July 3, 2018KR Reviews

Eliot Agonistes

This review appears in the July/Aug 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review

The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Volume 5, 1930-1931. Ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. London: Faber & Faber, 2014. lxi + 862 pp. £50.

The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Volume 6, 1932-1933. Ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. London: Faber & Faber, 2016. xlv + 847 pp. £50.

The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Volume 7, 1934-1935. Ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden. London: Faber & Faber, 2017. li + 948 pp. £50.

T. S. Eliot was the most erudite, technically skilled, experimental, obscure, difficult, and influential twentieth-century American poet and critic. He could say, as James Joyce wryly remarked of Finnegans Wake, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.” He sometimes complicated matters with deliberately misleading pronouncements. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” his frequently quoted papal bull of 1917, he insisted that poetry should be impersonal: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” In fact, his poems express his deepest suffering and agonized feelings. He confessed, “I am anything but an intellectual; more nearly a pure émotif” and tried to achieve simplicity by mastering his own emotions. In the greatest sleight-of-hand in twentieth-century poetry, Eliot portrayed his own private misery as the universal condition of modern man. Like Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, Eliot was a prophet of depression and gloom who defined the mood of the modern age. He even surpassed Kafka’s anguished torment and foreshadowed Beckett’s grim, garbage-can view of human existence.

The massive amount of new material in the nearly three thousand pages of three volumes of letters, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden—withheld by his widow for twenty-three years after his death and finally edited by her—is most welcome. The letters contain important insights into the technique and style of his poetry: explanations of the elusive “Marina,” “Ash Wednesday,” Murder in the Cathedral, and “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Four Quartets; work as publisher at Faber & Faber and editor of the Criterion; principles of literary criticism and influence on other poets. They record his frantic moves to unsatisfactory flats around London, weeks spent ill in bed and formidable debt of £1,200 to Inland Revenue. They reveal a great deal about his character, friendships, and personal life: the aftermath of his refuge in the church and religious conversion in 1927 from non-Christian Unitarian to High Church Anglican, the return to America to lecture at Harvard and throughout the country, and his traumatic escape from Vivien, his mentally unstable wife.

Eliot’s religious humility improved his character and made him habitually polite, modest, generous, self-abasing, and self-scourging: a wise man and a kind man. But not to be trifled with, he was capable of forceful protests about slender emoluments, anger when his poetry was mangled, and fury when American publishers pirated his most valuable literary asset, The Waste Land. Many of the letters deal with rather dull publishing duties and ecclesiastical business, with many repetitions and apologies for unavoidable delays. He was not a great letter writer like Byron, Keats, and Lawrence. He lacked their personal and emotional revelations, wit and panache, sympathy and energy, intellectual audacity and imaginative intensity.

His closest friends, whom he addressed by their first names, were Ezra Pound, Leonard Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Herbert Read, and his publishing colleagues Geoffrey Faber and Frank Morley. He took frequent holidays with Faber in Wales and Morley in Surrey. Surprisingly, he was also close to Middleton Murry, who has now sunk into oblivion. His female correspondents—Virginia Woolf, Ottoline Morrell, and Mary Hutchinson—offered tea and sympathy for his Baudelairean Mon coeur mis à nu. He was extremely deferential to all clergymen—keen proselytizers, spiritual counselors, father confessors, brainy Jesuits, and lordly bishops—and was quite chummy with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He sometimes signed off archaically as “Your obedient servant.”

By contrast, he illustrated delightfully misspelled letters to the young sons of Geoffrey Faber. Unlike Frost, Stevens, Williams, and Pound, Eliot had no children, but he was an attentive and conscientious godfather. He sometimes treated friends to saucy limericks, one of which sounds like a description of Emma Bovary: “There was a young lady named Ransome / Who surrendered 5 times in a hansom. . . . ” He and the literary critic Bonamy Dobrée addressed each other scatalogically as “Bumbaby” and “Tomarse.” Eliot cut loose from his usual formality when he wrote the “great work De Flatu, which begins ‘All farts are in three dimensions,’ ” and by sending Dobrée obscene poems about King Bolo and his big black queen: “They said ‘an embryonic prince / Is hidden in her tumbo; / His prick is long, his balls are strong / And his name is Boloumbo.’ ”

Eliot’s letters, like his poems, have many voices. He set a high bar for himself and, to deflect hostile criticism, could be surprisingly modest and self-abasing: “My paper was a poor attempt, written in a hurry to fulfil a promise”; “Everything I have said has been said before; and I am thoroughly dissatisfied with it”; “I am not proud of that piece of work—nothing new in it, and no conclusion that amounts to anything. . . . I am sure that it will disappoint you”; “If it does not seem to you good enough I shall not be offended!” His magisterial and pontifical manner disguised his deficiencies, and he confessed that his essay on the bishop and scholar Lancelot Andrewes “appears to lay claim to a much more profound knowledge than I possess.” Yet he was naturally pleased when his reputation was enhanced by favorable attention. He told one critic, “You are a rash man to want to do a book on me. My experience is that books about living men of letters, even when the subject is much more distinguished than myself, sell very badly.” But, he allowed, “I read anything about myself with a childish pleasure.”

Eliot sometimes threw off his protective carapace and, with ironically formal diction, became amusing: “As my name is in the telephone book, you have, in sending the letter to Liverpool, adopted an unnecessarily circuitous procedure.” He told the author of a book on mountain climbing, “The technical details make me quite giddy. The book confirms my intention of remaining in the valleys for the rest of my life.” A nervous Mr. Toad-driver, he personified the formidable menace of his exiguous and refractory car, which transported uneasy passengers in a state of suffocation and extreme discomfort: “It skids, it bounces; the handbrake goes back on you at awkward moments; it falls into a swoon in the middle of a steep hill, and has to be coaxed up like a donkey; and no one but a genius can change gears without making it scream frightfully.”

The mollifying effects of religion did not repress his caustic comments on centenaries, Freudianism and the “slime” of the New Statesman, and on illustrious philosophers and distinguished contemporaries, which enliven his letters by deflating his victims’ pretensions and targeting their most vulnerable defects. Spinozism is “a particularly brilliant and pernicious heresy”; Hegel seems too wildly improbable to keep his attention; “The orientalism of Schopenhauer is as superficial as superficial can be”; Julien Benda, the French political-social philosopher, “is a pedantic Sophist with a highly pretentious manner.”

Echoing the vow in the Book of Common Prayer to “renounce the devil and all his works,” he affirmed, “I dislike [Emerson] and his works.” Though he admired the novels of Henry James and was himself an inveterate weekender, he referred to one of the Master’s stories by wittily declaring that the novelist’s social and snobbish “Great Good Place conception of Heaven seems to be an endless weekend at a very large and substantial English country-house.” He was not sure that Francis Thompson “in his religious poetry ever reached a spirit of pure devotion.” The progressive socialistic views of Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells he consigned to burial and “regarded [them] merely as objects for the paleontologist.” He violently disagreed with Aldous Huxley’s “obnoxious essay on Pascal,” thought his scepticism was thoroughly jejune and that Brave New World offered no more than sedatives for suburbans. He remarked of Aldous’s “driveller-brother,” “I cannot give you the title of Julian Huxley’s best books, until he has written a good one.”

He surgically dispatched the popular novelist John Buchan and the poetasters Vachel Lindsay and Lascelles Abercrombie. William Carlos Williams’s poems meant very little to him (Williams vehemently returned his hostility), and he saw nothing “very big” in Robert Graves. Eliot discouraged a potentially lethal reviewer by stating, “I am not at all sure whether Osbert Sitwell and his book are worth the amount of high explosives which you propose to direct at him.” The amiable and mediocre Louis Untermeyer sank his self-serving and pernicious anthologies by including his own pathetic efforts and those of his wife. Placating Pound with a sneer at Jews, Eliot stated that “Louie goes marchin on. He’s done more to discredit poetry in the U.S.A. than anybody in or out of the N.Y. Ghetto.” Eliot loathed the fashionable photographer Cecil Beaton, whom he called “a very insignificant, though malodorous, insect.” Maurice Bowra, the diminutive, pushy, and overrated warden of Wadham College, Oxford, was a “vulgar little fat Head of House.” He praised George Orwell as “a man whose integrity I highly respected” and whom he liked personally, but rejected his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, as he would later foolishly and disastrously reject Animal Farm.

Eliot did bestow papal blessings on the chosen few. He published and introduced “the poems of Marianne Moore and told her, “You are one of the strangest children I have ever had anything to do with.” Elizabeth Bowen, he averred with a characteristic qualification, “has a very definite place, and a pretty high one, amongst novelists of her kind.” He unexpectedly declared that Tropic of Cancer was a “magnificent piece of work. There is writing in it as good as any I have seen for a long time.” Using a boxing metaphor and lapsing into colloquial speech, he wrote that “Dylan Thomas has some punch behind the fist and bein a welshman he is pretty tough.”

Eliot’s literary touchstones were Pound, Joyce, and Virginia Woolf. He wearily imitated Pound’s obfuscating Uncle Remus diction in letters to “Brer Rabbit.” Ezra gave him a lot of publishing trouble, and his heart sank when the deadly Van Buren Canto landed on his desk. Distinguishing between shades of opacity, he thought Pound was so obscure that no reader would know what he was talking about, but assured Auden that there was no need to apologize for his obscurity.

