The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volumes Three and Four

Marjorie Perloff

Reviewed: Eliot, T.S. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume Three: 1926-1927. Ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. New Haven: Yale UP, 2012, 954 pp; and Eliot, T.S. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume Four: 1928-1929,. Ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. New Haven: Yale UP, 2013, 826 pp

     It often seems to me very bizarre that a person of my antecedents should have had a life like a bad Russian novel.
            T. S. Eliot to Henry Eliot [his brother], 29 July 1926

When Volumes 3 and 4 of the Eliot letters arrived on my desk, I must confess my heart sank. Eliot had almost forty more years to live, and here were two tomes, each more than 800 pages long, that cover only four years (1926-29) of the poet’s life. And years in which Eliot wrote precious little poetry at that! Is such hyper-coverage really necessary, much less desirable? Do we want to read Eliot’s every response to an invitation to lunch or the detailed correspondence about payment for articles appearing in the Criterion under Eliot’s editorship?

My answer, surprisingly, is yes! Despite its inclusiveness and heavy annotation, Volume 3 (Volume 4 somewhat less so) is a real page-turner, full of the most fascinating nuggets, not only about Eliot himself but about the London literary world in the later 1920s—the last decade of the “civilization” Eliot tried so hard to defend and which was to come to an abrupt halt with the collapse of the stock market in ‘29 and Hitler’s assumption of power in 1933. In the years covered here, Eliot secured his position as editor of the leading literary periodical in England and as publisher at Faber & Gwyer (soon to be Faber & Faber). In June 1927, he was received into the Church of England, and from then on religion coloured his cultural as well as literary commentaries. By October, he had taken British citizenship. In the Preface to For Lancelot Andrewes (November 1928), he famously describes himself as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” It is a stance by no means popular with the liberal British press or with Bloomsbury, and the famous author of The Waste Land (1922) found himself the subject of much criticism both in England and the United States. Robert Frost, who had dinner with Eliot in October ‘28, found himself irritated by the newly acquired British accent of this American poet, who had become, so Frost opined, a “mealy-mouthed snob” (IV, 286, n.1).

It is true that the exuberant and vulnerable young Tom we met in Volumes I and II of the Letters (see my review in Bookforum [Dec-Jan 2012], 25-6] has all but vanished. Only rarely—in letters to his brother Henry, to Ezra Pound, and in the jokey scatological letters to his critic friend Bonamy Dobrée—does T.S.E., rightly nicknamed The Possum by Pound, let down his guard. Even his letters to his mother, the person he insists he cares for more than anyone else in the world, are less than candid; he doesn’t want Mother to know how bad things are with Vivien (whose mental condition continues to deteriorate), even though, paradoxically, he uses Vivien’s precarious state as an excuse not to be able to visit his mother in the U.S. Charlotte Stearns Eliot died at 86 (September 1929), with Eliot still not having made the visit promised almost two years earlier.

But if the Eliot of the 1926-29 letters can sound priggish and cold, his brilliance and originality come across as daunting, as does his commitment, not only to literature, but to the whole gamut of intellectual activity all over Europe. Given that he constantly had to care for or worry about Vivien—in 1926 she had a severe breakdown and was hospitalized at the Sanatorium de la Malmaison outside Paris for months—it is almost unbelievable how much Eliot accomplished. It is in this period that he enlisted dozens of European writers from Ernst Curtius to Ramon Fernandez and Alexis St. Leger (St. John Perse, whose Anabasis he translated) to write for the New Criterion, and solicited and received dozens of manuscripts by his compatriots, many of which were to be rejected, for example, poems by Laura Riding and Hart Crane, D. H. Lawrence’s short story “Sun,” and Gertrude Stein’s now classic essay “Composition as Explanation.” It is in this period that Eliot delivered the eight Clark Lectures on the Metaphysical Poets, which were to appear later in book form, wrote an extended commentary on I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism, and composed his famous long essay on Dante. And the relation of Christianity to Humanism was becoming a contentious subject, debated with his “humanist” friend Paul Elmer More, and others.

By January 1926, when the story these letters tell begins, Eliot was known as the famous—or infamous—author of The Waste Land (1922). A letter to Edith Sitwell of January 12 refers to a malicious review in The Observer, the anonymous author declaring, “The Poems of 1920 contained some dreadfully false stuff, and then came The Waste Land with its parade of easy learning, its trick of impasted quotation, and its echoes of modern prose-writers . . . . There is no reason why The Waste Land should begin where it does, go on as it does, or end where it does” (p. 15, n. 1). And there were worse attacks to come. In April, Eliot’s patron, the publisher Geoffrey Faber nominated his younger colleague for a research fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, extravagantly praising Eliot’s critical and intellectual accomplishments, his knowledge of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and the “chief languages of Europe,” and describing in detail the poet’s plan to produce a multi-volume study of “The Mind of the Elizabethan Age” (III, 136-40). His two other referees were the widely known editor-critic Charles Whibley and Bruce Richmond, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Oxford men all. But when the All Souls committee met in May, the Fellows turned down Eliot by a vote of twenty-one to fourteen! Here is the gist of the debate, as summarized by the well-known historian A. L. Rowse in his diary:

Here at All Souls at our last meeting we turned down T. S. Eliot, for a Research Fellowship. Now that is irreparable, and unforgivable. The spectacle in Hall was a sight to see. The two bishops were anxious only for a theological Fellow . . . . Several sensible speeches in favor of Eliot . . . . Then came a thunderbolt from the blue, just when one might have thought Eliot had a chance to win in spite of his poetry. Doddering old Sir Charles Lucas [retired civil servant and historian] got up and said he’d never heard of Eliot before his name was brought before the College; that he’d read two poems the night before, and he thought them indecent, obscene and blasphemous; why such a man should be regarded with approval, or rather singled out for high honour he didn’t know, and he hoped he had not lived to see the College make such an election. This obviously shook the Archbishop. The fat was in the fire over this. There got up in a row three high-minded and narrow-minded Scots, Lucas, Adams, and Macgregor, none of whom had read any of Eliot’s work until that weekend, when they singled out a few of the more comprehensible but questionable poems as a text for moral denunciation. After that, there could be no doubt” (III, 156, my emphasis).

Rowse’s account of the proceedings would be funny if it weren’t so sad and evidently so accurate—a portrait of the ways the Academy works, not so different from our own today. The All Souls decision reminds us that, however conservative Eliot’s political views were coming to be, and however powerful he was as editor of The Criterion, he remained an outsider. In a letter to the poet Herbert Read (23 April 1928), Eliot wrote:

Some day I want to write an essay about the point of view of an American who wasn’t an American, because his America ended in 1829; and who wasn’t a Yankee, because he was born in the South and went to school in New England as a small boy with a nigger drawl, but who wasn’t a southerner in the South because his people were northeners in a border state and looked down on all southerners and Virginians, and who so was never anything anywhere and who therefore felt himself to be more a Frenchman than an American and more an Englishman than a Frenchman and yet felt that the U.S.A. up to a hundred years ago was a family extension. (IV, 137-38).

“His America ended in 1829”: Eliot is evidently referring to the presidential election of Andrew Jackson, the populist Democrat who replaced the blue-blood New Englander John Quincy Adams. Eliot’s snobbery and sense of entitlement are very much on display here, and yet he knows only too well, that his upbringing and circumstances have left him no choice but to reinvent himself. If he is to be an Englishman, it must be one of a special and separate kind.

Certainly his literary judgments, as revealed in his letters, are sui generis. As Geoffrey Faber notes in his nomination letter for All Souls, Eliot’s writings on the Metaphysical poets avoided the then usual discussions of poetic diction and versification, focusing on poetry’s “intellectual content and on the ideas of the age which [it] exemplified and, beyond that, in the identifications and differences between the ideas of different ages, including our own” (III, 138). A style, for Eliot, was always symptomatic of larger cultural issues, a great poet like John Donne being one whose poetic figuration—the famed “metaphysical conceit”—was emblematic of the “dissociation of sensibility,” as Eliot dubbed it, of the seventeenth century.

