The Letters of T S Eliot: Volume 8 by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
The latest collection of T S Eliot’s letters is wonderfully insightful — but is it a little too exhaustive?
DAVID SEXTON Thursday 17 January 2019 13:20
This immense edition of the correspondence of the greatest poet of his time is now entering its second decade. Covering just two years, this volume amounts to 1,100 pages, bringing the total so far published to a little over 7,600 pages, with 27 years of Eliot’s life still to go. Yet it is not even complete. The indefatigable, exemplary editor, John Haffenden, has posted the letters he chose not to include in each volume on a website, tseliot.com, and for these two years alone there are hundreds of them, perhaps even more than he has actually printed — eight, for example, from January 1, 1936 alone.
Many of the printed letters still seem at first of modest interest only: processing business for Faber & Faber, where he was an “ordinary director”; for the magazine he edited, The Criterion; and for his own career as a writer and, increasingly, a public man.
He commissions books and articles, he assesses submissions. He responds to invitations and suggestions, always with courtesy, even when refusing. He supplies references and letters of introduction, he offers advice. He constantly apologises for delays in replying and he thanks people for their contributions, their comments, their hospitality, friendship and support.
All this can make repetitious reading now, essential though it may have been then to the literary culture he was seeking to nurture. Yet taken together these letters are little less than a lesson in conduct, a kind of tireless poise, a demonstration of grace under pressure.
They are invariably, as Haffenden notes in his preface, “humane and engaging, constructive and inventive, and frequently jokey” — and sometimes they are more than that: revealing, touching and wise. They are also, like all good letters, wonderfully different in tone when writing to different friends and acquaintances.
In these years, Eliot’s first stage play, Murder in the Cathedral, was being produced, and he was working on The Family Reunion.
And it was during this time that his wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood Eliot, was finally committed to a psychiatric asylum, Northumberland House in Finsbury Park, close to Manor House Tube, after being found wandering in the streets in the early hours and taken to a police station.
Haffenden includes enough of Vivien’s own letters, to her brother, to her bank, to Faber, and so forth, to make it clear quite how deranged she had become by this time, believing she was “OSTENTATIOUSLY FOLLOWED”, for example, and pretending to be other people acting on her behalf.
Eliot’s own letters dealing with her committal and support are faultlessly correct and responsible. Only once or twice in these years does he reveal his agony. In July 1936 he briefly mentions to Dorothy Pound: “I am rather shaky at the moment because I ran into my late wife in Wigmore Street an hour ago, and had to take to my heels: only people who have been ‘wanted’ know the sort of life I lead.”
Only to his brother Henry does he speak directly of the “horrors” of his private life. There’s a revealing letter, though, in response to Geoffrey Faber’s misgivings about the sex in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, which the company was publishing. Faber had naively confessed: “My own private struggle all my life has been to prevent sex meaning too much.” Eliot not only sees no sense in this, his view is quite the opposite, that trying to “keep sex in its place” is itself a symptom of instability.
“Between any two people (and the more intimate their relations the more important this becomes) there is always an unresolvable element of hostility,” he says. “It is I think, a coming to terms between the elements of attraction and repulsion that constitutes permanent affection…”
To Bonamy Dobrée he writes eloquently about his understanding of St John of the Cross’s doctrine that in order to arrive at the love of God one must divest oneself of the love of created beings. “I don’t think that ordinary human affections are capable of leading us to the love of God, but rather that the love of God is capable of informing, intensifying and elevating our human affections, which otherwise may have little to distinguish them from the ‘natural’ affections of animals,” he explains.
These are themes deep in his work — but there are also letters here about pyjamas, sherry and opening a cheese restaurant. There’s a salad recipe and a mock Abdication diary; a take-off of Henry James and spoof readers’ reports on his own verses; a denunciation of the English Verse Speaking Association and an inspiring letter of advice to the young poet George Barker, insisting “it is only necessary poems that matter” and “nothing is worth doing twice”.
Just too many letters, though? Eliot, who did not want a biography or any letters printed “of any intimacy to anybody”, might have thought so. To one contributor he writes: “I quite agree that there are too many books, and that most books are too long. The tendency for books to say what they have to say at much greater length than necessary no doubt has something to do with the deterioration of the reading public into mere ruminants, who can only nourish themselves by a great deal of grass and reject more concentrated food.” Ha! Now, Faber, just where is that readers’ edition of Eliot’s uncollected prose?
Giosuè Carducci (1835–1907) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1906. He was the first Italian to have done so. Since then, he has fallen into obscurity, despite his onetime eminence as something of a national poet, a trumpeter of Italian unification. Traces of him remain: there is a handsome plaque to him in the church of Santa Croce in Florence (where his family was from) alongside memorials to Dante, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini. In Bologna, where he became a professor in 1860, his house has been turned into a museum for history buffs. But he has lost the youth market: now forced to study him in school, students develop a distaste for his poems bordering on contempt, while the professoriate has vastly preferred the poetry of Carducci’s contemporary Giovanni Pascoli, whose work provides a bridge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Carducci, with his dated syntax and arcane allusions, is firmly rooted in the late 1800s: he does not sound the way Italians talk today, and his passion for the classical past makes him seem even more remote. In his numerous poems on Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, he comes off more as an artifact than as a living voice.