Pound disliked Eliot’s religion, Eliot disliked Pound’s economics. Pound expected Eliot to agree with him and got angry when challenged and contradicted. Eliot tried in vain to restrain Pound’s irrational vehemence and frenzied pedantry and exposed the radical intellectual weaknesses of his old friend and mentor: “Ezra seems to me to have made the utmost technical progress possible consistent with a juvenile ethics, religion and economics.” He mocked Mussolini by connecting fasces and faeces and by dedicating his drawing of an elephant with a chastity belt to the Duce. Pound, however, rightly thought that Eliot, like his cousin Charles William Eliot, would make an excellent president of Harvard.

He admired James Joyce and was keen to publish Ulysses, but feared “we should certainly be liable to prosecution and heavy penalties, with the possibility of the chairman’s having to spend six months in gaol. . . . Although it would of course be a matter of great regret to feel, if another publisher succeeded in getting away with it, what we had lost by our caution.” Joyce’s novel was published by Bodley Head in 1936. Eliot paid an unusually large three-hundred pound advance for Finnegans Wake and, while waiting ten years for the incomprehensible book, assured Joyce that it was “absurd to talk about refunding your advance, and we should not consider it.” In a sad, self-reflective letter to Joyce, who was going blind, whose daughter, Lucia, had a mental breakdown, and who had great difficulty publishing Ulysses, and who was burdened by financial problems, he wrote, “You do seem to me to have had more misfortune within the last few years than any one man is entitled to have.”

After meeting Eliot, still scarred from his years with Vivien, Scott Fitzgerald (whose wife was also mentally ill) wrote, “I liked him fine. Very broken and sad + shrunk inside.” Eager to publish Tender Is the Night, Eliot paid tribute to the two leading American novelists: “I have been waiting impatiently for another book by Mr. Scott Fitzgerald with more eagerness and curiosity than I should feel towards the work of any of his contemporaries, except that of Mr. Ernest Hemingway.” Chatto & Windus brought out Fitzgerald’s novel in 1934.

John Haffenden’s erudite introduction, prefaces, biographical information, and editing achieve a superbly high standard. He has mastered the wide-ranging material and does not, like the editors of Hemingway’s Letters, mechanically and mindlessly decant it from the Internet. His elaborate footnotes, often longer and more interesting than the letters, contain useful bibliographical information and, by quoting the recipients of Eliot’s letters, provide a valuable intellectual context. I’ve known twenty of Eliot’s correspondents and can vouch for the accuracy of Haffenden’s descriptions. These handsome, clothbound books lie comfortably open when flat. Unfortunately, the extensive notes, which reveal a great deal about minor writers, appear in tiny, torture-to-read print.

Haffenden makes only four discernible errors: typos on Bogan (5.264) and Bennett (6.285); Seven Pillars of Wisdom has no definite article (3.650); and Sultan Abdul Hamid II was the subject of, not the actor in, the movie about him (3.709). Haffenden also misses some important allusions: “Ars longa, vita brevis” is a Latin translation from Hippocrates (6.489); “All must come to dust” is from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (3.636); “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is a poem by John Donne (3.778); “At the mill with slaves” comes from Milton’s Samson Agonistes (5.725); “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” is a poem by Thomas Gray (3.418); “Cuspidor” is an ironic reference to Thermidor, the ninth month of the French Republican Calendar (3.219); Parerga and Paralipomena is the title of literary reflections by Arthur Schopenhauer, (6.705); “The Shadow in the Rose Garden” is a story by D. H. Lawrence (3.601); Faustus of the Unconscious refers to Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious (3.103); The Vulgar Streak is a novel by Wyndham Lewis (5.79), whose letters from Eliot are strangely absent in this volume; the Bloom who sprouts from Jewish-Irish origins is Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses (5.53); “Emily Hale speaks only to Eliot, and Eliot speaks only to God” echoes verses on the rigid hierarchy in Boston, “Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots, / And the Cabots talk only to God” (3. 892). The Italian lines from Dante could be translated as, “Romeo, a humble man and pilgrim, did this for him” (5.49).

Haffenden generously credits Valerie Eliot as his senior coeditor. She acquired and annotated most of her late husband’s letters and coedited earlier volumes before her death in 2012. Eliot, age forty-two to forty-seven in these books, lived for another thirty years. At the rate of two years per volume, this edition will require another fifteen volumes and a cadre of new editors who will continue to pass the baton as reviewers and readers disappear.

Eliot disingenuously declared that Herbert Read’s “danger I think is industry, just as mine is torpor.” But he was, in fact, tremendously energetic and hard-working, and explained his two-job method by stating, “The man of means will find it more difficult to concentrate his energies than the man who has only a few hours in the day.” During the difficult and anxious times of the economic Depression of the early 1930s, Eliot worked full-time as director of Faber & Faber. He called publishing poetry a public duty rather than a commercial undertaking, “a way of losing money in which we would like to indulge as much as possible, but in these times we must walk very carefully.” He wisely refused a translation of the hopelessly unpromising Was ist Der Mensch? Yet he could not, as he dearly wished, get Faber to bring out “Ash Wednesday” on that solemn day.

