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David Collard

Possum Agonistes

The Letters of T S Eliot, Volume 3: 1926-1927
By Valerie Eliot & John Haffenden (Faber & Faber 954pp £40)
Eliot at Faber: 'the eyes and back turn upward from the desk'

Spoiler alert. On Good Friday 1927, T S Eliot wrote to his mother: 'If there is one thing more depressing than reading other people's old letters it is reading one's own.'

Eliot had many other reasons to be downcast. At the close of the second volume, Eliot and his first wife, Vivien, were living apart, the latter subject to an elaborate repertoire of physical and mental maladies; she spends much of the period covered by the present volume in a French sanatorium. This collection opens with a quietly anguished letter from her to a Dr Hubert Higgins (not otherwise identified) about arrangements for her to be sent to Brighton with a 'nurse-companion': 'I have not anything I can say to you. Please do not come to see me. If you do - I don't know what will happen.'

The next (one of the few to her husband) is an odd blend of the flirtatious and the tormented: 'Do you wish your wife to be the boon companion of your masseur. I shd like an answer ... If I went to Brighton, your masseur wd come to stay the night - for weekends for surprise visits - & I shd be helpless.' And a third, to her brother-in-law Henry:

I just want to point out to you that of all the 'rôles' a woman enjoys and delights in, that of the browbeaten wife is the most delicious. Every woman hankers for it and thrives on it. There is no length to which an egoist will not go to enforce on her husband the reaction of a bully.

Her isolation and loneliness are palpable, and also her intelligence and frustration. A score of such painful letters punctuate the first half of this book and do indeed make for depressing reading. The sadness and disarray of the marriage, which would last until their separation in 1933, contrast sharply with the cultivated serenity of Eliot's public image, which was, in Osbert Sitwell's description, 'mild, subtle and cautious'.

There were other private travails among the gifts reserved for age. Eliot's sister Charlotte died of peritonitis in 1926; the following year Vivien's father died of cancer and Eliot's mother became dangerously ill in America. The business of running the loss-making journal The Criterion was exhausting and to cap it all he failed to get a research fellowship at All Souls ('What did you in was alas! your Poems, which had shocked some professorial old women,' wrote his friend and employer Geoffrey Faber). It is often difficult to believe that the grave and fastidious Eliot is still a youngish man - not yet forty.

Contrary to Eliot's reservations about reading other people's letters, those gathered here are almost all of tremendous interest. In 1926 Eliot enters the cultural equivalent of a witness protection scheme as he discards the sturdy Unitarian faith of his New England forebears and is received into the Church of England. By November 1927 he is able to write: 'my naturalisation is now completed and I have even obtained a passport, so that I can visit my wife or my mother at any time.' His re-invention culminates in a declaration, in the preface to For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order (1928), that he is 'classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion'.

We witness Eliot's continuing rise as a leading man of letters: much of the correspondence relates to his editorship of The Criterion, published quarterly from 1922. It was acquired by Faber and Gwyer in 1927 and relaunched in April as a monthly publication. Eliot celebrates the event by attending a boxing match at the Royal Albert Hall. An agreement that the new magazine 'shall bear the name of the editor prominently on the cover' does not prove to be a crowd-puller. Net average sales peak at around 800 copies per issue and, at the end of this volume, publication is temporarily suspended as the co-proprietor Lady Rothermere withdraws her capital. She had earlier tried to interest Eliot in a book by her sister, who clearly tested his patience and diplomacy: 'I wish she might know that I spell my name with one L, that my poem is not Waste Lands, and that Joyce's book is Ulysses, not Odyssey!'

Throughout this productive two-year period, Eliot produced a stream of editorials, lectures, reviews, essays, introductions, commentaries and prefaces. He also found time, surprisingly, for poetry. 'Journey of the Magi' (1927) and 'A Song for Simeon' (1928) were published singly as Ariel poems, and Eliot produced his first forays into drama, 'Fragment of a Prologue' and 'Fragment of an Agon', which later appeared together as the wonderfully demented and very funny Sweeney Agonistes (1932). There's a peppery encounter with the unscrupulous New York publisher Samuel Roth, who not only printed the 'Agon' without permission and added the hoodlum title 'Wanna go home, baby?' but then wrote to the New York Post denouncing the author as 'both a prig and a blackguard'. Less well known, though of great importance in Eliot's intellectual and spiritual development, is his translation of Anabase by Saint-John Perse (pseudonym of the French poet and diplomat Alexis Saint-Léger Léger), first published in Paris in 1924 and, in Eliot's fine rendering, as Anabasis in May 1930 (though the date given in this book is 1931). Written when Perse was working as a diplomat in China, it is an epic account, after Xenophon's work of the same name, of a military expedition in a conquered territory and the foundation of a new city. Eliot's letters to Perse are among the volume's many highlights, although the 'thirty or forty notes' that he sent the poet, which would serve to illuminate the process of collaboration, are not available.

Was he a great letter writer? Not on the evidence gathered here - although we are offered a vivid picture of the single-handed daily management of a high-minded literary magazine. Few of the Criterion letters are riveting or revelatory, and are couched in a scrupulously courteous register that becomes wearisome when read in quantity. But the dazzling roster of correspondents makes even the most humdrum exchanges of interest. The big names - Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf and W B Yeats - are well represented, along with an illustrious cast of literary worthies from Auden (his first appearance in the letters being a courteous rejection note) to Gertrude Stein (another rejection, rather less courteous), Robert Graves (a quarrel) and Thomas McGreevy, Criterion contributor and close friend of Samuel Beckett, whose recently published letters vie with Eliot's as essential purchases for anyone with an interest in modern writing.

Eliot's natural tone is solemn and patrician and when he unbuttons himself the results can be excruciating. The scatological King Bolo verses, regularly inflicted on Bonamy Dobrée, are the hollow high spirits of a troubled man:

One Day Columbo and His Men
They Took & Went Ashore.
Columbo Sniffed the Banyan Trees
And Mutter'd: I smell Whore!
And when they'd Taken Twenty Steps
Into the Cubian Jungle,
They Met King Bolo's BIG BLACK QUEEN
A-scratching of her Bung Hole.

King Bolo is Mr Hyde to Old Possum's Dr Jekyll and you may find yourself skipping the Dobrée letters, as I did, unless your taste runs to laboured sophomoric smut. In the middle of one such passage, however, the jocular mask slips and anguish breaks through as Eliot apologises for a lapse in the whimsy: 'I was engrossed with the problem of inducing my poor wife to return to her excellent sanatorium near Paris.'

He could be tough: there is a swift demolition - written in confidence - of the poet Edwin Muir's suitability for a Cambridge lecturing post on the grounds of his 'teutonic' education. Although Eliot was on other occasions Muir's staunch supporter, this makes for slightly grim reading and confirms the Criterion editor's clout as a cultural arbiter.

He could also be very generous to other poets. Of R P Blackmur's 'A Funeral for a Few Sticks' he says deftly: 'this poem is not one which can be re-written: it is too good for that', adding that the work is 'too thoughtful', and that 'in turning thought into poetry it has to be fused into a more definite pattern of immediately apprehensible imagery ... The more thought that is turned into poetry the better; only it must be, in the final form, felt thought.' He writes a painstaking, word-by-word analysis of Charles Norman's 'Dead Men Under Buildings'. The poem sounds quite awful, but Eliot's comments amount to a masterclass in tactful criticism. He is gently magisterial:

There are very few actual birds which can rightly be described as 'silver' - you may be thinking, of course, of the snow bunting or something of that sort but this seems to me to be an excursion into debased modern baroque for which there is no excuse.

Such insights are relatively few in this volume, and the more to be savoured.

