The Modest Proposal

Return to Index
The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 3: 1926 - 1927 Review by Joseph Maddrey Ed. Valerie Eliot & John Haffenden
London: Faber & Faber, 2012

In an April 1927 letter, T.S. Eliot implores his mother to destroy all of their written correspondence, saying, "I do not want my biography, if it is ever written — and I hope it won't [be]—to have anything private in it. I don't like reading other people's private correspondence in print, and I don't want other people to read mine" (483). For decades, a similar decree in Eliot's will has prevented the publication of an authorized biography, and that absence has given rise to endless speculation and pseudo-scholarship, which is only now being addressed via the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project. Ahead of many promised publications comes the latest volume of Eliot's correspondence. Luckily for us, Charlotte Stearns Eliot did not destroy her son's letters as he requested. In fact, much of his correspondence (personal and professional) has survived, and is now becoming available to the general public so that we can draw our own conclusions about the famously enigmatic poet.

The third volume in this ongoing series represents what is arguably the pivotal year in Eliot's life. In 1927, he essentially renounced his reputation as the premiere spokesman for Modernism (a title earned with the publication of The Waste Land), became a British citizen, joined the Anglican Church, and formally declared himself a political conservative. Say what you will about his bold declaration of values; one thing is clear from the letters: Eliot wanted a new beginning.

Much of the second volume of Eliot's letters hovers around the poet's famously troubled marriage, and it is from that context that he breaks free in 1926. As early as January 5, Vivien Eliot senses that she will no longer be the main influence in her husband's life. She writes to him, pleading for his renewed attention. Following a disastrous (for her, anyway) trip to Rome with TSE's brother Henry and his new bride, Vivien was reputedly haunted by auditory hallucinations and thoughts of suicide. She spent most of the following year in a sanatorium in Paris. From this point forward, Tom and Vivien lived separate lives—an arrangement, the letters confirm, advocated by Vivien's doctor and reinforced by Henry Eliot, who (inexpertly but convincingly) diagnoses her neurosis as "self-propagated" and advises TSE to avoid playing the role of enabler, and to simply "forget" (276, 279). The letters suggest that Eliot was able to do that for the time being.

He refocused his energy on literary criticism, beginning with the Clark Lectures at Cambridge, and on his role as editor of the scholarly journal The Criterion. The journal was finally gaining its reputation as London's preeminent literary publication, and Eliot suddenly had much higher ambitious than simply unifying the Bloomsbury intellectuals. By mid-1926, he begins expressing a vague agenda of re-creating the unity of European culture (as he understood it). As he assumed the role of general arbiter of his colleagues' beliefs, he began sowing seeds of dissent among those who would facetiously nickname him "the Pope of Russell Square."

By early 1927, Eliot claimed to have a sense of "the general position of the Criterion" —not, he insisted, his own position but rather a "consensus of opinion" of his contributors—and he began rejecting Criterion contributions based on that vague "consensus" (513). To personal friend and ideological nemesis John Middleton Murry, Eliot insisted that The Criterion had only a "literary policy," and "no religious or theological policy" (635), but the waters got murkier as Eliot edged toward his religious conversion and subsequent formal declaration of conservative values. By the end of the year, his conservatism so rankled longtime liberal supporters that it threatened to destroy The Criterion. Lady Rothermere, the journal's main financial supporter, severed her ties with Eliot in bold fashion, accusing him of making The Criterion as "dry" as his own life (822). This scathing criticism did not fall on deaf ears. Eliot humorously responds that he read the latest edition of the Criterion while drunk... and still found it dry.

Toward the end of 1927, Eliot confides in his mother that the death of The Criterion would, in some ways, have come as a relief to him. "I never thought I wanted to do anything but write poetry and some philosophic prose," he claims, "and just do enough practical work to be free from financial worry; and never to meddle in affairs at all" (863). One can only imagine what might have happened if, beginning in 1928, Eliot had refocused the bulk of his energy on his own poetry and verse. It was not to be. The Criterion was financially resurrected within a week of its untimely demise, and Eliot remained its editor for the next decade, honing his religious and political convictions all the while.

This volume of letters is particularly valuable because it reveals Eliot's private thoughts on formal religion (for which he would became a prominent spokesman) at the moment of his conversion, via extended dialogues with John Middleton Murry and Rev. William Force Stead. It would be glib to suggest that these two men were engaged in a tug of war over Eliot's loyalty (there's no reason to suggest that Eliot's personal beliefs were easily influenced by anyone at this point in his life), but there nevertheless seems to be a gradual transition of ideological loyalty from one to the other over the course of the volume. The letters also shed light on Eliot's politics vis-a-vis his controversial friendship with French monarchist Charles Maurras—a friendship that served as a foundation for later accusations that TSE was a fascist.

For those readers who are primarily interested in Eliot's poetry, there are also plenty of hidden insights. At times, in his role as a literary adviser to Faber & Faber publishing house, he is surprisingly generous and encouraging to fellow writers. He offers personal insights on art and craft while presumably working out ideas about his own creative evolution as a poet. To Terence Prentis, he writes:

"[R]emember that it is not merely the time you spend with pen and paper but is as much, or more in fact, that you always keep a corner of your mind working on poetry, more or less unconsciously, (a sort of continuous chemical process of transformation of sensations, emotions and ideas into poetical material) that makes all the difference." (60)

To R.P. Blackmur, he writes:

"[T]he harder you think and the longer you think the better: but in turning thought into poetry it has to be fused into a more definite pattern of immediately apprehensible imagery, imagery which shall have its own validity and be immediately the equivalent of, and indeed identical with, the thought behind it." (233)

To Kathleen Nott, he writes:

"I feel after reading a number of your poems that I am in a world of abstractions. It is probably this abstractness which makes them seem to be descriptions of feelings rather than statements, and which gives them a kind of monotony. But it seems to me that you are trying to express something of your own and that is why I am writing." (553)

To receive this type of genuine, personal response from such an accomplished poet—and to gain a sense of a common artistic struggle—must have been incredibly inspiring. We, the readers of the letters, are just as fortunate to be able to eavesdrop on Eliot's private thoughts.

The letters offer us a look at the major influences and prompts that helped to define the second half of Eliot's life and career. Vol. III also gives us insight into the lives and minds of several other members of Eliot's circle. In a series of early, Vivien Eliot is finally allowed to speak for herself about her mental illness. John Middleton Murry comes across as deeply human in his sense of loss over the irreparable disconnect between himself and Eliot. We see how Eliot's friendship with Richard Aldington, former co-editor of The Criterion, disintegrated and set the stage for the 1931 publication of Stepping Heavenward, a novel in which Aldington satirizes Eliot as a modern-day saint suffering from "chronic constipation." We observe Eliot's aide-de-camp Bonamy Dobree taking over for Conrad Aiken, as the main correspondent for Eliot's bawdy "Bolo" persona. Finally, we get a glimpse of the beginning of a deep friendship between Eliot and his employer Geoffrey Faber, who later became something of a father figure to the exiled poet.

By the end of the volume, Eliot finally seems to be emerging from his old life and work. The "Sweeney" dialogues, which he deemed enough of a failure to evade their publication in America, gave way to the Ariel poems, beginning with Journey of the Magi. It is this work, more than any other, which encapsulates the poet's "turning" point. Only Eliot knew where he was headed; he writes that he is now "dependent on my own inspirations to know what to do next" (670, italics mine). In this trying moment, when he began experiencing backlash from his more liberal-minded friends, we see the poet embracing his new convictions with courage while coming to terms with his personal past in the same way that he had already come to terms with his place as an artist in a long literary tradition. In the most poignant letter in the volume, Eliot says goodbye to his dying mother, telling her that "whenever I have done anything good [...] I have always felt that it was something that you and I did together," and earnestly hoping that, in the years to come, "I can still do more..." (648). Here, in the midst of the most privately guarded and controversial period of his life, we see the man at his most vulnerable and his most human. And of course we know that Eliot was far from finished.

Return to Index