He simultaneously edited the Criterion, a doctrinaire and dogmatic, ultraconservative and reactionary quarterly. He spent a great deal of time talking to authors whose work he did not want to print, but paid contributors two pounds per thousand words (and received ten guineas for his article in the Listener and fifty pounds to broadcast his play). He generously accepted the inferior work of a hard-up Indian poet and arranged an annual subsidy for the promising but impoverished poet George Barker. He did “not consider the Criterion as a personal organ, and the contributions frequently express views which are wholly alien to my own,” and did not object to publishing articles he could not understand. Though he felt “the whole theory of historical materialism and economic determinism in the Marxian sense is just to me an incredible religious dogma,” which demanded belief that he could not possibly provide, he incongruously published the communist Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Second Hymn to Lenin.”

He did not mention Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, but categorically stated, “The moral foundations of Communism and Fascism seem to be equally unacceptable.” He almost never referred to musicians, artists, or films, but the ex-banker was always shrewd about the financial details of Vivien’s trusts and the fees of authors. An ideal editor, he scrupulously solicited, cajoled, enticed, reassured, apologized, and tactfully rejected his English and foreign authors, soothing them with hopes for a more positive future and recommending them to other journals and publishers. Always on the lookout for bright recruits, he was willing to encourage and help both young and established writers and sometimes asked them to suggest reviewers of their books. Resorting to flattery to get the reviewers he wanted, he told Herbert Read, “I believe you are almost the only person who knows anything about Kierkegaard” and enticed Etienne Gilson by stating, “You are the only man in Europe with the mastery of mediaeval philosophy which is required in discussing Cavalcanti.”

Eliot thought a pamphlet “ought to be sudden and wholly destructive” and urged contributors to have less invective and greater ferocity as long as they did not attack the author’s character and private life. He accepted angry criticism from the historian A. L. Rowse by asserting, “I don’t mind in the least your having been furious with me for giving your book to Smyth so long as you acquit me of any personal malice or even more love of mischief.” His excellent editorial advice was gratefully received even by the prickly and abrasive F. R. Leavis, whom he offered to help with contributors and subscribers when his rival started Scrutiny. He tried to fill the next three numbers of Criterion before leaving for America and then edited it as far as possible from abroad.

The editor who became the influential arbiter of critical taste and published the best modern poets, beginning with W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Louis MacNeice, admitted, “I never read modern verse, except when I put on my editorial mask to read what is 99% rubbish.” Alluding to his all-pervasive but unhealthy literary influence, he insisted, “If I could set half of the young verse writers of today onto translating instead of loading the world with imitations of everybody, I should feel virtuous.”

Eliot liked “to keep poems for some months and look at them from time to time to try to get new impressions.” He advised young poets to withhold their work until they had fully realized their talent. He warned one of them not to indulge in verbal orgies after reading too much Walter Pater and sagely advised him, if “you always know exactly what the words you use mean, and that the words mean what you want them to mean, you will be able to do a good deal better.” He thought that “much clarity of writing is merely a kind of knack of style.” In an apologia for his own exiguous creativity, he asserted, it is “always the best policy for a poet’s output to be sparse and small; in the long run it pays best from every point of view.” The poet should develop his style slowly and whet readers’ appetite for his work.

He also surprisingly stated, “I am not really interested in contemporary literature” and confessed that “my ignorance of fiction is almost complete.” He told Stephen Spender not to waste his time writing a novel, “an antiquated form of literature.” He was unaware of Kafka until enlightened by his translator Edwin Muir and never read two great writers, Marcel Proust and André Malraux. But he admired Hermann Broch, and he published Thomas Mann in the Criterion, praising Mann’s personal courage when his political speech provoked a dangerous riot in Germany. In two persuasive letters from Faber, Eliot gradually overcame a rare display of modesty in the blustering Roy Campbell, who lived in the bull-breeding region of Martigues: “The mere fact that in your opinion Hemingway is a more accomplished bullfighter than yourself carries no weight with us. . . . You are still in the midst of the bullfighting world and Hemingway has been out of it now for some considerable time.” In fact, Hemingway would publish the definitive work in English, Death in the Afternoon, two years later in 1932.

In a crucial statement of 1931, Eliot emphasized the importance of literary evaluation and judgment, which he compared to the heavenly divisions of angels: “We must assume, if we are to talk about poetry at all, that there is some absolute poetic hierarchy; we keep at the back of our minds the reminder of some end of the world, some final Judgement Day, on which the poets will be assembled in their ranks and orders.” His belief provides a salutary contrast to today’s politically correct but mindless lack of discrimination. In 1930, for example, he called Samuel Johnson’s London and The Vanity of Human Wishes “among the greatest verse Satires of the English or any other language; and, so far as comparison is justifiable, I do not think that Juvenal, his model, is any better.”

