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The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Vol. 3: 1926-1927

The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Vol. 3: 1926-1927, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. (Yale UP, 2012)

How Pleasant to Meet Mr. Eliot!

Reading the third volume of Eliot’s letters, which span what might be called The New Criterion / Faber years, is an exercise in vicarious living among people to whom Important Things, like ideas, Mattered. We’re invited into the company of names now familiar to us, such as “Aiken,” “Forster,” “Lawrence,” “Lewis,” “Moore,” “Murry,” “Pound,” “Read,” “Sitwell,” and “Woolf” (both). They, with many others, are given painstaking biographies at the volume’s close; the volume is a masterpiece of scholarship, and, so to speak, “more.”

While many letters accept work for the journal whose editorship Eliot had assumed, others solicit, in exacting terms, critical essays and not always for the most breathlessly awaited title. Eliot was well aware that the lasting value of any publication rests not solely on “what passes for the new”; indeed, we must often look back, beyond the most-praised poems—and prose—of our time.

And what a kaleidoscopic time Eliot’s seems! Dispatching masses of correspondence on a daily basis for the magazine, beginning the Ariel poems, a break-through helping him into the longer Ash Wednesday, the acquisition of the New Criterion by Faber and Gwyer, the publishing house whom he joined and would help make into one of the world’s most prestigious…there would seem no room for the pettiness and backbiting that too often characterizes contemporary Po Biz.

Yet, like so much else in Eliot, things aren’t exactly what they appear: can any reader imagine the fastidious belle-lettrist having to write his closest sibling, following a pleasant nine days with him and his wife, that his own spouse, claiming torment by the latter, had swallowed poison? “Of Vivien’s conduct at Malmaison [a sanitarium],” TSE tells his brother on 24 June: “‘She is very affectionate and gentle, and her regrets and self-accusations are terribly pathetic . . . she has not made any attempts on her life for over a fortnight.’” This is to be considered as progress on the Eliots’ homefront?

Surely the inevitable loneliness made for a surprising Mr. Eliot when it came to the poems of young writers in whom he could discern genuine gifts. The twentysomething Terence Prentis, who had thanked him for his scrupulous critique of three poems submitted to The New Criterion, received the following response:

As I was away from England when I wrote to you I did not expect you to write, but I am very glad to hear from you. I only deprecate your discouraged tone. You certainly ought to go on writing, and I am sure from what I have seen of your work that if you do keep it up you will arrive at something quite definite in the end. I am sorry to hear that you are so very busy although I suppose that from another point of view it is very encouraging, but I know that nevertheless you can, if you will, find time for a little practice in writing. And remember that it is not merely the time you spend with pen and paper but is as much, or more in fact, that you always keep a corner of your mind working on poetry, more or less unconsciously (a sort of continuous chemical process of transformation of sensations, emotions and ideas into poetical material) that makes all the difference. (p.60)

Eliot, of course, is writing about himself, just as when, reviewing Speculations, (ed. Herbert Read, 1924) the posthumous essays of T. E. Hulme—one of the Great War’s casualties—he calls Hulme’s “the most fertile mind of my generation.” (C. 2, April 1924)

With its peculiar merits, this book is most unlikely to meet with the slightest comprehension from the usual reviewer; with all its defects — it is an outline of a work to be done, and not an accomplished philosophy — it is a book of very great significance . . . . In this volume he appears as the forerunner of a new attitude of mind, which should be the twentieth-century mind, if the twentieth century is to have a mind of its own. Hulme is classical, reactionary, and revolutionary; he is the antipodes of the eclectic, tolerant, and democratic mind of the end of the last century (231-232)

What? This from Eliot, who was soon to change his citizenship, be baptized in the Anglo-Catholic Church, and famously declare himself a royalist and classicist in the bargain, without also attributing to himself similarly “revolutionary”? Of course! Think of The Waste Land itself: does the poem not fit the “antipodes” Eliot describes above, ranging from the body of classical literature to Sanskrit to Cockney demotic, with iambic pentameter and the syncopations of jazz driving the various rhythms?