Those looking for evidence of Eliot's casual anti-Semitism - shameful, indefensible but typical, alas, of the time - will find slim pickings. Writing to Orlo Williams about 'this German Jew, Lion Feuchtwanger', he says: 'I am always prejudiced against such people', though the prejudice is stated rather than explored. There is a bizarre exchange with Mario Praz, who writes to enquire whether Wyndham Lewis is Jewish, or more specifically (as he hazards) a self-loathing Jew. Eliot is mildly non-committal: 'Several people have made the suggestion to me but it had never occurred to me independently.' Most intriguing is Eliot's reader's report for Faber & Faber, from 16 June 1929, on the German philosopher Horace Kallen's book Frontiers of Hope:

Of course it must be remembered that Kallen is very well known in New York, the largest Jewish town in the world ... If the book can be sold, I recommend it strongly.

So Eliot strongly recommends for publication a book about Zionism and social reform by a Jewish writer he describes as a 'brilliant philosopher'. There are subsequent warm exchanges with Kallen, and Eliot accepts an invitation to stay with him when he next visits New York. Is this cynical, commercial pragmatism (not unknown in publishing to be sure), hypocrisy, prejudice, or something more nuanced? Make sense of it all who will.

Equally complicated is Eliot's admiration for Charles Maurras, leader of the far-right French nationalist and monarchist movement L'Action Française. Maurras (1868-1952) was a Catholic agnostic and authoritarian anti-democrat, believing that national cohesion and stability were achievable through the persecution and expulsion of the Jews, Protestants, Freemasons and métèques (foreigners) of all kinds. Even the Vatican objected and, when Pope Pius XI placed Maurras's writings and the movement's newspaper on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1926, L'Action members were barred from receiving the sacraments. Eliot defended L'Action Française's right to publish and in a very long letter to Lord Halifax he described Maurras admiringly as 'a genuine atheist, a real Pagan'. He also wrote to the Church Times as 'someone who cordially regrets the religious views of Charles Maurras, but who is at the same time proud of having his acquaintance and friendship'. Maurras was a nasty piece of work and Eliot later moderated the extent of his friendship and regard. 'Cordial regret' is an Eliot trademark.

There are lighter moments, including a Pooterish letter to the Daily Mail about the perils of motoring: 'Would it not be a good thing if charabancs were forbidden to follow each other except at such a distance as would allow a motorist behind to cut in past one of them at a time?' I also enjoyed his playful note to Virginia Woolf: 'if and when convenient, I think you might invite me to tea. If so, I shall bring you a new gramophone record.' We are given, in the sort of typically illuminating footnote that makes this volume a constant pleasure, Woolf's diary entry recording the visit: 'Tom - so glad to gossip with me off handedly over a cup - no 6 cups - of tea; then he played the gramophone.' Did they cut a rug together to That Shakespearian Rag? Another marvellous footnote provides the lyrics for that 1912 song (cited in The Waste Land), which refer to a dance craze called the Grizzly Bear. Tom offers to show Virginia the moves. Finally, I was prompted by his enthusiasm for Ernie Lotinga ('the greatest living British histrionic Artist, in the purest tradition of British Obscenity') to go online and discover recordings of this forgotten music-hall star.

Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden have done a quite magnificent job of selection and annotation, and are well served by Eliot's old firm. There is an excellent index and the biographical register of principal correspondents is useful, though some entries are not wholly reliable. Auden, for instance, did not, as stated here, write the commentary for the 1935 documentary film Coal Face. That was the work of Benjamin Britten and Montagu Slater, although Auden did write the accompanying madrigal.

There is plenty still to come from the House of Faber, including a multi-volume edition of Eliot's prose and a long-awaited collection of his complete poetry, edited by Christopher Ricks. Few other modern writers attract such attention. There are even fewer who deserve it. A drawback of the latest collection, as with preceding volumes, is the sheer bulk. According to the editors, a 'number of minor letters have been left out', but these will, we are reassured, appear on the Faber website - an approach that might have been beneficially applied to more of them. Not that any of the published letters are dispensable, but an affordable and space-saving single volume might do more to promote Eliot's role as the pre-eminent literary figure of the last century to a wider readership. This is, I think, essential - I met last year a bright young graduate with a recent degree in English Literature who had never even heard of T S Eliot.


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David Collard contributes to the forthcoming Auden in Context (Cambridge University Press.


TLC


John Murray