“The Pope of Russell Square” was not infallible and could also be seriously mistaken. When E. M. Forster defended D. H. Lawrence, who was vilified just after his death in 1930, “as the greatest imaginative novelist of our time,” Eliot dogmatically retorted, “I am the last person to wish to disparage the genius of Lawrence. . . . [But] unless we know exactly what Mr. Forster means by greatest, imaginative, and novelist, I submit that this judgment is meaningless.” Yet Eliot continued to disparage Lawrence in After Strange Gods, 1934 (whose title came from Deuteronomy 31.16), which he always refused to reprint. He rejected Lawrence’s early Eastwood story “A Modern Lover,” which appeared in Life and Letters in September 1933, lamenting that “it is a pity that the Lawrence is so monotonously like other stories of his.” He also wondered if it were possible to publish in England the Italian edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which he called “a badly written book.” But the English edition did not appear until Penguin won the controversial obscenity trial in 1960. He was fascinated by Lawrence but felt it was wrong to admire him. So Eliot lost three of the finest and best-selling modern novels by Joyce, Fitzgerald, and Lawrence.

The most valuable letters illuminate Eliot’s complex poetry. He usefully explained his imaginative impulse and method of writing verse: “One gets a rhythm, and a movement first, and fills it with some approximations to sense later.” He noted that the title of one of his major poems had a hybrid genesis: “There is a romance of William Morris called ‘The Hollow Land.’ There is also a poem of Mr. Kipling called ‘The Broken Men,’ ” and he combined the two in “The Hollow Men.”

In Shakespeare’s play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Marina is Pericles’s lost daughter, found by her father many years later. Eliot explained that his poem “Marina” was “a comment on the Recognition Motive in Shakespeare’s later plays.” He used the Latin epigraph from Seneca’s Hercules Furens to provide two contrasting extremes of the recognition scene, “a crisscross between Hercules waking up to find that he had slain his children, and Pericles waking up to find his child alive.” The poem took on a new life in 1934 when the Duke of Kent married Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark.

“Ash Wednesday” refers to the first day of Lent, when ash placed on the forehead reminds believers that they are merely dust and must finally return to God. The poem—which contains the magnificent line, “Why should an agèd eagle stretch its wings?”—is a hypnotic biblical and liturgical incantation that moves from personal despair to spiritual renewal. Eliot complained, “I have had so many letters asking me to explain what it means, that I almost wish I had not published it.” Obscuring his method of alluding to literary classics, he asked, “Can’t I sometimes invent nonsense, instead of always being supposed to borrow it?” But his poetry, always nourished by sources, was an act of synthesis rather than of creation. He revealed that “Ash Wednesday” was “a sketchy application of the philosophy of the Vita Nuova to modern life.” In his essay on Dante (1929) he explained that the confessional “Vita Nuova, besides being a sequence of beautiful poems connected by a curious vision-literature prose, is, I believe, a very sound psychological treatise on something related to what is now called ‘sublimation’. . . . Its philosophy is the Catholic philosophy of disillusion.”

This ambitious and reverential poem, he observed, “attempts to state a particular phase of the progress of one person . . . in the direction of ‘religion,’ ” to portray “the experience of man in search of God, and trying to explain to himself his intenser feelings in terms of the divine goal. . . . If you call the three leopards the World, the Flesh, and the Devil you will get as near as one can, but even that is uncertain.” He also emphasized the oneiric source: “My ‘veiled lady’ was, as a matter of fact, a direct employment of a dream I had, together with the yew trees and the garden god.” In 1923 Lawrence had declared, “Never trust the teller, trust the tale.” Ten years later Eliot agreed, “The author cannot be expected to know more than his readers . . . the ‘metaphor’ is no good unless it can mean things for the reader that it didn’t mean consciously for me. . . . I am rather inclined to believe, for myself, that my best poems are possibly those which evoke the greatest number and variety of interpretations surprising to myself.”

The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales seek St. Thomas à Becket, “the Holy Blissful Martyr” and subject of Murder in the Cathedral. Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was assassinated in his cathedral in 1170 by the henchmen of King Henry II in a struggle for power between Church and State. His death foreshadowed the execution of St. Thomas More, for similar reasons, by Henry VIII four centuries later. Murder in the Cathedral, whose alternate titles were The Archbishop Murder Case and Fear in the Way, sounds like an Agatha Christie thriller. Eliot, who wanted to write a really good play, composed it in three months and thought “some of the verse, which is largely choral, is good ranting stuff.” He observed that the four tempters “should be violently different, in tempo, rhythm and looks.” The drama is “formalised, with no attempt at realism, and more in the mode of Everyman or a Morality play . . . [but] it would be very much pleasanter to have the murder take place actually on the stage.” Virginia Woolf, in a violent reaction to his lifeless characters and morbid themes, found his play disgusting and repulsive: “I came away as if I’d been rolling in the ash bin; and someone filled my mouth with the bones of a decaying cat. . . . I had almost to carry Leonard out, shrieking. . . . The tightness, chillness, deadness and general worship of the decay and skeleton made one near sickness.”

“Burnt Norton” continues the themes of “Ash Wednesday.” The rose garden and empty ponds of the setting, a “third-rate” manor house in Gloucestershire burned down by the owner, sparked the poet’s imagination. He “happened to walk through the grounds one summer day at a time when the house had evidently been unoccupied for at least several years” and saw flying above a stream a kingfisher, which reappeared in the poem when “the kingfisher’s wing / Has answered light to light.” Several passages deleted from Murder in the Cathedral illustrate, through repetition and incantation, the themes of time and salvation. The memorable lines include “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality” from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and the grim and gloomy description of a world without God, “The crying shadow in the funeral dance, / The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.”

The revelations in Eliot’s letters were personal as well as literary. He declared that his birthplace, St. Louis, and the Mississippi River, a “dark brown god,” “affected me more deeply than any other environment has done.” But he also emphasized the importance of New England: “If I for instance had spent my life in Boston instead of London, the mere weight of ancestral tradition, of atmosphere and surroundings, might very likely have operated to keep me an Unitarian.” He fondly recalled as an adult the “pleasure in overcoming one’s inferiority as a schoolboy.”

Highly educated himself at Harvard, Marburg, and Oxford, he wryly confessed that his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the philosopher F. H. Bradley was “accepted, I suppose, because it was unreadable.” If the examiners couldn’t understand it, he felt, they couldn’t turn it down. He was also oddly negative about the value of education for a poet and described college as a benign penal settlement: “Of course being at Oxford is paralysing to you. Residence in a University, enforced for three or four years, is unpleasant to anyone who is eager for artistic expression. . . . I have seen good poets ruined because they were too conscious of being uneducated; and by the time they had more or less educated themselves they had lost all impulse to write poetry.” He was very negative about his experiences as a teacher of dull students: “Nobody ever instructed me in the art of ‘approaching the slower minds,’ and I started as a schoolmaster at a time when I was pretty well a nervous wreck. . . . My pupils [who included John Betjeman] sometimes thought that I was an imposter.”

His early literary influences were French rather than English and he said, “My first poems are almost pure Laforgue, with a little Baudelaire. Gautier I should never have studied but for the suggestion of Pound.” He revealed, in a fascinating comparison, that the similarity “between The Waste Land and Mr. Pound’s Cantos lies I think in versification, in the use of allusion and in a similar kind of concentration.”

Religion, in the years following his conversion, was of paramount importance. He called himself, “by temperament but not in doctrine, an old-style hellfire Calvinist” and criticized the secularization of Christmas, which “has neither the exaltation of a Christian memorial feast, nor the abandon of Saturnalia.” He cheekily told the Catholic apostate Joyce, “I shall mention you in my prayers, if you do not consider that an impertinence.” He declared his faith by stating, “I was brought up as a Unitarian of the New England variety; for many years I was without any definite religious faith, or without any at all; in 1927 I was baptised and confirmed into the Church of England; and I am associated with what is called the Catholic movement in that Church. . . . I accordingly believe in the Creeds, the invocation of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, the Sacrament of Penance.” It is not clear what the intercession of the saints ever did for Eliot, who solemnly confessed, “It has taken me nearly forty-two years to acquire a faint perception of the meaning of Humility.” But like the equally tormented Samuel Johnson, “religion has brought not happiness, but the sense of something . . . more terrifying than ordinary pain and misery: the very dark night and the desert” of St. John of the Cross.

Eliot’s most searing letters concern his nervous breakdown in 1921: “I have had considerable mental agony at one time or another, and once or twice have felt on the verge of insanity or imbecility. . . . I never found I could make any conscious deliberate use of suffering.” But he did so in The Waste Land when he imitated Vivien’s neurotic speech: “My nerves are bad tonight. . . . Why do you never speak. Speak,” and his own despair, “On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” He also alluded to his disastrous connection to Vivien and explanation of his future flight when advising a woman, whose husband had recklessly fled from a mental asylum, about the dangers of rejoining his family: “I happen to have more knowledge of this type of nervous illness than most people. . . . The manifestations of mania are always more pronounced with the persons they know best than with others. Furthermore, those near can do no good but only harm; and it is a heartrending business to wear oneself to shreds for anyone when one knows all the time that he or she only becomes the worse for it.”

