Schooling a generation of poets, haggling with writers over money, knocking back five gins over lunch—TS Eliot was at the centre of 1920s literary life, as the latest volume of his letters showsby DJ Taylor / June 20, 2012 / Leave a comment
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The Letters of TS Eliot: Volume 3: 1926-1927
Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (Faber £40)
In Faces in My Time (1980), the third of his four punctilious volumes of memoirs, the novelist Anthony Powell reflects on his first youthful encounter with TS Eliot. The venue was L’Etoile in Charlotte Street; the date 1927 or 1928. Eliot, wearing a dinner jacket and presumably on his way to a smart party, sat eating by himself. Powell, a year out of Oxford, remembered feeling “a sense of excitement at the sight of a figure whom the Sitwells, Bloomsbury, even Wyndham Lewis, treated with respect.” Somehow this fascination was enhanced by one of those present remarking that “they say Eliot is always drunk these days,” although Powell thought him “perfectly sober when, walking rather quickly, he made his way out into the street.”
Was Eliot always drunk in those days? Certainly this third volume of his collected letters has an account of a whey-faced miserabilist knocking back five gins over lunch. To go back to Powell’s awestruck sighting in Charlotte Street it is difficult to convey, nearly 90 years after the fact, quite how dense were the layers of prestige that Eliot collected around himself here in the era of Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway and—to extend the geographical compass a bit—Hart Crane’s long poem The Bridge. This accumulated lustre was all the more extraordinary in that the cultural wars in which Eliot found himself in the mid-1920s were being conducted, simultaneously, on three or possibly even four fronts.
To begin with, there was his status as a poet, or rather the poet who, if not quite single-handedly, had brought modernism into the literary mainstream. To the achievement of Selected Poems: 1909-1925 could be added his decisive influence on the crowd of home-grown versifiers who followed in his wake: Powell’s Eton contemporary Brian Howard, compiling an anthology of young talent for the Hogarth Press, noted its “numberless variations, generally in the treble key, upon Mr Eliot’s renowned poem, The Wasteland.”
Then, in an age where literary criticism was ceasing to be a matter of scansion, metre and motive, there was his status as a critical hierophant, importing a zealous, classical austerity to a discipline which had previously got by on belles-lettrist laxness. Finally, there was his position as a kind of aesthetic idée fixe, a potent symbol of the ongoing post-war revolt against Georgian poetry, lyricism, Romanticism (up to a point), impulse, pastoral—all that dead wood in which the literary jungle of the 1920s abounded. Small wonder Powell was impressed.
The distance between some of these Olympian peaks and the subsidiary crags occupied by the editor of an upmarket literary magazine—Eliot’s major professional responsibility in 1926-27—is sometimes a dizzying gulf. No doubt in its day-to-day routines the supervision of a highbrow review is a no less humdrum activity than any other branch of journalism, and yet the atmosphere of the Criterion’s editorial desk can seem horribly mundane. Eliot, being Eliot, was uncomfortably aware of this tendency to pour his immortal spirit down the drain a pint at a time (“One so often feels that the work of editing a literary review is quite useless and makes no difference in the world…” he informed a fan) and yet his sedulousness, not to say obsequiousness, as a solicitor of contributions seems exaggerated even by the standards of the 1920s. Eliot’s extreme deference to an older generation of literary gentlemen to whom he was professionally indebted has often been remarked, but the letters to such Grub Street veterans as Charles Whibley and the former Liberal MP JM Robertson practically lay on the flattery with a trowel. Amid a riot of invitations to tea, grim-sounding entertainments involving select bands of Criterion faithful and the sober commissioning of articles with titles like “Shakespeare’s perception of the functional importance of the brain,” the playful, crony-haunted Eliot, capable of signing off his letters to Ezra Pound “In haste, Possum” gleams fitfully out of the surrounding pitch.
Shakespeare, it turns out, was rapidly becoming an editorial obsession: JM Robertson, you deduce, would have been far less hospitably received in the absence of his theories about Hamlet. Chronologically, the Criterion—to be scrupulously accurate, The New Criterion—was at an interesting developmental stage in its 17-year history. Founded in 1922 as a quarterly, with backing from Viscountess Rothermere, who envisaged it as a “chic and brilliant” successor to the short-lived Art and Letters, it had lost money, been acquired by Faber & Gwyer, on whose board Eliot now sat, and was in the process of being relaunched, come 1927, as a stamina-sapping monthly. The low circulation, never rising above 1100 copies, was guaranteed both by the exorbitant cover price (3/6d rising to 5s) and the loftiness of its editorial stance.
“It is not in any sense a popular review,” Eliot assured one of his correspondents, “and desires only to present the best thoughts of the best minds.” Its carefully selected reviewers—no one took greater pains than Eliot in the sifting of new talent—had been chosen with the aim of embodying a “tendency,” in which classicism played a part and mention was made of “a higher and clearer conception of Reason.” Cheeringly, even the best minds were not above haggling over money, and there is a gracious letter to Virginia Woolf from February 1926 apologising for having “forgotten about the special rates, which, as a matter of fact, have never been applied to anyone but Joyce and yourself.”
But there is a wider cultural parable going on here, beyond the usual editorial obligation to renew the contacts book and keep the rates down to two guineas a thousand. This is the sheer difficulty of editing a highbrow literary magazine—or indeed any sort of literary magazine—at a time of cultural fracture. In an age where fragmentation was the order of the day and gangs of vers libre poets and outraged traditionalists fought running battles through the pages of the weekly reviews, Eliot’s cautious flexibility is one of his most engaging characteristics. JC Squire, his arch-rival on the ultra-conservative London Mercury, once described himself as “a centipede with a foot in a hundred camps.” The same, up to a point, is true of Possum: here seen encouraging the Auden-generation poets; there found petitioning AE Housman to write about Wilkie Collins; an ally of the Sitwells but on friendly terms with Bloomsbury; and yet, however tactful, diplomatic and discreetly feline, never quite aloof from the rough and tumble of literary in-fighting.
“We shall be able to deal properly with JCS… when Sir Edmund is safely interred in the Abbey,” he rallies Edith Sitwell. “JCS” is JC Squire; “Sir Edmund” Edmund Gosse, chief book reviewer of the Sunday Times and, we infer, a hidebound obstruction.
If the Criterion rates a column and a half of index references and Bonamy Dobrée, one of its regulars, 33 individual letters, then it would be mistake to mark this quarter of a million words of correspondence down as a series of chips from the editorial work-bench. Simultaneously, they harbour both a tragic heroine and a spiritual quest. The tragic heroine is Vivienne, Eliot’s first wife, whose mental disturbance led to her confinement in a French sanatorium and whose continual relapses are a source of desperate fraternal telegrams, self-effacing wifely letters to the critic John Middleton Murry (“Oh I know I am entirely worthless… I know it does not matter what happens to me”) and curiously paranoid diktats to Eliot’s secretary about keeping his whereabouts secret. The spiritual quest, meanwhile, takes in Eliot’s reception into the Anglican Church, and a series of reading lists (the works of Saint Augustine in 15 volumes, Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity) ever more inclined towards heavy-duty early-modern theology.
In common with its predecessor, Letters: Volume 3, scrupulously edited by the second Mrs Eliot and John Haffenden, tells us hardly anything about Eliot’s internal, “poetic” life. As for the personality, the letters to Criterion contributors, actual and aspiring, convey a faintly pedagogic air. When he finally came to meet Eliot, shortly after the end of the second world war, Powell diagnosed “just a touch of the headmaster, laying aside his dignity for a talk with the more intelligent boys.” For “boys” read the Criterion’s gang of Shakespeare theorists and clerical interpreters of the Acts of the Apostles.
As for the dignity, one never quite knows how much of it was laid aside, what with the jocular rebukes of F Scott Fitzgerald for misspelling his name or the gentle put-downs administered to the inadequately serious (“It does not seem to me that the subject matter is of sufficient importance to justify the Criterion in recognising the existence of Mr Michael Arlen.”) Eliot, on this evidence, was a tough cookie, a sharp operator whose inner life was aflame with the grisliest of private demons. All the same, you suspect that the lasting interest of the Criterion lies mostly in the fact that he edited it.