Eliot Through His Letters
Since the first volume of Eliot’s letters (1898–1922) appeared in 1988, scholars and enthusiasts waited impatiently for the Eliot estate to release a second volume. Though a British edition appeared in 2009, American readers were forced to wait still longer for the U.S. edition, which finally appeared in August of 2011. One benefit of the delayed arrival of the U.S. edition is that the letters themselves have already been reviewed by several prominent publications. Of course, this is a benefit chiefly in so far as it provides the opportunity for a much-needed corrective.
Anthony Julius’s piece for The Telegraph demonstrates the characteristic myopia of the reviews that sprang up in 2009. He finds little to like about the “distasteful” task of reading Eliot’s letters: “They tell us about the author, not about his writing. They are not an aid to understanding, certainly.” Though nearly every major critical work concerning Eliot’s verse makes useful reference to his correspondences, Julius finds them merely tedious. While this puts him in the company of those reviewers who regularly employ adjectives such as “painful” and “boring” when describing the reading process, it does him little credit. What is truly painful is the fact that many reviews of the letters fail to substantially address any but those letters directly quoted in the editors’ preface. The preface does give a well-constructed and succinct overview of the book’s contents, but many early reviewers cling to the overview and neglect the collection itself.
Julius does make one foray outside of the preface in order to bash Eliot as an anti-Semite, but he is so intent on grinding this worn-down axe that he overlooks the moments of true insight that leap up like a trout in the onrushing stream of the poet’s correspondence. The collection is admittedly awash with business mail that can be overwhelming. It is also, however, filled with truly poignant, interesting, and even funny moments that make the letters well worth reading. The exchange between Eliot and the writer/critic John Middleton Murry stands out as the most moving and emotional. Following the lead of the preface, many reviewers call attention to Eliot’s deeply confessional letters to Murry, which are filled with dark lines such as: “I have deliberately killed my senses—I have deliberately died—in order to go on with the outward form of living.” Eliot’s desperation grows as his wife’s mental and physical health languishes and deteriorates, and his fall into depression and despair evokes true pathos with seemingly little hope of catharsis.
But the letters do not simply chronicle a broken life. They also reveal truly humane aspects of Eliot’s character that seldom appear in popular caricatures of the artist. One of the earliest letters to Murry is written in consolation for the loss of his wife of only a few years, the prominent artist Katherine Mansfield. Any who have experienced such loss can appreciate the tenderness and sensitivity of Eliot’s words.
Forgive me for writing at all, but one must express oneself if only by a sheet of paper. There is, of course, nothing that I can say, except to remind you that I feel very very deeply, and that this has hardly left my thoughts for ten days, and that my sympathy with your suffering is something that cannot be written.
Just over two years later, Eliot would write Murry to congratulate him on the birth of a daughter with his new wife. The reader remains terribly aware that Eliot, who loved children, will never share that joy.
Though they are dominated by a sense of despair, one can be surprised by some joy and even humor in Eliot’s letters. A heated response to longtime friend and collaborator, Ezra Pound, is capped off with a politically incorrect and bawdy appearance from one of Eliot’s earliest poetic creations, King Bolo’s “big black basstart queen.” In deference to delicate constitutions, I will forego direct quotation from the blue verse and skip to Eliot’s illuminating explanation that, “Basstart is the feminine form of bassturd.” He also sent a less offensive but equally funny RSVP, in verse, to friend and prominent Bloomsbury hostess Mary Hutchinson and agreed to provide a signature for an American fan on the condition that the man make him happy by “ceasing to split infinitives.” These moments of humor, more prominent in the first volume of Eliot’s letters, give us a sense of what the man could have been were his life not so utterly overshadowed by bad health, a disastrous marriage, and a New Englander’s penchant for self-abuse. While his suffering fed his greatest early works, a sympathetic reader can almost wish that he had simply been granted a happy life.
Those interested in Eliot’s political life will find little reason to agree with Michael Wood’s otherwise solid review, in which Eliot’s political conservatism is portrayed as little more than nostalgic (or grumpy) posturing: “He was an imaginary Tory, in the way some people have imaginary friends—not the most attractive of fantasies maybe, but as a way of arranging a disliked world in your head, a fiction as good as any.” Needless to say, Eliot’s letters fly in the face of such assertions. Aside from clearly establishing his “hereditary and ineradicable toryism” in letters to Ford Madox Ford and Ezra Pound, among others, Eliot unambiguously avers his conservatism in a letter to Charles Maurras. Wood mistakenly assumes a divide between Eliot the avant-garde poet and Eliot the supposedly conservative critic, which most early critics of the poet’s work would have scoffed at. Russell Kirk, one of Eliot’s correspondents later in life, presents a distinctly contrary image of the man in Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century. Rather than doggedly insisting on one narrative over the other, however, these letters may allow us to better appreciate the complexity of Eliot’s sensibility.
The new edition of Eliot’s letters is, admittedly, no contender for the New York Times Best Sellers list. That said, scholars and enthusiasts alike will find that these letters prove an invaluable aid in bridging the gap between, in Eliot’s words, “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.”
Martin Lockerd is a former Wilbur fellow with the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. He is currently working on his doctorate in English at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the influence of British decadence and Roman Catholicism on the poetry of T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats.
Posted: February 26, 2012
Celebrated Minor Contemporary American Poetry