Sunday 24 March 2019

Man of letters spells out waste land of marriage

Letters: The Letters of TS Eliot VII: 1934-1935, Ed John Haffenden and Valerie Eliot, Faber, hardback, 1,002 pages, €70

Eliot mess: The poet's letters to Emily Hale, with whom he had fallen in love during his student days in Boston, are sadly absent from this volume
Eliot mess: The poet's letters to Emily Hale, with whom he had fallen in love during his student days in Boston, are sadly absent from this volume
The Letters of TS Eliot

The disaster of TS Eliot's first nuptials haunts the latest volume of his letters, finds Jeremy Noel-Tod.

'He contracted an unhappy marriage and much later the habit of taking laudanum... the greatest English literary critic, he was also the greatest intellectual force of his time."

It is hard not to hear a note of gloomy self-identification in TS Eliot's potted biography of the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, written to be printed on a postcard for the National Portrait Gallery in London. It is included in the latest volume of his letters, which contain copious evidence that Eliot himself was now considered the greatest literary critic of his own time, and that he, too, had "contracted" an unhappy marriage - a verb with coldly legal and clinical resonances that haunt the story of his separation from his mentally ill wife in these years.

The couple had formally parted in 1933, while Eliot was on a lecture tour of the United States - the first time he had returned to his native America since impulsively marrying a young Englishwoman, Vivien Haigh-Wood, in 1915. In his closing remarks as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, Eliot reflected that "poetry is not a career, but a mug's game"; that a poet may well have "messed up his life for nothing"; and that "poets only talk when they cannot sing". If that wasn't confession enough, he left the stage with the Hamlet-like observation that "the sad ghost of Coleridge beckons to me from the shadows".

It was a glimpse of Eliot the tortured genius who had figured in his readers' imaginations ever since he published The Waste Land (1922), the great modernist poem that also contains a cryptic confession of his restless home life ("My nerves are bad to-night"). One wonders how many of his Harvard classmates believed the strenuous bonhomie of the self-portrait that he wrote for their 25th anniversary report in 1935, which lists reading detective fiction and "writing a little poetry" among his hobbies.

The joke, however, was true. Having already taken a vow of celibacy shortly after his conversion to the Anglican Church in 1927, Eliot the bachelor - whose new landlord was the vicar of Kensington - continued to immerse himself in his work as a publisher at Faber and Faber and editor of The Criterion magazine. He also pursued his literary ambition of writing "a really good play", beginning rather unpromisingly with The Rock (1934), a pageant in aid of London's churches, but hitting his tragic stride with Murder in the Cathedral (1935), on the death of Thomas A Becket.

Eliot's monastic work ethic left behind boxes of personal and business correspondence, all devotedly gathered by his second wife, Valerie, and expertly seen into print by the scholar John Haffenden.

As with previous volumes, readers who sift through the reams of typewritten politesse will be rewarded with throwaway gleams of the shrewd editor and critic ("I should like to query the adjectives 'swart' and 'nude'").

Eliot died in 1965, so there may be twice as many again of these 900-page doorstops still to come. The relatively rare letters relating to Eliot's own poetry have already been quoted in the footnotes of the two-volume, annotated edition of the poems, which appeared in 2015. There are still stories to absorb here, though.

Most touching are Vivien Eliot's deluded and heartbroken letters, which burst in upon her husband's stolid monologues. Imagining a sinister conspiracy of "enemies" behind his refusal to meet her, she wrote plaintively on Valentine's Day 1935: "Tom. The front door of this flat is opened every night at 10.30 until 11 for T S Eliot. [...] You MUST come home now. Before anyone else dies." They would meet for the last time later that year, when she came to a public lecture dressed in fascist "Blackshirt" uniform (a political movement he abhorred). "I cannot talk to you now," he said, although she believed he had "claimed me in public".

More surprisingly poignant is the editorial correspondence with Eliot's friend, fellow American and Faber author Ezra Pound. "I am obliged to spend a great deal of time answering letters from Ezra Pound, but my firm pays for the stamps," he mock-grumbled. But in reality his under-punctuated letters to Pound (now living in Italy), written in their private, exaggerated "Uncle Remus" dialect, must have been a welcome break from the formal exchanges with authors, solicitors, archbishops and people who had sent him handkerchiefs and napkin rings for Christmas.

Beneath the saloon-bar knockabout of the Pound letters lingers a sense of lost youth, which emerges in Eliot's fantasy of "Possum" and "Brer Rabbit" reviving their early London fame as the royal couple of literary modernism, "bowin graciously to the multitood hoarsely cheerin". The sober 46-year-old could see, however, that he had lost Pound to Mussolinian fascism, and his replies here deflec t - without directly rebutting - the other's anti-Semitic dribblings about the literary critics FR Leavis and IA Richards (who were, incidentally, not Jewish).

The most important person in Eliot's life at this time, however, is absent from this volume. The poet's letters to Emily Hale, with whom he had been in love since his Boston student days, are embargoed until 2020. Eliot watchers will hope that, when opened, they will reveal more about their 1934 visit to a private house in Gloucestershire which inspired 'Burnt Norton', the first part of his last major poem, 'Four Quartets' (1943).

Beginning with lines that were cut from Murder in the Cathedral - "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future" - 'Burnt Norton' is a philosophical reflection on regret and longing that circles around an early autumn walk in a rose garden. The present volume ends on New Year's Eve 1935 with Eliot (on his fifth letter that day) promising to finish the poem for publication. The final lines would be: "Ridiculous the waste sad time / Stretching before and after" - or, as he put it to one correspondent, "nothing but a brilliant future behind me".

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