“If I could destroy every letter I have ever written in my life I would do so before I die.”
—Eliot to his brother Henry, 25 May 1930.
While awaiting the arrival of my copy of the fifth volume of Eliot’s letters, I made the mistake of reading some prominent reviews already in circulation. One stands out in particular as representative of a perplexing and somewhat popular attitude toward the whole project of publishing the late poet’s immense correspondence. Dr. Jeremy Noel-Tod, who has written a number of excellent things about modernist and contemporary literature, finds the prospect of reading Eliot’s letters “boring beyond tears.” Put simply, I do not. This superbly edited volume should remind every reader just how lucky we are that Eliot never fulfilled his desire for anonymity by destroying his correspondence.
Certainly, there is some justification for Dr. Noel-Tod’s position. In the fifth volume particularly, which covers the years 1930–1931, most of the epistolary back-and-forth amounts to a record not of Eliot’s personal dramas or thoughts on his craft, but of his day jobs. This would perhaps be tedious if Eliot had continued in his earlier job as a bank clerk. But in the period of this volume, Eliot was simultaneously director of Faber & Faber, one of the most prominent publishers in the English-speaking world, and editor of The Criterion, perhaps the most important intellectual periodical of its time. Far from inundating the reader with pointless business memos, Eliot’s letters provide a fascinating glimpse of the intellectual landscape of two years. One day, Eliot calls upon Christopher Dawson for a Catholic rejoinder to Bertrand Russell; the next, he asks Aldous Huxley for a pamphlet on the problem of Good and Evil from a “modern” point of view.
There are moments of disappointment. The initial delight at finding a letter to Joyce or Pound or Chesterton or Woolf or Auden is often undermined by a lack of significant content. But for every few merely polite letters, there is another that reveals a great deal about Eliot’s thoughts about politics, religion, or his own work. Committed Eliot enthusiasts will no doubt recognize many of the most striking letters from existing scholarship. Anyone who has read a recent study of Eliot will recognize his response to the Missouri Historical Society, in which the expatriate poet acknowledges the profound influence of his youth in America: “I have spent many years out of America altogether; but Missouri and the Mississippi have made a deeper impression on me than any other part of the world.” Even those familiar with such important lines will feel a certain thrill from reading the letters in all their rich context.
Many of the most enjoyable moments in this volume come when Eliot responds to commentaries on and inquiries about his poetry. In his response to René Taupin’s The Influence of French Symbolism on Modern American Poetry (1929), for example, Eliot provides a succinct genealogy of influence that has the added charm of coming straight from the poet himself:
My first poems are almost pure Laforgue, with a little Baudelaire. Gautier I should never have studied but forthe suggestion of Pound; and to Gautier and Pound I owe the series of poems which you rightly put in the Gautier tradition. And—a very small correction—the influence of the Elizabethan dramatists was much stronger upon me than that of Donne.
The reader must hunt for such passages, but the pleasure of finding them is worth the trouble of tracking them down.
Volume Five also documents some of the important moments in Eliot’s artistic development, including his emergence as a religious poet—a designation he disavowed at every opportunity. Ash-Wednesday comes up repeatedly in exchanges with friends and peers, and Eliot bridles every time a reviewer or critic dubs the poem religious or, even worse, devotional. Ash-Wednesday was, to him, a natural extension of his earlier verse:
I hope that Hague will not call Ash Wednesday religious or devotional verse—it is merely an attempt to put down in words a certain stage of the journey, a journey of which I insist that all my previous verse represents previous stages.
The very next day, Eliot wrote to the theologian Father Martin D’Arcy insisting that he did not “consider it [Ash-Wednesday] any more ‘religious’ verse than anything else I have written.” Recently, scholars have begun taking such statements more at face value and doing away with the wildly exaggerated divide between Eliot’s early and late poetry.
Most inquiries about Ash-Wednesday concern the poem’s many enigmatic images (e.g. “three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree”). To a confounded and admiring Charles Williams, novelist and member of the “Inklings,” Eliot complains about the reading public’s insistence on allusion: “if the three leopards or the unicorn contain any allusions literary, I don’t know what they are. Can’t I sometimes invent nonsense, instead of always being supposed to borrow it?” It seems a tad fickle of Eliot to teach a generation to hunt for obscure allusions and then scold them for doing so. But such is the artist’s prerogative.
Compared to past volumes, this one contains relatively little about Eliot’s continued struggles with his disastrous personal life. After years of bemoaning his improvident and hasty first marriage, he seems to have cultivated a degree of resignation leading up to the relationship’s eventual denouement. By the end of 1931, Eliot anticipated a year in Boston as visiting Norton Professor. He would leave Vivienne in England for the duration, and they would separate formally not long after his return.
In spite, or perhaps because, of his personal struggles, Eliot maintains some of his youthful humor. We catch an early glimpse of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (complete with illustrations) in a touchingly playful and affectionate letter to Eliot’s godson, Tom Faber.
The infamous and bawdy King Bolo makes another appearance as well. In one of the many letters to Bonamy Dobrée (addressed at different times under a host of playful names, including “Jujubhy” and “Bungamy”), Eliot produces a poem about the “Games played at the Bolovian Court.” Not surprisingly, the poem is unfit for reproduction here, but, hopefully, such gems will tempt others to spend some time hunting through Eliot’s correspondence.
Martin Lockerd is currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent publications, “Into Cleanness Leaping: Brooke, Eliot, and the Decadent Body” (2013) and “‘A Satirist of Vices and Follies’: Images of Decadent Catholicism” (2014), appear in the Journal of Modern Literature. Mr. Lockerd’s dissertation, “Decadent Catholicism and the Making of Modernism” argues for greater recognition of the late Victorian, literary phenomenon of decadent Catholicism in the imaginative genealogy of such authors as W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Evelyn Waugh.