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…