T. S. Eliot

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The Letters of TS Eliot: Volume 1: 1898-1922/Volume 2: 1923-1925 ed Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton
The Sunday Times review by John Carey
The first volume of TS Eliot’s letters, edited by his widow Valerie, came out in 1988. As the years passed, hopes of seeing another instalment gradually faded, especially among the not-so-young. But Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton have confounded the doubters. Their revised Volume I, taking the story up to the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, when Eliot was 34, includes 250 newly discovered letters, and their second volume covers 1923-25. Like the first, it releases a mass of new information about Eliot’s day-to-day life, and rounds out the narrative with many letters to him from family and friends. But it makes sad reading, for these years were Eliot’s purgatory.

The trouble was his first wife, Vivien. Looking back in the 1960s he wondered why he had ever married her. His friends wondered, too. Virginia Woolf found her “so scented, so powdered, so egotistic, so morbid, so weakly” that it made her “almost vomit”. Eliot concluded he had really wanted just a “mild affair” with Vivien, but, being a shy American boy, he was too timid to suggest it so he married her instead. He may have been ignorant as well as timid. One of the newly printed early letters is from his father, Henry, who expresses his disapproval of sex education, and hopes that no cure for syphilis will ever be found, since it is “God’s punishment for nastiness”.

Eliot and Vivien were both nervous, fastidious people and it seems that the marriage was sexually a disaster. Vivien soon took refuge in invalidism. Within months she had “acute neuralgia”, and her health steadily worsened. Eliot’s letters in the second volume provide a panic-stricken commentary on her mysterious symptoms: palpitations, paroxysms, “intestinal crises”, and months when she lay in bed “like one dead”. Frantic with worry, he sought medical aid. A specialist came twice a week, the local GP twice a day. But all remedies proved useless and the doctors were baffled. Eliot had a full-time job in Lloyds bank that he wanted to leave so as to give more time to writing, but the expenses of Vivien’s treatment made this impossible.

The Eliot family, back home in America, suspected that Vivien’s illness was as much mental as physical, and that her sufferings were a (possibly unconscious) bid to monopolise her husband’s attention. But it took the English doctors until the end of 1925 to puzzle this out and remove Vivien to a nursing home, by which time Eliot was on the point of nervous collapse. The direction in which his unconscious thoughts strayed may be reflected in Sweeney Agonistes, the verse drama he started at this time, with its repeated line about a man who “did a girl in”.

Outwardly, however, he was far from murderous. He devoted himself to Vivien’s wellbeing and encouraged her ambition to become a writer. He sent one of her short ­stories to the magazine Dial, saying that he thought it “amazingly brilliant”. When it was rejected by the American poet ­Marianne Moore he responded with almost maniacal fury, accusing Moore of being in a “plot” to “insult me and my wife”. His desperate concern for Vivien, revealed in these new letters, should help to correct the notion that he treated his sick wife callously.

His other main worry, apart from Vivien, was editing his new literary quarterly, the Criterion, funded by Lady Rothermere, the wife of the proprietor of the Daily Mail. He keeps grumbling about the crippling labour this entails, but it was purely voluntary, and it seems that he took it on quite calculatedly to dull the pain of his unfulfilled marriage. He writes to the critic John Middleton Murry in 1925 that, in the years since he married, he has made himself into “a machine” in order “not to feel”. “I have deliberately killed my senses,” he admits, and he is afraid that if he lets his senses come alive again the shock may “kill” Vivien.

This confession suggests that the cultural and political doctrines Eliot adopted in the Criterion may have stemmed more directly from his unhappy, sexless marriage, and his attempt to turn himself into an unfeeling automaton, than from any serious cultural or political thinking. He advocates hard, male reason, which he associates with authoritarian government and classicism, and expresses a “profound hatred” for democracy, which he associates with sentimentality and Romanticism. Vivien’s writing, he says, shows she has an “unfeminine mind”, which is why he admires it, whereas he detests the “sentimental crank” Katherine Mansfield. In 1923 he wrote to the editor of the Daily Mail to congratulate the paper on its support for the fascist revolution in Italy (“nothing could be more salutary at the present time”). The same letter praises the newspaper for insisting that the murderess Edith Thompson should be hanged (as she was), and criticises the “flaccid sentimentality” of those who wanted to save her from the gallows.

In keeping with his disapproval of democracy he aimed to restrict the Criterion to an elite readership, and to avoid being “popular” at all costs. In this he was wholly successful: the circulation never rose above 1,000. Some of his contributors and subjects seem to have been chosen with the sole aim of keeping readers away, as when he invites the antiquated George Saintsbury to write on Quintilian or Macrobius, or “some equally obscure” author who is neglected “in this age of darkness”.

Lady Rothermere had hoped the Criterion would be chic and brilliant and supply her rich friends with dinner-table conversation, and she scanned its contents with dismay. But her repeated complaints about its dullness seem only to have confirmed Eliot in his certainty that he was on the correct, austere path. Any contact with people’s ordinary amusements sends him into shivers of distaste. In 1923, he and Vivien rented a country cottage in Sussex, but a garage opened nearby selling lemonade and sweets, and he lamented that this had rendered the place “quite uninhabitable” .

Two of his letters in the new volume will certainly be seized on by those who charge Eliot with anti-semitism. Writing to the literary critic Herbert Read he admits to a “racial prejudice” against Jews, and suspects that it is their “racial envy” that inclines them to bolshevism. Writing to his American benefactor, John Quinn, he says that he is “sick of doing business with Jew publishers”. Anti-semitism was in the Eliot family. His mother discloses (in another of the newly printed letters) that she has an “instinctive antipathy to Jews, just as I have to certain animals”, adding that Eliot’s father “never liked to have business dealings with them”.

It is worth pointing out (though it is not an extenuation) that Eliot is nowhere as virulently anti-semitic as Quinn, who complains of the “swarms of horrible-looking Jews” in New York, “low, squat, animal-like”. On the other hand, he makes a hero of Charles Maurras, the French right-wing politician, and wants him to write for the ­Criterion, despite his rabid anti-semitism. The Hollow Men, which Eliot wrote at this time, diagnoses the evils of his age as spiritual and mental emptiness (“Headpiece filled with straw”). The letters carry the same message. There is no ­inkling that the real evil, which would culminate in the greatest atrocity, was the casual anti-semitism that he seems unthinkingly to have endorsed.

The Letters of TS Eliot: Volumes 1 and 2 edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton Faber £35 per volume User:rohith

English Honours DDUC (talk)14:25, 19 November 2009

sir, i think in this we should really discuss about meetings and issues..
this extract should be pasted someone else, where others can also have the access to it .. what we can do is discuss about him here ..

Samarthetfield (talk)00:49, 20 November 2009