Who is the greatest English-language poet of the 20th century? W.B. Yeats? Robert Frost? Wallace Stevens? W.H. Auden? A good case could be made for any of them. Still, if you’d asked this question 50 or 60 years ago, most people would have said, without hesitation, T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). In 1948, he received the Nobel Prize for literature, and soon after his verse-play “The Cocktail Party” was a hit on Broadway; in 1956, 14,000 people jammed into a Minneapolis stadium to hear him speak.
By then, “The Waste Land” was firmly established as modernist poetry’s supreme masterpiece, the verse analogue to “Ulysses” (both published in 1922, that annus mirabilis). It and Eliot’s other major poems, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Four Quartets,” were appearing in freshman English textbooks, next to his ground-breaking early essays, in particular “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Every college student could recite the opening words of “The Waste Land” — “April is the cruelest month” — and many knew, thanks to “The Hollow Men,” that the world would end “not with a bang but a whimper.”
And yet, as this fourth volume of his letters reminds us, Eliot was for most of his life only a part-time poet. These 800 pages largely represent the correspondence of a middle-aged editor, soliciting articles for his cultural journal, the Criterion; granting and denying permission to reprint or translate his poems; agreeing or refusing to give talks; recommending younger writers for fellowships; and, not least, addressing business matters concerning Faber and Faber, the publishing house of which Eliot was a director. In short, this is the sort of correspondence that tends to be typed rather than written.
As his many photographs reveal, the American-born Eliot could be more English than the English, being always properly attired in three-piece suits, and what look to be heavy wool ones at that. His letters are similarly formal, precise and to the point. In them, Eliot keeps personal feelings close to his vest, seldom revealing anything of his interior or emotional life. The single exception might have been his friend Emily Hale, but the poet’s letters to her are still embargoed. It is widely believed that Eliot was in love with her.
When writing to Ezra Pound and a few old schoolmates, Eliot would sometimes grow jokey, falling into a slangy, deliberately illiterate prose reminiscent of his obscene juvenilia about King Bolo. But such frat-boy humor comes across as utterly phony. By contrast, one welcomes the few occasions when Eliot does talk seriously about himself. Commenting on a remark by the religious philosopher Friedrich von Hügel, he writes to the essayist Paul Elmer More:
“There seem to be certain persons for whom religion is wholly unnecessary. I do not think of people like [humanist Irving] Babbitt, or even Bertie Russell, in whom the religious instinct is very strong, even if diverted into other channels — but of persons of whom I have met a few, in whom it is simply 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. I am one 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. But the people I have in mind — the good ones are much more puzzling than the bad — have an easy and innocent acceptance of life that I simply cannot understand. It is more bewildering than the ‘Problem of Evil.’ ”
Today the “easy and innocent acceptance of life” is probably what most people hope for, practicing, in effect, a kind of modified Epicureanism. But Eliot was the product of generations of Puritan inbreeding — to literature’s benefit. He remains our great 20th-century poet of spiritual angst, of despair searching for transcendent meaning.
Overall, though, Eliot’s poetic stature has shrunk considerably since his death. The anti-Semitism and racism of some early poems; his decision to commit his first wife, Vivienne, to a mental hospital; conservative political views that some have judged fascistic — all these have troubled even his admirers. It still comes as a shock when this kindly man remarks, in one letter, that “my Christianity is always running up against this question of inferior races: of course a Jew of that sort or of any sort is superior to most Indians.” Happily, there isn’t much of this. As a counterbalance to such offensiveness, it’s worth bearing in mind that Eliot, as this volume shows, devoted considerable time and energy to fostering the careers of Louis Zukofsky, Edouard Roditi, Edward Dahlberg and other Jewish writers. Recognition of literary quality always trumped ethnic prejudice.
Some poets — Byron, preeminently — are wonderful letter writers. That’s sadly not the case for Eliot. In fact, the most fascinating material in “The Letters of T.S. Eliot” often appears in the lavish annotations at the bottom of the page. Here, editors Valerie Eliot (the poet’s widow, who died in November) and John Haffenden (the great authority on William Empson) provide contextual information of all kinds and identify virtually everyone with whom the poet corresponded. These include such half-remembered giants of 20th-century criticism as Herbert Read, Bonamy Dobree, E.R. Curtius, Ramon Fernandez, A.L. Rowse, I.A. Richards, R.P. Blackmur and Mario Praz. Given his position as a major poet, editor and publisher, Eliot seems to have been on familiar terms with just about every important writer and literary scholar in England, the United States and Western Europe.
There are, for instance, a couple of short notes to the young Auden (“I am sorry to say that I have not yet done anything about your poems”) and several to Thomas McGreevy, later director of the National Gallery of Ireland (and the good friend of Samuel Beckett). At one point, Eliot congratulates Leonard Woolf (of the Hogarth Press) for having published a book by Robinson Jeffers: “It is the best verse out of America for a long time.” To the young South African poet Roy Campbell, he declares, “There seems to be a great amount of quite competent verse turned out today; but most of it could have been written by any one of half a dozen people.” One exceptional, and insightful, letter presents a detailed overview of Eliot’s radio lectures on 17th-century English poetry. In another, the poet — an inveterate reader of mysteries — briefly clarifies a remark about “The Red-Headed League” in his review of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories. Still, most of these pages simply portray a busy executive at work.
And quite a lot of work, too. Even for a quick study, which he must have been, Eliot somehow evaluates scores of manuscripts, keeps up with all the latest books, corresponds about Faber publishing projects (among them Stuart Gilbert’s “James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ ”), commissions and edits articles and reviews, and even manages to produce his own short monograph on Dante. But about his own poetry, there is scarcely a word.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post weekly.
THE LETTERS OF T.S. ELIOT
Volume 4: 1928-1929
Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
Yale Univ. 826 pp. $50