Meeting Mr Eliot
In recent years T. S. Eliot enthusiasts have been recipients of a host of materials that many, perhaps, doubted they would ever get to see. Having made do for years with a solitary edition of his letters (published in 1988) that ended with the appearance of The Waste Land in 1922, and with a body of poetry and prose reprinted largely in the form that Eliot himself approved it in the early 1960s, the reader and student of arguably the poet of the Twentieth Century now finds themselves with a complete annotated 2-volume set of his poetry, the first volume of Robert Crawford’s biography, a still-unfolding multi-volume Complete Prose and, incredibly, an edition of his Letters that sets new standards for its scope and completeness. Now seven volumes in, each of which comes in at close on a thousand pages, we are up to 1934-35. Professor John Haffenden (who has overseen the project since Volume 3) deserves praise and thanks from all Eliot readers for taking on so complex a job and discharging his duties with such editorial care.
On the cover of the new volume Eliot is captured in a still from 16mm home movie footage outside Canterbury Cathedral, squinting a little, perhaps, in the June sunlight as his play Murder in the Cathedral is prepared for its initial performances in the Chapter House. In terms of Eliot’s writing this volume is dominated by his forays into drama: the verse-pageant The Rock, performed to raise funds for church-building in London and, emerging out of that, a play about Thomas Becket that goes by the title of ‘The Archbishop Murder Case’ or ‘Fear in the Way’ until it finally acquires that by which it is known today. There is little in the way of poetry, although the volume ends, tantalisingly, with a letter from New Year’s Eve 1935 to Donald Brace in which Eliot refers to a poem he hopes to finish ‘within the next fortnight’ – a work which will become ‘Burnt Norton’ and, in time, the first of the great Four Quartets sequence. Although he expresses his doubts as to the subject, Eliot’s poetry isn’t finished after all.
The fact that each new volume of Eliot’s correspondence covers only two years of his life is a reflection, in part, of how much business that life contained. Editorial duties at Faber and Faber and on the Criterion take up time and space, although the letters produced by such duties allow us to see Eliot promoting and encouraging the work of Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and others, along with an ongoing correspondence with Ezra Pound, conducted in a idiolect known to both parties but designed to frustrate the reader almost as much as a reading of Pound’s Cantos would do.
Two external factors, however, make this volume significant. The first is in Eliot’s personal life, and his decision – on returning from his 1932-3 teaching year at Harvard – to formally separate from his wife Vivienne. Eliot biographers have wrestled with this for years, trying to see the separation as one not only rooted in Eliot’s despair at his marriage but also a spiritual conviction that only so drastic an action could save both parties. Vivienne’s unstable mental state, with its bouts of psychosomatic ill-health undoubtedly placed an enormous strain on the couple, especially when Eliot’s own fragile mental equilibrium is considered as well, but the asceticism of his ‘renunciation’ puts his still relatively new Christian faith to the test and is arguably something that he was never wholly able to explain to himself. When in ‘Little Gidding’ (1942) the speaker is warned of “the things ill done and done to others’ harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue” it’s hard not to see the roots of that crisis in the behaviour of a man who lodges with a priest so as to avoid returning to his marital home and conducts all dealings with his wife through a solicitor as he files writs to have his personal effects and books recovered. When Vivienne attempts to track her errant husband down to the Faber offices in Russell Square Eliot’s secretaries keep her occupied with excuses while Tom exits by a rear door to avoid seeing her. Unstable as she may have been, Vivienne could hardly have been treated thus and not suffered even greater anguish. Towards the end of the volume we learn that she has attended a public lecture given by her husband on 18th November 1935 and ‘met’ him afterwards – an event that Eliot scholars will recall as the occasion when Tom is said to have said “how do you do?” to his wife, signed the books she was holding and with a final comment about being unable to talk with her at that moment made his exit, never to see her again.
This volume of letters is strengthened considerably by the inclusion of letters written by Vivienne at this time, giving the reader a sense of how Eliot’s wife was struggling to come to terms with his departure and of the immense mental strain that she was herself under as her husband embarked upon the path to what the Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon called his ‘new life’. Vivienne writes repeatedly to remind Tom that the door to his ‘home’ remains open and unlocked, and that she considers herself still ‘Mrs Eliot’, a woman beset by legal worries and visits from bailiffs employed to recover Eliot’s possessions from their flat. In some letters she expresses her concern that Eliot may have been kidnapped, or to be held in some durance that prevents his return. Eliot scholars have long rationalised the separation in terms of the crisis between Tom’s spirituality and Vivienne’s mental illness, but having Vivienne’s voice included reminds us of the human cost on both sides of this unhappy equation. It is greatly to the credit of the editors that ‘the wife’ should get her voice heard here, and although it doesn’t lessen the prevailing sense of tragedy in the Eliot’s marriage it certainly lays to rest the simplistic idea of Vivienne’s mental collapse as entirely unrelated to her husband’s path of spiritual austerity.
We also know that Vivienne attended that November 1935 lecture in her British Union of Fascists uniform and that, sadly, is the other growing concern that this volume contains. Letters to Ezra Pound warn against ‘involving’ himself with “that Mosley”, whose Blackshirts were themselves to appear in The Rock amongst the worldly critics over whom the Church prevails. The publication of Pound’s Jefferson / Mussolini further raises issues, as the Italian-based poet travels further along the road that would ultimately lead to the Pisan Cantos, a prison cell, and a charge of treason. In this volume then we have the close friend flirting with Fascist ideology and the lonely, isolated wife who finds in political extremism the sense of belonging she lost when her husband walked out on her. One feels on finishing this collection that the Eliot squinting into the June sunlight on the book’s cover is as conscious of the darkness as he is of the light, both in the world around him and in the lives of those whose lives intersect with his own.
The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume 7: 1934-1935 (ed. John Haffenden) is published by Faber and Faber, priced £50.