Poet far from paradise
The Letters of TS Eliot, Volume 2: 1923-1925. Edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton Faber Faber, 878pp. £35
ARE WE RIGHT to clamour for biographical information about writers we admire? Beckett already has three biographies, but the story is not complete until we can consult the letters to his lady friend, Barbara Bray. They are safe in Trinity, but will we have to wait to read them until his editors, who are tirelessly compiling and publishing them, arrive at the proper chronological point? Knowing both Beckett and Bray, their missives are bound to be fiercely discreet, but she was involved in his literary life from the BBC play All That Fallonwards, often his first confidante. In any case, surely the important thing when it comes to writers’ letters is the influence on the work, not gossip or tedious quotidian business.
One of Beckett’s equals for intellectual rigour (imagine reading Kant in the original German for pleasure) was TS Eliot, who, when editing the Criterion, wrote to Gide, Cocteau and Valéry in French. Although he was sternly private, his second wife, Valerie, persuaded him to allow his letters to be gathered, and prepared the first volume, 1898-1922, which was published in 1988, with a second volume promised for the following year. When it did not appear, a faint whiff of scholarly scandal hovered. Could it be his relationship with another lady, Emily Hale, or his occasionally flagrant anti-Semitism, or the problematic and anguished letters between him and his first wife, that was delaying publication?
In any case, we now have that second volume, along with a revised version of Volume I, swollen by 200 new items. There are still gaps in the early years, at Milton Academy and Harvard, but Eliot’s ambiguous attitude towards letters is shown when, after his mother’s death, in 1930, he told his brother that he “was glad to have the letters to make ashes of”. But what a pity it would have been to lose the marvellous letter from his mother of April 1910, when Eliot was 22. “I hope in your literary work you will receive early the recognition I strove for and failed. I should so have loved a college course, but was obliged to teach before I was nineteen.”
So he had the loving and engaged support of his mother in his literary career. But the climax of this first volume is the selfless brilliance of Ezra Pound’s editing of the sprawling poem that would be distilled into The Waste Land. Eliot was aware of his growing importance. “There is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England,” he wrote to his mother. But would his original draft have conquered the world the way the revised Waste Landdid, in a carefully orchestrated onslaught, with magazine and book publication in New York and London? I doubt it would have; so Pound’s editing is probably the most inspired and generous use of the scalpel in recent poetic history. As Pound himself wrote, “These are the Poems of Eliot / By the Uranian Muse begot . . . / Know diligent Reader / That on each Occasion / Ezra performed the caesarean Operation”.
In Volume 2, Eliot is still working in the foreign department of Lloyds Bank, “head of an Intelligence Department” and the only person “who knows anything about the Peace Treaties”. For Eliot, it seems, did not entirely dislike his banking life. Many details in The Waste Landshow his familiarity (unusual in English poetry) with the City. “O City city, I can sometimes hear / Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street, / The pleasant whining of a mandoline . . .” Or from his office window, “down King William Street, / To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours / With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine”.
Meanwhile, he is dickering with Lady Rothermere, wife of Harmsworth of the Daily Mail, about founding a literary quarterly, which Eliot’s wife, Vivien, would christen the Criterion. (There is an irony here, as Pound, Eliot’s great poetic pal, would put press lords into his Hell Cantos.) He is also trying to organise his elderly mother’s visit to London while tending his chronically ill wife. The Eliot of this volume is beleaguered, mainly because of Vivien, but also perhaps because of his own temperament, to say nothing of his own maladies. Virginia Woolf, who knew about nerves herself, observes them both: Eliot “is like a person about to break down – infinitely scrupulous, tautologous, cautious”. But he is still “poor dear Tom”. Whereas his wife “[makes] me almost vomit, so scented, so powdered, so egotistic, so morbid, so weakly”.
The relationship between “Tom and Viv” has already been the subject of a play and a film, and there is more fuel for the flames here. Vivien recognised her weakness early on: “I am really a wretched crock.”
But she was also his antimuse, declaring that she is “really the reason he stayed in London”. And her querulous voice haunts the The Waste Land: “Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair / Spread out in fiery points / Glowed into words, then would be savagely still. / ‘My nerves are bad to-night. / Yes, bad. Stay with me.’ ”
But there were two of them in it, and Eliot recognised his collusion, speaking of “the kink in my brain which makes life at all an unremitting strain . . . an emotional derangement that has been a lifelong affliction”. His most astonishing letters are those to John Middleton Murry, a surprising choice of confidant since Eliot despised him intellectually. But he writes with an anguished candour of his personal crisis: “In the last ten years . . . I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately – in order to endure, in order not to feel – but it has killed V. . .” To which Murry generously replies: “It is your duty absolutelyto come alive again . . . I am not saying you will not continue to make sacrifices for her, and great ones. But you must cease to sacrifice your inviolable self.”
Shades of Eliot’s first little play, Sweeney Agonistes: “I knew a man once did a girl in.” The letters from and about Vivien Eliot make painful reading; like Zelda Fitzgerald, she sank in the element her husband could swim in, to adapt Jung on Lucia Joyce. But she could dance, and she wrote stories that Eliot encouraged and published: “She has already a very exceptional and individual style.” Our last glimpse of her here is in a sanatorium: “When I think of all that my husband has done for me, and of all the life I smashed up . . . I do not know why I don’t go out and hang myself.”
These particular letters are harrowing, as are Eliot’s to Middleton Murry. But, alas, Eliot’s correspondence in these volumes is rarely wonderful, the way the letters of John Keats or even Shelley are wonderful, but is the product of that new kind of modern scholarship based on archives, where thoroughness is all, and the devil is in the detail.
This time, Valerie Eliot is assisted by Hugh Haughton, the author of a fine book on Derek Mahon, with John Haffenden, the Empson scholar, as general editor. Perhaps when the scholarly chaff has been sifted through, there will be a more exciting and intense Selected? For example, Eliot’s spiritual side is only glimpsed here, although it is the period of The Hollow Men, that desert cry where “Lips that would kiss / Form prayers to broken stone”.
A hopeful light in Eliot’s general misery is his growing friendship with Geoffrey Faber, whose publishing firm he will join, bringing the Criterionwith him. Ahead lie the plays, which will bring him further renown but seem not to have lasted because of a mistaken notion as to what constitutes common speech. There is also the rebirth of The Four Quartets, in which, it seems, Emily Hale played a part. But then we will not see her letters, housed in Princeton, for another decade, while hers to him he incinerated.
John Montague is a poet. A Ball of Fire, his collected short stories, appeared last year from the Liberties Press. Chosen Lights, Poets on Poemsby John Montague, a celebration of his 80th birthday, was published earlier this year by the Gallery Press