Faber & Faber, £40
The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 3 – 1926-1927 Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
After The Waste Land came a time of trial – and a firmer commitment to religious faith
Some years vibrate more strongly than others and 1926 was a cusp. The General Strike broke and painfully reset social relationships in Britain. Robert Goddard's liquid fuel rocket narrowed distance and began the resetting of national boundaries that had been painfully worked through at Versailles and the other treaties (which carried on until 1926 with mutual pledges of neutrality from Germany and the Soviet Union). Turkey was modernised. Trotsky was ousted. There was the earthquake of the Tunney/Dempsey fight. Agatha Christie went strangely missing. John Logie Baird demonstrated television. The young, modernist Tom Eliot might well have been excited by another new technology, but in 1926, and almost 40, Eliot was on a cusp, too.
The year sees the beginning of his change from the poet of The Waste Land to the poet of the Four Quartets. Eliot was settling into publishing as a career, editing the Criterion, and taking informal instruction from the Rev William Force Stead. No longer content to be a "squatter", he was becoming an Englishman and a Christian intellectual.
In future, the cradle Unitarian would go out under the Trinity and under the banner of "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion". The cover photograph on this latest volume of his letters doesn't yet suggest the Stilton-obsessed churchwarden of later reputation. Eliot stands outside Faber & Gwyer (as it was), leaning almost tipsily on his cane.
He might be a music-hall turn. All inside, though, was sorrow and anxiety – "I am harried and worried to death" – compounded of overwork, the inertia of responsibility that begins to weigh around 40, and above all the fragile health of his first wife Vivien. She was disturbed and suicidal, plagued with hypermenorrhea and other conditions. Eliot's own health was not good.
Ezra Pound had apparently written him an "eyes only" letter (not to be seen by Vivien) in which he implied that Eliot might be living "under a curse", suffering from some "doom of the house". Eliot responds briskly to these "mysterious allusions" but his main thrust, just before Christmas 1926, is to dissuade his old friend from starting up a new journal (to be called The Exile – Pound was now permanently unmoored) "unless you are likely to get... £250 a year out of it".
Much of the correspondence is routine and on Criterion business, but he is reaching out to the conservative circle of L'Action Française (who are addressed in decent but slightly stilted French), and to associates like novelist and poet Conrad Aiken, another American in England, who seems less determined to get work than to get Eliot down to Rye for the good of his health.
City and office have a strong gravitation. He hints to his mother that taking on too many responsibilities may be a family failing. Vivien is a constant worry, at home or abroad, and there is already something willed and even forced in Eliot's attempts at good cheer. He can still smile over Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which all the great modernists loved). He reads in these letters like a man who is settling to a new task and a new mental discipline. Right at the end, Stead responds to his comment that taking communion has already become "indispensable". The clergyman may have smiled over the choice of word.
Enough survived of the younger, jazz-styled Eliot to deliver parts of Sweeney Agonistes, his first attempt at verse drama, but he was also incubating "The Journey of the Magi", published in August 1927. The poem is still marked by isolation, alienation and a sense of endings rather than transcendent beginnings.
Through all these pages, even as fresh work is ground out, even as grace is dispensed and received, one senses a man who longs to be rid of a burden. The pace is slow and the cadence businesslike, but the narrative grips and by the final, polite sign-off to poet, playwright, critic T Sturge Moore, one already wants to reach for volume four. Let us hope it isn't long delayed.
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