As for Eliot’s contemporaries, the letters, together with John Haffenden’s excellent annotations, provide us with startling new detail. On 16 May 1927, for example, Richard Aldington chides Eliot gently for an article on D. H. Lawrence the latter published in French in the Nouvelle Revue Française. A long note by the editors gives us the English original of that article (III, 519)—a diatribe The Possum probably wouldn’t have wanted his English and American readers to see since Lawrence was, at the time, such a revered author:

No one . . . would seem to have probed deeper into the problem of sex [than Lawrence]. No line of humour, mirth, or flippancy ever invades Mr. Lawrence’s work; no distraction of politics, theology or art is allowed to entertain us. In the series of splendid and extremely ill-written novels—each one hurled from the press before we have finished reading the last—nothing relieves the monotony of the “dark passions” which makes his Males and Females rend themselves and each other; nothing sustains us except the convincing sincerity of the author. Mr. Lawrence is a demoniac, a natural and unsophisticated demoniac with a gospel. When his characters make love—or perform Mr. Lawrence’s equivalent for love-making—and they do nothing else—they not only lose all the amenities, refinements and graces which many centuries have built up in order to make love-making tolerable; they seem to reascend the metamorphoses of evolution, passing backward beyond ape and fish to some hideous coition of protoplasm. . . . it remains questionable whether the order of genesis, either psychological or biological, is necessarily for the civilized man, the order of truth. (IV, 519)

The give-away phrase here is the reference to the “refinements and graces” that “make love-making tolerable.” Lawrence may well be accused of dwelling too long and too solemnly on the marvels and mysteries of orgasm, but the notion that “love-making” is by nature intolerable, the “hideous coition of protoplasm” reveals a neurotic revulsion of sex Eliot usually manages to hide behind a jokey exterior or channel into the adolescent Bolo poems he sends to Bonamee Dobrée.

Eliot’s assessment of Gertrude Stein is equally revealing. We know from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that when Stein met Eliot at Lady Rothmere’s on 15 November 1925 (their only meeting), she asked if she might send him something for publication in The Criterion, and that Eliot, (putting Stein off as politely as possible), responded that “it would have to be her latest thing.” Stein took Eliot at his word and, that very day, composed a witty non-portrait of Eliot called “The Fifteenth of November,” made up of repetitive phrases like the title date as well as other word units like “please please” and “silken and woolen.” In the Autobiography, “Alice” says mischievously, “[Gertrude] sent it to T. S. Eliot and he accepted it but naturally he did not print it.” But Eliot honored his word. “By the way,” he wrote to Edith Sitwell, who had become very friendly with Stein, “I am printing a short thing by Gertrude Stein in the Criterion [4 January 1926], so that if there is an outcry I hope that you will stand by me. Would you be willing to do a short review of her enormous book The Making of Americans for the April number?” (III, 15-16). Sitwell obliged with a short, enthusiastic piece, but Eliot himself never came round. In June 1926, he rejected “Composition as Explanation,” later parodying Stein’s mode of repetition in a review for Nation and Athenaeum titled “Charleston, Hey! Hey!” as follows: “[Stein’s] work is not improving, it is not amusing, it is not interesting, it is not good for one’s mind. But its rhythms have a peculiar hypnotic power not met with before. It has a kinship with the saxaphone” (III, 203).

Eliot seems to have recognized that Stein had something, but rationally be could not say what it was. He was much more pointed about the poetry of Laura Riding: “my own conclusion,” he writes John Gould Fletcher on 2 June 1927, “is that it [is] a variety of Jewish cleverness making a neat compound of Gertrude Stein and Marianne Moore” (III, 546).

