Book review: The Letters of TS Eliot, vol. 4

Eliot’s vast republic of letters reveals poet’s energy and commitment, writes David Sexton

Eliot’s vast republic of letters reveals poet’s energy and commitment, writes David Sexton

The Letters of TS Eliot Vol 4

Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden

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    Faber, 864pp, £40

    Here we have proof positive that TS Eliot was surely the hardest working man of letters there has ever been.

    This 864-page volume collects Eliot’s letters, from just 1928 and 1929, years when he himself turned 40. Though there are often multiple letters from a single day, even so this huge book doesn’t contain his complete correspondence from the time, significant letters to his brother and mother having been burned by Eliot.

    In this period, Eliot, as well as producing much important writing himself – including the essay collection For Lancelot Andrewes, his study of Dante, and poems that became part of Ash Wednesday – edited and administrated on an heroic scale.

    To maintain publication of his ambitious, influential magazine, The Criterion, suddenly deprived of the financial support of Lady Rothermere, he needed to court new backers, subscribers and contributors. At the same time, he helped establish and reorganise the new publishing house of which he was a director as Faber & Faber.

    Towards the end of this period, Eliot observes to his brother Henry that he nonetheless still has to supplement his income “by reviewing, articles, prefaces, lectures, broadcasting talks, and anything that turns up… I have begun life three times: at 22, 28, and again at 40; I hope I shall not have to do so again, because I am growing tired”. Read this book right through and you can understand why.

    Meanwhile, Eliot also continued to care for his unhappy, fractious wife Vivienne – “mad as a hare”, in Virginia Woolf’s view – with “anxious fortitude”, as the editor John Haffenden judiciously puts it. A few of her letters pop up among the flow of Eliot’s careful considerations, lively and emotional but also off-the-wall barmy.

    To Ottoline Morrell, she writes from her French sanatorium: “I am very miserable, & it is all quite useless. You must have gathered from Tom what a horrible mess all this is. But as you can see, he simply hates the sight of me. And I don’t know what to do.” A month later, she apologises to Morrell for having spoken against her husband, before adding: “If you hear of me being murdered, don’t be surprised!” Back in London later that year, she writes to another tolerant friend, Mary Hutchinson: “I had a horrible affair at a hair-dresser’s last Monday week & I very nearly died.”

    It is Eliot’s sheer energy and commitment that impresses most, as he solicits writers across Europe, participates in debate, supplies references and introductions, arranges meetings, agrees terms, and soothes contributors, always returning unwanted submissions courteously and offering helpful advice. He frequently has to apologise for being in arrears, but he never gives up, always answers.

    It can’t be said that such administrative excellence makes for non-stop excitement. But, formally phrased and remotely delivered though most of these letters are, they nonetheless contain many treasurable sayings, all the more cutting for being coolly expressed.

    Puzzling over the very existence of “persons for whom religion is wholly unnecessary”, he says: “They may be very good, or very happy; they simply seem to miss nothing, to be unconscious of any void – the void that I find in the middle of all human happiness and all human relations, and which there is only one thing to fill...”

    He is equally definite, and often funny too, on literary questions. “One always loses money by publishing books which concern only those readers who like to think,” he observes, apparently mildly.

    To one of the younger poets imitating his own work (all dealt with gently) whom he found lacking in rhythm, he writes: “I don’t know whether it could be any use to you, but I have found myself that it is a great assistance to me to correct my verses by reciting them aloud to myself with the accompaniment of a small drum.”

    He writes winningly too about such subjects as parrots (a brilliant one in a pub in Angel), the Morris Minor (“a very small car, a minimal car”), and the appeal of the capital: “London is very large, and there are some very intelligent people in it.”

    The editing and annotation of is at the level that the subject deserves – there can be no higher praise. John Haffenden supplies generous footnotes with few slips detectable (the Journals of Stephen Spender were not edited by Jane Sutherland).

    Among the younger writers encouraged by Eliot was WH Auden. After Eliot’s death, Auden testified to Eliot’s influence on his generation: “He taught us that a poet’s conduct is subject to exactly the same moral judgments as that of a person in any other walk of life… So long as one was in Eliot’s presence, one felt it was impossible to say or do anything base.” This volume, the first genuine literary event of the New Year, shows why, irresistibly.