The Letters of TS Eliot, Volume 4: 1928-1929
The latest huge volume of the poet’s correspondence deals mainly with his failing first marriage, the complexities of his Anglican faith and his editorship of the ‘Criterion’
The Letters of TS Eliot, Volume 4, 1928-1929
Edited by Valerie Eliot and john Haffenden
Faber and Faber
The first volume of TS Eliot’s letters, published in 1988, represented the years from 1898 to 1922, the year of The Waste Land , but there were large gaps. Surprisingly, many recipients had not retained Eliot’s letters, and Eliot himself destroyed bundles of them. The letters to Emily Hale, one of his muses, are under embargo at Princeton until 2020. A revised edition of the first volume, with 200 further letters, was published in 2009. The second volume, covering 1923 to 1925, was also published, after long delay, in 2009. The third, the letters of 1926 and 1927, appeared last year. The fourth, those of 1928 and 1929, is now out. I have not seen any estimate of the projected tally, but it must run to many volumes. Eliot, born on September 26th, 1888, died on January 4th, 1965.
The years 1928 and 1929 were not among the most dramatic of Eliot’s life. No episode in them was as bold as Eliot’s baptism into the Church of England, “the church as by Law established”, on June 29th, 1927, and his confirmation the following day. His announcement, in the preface to For Lancelot Andrewes (1928), that his “general point of view” could be described as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” was news only to inattentive readers. Eliot did not wait to be instructed by one of his sages, TE Hulme, that people are divisible into two groups: those who believe in original sin and those (with their master, Rousseau) who don’t. Every other difference arises from that one. Eliot’s most formidable essays during these years, those on Dante (1929), Baudelaire (1930) and Pascal (1931), explicate the terms of his new sense of life, notably his belief in original sin and the irresistible force of his conversion: “The Christian thinker finds the world to be so and so; he finds its character inexplicable by any non-religious theory; among religions he finds Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily for the world and especially for the moral world within; and thus, by what Newman calls ‘powerful and concurrent’ reasons, he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation.”
In the essay on Dante he wrote that “the love of man and woman (or for that matter of man and man) is only explained and made reasonable by the higher love, or else is simply the coupling of animals”. The poems Eliot wrote immediately before and after his formal conversion were attempts to adumbrate for himself a Dantean “New Life”, predicated on “the higher love”. They begin with Journey of the Magi , A Song for Simeon , Animula , then the six poems that together make up Ash-Wednesday , and – my favourite poem of Eliot’s – Marina . These poems are devotional, for want of a better word, but they are not versified religion; they exemplify the sensuousness of belief, the ecstasy of it, as much as its exactions, as in Journey of the Magi – “And the silken girls bringing sherbet” – and in Ash-Wednesday : “Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown, / Lilac and brown hair”, as well as the Lady “withdrawn / In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown”. He had put The Waste Land behind him as being “a little out of date, even with respect to my own composition”.
Late in February 1928, Eliot brought his wife, Vivien, back to London from the Sanatorium de la Malmaison, the psychiatric clinic outside Paris where she had spent several months. She was still suffering from “nerves”, hallucinations and suicidal depression, but there was no merit in keeping her in Malmaison forever. Back in London, husband and wife lived virtually separate lives under the same roof. When she appeared in public, she was often eccentric, drug-ridden, emaciated and smelling of ether. Eliot found relief in playing the great man in his white waistcoat, the author of The Waste Land drinking with his peers in Paris or London.