Anti-Semitic? Surely. Misogynist? Yes, but Eliot could be just as cutting about his male contemporaries, for example Laura Riding’s then-lover Robert Graves. The main exception was Ezra Pound, and even then one senses that Eliot doesn’t really warm up to The Cantos or to Cavalcanti; his endorsement of the poetry is based on an old and life-long friendship. Eliot never forgot everything that Pound had done for him in his youth and he also admired Pound’s sense of humor, as when the latter wrote him a letter about Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West,” referring to the title as the “Decline of the Untergang of the Eveninglands, Even in glands. Abendlands” (III, 368n). In any case, Eliot dutifully published pretty much whatever Pound sent him and produced commentary, for example, for The Dial, on Pound’s work. At the same time, Eliot seems to have had little use for Pound’s poetics, with its emphasis on language and style. “The whole Ezra point of view about art,” he wrote F. S. Flint on 24 May 1927, “is as out of date as the Yellow Book. And I agree that in whatever direction you go nowadays you buck up in the end against economics and religion” (III, 533). The irony here is that it was of course Pound who was to bring economics into his poetry with a vengeance and who also incorporated the Eleusian mysteries and Eastern religion into the Cantos.

But for Eliot, such syncretism was always suspect. His own new poetry of the period—”Journey of the Magi” was published in August 1927 and “Song for Simeon” the following year—reject the collage mode of The Waste Land and fragmentation of “The Hollow Men” for a chastened and straightforward syntax and the genre of dramatic monologue, both poems posing the question, so Eliot wrote to C. W. Dilke at the BBC, “how fully was the Truth revealed to those who were inspired to recognize Our Lord so soon after the Nativity?” (III, 641). And that question brings us to the subject of Eliot’s turn to Anglo-Catholicism, which is a central thread of these volumes.

Eliot had, we know from earlier statements, never been happy with what he considered the barren theology and easy cheeriness of the Unitarian Church in which he had been raised, the religion of his prominent American ancestors. A true Christianity, Eliot came to feel, had to account for the evil in the world, for Original Sin. In May 1926, the Eliots, together with Tom’s brother Henry and his new wife Teresa, visited Rome; Teresa later reported to a friend, that inside St. Peter’s, she saw Eliot suddenly fall to his knees in prayer before Michelangelo’s Pietà (III, 147). And since his letters make frequent reference to French Catholics like Henri Massis and Charles Maurras, the founder of Action Française—men, he tells his mother, who are his chief friends in Paris” (III, 187), speculation was rife that Eliot would be converting to Roman Catholicism.

Eliot was too deeply Anglo-Saxon by temperament to take that step. But by January 1927, he had made the decision to join the Church of England. By February 3, he wrote his American friend William Force Stead, a poet and diplomat, now Chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford, “I want your advice, information, and your practical assistance in getting Confirmation with the Anglican Church. I am sure you will be glad to help me. But meanwhile I rely upon you not to mention this to anyone. I do not want any publicity or notoriety—for the moment, it concerns me alone, & not the public—not even those nearest me. I hate spectacular ‘conversions’” (III, 404). Stead replied that he would be delighted to help, but that baptism must precede confirmation. The event took place on 29 June in the Cotswold village of Finstock: Stead was to note in his diary that “It seemed off to have such a large though infant Christian at the baptismal font” (III, 572, n. 1).

“The Christian scheme”, as Eliot later explained it in The Listener, “seemed the only possible scheme which found a place for values which I must maintain or perish (and belief comes first and practice second), the belief, for instance, in holy living and holy dying, in sanctity, chastity, humility, austerity” (III, 572-3, n. 1). And in a revealing statement of 1948, which the editors include in the same note, “the convert—and I think not only of conversion from one form of Christianity to another, but indeed primarily of conversion from indifference to Christian belief and practice—the convert of the intellectual of sensitive type is drawn towards the more Catholic type of worship and doctrine.”

