These two massive volumes—the first published originally in 1988, the second now joining it with much fanfare—chronicle the period during which T.S. Eliot developed from the scion of a prosperous Midwestern family to the poet of The Waste Land and “Prufrock,” but also to a banker and one-man editorial staff of a fledgling new journal of “cosmopolitan tendencies and international standards,” The Criterion, which would attract writers across Europe.
Perhaps the most notable of these early letters includes the draft of a poem that did not see publication until long after the poet’s death, in Inventions of the March Hare (1997). The poem, a slightly erotic reverie called “The Love Song of St. Sebastian,” was later included in a notebook given to John Quinn, a lawyer and early supporter of Eliot who makes frequent appearances in these letters. Eliot sent the draft in July 1914 to his friend the poet Conrad Aiken, whom he had met when they were undergraduates at Harvard, and wrote that he was glad that “the war danger was over”—though that, of course, was not to be. A letter written to his mother the following month recounts Eliot’s hastily leaving Marburg, where he was studying, for Rotterdam on the eve of World War I. Although Eliot does not seem ever to have been particularly happy, these early letters contain drawings and lighthearted sketches, the likes of which largely disappear as he gets older.
His subsequent stay at Oxford lasted only a year, and he gave some thought to returning to America, perhaps to teach philosophy. Instead, that year settled him in England for the remainder of his life. In 1915, he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he had known only a short time, an event unbeknownst to both their parents. The union was spectacularly unhappy, but Eliot later credited Vivienne at least with keeping him away from America and thus preserving him for poetry. The few of her letters included here show a flighty, troubled person but one with some humor, talent, and a measure of devotion to Eliot.
By and large, these volumes do not lend much insight into Eliot the poet or prose critic. The Waste Land, for example, is mentioned almost in passing, except to discuss its publishing details. And amid the encomia that accompanied the poem in the memory of the contemporary reader lay Eliot’s own throwaway judgment in November 1922 to Richard Aldington, an Imagist poet and friend of Pound’s, that the poem “is a thing of the past so far as I’m concerned and am now feeling toward a new form and style.” He does not elaborate, and new concerns, including The Criterion, emerged to draw him away from regular writing.
The letters are an account of Eliot’s two emerging lives. The first is that of Eliot the husband, who needs to find secure employment to take care of his wife. Vivienne began ailing from a number of illnesses almost from the beginning of their marriage, and her poor health is a constant refrain in these letters. Eliot, too, was often sick, and the letters are filled with descriptions of treatments and doctors’ visits. Eliot has long been criticized for his treatment of Vivienne—in the 1930’s she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where Eliot never visited—but his letters make his concern for her health quite evident. The expense necessary to allay those concerns added to the Eliots’ already precarious financial situation.
The second is the Eliot who came to London to participate in the literary life away from an America he thought provincial and vulgar; as he wrote shortly after his wedding, “if one is to do anything in literature [London] is the best place to be.” He had important friends, most notably Ezra Pound, who wrote to Eliot’s father about the prospects of a literary life in London and to defend Eliot’s decision to remain. Eliot’s parents seem to have been extraordinarily generous and supportive of this quixotic effort by their son, who soon got himself a job at Lloyd’s of London and wrote when he could.
In these volumes, Eliot’s champion Pound comes across as a combination of preening self-confidence (“I have engineered a new school of verse”) and generosity. It was Pound who tried to gin up a fund among wealthy admirers to support Eliot. Called Bel Esprit, the effort was to release Eliot from the bank. The stress of writing poetry and criticism (Eliot was writing reviews in order to make extra money), working, and caring for Vivienne was too much for him. The idea first appears in a letter from Pound to Eliot in 1922, though Pound had discussed such a thing with Quinn at least two years earlier.
Eliot was grateful for the effort but cautious, in particular because did not want the fund to become public knowledge. He was working at Lloyd’s, after all, and talk of independent support could threaten his job prospects and his ability to care for Vivienne. Eliot seems in fact to have been quite good at his job; by 1923 he was writing his brother Henry of his management of a department of clerks, with a recently raised salary of 500 pounds and “a position of responsibility.” This was his situation after the publication of The Waste Land in 1922 had confirmed his talent and attracted notice on both sides of the Atlantic. Even then, he was writing Pound that he could not leave the bank unless he received “such guarantees—for my life or for Vivien’s life—as would satisfy a solicitor.” In the event, the scheme went nowhere, and he remained at Lloyd’s until 1925, when he joined the new publishing firm of Faber and Gwyn.
The second volume shows Eliot hard at work on his journal, which was supported first by Eliot’s longtime patron Lady Rothermere and later by Faber itself. He is tirelessly writing, in several languages, to the luminaries of the age, and many lesser lights, in furtherance of the publication and his own work: Herman Hesse, Robert Graves, Virginia Woolf, W.B. Yeats, Owen Barfield, and E.R. Curtius are among those with whom Eliot corresponded to generate copy for the magazine. It ends with Eliot (in December 1925) praising The Great Gatsby and asking Fitzgerald whether he would be interested in being published in England by Faber—and would he happen to have any stories lying around for The New Criterion? (Eliot always had the keen sense of salesmanship and business acumen needed to run a cultural enterprise of this sort.)
But that effort, too, produced great strains. In March 1923, Eliot writes that his work for the journal and for Lloyd’s has brought him to near exhaustion. It was only the transfer to Faber in 1925 that eased, a little, his personal and financial pressures. And not a moment too soon. The pressure was so great that, in an exchange in April of that year with the critic John Middleton Murry, Eliot confides that “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.” His words have been interpreted as a sign of Eliot’s disdain for Vivienne, but in context it is better understood as an expression of a protracted agony by a young man in a challenging marriage. Murry gives what words of support he can, being a friend to both husband and wife, but in the end he sided with Eliot. First forcefully in a private letter (“There is a point at which the choice really is: she may die, I must die. Then you must say: I will not die”), next less so in a letter meant for Vivienne’s eyes (“But, if you will really lead, take the decision and the responsibility, V. will follow.”) What is clear is that during this period Eliot took his marriage very seriously and was shaken to his core by the difficulties his wife was enduring.
These volumes chronicle, almost daily, the tireless effort Eliot put into satisfying his obligations—literary, professional, and personal. They shed new light on the person and on the age, but it may be the role of later volumes to throw new light on the works itself.
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