developing poem we instantly recognize as The Waste Land. After wading through hundreds of pages of complaints about health, money, war shortages and literary politics, we come across a letter from Pound prohibiting additional sections at the end of The Waste Land and proclaiming “The POEM ends with the Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” and we feel we’re sitting in the good seats at the theater of literary history. Pound knew his friend had come up with something of historical importance, too, and his combination of celebration and envy come together perfectly in his salutation to Tom, “Complimenti, you bitch.” Such high spirits were alien to Tom in these years, though, whose letters turn immediately to dour matters of how to turn the greatest profit from the poem, and how to see it placed where it would be noticed and endure. That he succeeds in both endeavors despite what he calls his “ill health and inability to cope with anything” is a testament to the seriousness with which he took his literary career, and his correct assessment of the importance of his achievement.

There are a few moments, after the innocent charm of the early letters, when we find Tom happy, or at any rate amused, as when he sits on a yoga mat discussing “psychical research” with Yeats. There are also many moments when we feel sympathetic for his plight, as when he breaks down the costs associated with giving literary lectures and we realize that, like many an adjunct instructor today, he barely breaks even. We can also find the despicable Eliot if we look for him: he has a sexist side (“once a woman has anything printed in your paper, it is very difficult to make her see why you should not print everything she sends in”); and the anti-Semitism we see in his later works of social theory is here in embryo (he says of the penniless Ben Hecht and Max Bodenheim “being Semites I suppose they will survive somehow”) though one learns from these letters that, as far as anti-Semitism goes, Tom had nothing on his mother.

The overall impression one gains from these letters is of a deeply imperfect man whose youth clouded over quickly, whose marriage brought him strife, whose family understood him poorly, and who lived with the privations and worries that large-scale warfare brings even to non-combatants. He bears up as best he can, and tries, through his art, to make something like beauty out of his suffering, to make of his life’s course something not just darker, not just grey.

ROBERT ARCHAMBEAU’s books include the studies The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry, the poetry collections Home and Variations and Slight Return: Remix and Ekphrasis, and the edited collections Word Play Place: Essays on the Poetry of John Matthias, The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing (with Davis Schneiderman and Steve Tomasula), and Letters of Blood and Other Works in English by Göran Printz-Påhlson. In 2015 his translation of the Belgian Surrealists Gabriel and Marcel Piqueray, Beyond Gestures, will be published. He teaches at Lake Forest College and blogs at Samizdat Blog.