“Writing about himself.” We’ve known to read Eliot as a highly personal poet in disguise ever since Randall Jarrell’s 1962 lecture called “Fifty Years of American Poetry”:

Won’t the future say to us in helpless astonishment: “But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlatives, classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions? From a psychoanalytical point of view he was far and away the most interesting poet of your century. But for you, of course, after the first few years, his poetry existed undersea, thousands of feet below the deluge of exegesis, explication, source listing, scholarship and criticism that overwhelmed it. And yet how bravely and personally it survived, its eyes neither coral nor mother-of-pearl but plainly human, full of human anguish!”

And that’s precisely how I first read Eliot at age fifteen, first “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” then, for a paper, The Waste Land. Fortunate enough not to be walled off from the actual poems by mountains of explanatory footnotes that often take up more space on the page than lines from the poem do, as in certain anthologies, I knew Eliot’s poetry because it can, in fact, communicate before it is fully understood, a life’s work that continues.

A natural culmination which, with Denis Donoghue, resulted in both Words Alone1, arguably the single best study of Eliot, and his reviews, in the American version of The New Criterion, of the two volumes of Eliot’s letters, most recently “Eliot’s Fine Italian Hand.”2 In fact, I find myself rabidly envious of Donoghue, who didn’t labor under the very eerie coincidence of Eliot’s widow’s death halfway through reading the book and taking notes for this piece.

A smattering of items appeared in the Guardian3, most wondering how future editions of the Letters would appear, and in what frame of time. Thus far, we have learned that Valerie Fletcher Eliot had her sights set on becoming Eliot’s secretary while still an adolescent, and if her dream was further realized by becoming his wife, it was further helpful to her in solidifying her position as the “Real Mrs. Eliot” by owning the copyright of letters from Vivien (née) Haigh-Wood, a/k/a Mrs. Eliot #1 and VHE, who died intestate; and thus being able to publish them here as in earlier volumes. VSE appears, indeed, like the “painted shadow” used as a title for her biographer, Carole Seymour-Jones; in all three volumes published thus far, her truly adoring but pathetic letters to TSE, to Ottoline Morrell—who seems always to have been laughing and gossiping, often with Virginia Woolf, behind “Viv”’s back—depict her in various states of hysteria, to use the title of Eliot’s most famous prose poem.

For Donoghue, what leapt from these pages is the footnoted incident in which Eliot, occasioned by the surgery for an anal fistula undergone by Aiken in London, preceded by receiving a copy of Eliot’s Poems 1909-1925, apparently had a fit of physical disgust—a lifelong condition usually kept under better control—and sent his old friend from Harvard

a page torn from The Midwives’ Gazette, on which he had underlined in ink certain words and phrases — Blood –mucous— shreds of mucous –purulent offensive discharge . . . TSE, in response to a copy of “Ushant” that Aiken had sent him on publication, would write on 7 November 1952: “I was, as a matter of fact, somewhat shocked to find myself described as having a streak of sadism in my nature. I haven’t the faintest recollection of the two incidents on which you base this diagnosis, but if it was like that, then it seems to me that I must have behaved very badly. I hope in that case you have forgiven me.” (p. 45)

As regards publishing VSE’s letters here, the second Mrs. Eliot would seem to have “a streak of sadism”—or jealousy—in her nature too. Or, perhaps, she was simply trying to give the truest account of the relationship between her husband and his first wife: the couple write of each other with great mutual concern and adoration, all the while recognizing that they feed, like vampires, off the other’s pain.

What riveted my attention, however, is another footnoted item, this one from Derek Patmore, the elder son of Brigit:

In “T. S. Eliot as a young man” (unpub. memoir, 1970), he recalled: I was anxious to work in publishing and follow a literary career. So one day [TSE] invited me to dine with him at Pagani’s Restaurant, near the flat off Baker Street where he and Vivienne were living at the time. I was flattered and excited that he should ask me out alone, and my only fear [was] that I might bore — after all, I was only nineteen, and even in those days, T. S. Eliot had a formidable reputation. We agreed that I should pick him up at his mansion flat. When I arrived and entered the living room, I stood for a moment rather shyly at the door. To my surprise, Tom turned to his wife Vivienne and exclaimed:

“Isn’t Derek beautiful?”

It is true that I was very tall and handsome at this age, and this remark, which I have never published before, confirmed a secret suspicion which I have always believed that T. S. Eliot had a hidden streak of homosexuality in his nature. It comes out at times in his poetry but he was very Puritan and careful to hide his real feelings. (Father K. G. Schroder, English Dept., Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa).

This comes as no surprise to those familiar with James E. Miller, Jr.’s T. S. Eliot’s Personal Wasteland: The Making of An American Poet, 1888-1922 or its predecessor—work by John Peter—which resulted in threats of a lawsuit for his emphasis on the strongly homoerotic content of Eliot’s early work. Thus, Miller is only the most recent critic who points to “Jean Verdenal, mort aux Dardanelles,” the dedicatee of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) as being Eliot’s strongest attachment, and one that remained until his remarriage to his late widow.4

According to Miller, Verdenal, a handful of whose letters appear in the first volume of Eliot’s letters, is revived, cleansed, and reborn as both “the hyacinth girl” and “Phlebas the Phoenician.” The book drew praise by luminaries such as G. Wilson Knight and Louis Simpson, whose names—redolent of serious Eliot study and scholarship, not gossip-mongering—carry irreproachable authority. What Miller writes is lent further credence by their endorsements, though there’s no mention of either in the Letters, although there might be with Valerie Eliot’s death, talk now afoot of a biography that draws on archival material heretofore deemed verboten.

Time, the Peter Ackroyd and Lyndall Gordon natures vivantes, and these first three volumes of letters have proved Jarrell, as so often, exactly right. Newer biographies, critical studies, and creative explorations of Eliot—Lyndall Gordon’s An Imperfect Life and Donoghue’s aforementioned Words Alone, to name perhaps the two most stellar, also novelist Martha Cooley’s The Archivist and poet Mary Kinzie’s California Sorrow—indicate that the driving emotion in The Waste Land isn’t toward his soul-friendship with Verdenal during his year at the Sorbonne, but Emily Hale.

In the end, however, does the identity of the one loved and lost matter? What remains more interesting is the hole in Eliot’s heart, which was partly filled by Hale, yes, if only by acting as Eliot’s Beatrice, the vehicle through which the poet allowed God to enter, and his happier, if far blander years as husband to his former secretary. If what Valerie Eliot offered motherly protection and produced weekly versified love notes on her pillow, it’s “VSE” who pulled perhaps the greatest work of the 20th century from Eliot and gave him one of The Waste Land’s best lines: “What you get married for if you don’t want children?”

1Donoghue, Denis. Words Alone. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, date. Print.

2Donoghue, “Eliot’s Fine Italian Hand.” Rev. of The Letters of T.S. Eliot: Volume 3: 1926-27 by T. S. Eliot, Valerie Eliot, and John Haffenden. The New Criterion, October 2012, p. 64.

3Perhaps the most interesting is Aida Edemarian’s, which questions whether Valerie Eliot’s self-appointed status as watchdog to her late husband’s work ultimately did more harm than good:

4While much of what I write here has become, in forty years’ time, part of my own “mental furniture,” I retain a debt to Vereen M. Bell, Jr., and a website painstakingly reconstructing the relationship between Verdenal and Eliot with correspondence, footnoted passages, and the home of the various sources, provided by Rickard A. Parker, who appears to have abandoned the project in 2002: