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‘The Letters of T.S. Eliot: Volume 4’

T. S. Eliot’s letters are into their fourth volume, at which point the poet and editor is 41, a recent Anglican convert, and dealing with his mother’s death.
T. S. Eliot’s letters are into their fourth volume, at which point the poet and editor is 41, a recent Anglican convert, and dealing with his mother’s death.HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES/Hulton Archive

The first volume of T. S. Eliot's letters appeared in 1988 but it was not until 21 years later that a second volume followed; now we have Volume 4, bringing the total number of pages to 3,526 and taking us only two years, through 1929, when Eliot was 41. Since he lived until 1965, the project is not even close to concluding itself, and its remarkable editor, John Haffenden (his coeditor — the second Mrs. Eliot — having died) gives no indication that he or the project is flagging.

His editorial work is superb, its comprehensive nature such that not only is each of Eliot's letters fully annotated, but also that the letter is usually given context with a footnote containing all or parts of the words that provoked Eliot's response. This means that footnote space sometimes exceeds that of the letter footnoted, but this is never done in a pedantic or obtrusive way. The reader learns a lot about people other than the central man, although this ensures that the pace of production overall is a stately one.


Eliot's attitude toward his correspondence was sensible, even original: "We want to confess ourselves in writing to a few friends, and we do not always want to feel that no one but those friends will ever read what we have written." The complicated precision of this declaration is typical of the writer, as was his remark to his Harvard friend and fellow-poet Conrad Aiken, that "letters should be indiscretions, otherwise they're simply bulletins." Yet the reader who picks up this new volume in search of indiscretions will be disappointed; in marked contrast to the previously edited letters, there are no agonized testimonies of domestic suffering. His wife, Vivien, had returned from the sanatorium in France where she was being treated to live again with her husband — although not for long: Eliot would file separation papers four years later. There are also fewer unburdenings of himself to his mother, or his elder brother Henry Ware, or to his friend and philosophical opponent John Middleton Murry. In fact, most of the letters are written as editor of his magazine, The Criterion, to one or another editorial consultant, potential reviewer, or aspiring young writer, and are little more than bulletins, keeping the office running as smoothly as possible.

Eliot joined the Anglican church in 1927, and these letters from the next two years express relatively little speculation about personal, spiritual matters. There is instead much correspondence dealing with the relation, if any, of religion to Humanism, as sponsored by the Americans Paul Elmer More and Eliot's old teacher Irving Babbitt. But this matter, which even in its day was of less than earth-shaking concern to most intellectuals, seems extremely dated now. By contrast there is an exceptional moment in a letter to More when Eliot wonders about people whose religious instinct is absent: "They may be very good, or very happy; they simply seem to miss nothing, to be unconscious of any void — the void that I find in the middle of all human happiness and all human relations, and which there is only one thing to fill." And he declares himself one to "whom this sense of void tends to drive towards asceticism or sensuality, and only Christianity helps to reconcile me to life, which is otherwise disgusting." The force of that final adjective is unsettling, and makes us aware that Eliot was playing for keeps. One is reminded, in a lighter way, of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh who, after he became a Roman Catholic noted that religion made him a less horrible person than he had been without it.


There are occasional letters from Vivien Eliot, mostly in the form of complaints: "He simply hates the sight of me," she tells Lady Ottoline Morrell; while Virginia Woolf makes cruel fun of the marriage when she hears that Vivien is having trouble with her foot: "Well the long and short of it all is that [she] is recumbent forever: swollen, horizontal — for one can't get any footrest that suits her."


As with earlier volumes, Eliot's own humor is abundantly present, as when he proposes the money-making idea of producing "gramophone prayer records to be fitted to electric gramophones to be sold in Thibet," which place he hears has plenty of water power for the electricity. He counsels one poet whose poems he has rejected that he, Eliot, has found it "a great assistance to me to correct my verses by reciting them aloud to myself with the accompaniment of small drum." Having mastered driving a car (hopefully) he writes to a friend that he will pluck up his spirit to visit "if you will be there to greet us, and then to turn the car round so that I can drive back."


Eliot's mother, Charlotte, died in 1929, and the son is silent about what his wife called this "agonizing time" succeeding her death. His last letters to his mother a couple of months previously, ended by reminding her of two pairs of white pajamas she once made for him: "Do you remember them? I do not wear them a great deal, because I want to keep them to wear for a long long time; and even when they are too worn out to wear I shall still keep them!" Surely a more than sufficient testimony of filial love, and also a poignant one.

William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College.