The inclusion of numerous letters by Eliot’s family and friends, and the extensive footnotes that excerpt liberally from missives received, as well as explicating all references and offering useful mini-biographies of every potential Criterion contributor Eliot ever contacted, mean these volumes provide an exhaustively detailed picture of the circumstances in which Eliot’s correspondence, and his criticism and his poems, were written. The decision also allows for a range of different perspectives on the Eliots’ problems.
Having spent a few weeks with Tom and Vivien in Italy in the spring of 1926, Henry furnished his younger brother with a trenchant, no-nonsense diagnosis of Vivien’s condition, which he concluded was so much playacting. Her “state of emotional anguish is self-induced,” he pronounces, “voluntarily and deliberately…. It is something which Vivien herself could put a stop to at any moment, by an effort of will.” Her hallucinations, her threats of suicide, were simply a means to
secure for herself the notoriety and attention which is meat and drink to her…. The climax of her satisfaction would be to suffer some fate, not extinction, and not too painful, which would be incontestably dramatic.
He urges Eliot either to ignore altogether her “bag of tricks,” or to show her “that the only impression they make on you is that of utter silliness and puerility.” A bracing view, to which Eliot seems not to have responded, preferring to consign her to the hands of a succession of medical “experts,” the most lethal of whom was a German quack called Dr. Karl Bernhard Martin; he prescribed a diet so radically restricted that Vivien ended up suffering severe malnutrition. Henry’s unpitying analysis, so at odds with—and perhaps provoked by—Eliot’s truly wondrous powers of solicitude in the years covered by these volumes, seems to have reflected the family’s general disapproval of Vivien. A letter written by Henry Senior just four days before his death in January 1919 notes approvingly that his youngest son is doing well in the bank, but curtly adds: “Wish I liked his wife, but I don’t.”
It was a great source of grief to Eliot that his father never lived to see his errant son make good. In his letters home he often works hard to impress with details of his steady upward progress through the echelons of the London literary world, and to pass on the frisson that he clearly felt at rubbing shoulders with well-born literary types in Bloomsbury salons: a typical bulletin to his mother of February 22, 1920, makes purposeful mention of Lady Ottoline Morrell, Lady Ida Sitwell, Virginia Woolf (“a daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen”), and Sydney Waterlow (“Lord Robert Cecil’s right hand man”).
Eliot’s movement away from his antecedents can be traced, then, through these letters, as occurring on a number of different levels. If his hasty marriage ended up leading him deep into the heart of a bad Russian novel, or perhaps a Gothic-y English one like Jane Eyre (which Eliot taught as a part of his 1918 extension lecture course—he thought it and Wuthering Heights “amazingly good stuff”), it also inaugurated his journey into the mores and conventions of the country whose nationality he would adopt officially in 1927. Virginia Woolf famously described him, in a letter to Clive Bell, as attired in “a four-piece suit,” and these letters show him assuming the language and views of High Toryism with often dismaying completeness.
His letters to newspaper editors can make particularly uncomfortable reading. On January 8, 1923, the Daily Mail printed a letter he’d written—perhaps partly in the hope of impressing its proprietor, Lord Rothermere, into offering him a job—commending its support of Italian Fascism, as well as the hard line the paper took on Edith Thompson, who was to be hanged the next day for her part in the murder by her lover, Frederick Bywaters, of her husband. “Nothing could be more salutary,” writes Eliot,
at the present time than the remarkable series of articles which you have been publishing on Fascismo [all, a footnote tells us, highly admiring ones]; these alone constitute a public service of the greatest value and would by themselves have impelled me to write to thank you.
On the Ilford murder your attitude has been in striking contrast with the flaccid sentimentality of other papers I have seen, which have been so impudent as to affirm that they represented the great majority of the British people.
“Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells,” he might have signed himself. Another draws to the public’s attention the dangers presented to motorists by charabancs traveling in convoy.
Pound, for one, didn’t buy it at all—and began addressing his friend as Old Possum, the implication being that Eliot, having suitably camouflaged himself in the trappings of English society, was simply lying low in the enemy camp. Eliot was willing enough, in his correspondence with Pound, to play along with the notion, and on occasion deployed suitably Uncle Remus–style lingo in letters and postcards to il miglior fabbro. But by 1928, when he defined himself in For Lancelot Andrewes as “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion,” the process of assuming an English identity that we have watched gathering momentum over the previous thirteen years might be said to have completed itself.
