Bulletins from a foreigner
THE LETTERS OFT. S. ELIOT VOLUME I, 1898-1922 edited by Valerie Eliot
Faber, £25, pp.639
On 31 December 1914, writing to Conrad Aiken, his friend and fellow poet from Harvard days, Eliot concludes:
Write soon and tell me about yourself. I think one's letters ought to be about oneself (I live up to this theory!) — what else is there to talk about? Letters should be indescre- tions — otherwise they are simply official bulletins.
It will — it has already been — com- plained that, with few exceptions, the letters published in this volume (the first of five projected) are indeed bulletins, though more family than 'official' ones. Most of them are to his father, brother and sister. Those to his parents are dutiful, affectionate but also self-justificatory since his parents did not approve of his living in England. Those to his brother Henry show a genuinely affectionate concern for his welfare. There are also facetious, self- caricaturing letters to his cousin Eleanor Hinkley, a scholarly lady from the same kind of Bostonian Unitarian background as himself but interested in the theatre and herself a playwright. Eliot wrote (17 June 1919) for her a brilliant skit on the way Bloomsbury gossip goes around — to describe his social life in London.
Some whimsical, nervous, distressing letters from Eliot's first wife, Vivien, are included here. They make poignant read- ing. The big gap in this publication must be the thousand or so letters to Emily Hale, the beautiful, intelligent (and also stage- struck) daughter of a Unitarian minister with whom, in 1912, Eliot seems to have considered himself to have fallen in love, though he became dubious about this when, in 1947, after the death of his first wife Vivien, she seems to have assumed they would get married (instead of mar- rying her, he broke off relations). Later she gave his letters to Princeton University where they are under seal until 2020.
Most of the letters here were written from London during the first world war at the outbreak of which, in August 1914, Eliot was studying philosophy at Marburg University. He managed to get to England from where he refused to take up a job teaching philosophy at Harvard. In doing
this he was influenced by a youthful Ezra Pound who had 'discovered' in Eliot a unique example of a young poet who had started writing 'modern' poetry without being told what this was or how to do it by Ezra Pound. It was also under Pound's influence that in July 1915 he married Vivien Haigh-Wood. Pound might really be described as a kind of double midwife to The Wasteland, first in having encouraged Eliot to make the wholly disastrous mar- riage which is its secret subject and second- ly in editing the fragmentary drafts for a long poem, which Eliot brought to him in Paris in 1922, so as to reveal the master- piece. Valerie Eliot has wisely printed here Pound's enthusiastic, wholly generous let- ters to Eliot about The Wasteland — 'Let us say the longest poem in the English langwidge'.
Valerie Eliot prints here in their original French, several letters written in 1912 to Eliot from Alain-Fournier, author of the
famous novel Le Grand Meaulnes, who was Eliot's tutor in French at the Sorbonne in 1910, and from Jean Verdenal, a highly literary medical student and friend of Eliot in Paris, to whom, after his death in 1916 (`Mort aux Dardanelles') Eliot dedicated Trufrock and Other Observations':
Et ce soir voici que, sonnant dix heures (toutes les cloches du quartier sonnent et presque en meme temps une grele assez loin bient6t ecrasee par les coups plus espaces d'une cloche plus grave, vous en souvient-il) voici que tout a coup je pense a vous pendant que sonnent dix heures. Et votre image est la devant moi, alors que je vous kris ce petit mot.
These bells echo in Eliot's poetry and must surely have done so in lost letters he wrote to Verdenal. Eliot's letters in this volume are bulletins simply because, hav- ing left America and been cut off from France after August 1914, he had no friends with whom he shared similar ideas about poetry. The attempt to lay bare his mind and soul, and share ideas with Conrad Aiken, soon broke down. An aside in the letter to him I have quoted from above is revealing:
Sometimes I think — if only I could get back to Paris. But I know I never will for long. I must learn English.
After an arid patch in writing his own poetry, Eliot in the early 1920s started writing again. Somewhat to his own sur- prise, the poems were in French. He writes that he prefers speaking French to English. Choosing to stay in England rather than live in the 'cultural desert' that Pound and he felt America to be, and cut off from France which meant to him European civilisation, he seemed to himself a fore- igner in England. He was also, due to the circumstances of having to struggle for a living during the war, much of the time in a state of physical and nervous exhaustion. His wife was always — always — ill. Teaching, lecturing, literary journalism, work in the bank — he scarcely had time or opportunity to cultivate those who might have been his equals in intellect and sensibility though he began to move in literary circles which included Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who printed The Waste- land on their hand press.
One relationship which might have come to something but failed to do so, and which reads very oddly here, was with Bertrand Russell. When Russell was visiting Profes- sor to Harvard University in 1914 he took note of the 'extraordinarily silent' student T. S. Eliot, whom he described as 'very capable of a certain exquisiteness of appre- ciation, but lacking in the crude insistent passion that one must have in order to achieve anything'.
When Eliot first came to England Rus- sell showed him the utmost kindness, especially when Eliot first married Vivien. In his letters to Russell, Eliot seems positively stunned by Russell's generosity. In one letter (14 May 1916) he sees the gift of some books from Russell as an event which has almost eternal significance:
This sort of gift is a peculiar sort of symbol and its position in a future when no one will guess what will have become of all our lives renders it much more of an attachment, somehow, than if you were ninety and at death's door. There is more kindness in it than people will ever see.
Presumably when he wrote these lines Eliot knew that Russell had seduced Vi- vien. His feelings towards Russell were ambivalent, to say the least, and perhaps it was the poet, not the letter writer, who revealed his true ones in the poem 'Mr Apollinax' — Bertrand Russell — who `laughed like an irresponsible foetus'.
So the letters Eliot wrote during the war give the impression of a man almost drowning, scarcely able to keep his head above water. He is only capable of giving out signals to possible rescuers. Neverthe- less, he never loses sight of his aim, which is to write poetry. Surely he would not have been able to achieve this unless, with one part of his mind, he was working out very coolly the financial and social means available to him to do so. His letters are very often about the problems of support- ing himself so that he may work as a poet.
We follow his difficult progress from teaching (which takes up creative energy), journalism (which prevents him from doing his best writing) to working in Lloyds Bank. This at first seemed to be a solution, since the work interested him without drawing on the energies he needed for his poetry. But finally it too became exhaust- ing. And at this point Ezra Pound thought up the Bel Esprit: a fund to be raised among Eliot's friends to enable him to leave the bank and write nothing but
poetry. The plan of course completely misfired. An article reporting (misreport- ing) it which appeared in the Liverpool Post persuaded Eliot to abandon the pro- ject. But, towards the end of this volume, light does begin to break. The plan to start a magazine funded by Lady Rother- mere takes over the correspondence. It leads to the founding of the Criterion, the periodical which, though always with a very small circulation, made Eliot the most influential literary editor in England.
The fascination of these letters is more as biography than as the kind of poetic self-revelation which we associate with Keats's letters. One should read them almost as though they were objective narrative written in the first person. Like this, they make really exciting reading, like the first volume of a novel written in the form of letters of which there are still four volumes to come.