Vivien was not present at the baptism ceremony, and there is no doubt that Eliot’s conversion was, among other things, a conversion away from everything his wife stood for and the endless pain husband and wife were inflicting on one another. To survive “the horror,” he had to remake himself, to invent a better future. By 22 August, his mother had evidently learned of the conversion; he writes to her that he knows he shall see her in another life. “I feel that the ‘future life,’ or our future meetings, may not be in the least like anything that we can imagine; but that if it is different we shall then realize that it is right and shall not wish it to be like what we can now imagine . . . . That is what I always feel about the truths of religion: it is not a question of something absolutely true (or false) in so many words; but they are more nearly true that the contradiction of them” (III, 647-48). And to Geoffrey Faber, who had gently chided him for his asceticism and talked of life’s pleasures, Eliot replied, “If anyone asked me what I take to be the good things of life, I should say, primarily, heroism and saintliness.” But “if one makes the relation of man to man (or still more to woman) the highest good, I maintain that it turns out a delusion and a cheat.” (18 September 1927, III, 711). Good things? Eliot admits a weakness for good food and wine, and rattles off, for Faber’s benefit, a list of his favorite French restaurants (III, 712). But the greatest good, he insists, is “a recognition of the fact that one can do without all these things” (712). Eliot never, of course, managed to achieve the tranquility and abnegation he longed for; in his day-to-day activities at The Criterion, he remained his steely, sardonic, indeed frequently embattled self, putting down his opponents and fending off the need to publish writers he disliked, for example the German Jewish Lion Feuchtwanger, the author of the bestselling Der Jud Süss (see III, 816). In these years, he finds himself frequently caught up in political controversies, especially the conflict between Action Française and the Vatican. (14 December, 1927; III, 863).

After the publication of For Lancelot Andrewes in the autumn of 1928, in whose preface he declares himself “royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion,” he finds himself at odds with leading reviewers. In a long review for The Sunday Times (3 Feb 1929), Desmond MacCarthy complained that Mr. Eliot’s “new point of view leads him to exaggerate merits [in this case, the beauty of Andrewes’s prose] because they are connected with others to which he is now sensitive” (IV, 418). “When you quote one of my quotations, Eliot replied, “as evidence that Andrewes’ prose is not first rate I can only throw up hands” (IV, 419). And he insists that his theory of literature has not changed all that much since The Sacred Wood (1920). Again, in an August 1929 letter to E. M. Forster, who had just published an essay on the poet’s work in Life & Letters, Eliot remarked acidly, “The relation to [Henry] James may . . . be pressed too far, because I do think that I succeed in distinguishing the City of God from London in the Season” (573). Such put-downs were not appreciated. The anonymous review of Lancelot Andrewes in the TLS (written by Alan Clutton-Brook) is highly critical of Eliot’s “increasing desire for a universal and continuous rather than a living tradition…. It is our view that by accepting a higher spiritual authority based not upon the deepest personal experience . . . . but upon the anterior and exterior authority of revealed religion, he has abdicated from his high position. Specifically he rejects modernism for medievalism” (IV, 605).

In Thoughts after Lambeth (1931), Eliot was to refer to this TLS piece as a “flattering obituary notice”: “Somehow I had failed, and had admitted my failure, if not a lost leader, at least a lost sheep; what is more I was a kind of traitor” (IV, 606). In a sardonic turn, he claimed to find the review “a hopeful sign of the times. For it meant that the orthodox faith of England is at last relieved from its burden of respectability” (IV, 606).

By this time, Eliot had obviously perfected the tone of elegant disdain for which he became so widely known. The end of 1929—no mention is made of the stock market crash—finds the poet at a low point. But the following year his great conversion poem “Ash Wednesday” will appear and in 1933 he will finally separate from Vivien. But for that story, and it is sure to be an absorbing one, we must wait for the next volume.

Before her retirement, MARJORIE PERLOFF was Sadie D. Patek Professor of Humanities at Stanford University and Florence Scott Professor Emerita of English at the University of Southern California. A collection of interviews, Poetics in a New Key, will be published by University of Chicago this fall.