It is of course possible to see Eliot’s championing of “classicism” as a possum-style attempt to obscure the unstable nature of his own inspiration, of the fact, as Randall Jarrell once brilliantly put it, that Eliot was “one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions”; but his public espousal of royalism and Anglo-Catholicism can be taken as evidence that he himself felt he had now moved decisively beyond the Unitarian and American democratic traditions in which he’d been raised.
Eliot’s principal achievement, it is generally agreed, is his poetry, but one would hardly guess he composed verse at all from a random sampling of these volumes. It wasn’t that he was particularly unwilling to discuss “the intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings” in his letters, but that it seems that months and even years would pass without his attempting to clamber into the ring. In the course of the 870 pages of Volume 3, covering 1926 and 1927, he flickers into life as a poet just once, with the composition of “Journey of the Magi,” which, he tells Conrad Aiken, he wrote “in three quarters of an hour after church time and before lunch one Sunday morning, with the assistance of half a bottle of Booth’s gin.” (It provides the title of this review.)
Manuscript materials may in time reveal that Eliot was pursuing his primary vocation more purposefully than these letters suggest, and it would be particularly interesting to see any drafts relating to Sweeney Agonistes, on which he was at work for years, and which he seems to have imagined would be a decisive step beyond The Waste Land. In a somewhat surprising move he contacted Arnold Bennett (a novelist much pilloried by Modernists such as Woolf and Pound) for advice on writing what Bennett understood would be “a drama of modern life (furnished flat sort of people) in a rhythmic prose ‘perhaps with certain things in it accentuated by drum-beats.’” They met a number of times between 1923 and 1925, and Eliot was effusive in his thanks, reporting himself “tremendously encouraged” by Bennett’s advice after one session together in October 1924, and, as was his wont, rather overdoing the flattery, even insisting that Bennett’s guidance will make him “feel that the play will be as much yours as mine.”
After the relative deluge of poems, by Eliot’s slow standards, completed in the course of Volume 1, climaxing in the sprawling manuscript of The Waste Land and his excited negotiations with Pound over what should be cut from it and what should remain, Eliot’s poetic output slowed to a painful trickle. Editors beseeching him for new poems were sternly warned that he not only had nothing to offer them, but was unlikely to produce anything in the foreseeable future. While The Waste Land, in its four printings (in The Criterion in October 1922, in The Dial in November 1922, as a book from Boni and Liveright in New York in December 1922, and as a book from the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press in September 1923), was slowly but steadily conquering the literary world, and making Eliot the most respected and influential young poet of the time, he was spending his days working in Lloyds Bank, and devoting every scrap of his free time to editing The Criterion.
In the long run his editorship of this magazine led to his appointment as a director of Faber and Gwyer, under whose aegis it was relaunched as The New Criterion in January 1926. This appointment finally enabled Eliot to resign from Lloyds and embark on his extremely successful and financially secure career in publishing. As a gamble, then, it might be said to have paid off, but the years covered by Volume 2 of these letters, 1923–1925, present a grueling account of Eliot burning the candle at both ends, disentangling foreign debt by day, and firing off letters to such as Valéry and Cocteau and Gide (in very serviceable French) and Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Yeats and Gertrude Stein each evening and during weekends.
For those, such as Pound, who believed a poet as gifted as Eliot should spend as much of his time as possible writing poetry, the assumption of the enormous workload involved in running a respectable quarterly more or less single-handed, though with some help from Vivien, when she was well enough, and a part-time secretary, was simply baffling—and Pound didn’t think much of the results of Eliot’s labors either, characterizing The Criterion’s contributors as a “bunch of dead mushrooms.” Its circulation never rose much above eight hundred, it always ran at a loss, Eliot received no salary for editing it, and it consumed inordinate amounts of his time. It had, though, a polemical purpose.
While he liked to present the magazine as serenely above party politics, his overall hope was, as he put it to a prospective contributor, “to give to Toryism the intellectual basis with the illusion of which Socialism has so long deceived the young and eager.” His idea was to gather around him a band of the like-minded, with principles debated and agreed upon at monthly Criterion dinners. If not exactly disciples, writers and critics such as Herbert Read and Richard Aldington and Bonamy Dobrée were to an extent marshaled by Eliot into a phalanx that could be roughly relied upon to deliver Criterion doctrine; although when Aldington—who in later years would break decisively with Eliot—submitted a long, overenthusiastic essay on D.H. Lawrence, it was rejected on the grounds that it failed to “fall in with the general position of the Criterion,” a formulation frequently used in letters returning material that Eliot didn’t want to print. But perhaps what is most striking about the magazine, in these early years, is the exemplary thoroughness with which Eliot sought out contributions from a really extensive range of European writers, and attempted to cover intellectual developments not only in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, but Holland, Russia, and Denmark—and even America.