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The Letters of T S Eliot Volume III: 1926-27 - review

The contortions of T S Eliot’s Christianity.

The Letters of T S Eliot  Volume III: 1926-27

Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
Faber & Faber, 992pp, £40

So far, each volume of the letters of T S Eliot has stood under the sign of one of the poet’s major works. The first volume, which went up to the year 1922, showed us the young Eliot desperately trying to escape the fate of Prufrock, the ineffectual, well-bred man. His hasty 1915 marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood and his consequent decision to remain in England instead of returning to a professorial career in the United States can only be understood as a death blow dealt to the poet’s inner J Alfred. The second volume, which spanned 1923-25, can be thought of as The Waste Land years, as Eliot immersed himself in the life of postwar London and in the nerve-racking adventure of a marriage grown increasingly Dostoevskian.

The new volume, which runs to over 900 pages of text and notes, covers the years 1926 and 1927. (If this pace is maintained, we can expect the complete edition to fill more than 15,000 pages.) In these years, Eliot wrote little poetry, publishing only a fragment of the verse drama that would become Sweeney Agonistes and the first of his Ariel poems, “Journey of the Magi”. The work that best illuminates this volume of the letters, and which is illuminated by it, is rather an essay, “Lancelot Andrewes”, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in September 1926. It is there that Eliot signals the increasing involvement with Anglicanism that would lead to the major biographical events of these years: his confirmation in the Church of England, followed by his naturalisation as a British citizen.

Eliot’s advocacy of John Donne helped make his reputation as a literary critic, in essays such as “The Metaphysical Poets” in 1921. Five years later, however, “Lancelot Andrewes” is structured as a comparison of the two 17th-century preachers, to Donne’s marked disadvantage. Donne, Eliot grants, is a more exciting and dramatic writer of prose than Andrewes; but that is exactly why he is spiritually inferior. Donne in his sermons is “the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy”, while Andrewes is the austere master of “ordonnance”, completely absorbed in the doctrine he is expounding. Put another way, Eliot writes, Donne is the more modern writer and Andrewes is the more medieval; and the preference of this arch-modernist poet is for the medieval.

This suggests the evolution one can see taking place in the third volume of Eliot’s letters, as an iconoclastic American poet becomes a devout English man of letters. It leads to some strange juxtapositions. Writing to his mother in 1926, Eliot recounts having been present at the debut of the experimental composer George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique: “Very modern music, very much to my taste but not to that of all of the audience, some of whom demonstrated; Ezra [Pound] (who is Antheil’s champion) got very excited, and rushed about in high glee.” This is the Eliot who praised Stravinsky and Diaghilev, the comrade in arms of Pound and Wyndham Lewis.

Yet this Eliot deliberately sets out to cocoon himself inside the clubman and churchman. This latter Eliot is the one who writes to the Daily Express complaining about the danger of motorists who cut in front of charabancs (“The danger of this cutting in is greatly magnified when, as I have often observed in the country, several charabancs follow each other in close succession”). This Eliot surrounds himself with dull disciples for bimonthly Criterion dinners: if the dramatis personae of the earlier letters included Pound and Virginia Woolf, the correspondents now are more likely to be Richard Aldington, Herbert Read and Bonamy Dobrée. Dobrée, off teaching in Cairo, is the favourite recipient of Eliot’s doggerel about “the primitive Bolovians (a race of comic Negroes wearing bowler hats)” – a running joke whose blatant racism seems less pitiable than its strained, donnish relentlessness.

One cause and consequence of this trans­formation is Eliot’s increasing submersion in the role of editor of the Criterion. Readers who come to the letters for insights into Eliot the man or poet will surely be frustrated to find that about three-quarters of them are devoted to routine editorial business. We see Eliot so­liciting contributions and rejecting them, some­times with encouragement, as in a 1927 note to W H Auden: “I do not feel that any of the enclosed is quite right, but I should be interested to follow your work.” (In one of countless examples of editorial diligence, a footnote quotes Auden’s comment in a letter to Chris­topher Isherwood: “On the whole coming from Eliot’s reserve I think it is really quite complimentary.”) Eliot apologises for delays, draws up budgets, deals with touchy contributors and, very occasionally, responds to praise: “Many thanks for your pleasant letter,” he writes to one P N Rowe. “One so often feels that the work of editing a literary review is quite useless and makes no difference in the world whatever beyond providing the editor with a salary and distracting him from other work, that it is extremely agreeable to receive such a letter.”