But at one time he was the most famous poet in Italy. He embodied the hope of a generation and sang in classical meters of mythic visions that connected the Italian landscape to its roots in the ancient world. His poetry, criticism, and translations ran to a score of volumes. It was in his late volume, Odi Barbare (1877–1899), that he arrived at a transcendent, death-marked music. To my ear, a kind of Symbolist sonority emerges as the poems counter Romantic impulses with classical poise. In the four poems here, the past and the present overlap, occasionally in equal measure. In “Snowfall” (“Nevicata”), ghosts from the speaker’s past beckon to him, and he answers that he will be with them soon. “Kingfisher” (“Cèrilo”) incorporates part of the Greek poet Alcman’s Fragment 26, which describes the fearless flight of a seabird in a storm. The poem begins with an image of the writing desk, with its dreary scribbling, and soars up to the mountaintops and out to sea. Alcman’s fragment stands here at a double remove, translated first from the ancient Greek by Carducci nearly 140 years ago, and then from Carducci’s Italian.
“At the Station in an Autumn Morning” (“Alla stazione in un mattina d’autunno”) is a nightmarish look at modernity, juxtaposed with the delicate sweetness of the beloved, who appears ghostlike in a freezing late-autumn landscape. “Death During a Diphtheria Epidemic” (“Mors nell’epidemia difterica”) achieves an almost Dantean level of horror and pathos in its depiction of how, with their fathers looking on, children succumb to a deadly outbreak of disease. Death, the diva or goddess, descends as another ghostly presence in the landscape in this sequence of haunted poems. Carducci clearly felt a romantic’s longing for the spring, but he knew that winter was quickly, inexorably approaching.
A light snow falls through an ashy sky.
From the city no sounds rise up, no human cries,
not the grocer’s call or the ruckus of his cart,
no light-hearted song of being young and in love.
From the tower in the piazza, the quinsied hours
moan, sighing as if from a world far off.
Flocks of birds beat against the misted glass:
ghosts of friends returned, peering in, calling to me.
Soon, O my dears, soon—peace, indomitable heart—
I will sift down to silence, in shadow rest.
January 29, 1881
Not under a steel nib that scratches in nasty furrows
its dull thoughts onto dry white paper;
but under the ripe sun, as breezes gust
through wide-open clearings beside a swift stream,
the heart’s sighs, dwindling into infinity, are born,
the sweet, wistful flower of melody is born.
Here redolent May shines in rose-scented air,
brilliant the hollow eyes, hearts asleep in their chests;
the heart sleeps, but ears are easily roused
by the chromatic cries of La Gioconda.
O Muses’ altar of green, white-capped
above the sea. Alcman leads the chaste choir:
“I want to fly with you, maidens, fly into a dance,
as the kingfisher flies drawn by halcyons:
he flies with halcyons over spindrift waves in a gale,
kingfisher, purple herald of spring.”
Verona, June 8–9, 1883
At the station
in an autumn morning
O the lamps—how they chase
each other lazily there behind the trees,
yawning their light through dripping
branches onto the mud.
Faint, fine, shrill, a nearby
steam engine hisses. A lead sky
and the autumn morning
enwrap us like a great chimera.
Where and to what are they going, these people,
cloaked and silent, hurrying to dark cars—
to what unforeseeable sorrows
or pangs of remote hope?
Even you, rapt Lydia, give
to the conductor your torn ticket,
and to pressing time your beautiful years,
your memories and moments of joy.
Along the black train come
the trainmen hooded in black
like shadows, with dim lanterns
and iron sledges, and the iron
brakes when plied make a long
enervated clang: from the soul’s depths,
an echo of languor makes its sad
reply, like a shudder.
And the doors slammed shut
seem like outrages: a quick jibe
sounds the final farewell:
thundering on heavy panes, the rain.
Already the monster, owning its metallic
soul, fumes, slouches, pants, opens
wide its fiery eyes; defies the heavens,
whistling through the gloom.
The unholy monster goes; with a horrible tug,
beating its wings, it carries away my love.
Ah, the alabaster face and fine veil,
hailing me, disappear in darkness.
O sweet face of pale rose,
o starlit placid eyes, o snow-white
forehead ringed with luxuriant curls
gently bending in a nod of love.
The warm air was throbbing with life;
the summer throbbed when she looked on me,
and the youthful June sun
liked to shower her cheek
with kisses of light, reflected through
auburn hair: like a halo
more brilliant than the sun, my dreams
encircle her soft shape . . .
Beneath the rain, I return through
the haze; and I would lose myself in it.
I stagger like a drunk. I touch myself
to see if I also have become a ghost.
O how the leaves are falling—cold,
incessant, mute, heavy—on my soul.
I know that everywhere in the world,
solitary and eternal, it is November.
Better he who’s lost the sense of life,
better this shadow, this haze:
I want O how I want to lie myself down
in doldrums that will last forever.
June 25, 1875
during a diphtheria epidemic
When the precise diva drops down on our houses,
the far off roar of her flying is heard,
and the shadow of her icy wing, icily advancing,
spreads wide a melancholy silence.
When she comes, men bow their heads,
but the women fall to pining.
Thus the treetops, when July winds gather,
do not sway on the green hills:
the trees stand almost utterly still,
and only the hoarse moan of the creek is heard.
She enters, passes, touches, and without even turning levels
the saplings, delighted by their young branches;
she shears the golden wheat, and strips even hanging grapes,
scoops up the good wives and innocent girls
and tiny children: pink between black wings they reach their arms
to the sun, to their games, and smile.
O sad homes, where before their fathers’ faces,
silent, livid diva, you put out young lives.
Therein, rooms no longer sound with laughter and merrymaking
or with whispers, like birds’ nests in May:
therein, no more the sound of joyful rearing,
nor love’s woes, nor wedding dances:
they grow old therein, the shadowed survivors; to the roar
of your return their ears incline, O goddess.
June 27, 1875
David Yezzi is the Poetry Editor of The New Criterion. His latest book is Black Sea (Carnegie Mellon).