Still, even the keenest fans of Eliot are going to find the great mass of Criterion business correspondence assembled in Volumes 2 and 3 of these letters hard going. Many were dictated to his secretary, and although crisply phrased, are essentially of no interest, making me wonder about the “minor letters” excluded from Volume 3 to keep the book to “a relatively manageable length.” Despite Eliot’s prestigious roll call of contributors, and his own brilliance as a review-essayist, The Criterion itself, while always high-minded, is not always that riveting. Its sponsor, Lady Rothermere, who had hoped for something a little more social and glitzy, frequently and frankly complained that it was boring, to which Eliot could do nothing but agree and apologize. And what imp of the perverse made him open the first issue with an essay by George Saintsbury on “Dullness”?
The magazine did, however, play a considerable role in Eliot’s emergence as the most authoritative literary and, to some, cultural spokesman of the day. When, much to his credit, he accepted Hart Crane’s “The Tunnel” (which would become Part VII of The Bridge) for publication, Crane excitedly fired off a letter to his patron, Otto Kahn, in which he described Eliot as “representative of the most exacting literary standards of our times,” and this acceptance as proof that Kahn was backing a winner. By 1927 Eliot is not quite yet the Pope of Russell Square, but he’s well on the way to becoming him.
Eliot’s success in reconfiguring notions of what constituted successful or valuable poetry can hardly be overestimated. His technical innovations were imitated by many of his verse-writing correspondents (slavishly by such as Conrad Aiken and Archibald MacLeish, creatively by such as Crane, Allen Tate, and of course Pound). More crucial for the success of the literary revolution that he fomented, however, was his presentation in his critical essays of his own work as the inevitable next step in the history of poetry. Three years before publishing The Waste Land Eliot had already described, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” the way a “new work of art” would alter “the whole existing order” of all previous works of art—which is exactly what happened in the years after 1922.
In the extraordinary reviews and essays he wrote between 1916—when he received his first commission, courtesy of an introduction by Bertrand Russell, for a piece in the International Journal of Ethics—and, say, his essay on Milton of 1936, Eliot transformed the genre of literary criticism more dramatically than any writer before him, or since. The charisma, the intelligence, the sophistication, the erudition, the feline but utterly compelling sensibility on display in these essays can make them at times seem like an elaborate literary seduction. Of course the vision of the canon they propound is a highly individual one: Milton bad, Donne good, Shelley very, very bad, Dante very, very good…. But Eliot’s rhetorical genius was such that his judgments came to seem to many not just a reflection of his own subjective tastes, but infallible verdicts, final and true: in other words “impersonal.”
Eliot’s assumption of the role of quasi-divine gatekeeper of the literary pantheon grows steadily more authoritative as these letters progress. With it comes a weariness that can at times register almost as post-traumatic calm; even when only in his late thirties Eliot speaks repeatedly not just of growing “old,” as he puts it in a letter of August 22, 1927, to his brother, but of having grown definitively “Old.” Like “impersonal,” “mature” is one of Eliot’s most fulsome terms of approbation, and the Eliot of, say, “Ash Wednesday” (1930), on which he would soon embark, figures himself maturely and serenely above the fray, an “agèd eagle” stretching his wings. But his friend and colleague Geoffrey Faber—the deus ex machina, one might say, who finally freed Eliot from his fetters to the bank—was worried by these ascetic tendencies; he felt that a certain element of the dogmatic was creeping into Eliot’s life, and imperilling him. In a brave and searching letter of September 15, 1927, Faber ventured some thoughtful criticisms:
It is not right that you should chain yourself to a routine—it will cramp your mind, & ultimately be fatal to you both as poet & critic, if for no other reason than that it will divorce you further & further from the common man. I cannot help at times suspecting that the difficulties are, to some extent, of your own forging.
Earlier in the letter Faber complains of the “excessive obscurity” of Eliot’s poetry—somewhat ironically given the contribution this excessively obscure work would eventually play in the financial success of his publishing venture—and asks, “Is it an unavoidable element in your poetry? or is it deliberate?”
The bon vivant Faber’s bluff, well-meaning, but also acutely probing questions ask us to ponder both the difficulty of Eliot’s poetry and the difficulties of his life. How “unavoidable” was it that a poet who had written, in 1915, a prose poem called “Hysteria” about a man who imagines himself being swallowed by a woman with whom he is having tea, to the point that he is “lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles,” should that year marry a woman who would induct him into “dark caverns” from which, as his letter to Murry put it, the only escape, it could at times seem, was to kill her or kill himself?
A secure and undifficult life as a professor of philosophy at Harvard was open to Eliot as late as 1919; it held, however, no appeal for him, as he makes clear in a letter to his old philosophy tutor, J.H. Woods, who had offered him a position in the department. In declining Eliot figures himself somewhat in the image of a Jamesian expatriate, like Lambert Strether of The Ambassadors, one who has grown addicted to the complexities of European society, however excruciating the pain they inflict, and would find life back in America insufferably dull. “I have acquired,” he informs Woods, “the habit of a society so different that it is difficult to find common terms to define the difference.”
Something in Eliot, in other words, sought difficulty, wanted, whatever the cost, blood shaking his heart, to raise the stakes, to exchange the unthreatening blandness of Unitarianism, and American culture at large, as he saw it, for something more complex and extreme: a vision, after much purgatorial suffering, of redemption in Heaven; or of fear, in a handful of dust, of damnation in Hell.