Reading these letters, one is tempted to agree with Eliot that editing the Criterion, however much it added to his literary influence, was a poor use of his time and genius. In its first years, the Criterion published Yeats, Woolf, Lawrence and Proust. By the mid-1920s, it had evolved with its editor from modernism to a reactionary classicism much influenced by the French proto-fascist Charles Maurras. When reproached for this by Aldington, Eliot makes the perennial editor’s plea that good material is hard to find: “As for the Criterion being more imaginative and artistic, Good Lord, my dear Richard, don’t you think I should like to see it so? . . . If you know of any of les jeunes who don’t get into the Criterion and are any good at all, all I need say is, lead me to it. I will put on my roller skates, as the old song says, for that purpose.”

The more interesting story, which has to be read around the margins of the letters and often in the footnotes, is that of Eliot’s spiritual evolution, of which his professional and literary evolution was an index. Eliot rarely if ever confides in a correspondent about his spiritual life and even warns the priest who baptised him, William Force Stead, to keep quiet about it: “I do not want any publicity or notoriety – for the moment, it concerns me alone, and not the public – not even those nearest me. I hate spectacular ‘conversions’.”

But there is a remarkable admission, so quick you could easily miss it, in another letter to Aldington. “I agree with you about Christ and I do not disagree with anything else,” Eliot writes. The editors supply what Aldington had written: “Moreover, I don’t really like the gospels, and I don’t much like Christ. I really think Paul was more interesting. He appears to have been a man; I have suspected that . . . Christ is an invention.” Just at the time Eliot is about to enter the Church, we find him apparently saying that he does not believe Christ existed and in any case that he doesn’t “like” Him.

Add to this what Eliot tells John Middleton Murry, an intellectual sparring partner who was one of his few real confidants: “You assume that truth changes – you accept as inevitable what appears to me to be within our own power. I am, in a way, a much more thoroughgoing pragmatist – but so thoroughgoing that I am sure there is nothing for it but to assume that there are fixed meanings, and that truth is always the same.” Eliot, a product of the Harvard of William James, suggests that he is drawn to Christianity as a pragmatist – that is, because it “works” for him, not because he is convinced of its truth as a proposition. 

Elsewhere, he writes: “The Christian scheme seemed the only possible scheme which found a place for values which I must maintain or perish . . . the belief, for instance, in holy living and holy dying, in sanctity, chastity, humility, austerity.” This well describes the austere spirit of Eliot’s life and work in the years covered by this volume and will only become more apt in the years to come, as his marriage descends into further horror and his public image becomes even more formidable.

It is good, therefore, to have in the letters at least one example of the way Eliot’s Christianity could console as well as discipline. It comes in a letter he wrote to his mother, Charlotte, in 1927, when she was in failing health. Eliot’s early closeness to his mother was seriously tested by his decision to abandon his family’s aspirations for him and move across the Atlantic; many letters in earlier volumes show how he tried to manage this breach. Now, writing to her for what he clearly believes might be the last time, Eliot declares that he is certain they will meet again:

Dearest mother, your letter made me very sad; you speak as if you would perhaps never see me again either here or elsewhere . . . I have a much more positive conviction than you have that I shall see you in another life . . . I feel that the “future life”, or our future meetings, may not be in the least like anything that we can imagine; but that if it is different we shall then realise that it is right and shall not then wish it to be like what we can now imagine . . . I believe that you and I understand each other and are like each other perhaps more than we know, and that we shall surely meet.

To read Eliot’s letters is to watch as the man he was disappears inside the man he chose to become. That makes loving and unguarded moments such as this, in which the gulf between his past and future seems to be bridged, all the more precious for their rarity. 

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Why Trilling Matters” (Yale University Press, £20)

Further reading:

- Keepers of the flame, May 2000. Ian Hamilton wonders whether we'll get a full examination of T S Eliot as long as his widow controls his estate.

- Modernism still matters, September 2012. Gabriel Josipovici puts Eliot in the context of continental Europeans such as Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka.

- The year that roared, April 2012. Sarah Churchwell on 1922, the year Eliot's The Waste Land was published and the modern world "came of age".

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare