Dispatches from hell

At the peak of his powers, TS Eliot battled misery and melancholia. This second volume of his letters offers a fascinating guide to these harrowing years
December 16, 2009
“Schmoozing the great”: TS Eliot with WB Yeats in 1925

The Letters of TS Eliot Volume Two: 1923-1925 Edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton (Faber and Faber, £35)

In October 1922—about three months before this second volume of TS Eliot’s letters picks up the threads of a life left dangling at the end of volume one—its 34-year-old protagonist had published the greatest poem of the 20th century, The Waste Land. What’s more, he had published it in the first issue of an exceptionally distinguished literary magazine, the Criterion, of which he was the editor. Already well established as a brilliant young critic, he had good reason to feel pleased with himself, perhaps even a little cocky. True, Eliot could not reasonably have foreseen that the 21st century would judge him Britain’s favourite poet, but he must at least have intuited that The Waste Land was an astonishing thing—a landmark in literature comparable to The Rite of Spring in music or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in painting. The awed reviews that were soon popping up on both sides of the Atlantic more than drowned out the few sceptical voices who thought the whole thing was a bolshie hoax, or simply poppycock. Happy days, surely?

Oh dear, no. “Practically,” he writes of the great poem in 1923, “one crucifies oneself and entertains drawing rooms and lounges.” Let the sensitive reader beware: the chronicle of misery, illness, guilt, money anxiety, numb exhaustion, rage, shame and suicidal despair that makes up the unrelentingly dark background of these pages is almost without parallel in modern literary correspondence (even the first volume of letters by the legendarily melancholic and hypochondriacal Samuel Beckett has sprightlier moments). Quite an achievement when one notes that the majority of the letters printed here were not written in confessional mode to friends and family, but as part of his work as editor of the Criterion. The misery is none the less plainly visible between the cracks, so to speak; and what intense misery it was.

In April 1925, Eliot writes to John Middleton Murry (an old friend and editor of the rival magazine the Athenaeum) that: “In the last ten years—gradually, but deliberately—I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately—in order to endure, in order not to feel—but it has killed V[ivienne, his wife]… I have deliberately killed my senses—I have deliberately died—in order to go on with the outward form of living… Is it true that sometimes one can only live by another’s dying?” And so, agonisingly, on. The immediate sources of Eliot’s despair, temperament aside, were fourfold: too much work, too little money, too delicate a physical constitution, and having married the worst possible wife for a man of his nature: poor sad, mad Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

Every day, Eliot worked hard for Lloyds Bank in the City, where—a precocious high-flier—he had been given his own department devoted to European affairs, and particularly to German debts from the war. (The bank treated him kindly enough, and promised him a long and rewarding career, but, as he explains to the writers he asks to meet him for a City lunch, he is still, in essence, a serf, only let out of his cage of toil from noon till one precisely.) Every evening, all but unaided, and entirely unpaid, he slogged even harder at the task not merely of editing his quarterly—funded by Lady Rothermere, who seems to have wanted something rather more chic than Eliot had in mind—but of trying to make it the most distinguished literary journal of its day. He desperately wanted to leave the bank, but could not afford the financial risk.

When not slaving at one desk or the other, or suffering from illnesses of his own, he was nursemaid to Vivienne, a chronic invalid who, by her own account, “nearly died about seven times” in this period. She does not seem to have been exaggerating. Her medical bills and related expenses—a special diet for her supposed “malnutrition,” a country house for the sake of the air, bouts of colonic irrigation—meant that they were always living beyond their means, a fact which gave the punctilious, financially prudent Eliot yet further cause for insomnia. His remarkable, highly intelligent mother, whose concerned letters are also reproduced here, says “I am afraid he [Eliot] is very near a nervous breakdown…” Of Vivienne, perhaps uncharitably, Mother Eliot says, “She eats his life out…”

For those readers already fairly well acquainted with Eliot’s life and work, the devoted kind who would cheerfully read his notes to the milkman, there are very few revelations in this superbly edited collection, but still plenty to fascinate. (Advanced press notices which said that readers would be surprised to learn that Eliot, far from treating his wife brutally, was kindly and even over-attentive, were daft or ignorant. Anyone who cares enough about Eliot to tackle these 800-odd densely annotated pages will already know that his conduct towards her was, at this stage anyway, wholly compassionate.) It is certainly not a book for beginners, unless they want to know how to run a posh quarterly on almost no money. One tip: learn the art of diplomacy, or what cynics might call hypocrisy. Eliot was not above laying on the flattery an inch thick—kow-towing decorously to the eminent French writer Paul Valéry, and then telling another correspondent that Valéry writes “rubbish,” and typical French rubbish at that.

Between schmoozing the great and suffering in silence, Eliot had little time for other pursuits. Apart from a few fitful stabs at the eerie dramatic verses of Sweeney Agonistes, he wrote almost no poetry, and not a lot of criticism. Anyone who has been primed by received opinion to believe that the man was a ghastly and chronic anti-Semite will be disappointed to note that there isn’t much sign of that particular mental illness here, with the only blatant instance being a crack about “Jew publishers” in New York; nasty, though not much more so than his sneering comments about “Huns” (“There is a lot of the Hun” about Ford Madox Ford, he tells one friend). There is slightly more evidence of Eliot the crypto-fascist: he ponders whether Mussolini’s interesting new movement might not be congenial to him, and takes a keen interest in the ultra-right Action Française. For the most part, though, his politics are exactly what he says they are: old-fashioned Tory. In fact, his main ambition for the Criterion was “to give to Toryism the intellectual basis with the illusion of which Socialism has so long deceived the young and eager.”

Sadly for Eliot, most of the people who admired his verses and his magazine were anything but Tory; his keenest fans all tended, as he once put it, to be “worm-eaten with liberalism,” as they continue to be. In his other ambition, to make the Criterion the best journal of its kind, he was dazzlingly successful, publishing not just cronies like Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, but Valéry, and the recently deceased Proust, and Virginia Woolf, and WB Yeats—all the names that still resonate nine decades later. For an exhausted, anguished man struggling day by day to save his wife from death by illness or her own hand, it was an astonishing achievement. Possibly the most moving passages in the book comes in a letter to Pound, one of the very few friends to whom he could unburden himself freely. He wrote of Vivienne: “On contemplating suicide a short time ago she was going to leave you a letter. Hell.” That last word might be a mild oath; in context, it reads like Eliot’s permanent address during these harrowing years.