Like Leonard Woolf, Scott Fitzgerald, and Heinrich Mann, Eliot had a mad wife who sometimes became a public spectacle. When a friend said that she did not keep bees, Vivien alarmingly replied, “Neither do I. I keep hornets. In my bed!” “Incorrigibly distrustful of enthusiasm,” Eliot was from the start terribly mismatched with Vivien. Bertrand Russell, who had been his teacher at Harvard and benefactor in London, seduced Vivien at the beginning of their marriage in 1915 and Eliot painfully reflected, “Bertie, because at first I admired him so much, is one of my lost illusions. He has done Evil, without being big enough or consciousness enough to Be evil.” Physically indifferent to Eliot, Vivien soon severed their sexual relations. Celibacy, he asserted, “can be done, as I know.”

Vivien, he felt, was the punishment for his sins. The longer he stayed with her, the more they tormented each other. If he remained with Vivien, he might crack up again; if he left, she would become insane. She was maddening and destructive, a sickly ether addict who became increasingly insane. Lapsing into paranoia, Vivien screamed, “I have to go abroad. . . . I am forced to go by my enemies.” Eliot confessed that he had “not yet got over the feeling of being hunted” and that in his nightmares he was pursued like Orestes by the Furies. But her mad Vivisexion hurt him into poetry.

Virginia Woolf, Clive Bell, and Osbert Sitwell were all surprised that Eliot, influenced by his wife, habitually wore green face powder, which gave him a morbid theatrical appearance. After observing the married couple, Woolf, who had a devoted husband, sympathetically recalled his feral torment, “Poor Tom is all suspicion, hesitation and reserve. There is a leaden sinister look about him. But oh—Vivienne! Was there ever such a torture since life began! This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck.” In a desperate plea for sympathy and attempt to engage his emotions, Vivien wounded and humiliated him in front of his friends. Elizabeth Bowen, who found the “atmosphere of their flat exceedingly sinister and depressing,” described them as “two highly nervous people shut up together in grinding proximity.” Vivien feared she was not in her perfect mind; Eliot could not minister to a mind diseased. He feared that if he expressed his true feelings for Vivien, he might even murder her.

Vivien, a follower of the British fascist Oswald Mosley, was wild and crazy. Emily Hale, whom he courted for many years in America and England, was prissy and repressed. Eliot was extremely annoyed when Emily was “exasperatingly respectful” to her revolting relatives and paid more attention to them than to her suitor. His friends and family unanimously disapproved of Emily. Virginia Woolf called her “a dull impeccable Bostonian lady.” Ottoline Morrell thought she was grim and prim, “like a Sergeant Major,” and intolerably bossy with him. Eliot’s elder brother, Henry, firmly asserted, “Tom has made one mistake, and if he marries Emily he will make another.” His letters to Emily have been embargoed until 2020, but judging by the two lame examples that escaped sequestration and are included in this edition, readers who have waited for fifty years are bound to be disappointed.

Eliot told their friends that Vivien “likes to be badgered by them (though this is a good deal to ask of friends) as it stimulates her self-esteem, which is always in need of support and sustenance.” But she demanded more sympathy and pity than anyone was reasonably prepared to give. Her valetudinarian, “hopelessly infantile” letters described her “world of ghosts & shadows & unrealities,” and she told Ottoline, “I feel that the part of my life which is around you is the only part I can endure to contemplate.” In a series of pathetic laments she complained, “For nearly a year before Tom was to leave [for America] I was practically in a state of collapse. . . . I nearly went mad, and so did he. . . . I was very nearly insane . . . with the Cruel Pain of losing Tom.” Like a penitential ascetic, not likely to attract visitors, she disgustingly revealed after Eliot had been gone for six months, “I have only had 2, or 3, baths since Tom went away. I have only washed my hair twice. . . . My nails are thick with dirt.” Her trivial and importunate, weird and emotionally disturbing letters, usefully included in these volumes, go far to explain his self-protective behavior.

Eliot’s responsiveness, accessibility, and eagerness to meet his own friends and authors, often at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, were also attempts to escape from Vivien: “The more people she can see without me, the more people I might be able to see without her!” There must have been tremendous rows when she tried to persuade him to refuse the invitation or take her, as traveling thumbscrew, to America. In 1932, after seventeen years of torture, he left a sad farewell note, sneaked away from home to give the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, and never returned to her.

He accepted the offer from his old university in order to sever relations with Vivien, pay off old debts, and reconnect to his American roots, family, and college. He sailed on the Ausonia from Southampton to Montreal, tourist third class, in September 1932. In November, while he was in America, Franklin Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover and was elected to his first term as president. Prohibition remained in force until December 1933, three months after he returned to England, but his Harvard hosts kept him well-oiled with liquor.

Proud of his ancestral traditions and longing for his family after many years in England, he recalled, “My great-grandfather was on the same witch jury with Nat Hawthorne’s great-grandfather; and I just naturally smell out witches.” He had a very deep feeling about St. Louis, where both his parents were buried, and his brother said Tom was “grateful for personal affection after so much distant veneration” by admirers of his poetry. He was not keen to look up “the prehistoric or eolithic age” fossils of his Harvard class of 1910, but he did meet Scott Fitzgerald, and Edmund Wilson introduced him to Marianne Moore.

After the train ride from Montreal to Boston, he sent Geoffrey Faber his first impressions of the waste land of Vermont: “The towns, the villages and the scattered homesteads are sordid and mesquin [mean]; the country is almost a desert; and you would not believe that man could have inhabited a territory for a good three hundred years and made so shallow an impression upon it.” Disappointed in the appearance of Cambridge and depressed by the sense of estrangement he felt there, he complained that the “most costly and elaborate specimen of architecture may face a most squalid and temporary looking coffee-room or garage. . . . The first sense of alienation is painful—of an impassable because invisible barrier—the feeling that here may be no one with whom I can wholly communicate.”

But his rooms in the eponymous Eliot House, with a view of the Charles River, were “magnificent—I might even say gaudy; luxurious beyond the dreams of Oxford and Cambridge. . . . I have very comfortable rooms now—not too noisy—a spare bedroom for any visitor who deserves it—and a marble shower bath but no tub. Food not at all bad—I am getting used to tomato cocktails, fried pineapples and strange salads.” There was no teapot in the dining room, however, and he was reduced to measuring cup by cup with a used teabag.

Harvard paid Eliot ten thousand dollars, a generous sum in the early 1930s. Besides giving the Norton lectures, he taught two classes a week, was at home for tea on one afternoon, and saw a few students for personal conferences. In the spring term he taught a course in Modern English Literature, a subject, he disingenuously declared, “with which I have very little acquaintance.” For the Norton lectures, published as The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), he admitted, “I was indeed forced to pick my way carefully so as to produce what I could with the minimum of new reading & new thinking.”

He disliked speaking in public and did not plan, at first, to do any general lecturing outside of Harvard. But he gave eighty lectures, for about a hundred dollars each, all around America, and the provincial New Englander asserted, “I don’t like California much: no country, only scenery. . . . California is a horrible place.” He did not employ a lecture agency and made all the arrangements himself, mainly by responding to the invitations that came pouring in. He spoke with a cultivated English accent and modestly remarked, “if I read my verse for a whole hour I should have to read nearly everything that I have written.”

Edmund Wilson, who heard Eliot read his poems in New York in May 1933, was impressed by his performance and intrigued by his personality: “He did them extremely well—contrary to my expectation. He is an actor and really put on a better show than Shaw. I suppose that a kind of dramatic resonance he has is one of the things that have made his stuff carry so. He gives you the creeps a little at first because he is such a completely artificial, or rather, self-invented character—speaking English with a most careful English accent as if it were a foreign language which he had learned extremely well.”

A handsome man traveling on his own, but sworn to celibacy and shuddering at the thought of his serpentine entanglements with Vivien, he attracted the attention of rather forward young women. On the ship to America a young lady, pretending to be helpless and afraid, asked, “would I walk round the Deck with her as it was Dark & Slippery and she was afraid of Falling over Board.” After a stiff twenty-minute stroll she abandoned all hope of a transatlantic liaison and remarked, “You don’t give me any feeling of Support [and] I don’t mean Moral Support.” He tried manfully to elude a woman in Providence who made eyes at him and replied to all his polite remarks by saying, “My! What a line you’ve got!” At Wellesley College, the expert on hormones slyly noted, “The girls seemed to lack endocrines or something, as there was no rush to kiss me afterwards.”

After returning to England in May 1933, Eliot asked, “There is no relief but in grief. / O when will the creaking heart cease?” and looked forward to “throwing off the poison of uncongeniality and pretense” in his marriage. He sought solitude and felt “even the most active life will be restful if I am alone,” but he knew “it may take some time to make V. realise that my decision is irrevocable. She is very tenacious.” She tried emotional blackmail by warning him about her imminent death, “I see no chance of recovery, now, until you do feel that you can come in & out, freely to see me,” but he steeled himself and ignored her frantic lamentations. He did not own a great many books and borrowed most of what he needed from the London Library. But Vivien tried to retain her last hold on him by fiercely resisting all efforts to extract his books and papers from her flat and forced him to incur considerable legal expenses to recover them. When he came back to London after a seven-month parole, he hid out in the country like an outlaw on the run while she desperately attempted to flush her prey from his covert.

The Eliot that emerges from these letters—liberated from Vivien, more at ease in England and strengthening his literary reputation—is not the gloomy “Undertaker in the four-piece suit” or the cold-hearted egoist in Michael Hastings’s play Tom and Viv and Viv’s biography by Carole Seymour-Jones, but a brilliant, congenial, generous, humane, sympathetic, and long-suffering poet.

Jeffrey Meyers, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has had thirty-three books translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets and published on six continents. He has recently published Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Correspondence with Alex Colville in 2016, and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy in 2018.