The Letters of TS Eliot, Volume 5: A commanding figure

Review: Letters show the scale and extent of Eliot’s influence

Prolific: TS Eliot, in 1927.  Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Prolific: TS Eliot, in 1927. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sun, Dec 14, 2014, 11:00


Book Title:
The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 5: 1930-1931


T.S. Eliot

Faber & Faber

Guideline Price:

TS Eliot converted from Unitarianism to the Anglican communion and was baptised on June 29th, 1927. He applied for, and was granted, British naturalisation papers a few months later, on November 2nd. The two decisions were closely related.

“It is all right for Britons to be Papists when they have been so since before Henry VIII consecutively, but I should think it unseemly for a naturalized British subject to support any but the church as by Law established.”

The evidence suggests that the poet was an extremely devout Anglican and deeply concerned about the health of the English church. No contradiction is entailed by his telling his friend John Hayward, in a letter of April 27th, 1930:, “I know just enough – and no more – of ‘the peace of God’ to know that it is an extraordinarily painful blessing”. Those who read Thoughts After Lambeth in Eliot’s Selected Essays will find the whole subject edifyingly enhanced by several letters from Eliot to sundry bishops in this volume.

The years 1930 and 1931 were notably busy. Eliot had two jobs. He was editor of the Criterion, a magazine that lurched from being a monthly to being a quarterly until it settled as a quarterly for the rest of its life, and he was a busy director of the publishing firm Faber & Faber.

He had to persuade authors to write essays or reviews for the magazine, or pamphlets or books for Faber & Faber. Most of the letters in volume 5 are to one or the other end. In those years Eliot was a commanding figure; he could write, with equal assurance, to James Joyce, Ezra Pound, WH Auden, John Middeton Murry or Virginia Woolf.

In these letters we see him writing without apology to Max Planck, hoping to elicit an essay on positivism, and to smaller figures suggesting an essay on Husserl or Heidegger. He failed to get John Maynard Keynes to write an essay on unemployment, although he asked him several times.

But he had a stable of writers he could rely on: Herbert Read, Bonamy Dobrée, Fr Martin D’Arcy and more. In this volume his graciousness, almost unfailing, let him down twice. In a letter (which the Nation and Athenaeum refused to publish) he referred to Cecil Beaton as “a very insignificant, though malodorous, insect”.

Alluding to Emil Ludwig’s Lincoln he denounced the author as “that abominable charlatan”. But he was never merely captious. When Thomas MacGreevy published his Thomas Stearns Eliot in January 1931, Eliot wrote him tongue-in-cheek “My dear Thomas” letter thanking him for “an excellent piece of criticism,” disfigured only by “your remarks about the Church of England, a subject of which you know nothing”, and “a gross libel on page 20 of which I hope that as a gentleman you will make a public retraction. I am not an Irishman, and can prove it”.

Eliot let MacGreevy off with a caution, considering that in the relevant passage he objected to, MacGreevy said “Mr Eliot’s verse has purified itself of merely social elements as he has moved towards Catholicism, even the bastard, schismatic and provincial if genteel kind of Catholicism that, for the time being, at any rate, he has, somewhat New Englishly, stopped at.”

Eliot could be severe, but he was not nasty in those years, as later he sometimes became. In a letter to Desmond MacCarthy of October 8th, 1930, he adjudicated between DH Lawrence and Aldous Huxley: “Lawrence was a man who could say the same thing over and over without once becoming boring, whereas a feeling of tedium began to creep over me after one or two Huxley books.”

Eliot was prolific in those years. He gave nine BBC talks on Dryden and 17th-century poetry, and published essays on kindred themes in the Times Literary Supplement and other magazines. His poetry flourished too. He published Ash-Wednesday and Marina, among his most beautiful poems. Marina and Triumphal March were two of Eliot’s Ariel poems, the entire six of which are now brought together, with the original illustrations by E McKnight Kauffer and others, in a slim, handsome volume. In 1930 Eliot also translated St J Perse’s Anabase, and wrote the introduction to The Pensées of Pascal in which he presented Pascal as “facing unflinchingly the demon of doubt which is inseparable from the spirit of belief”.

Denis Donoghue’s most recent book is Metaphor (Harvard University Press)