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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Letters of T.S. Eliot’

- - Friday, November 2, 2012

THE LETTERS OF T.S. ELIOT VOLUME 3: 1926-1927
Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
Yale University Press, $50, 954 pages

The third volume of T.S. Eliot's letters shows the poet and critic in a period of transition. Readers of the unauthorized biographies by Lyndall Gordon and Peter Ackroyd tend to think of Eliot as either the effete Francophile of "Prufrock and Other Observations" or the austere self-professed "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion" who wrote "Ash-Wednesday."

Neither of these Eliots is especially visible in the present volume, though the latter rears his head occasionally, especially in letters to Father William Force Stead, the Anglican priest who baptized him in June 1927. Instead, we see Eliot treading uncertainly toward his conversion to the Church of England and devoting himself wholeheartedly to the task of editing the Criterion, the quarterly (and sometimes monthly) journal he founded in 1922 as a vehicle for "The Waste Land."

Eliot was a consummate literary professional. Nowhere in this volume, more than two-thirds of which is devoted to his Criterion correspondence, does one detect that note of sunny earnestness one might associate with editors of avant-garde literary journals. A January 1926 letter to the critic and professor James Smith shows how much the publishing world has changed.

Smith, then a Cambridge undergraduate, had submitted to Eliot some poems in imitation of Alexander Pope. Eliot declared the poems better than his own emulation of the Wicked Wasp in the "Fire Sermon" section of "The Waste Land" (cut at Ezra Pound's insistence), but urged Smith to destroy them.

Would the editor of any contemporary periodical devoted to what we are now forced to call formalist poetry (as opposed to bad prose sentences chopped into lines at random intervals) not gladly accept these apparently pitch-perfect pastiches? Probably the editor would be amazed that the young man had read Pope at all, much less mimicked him successfully.

Eliot's devotion to the Criterion does not seem to have come at the expense of his art. During the period covered by the present volume, he began composing "Sweeney Agnonistes," his first foray into verse drama, a genre he never quite succeeded in reviving. In 1927, he also wrote one of his best short poems, "Journey of the Magi," a Browningesque dramatic monologue in which one of the unnamed wise men mentioned in the second chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel retells the story of his visit to Bethlehem.

In Eliot's hands, the aforementioned journey becomes a clash between paganism, "the old dispensation" represented by the three kings for whom "this Birth / Was hard and bitter agony," and Christianity. Unfortunately, the letters shed very little light on the composition of this poem. Eliot does mention in an October 1927 note to his mother that the American philosopher Horace Kallen complained about the poem's Near Eastern geography: "There are no snow mountains anymore about, it appears." "The poem," he wryly adds, "has sold very well."

One is not left with the sense, as one is with the letters of Henry James or George Santayana, that Eliot was composing these letters with an eye on posterity. Indeed, Eliot himself disliked reading other people's letters and the idea of other people reading his, as he indicated in another letter to his mother. As with the letters of James Joyce and Kingsley Amis, most of Eliot's correspondence strikes one as decidedly ad hoc. The fairly low incidence of rhapsodic flight on display makes the letters especially insightful about the life itself.

Given the fact that an authorized biography of Eliot is yet to appear, and, at least if his wishes are respected, unlikely ever to appear, the ongoing publication of the letters (the last volume appeared in 2009) should be a cause for scholarly celebration. If the third volume, which covers one admittedly correspondence-heavy year of Eliot's life, took three years to produce, then at the present rate, it will be at least another decade and a half before the entire collection becomes available, and even that estimate is feasible only if the quantity of Eliot's correspondence decreased by at least 60 percent starting in 1927.

Still, a snaillike pace is not necessarily a lackadaisical one. Editor John Haffenden provides detailed explanatory notes, translations of letters written in foreign languages, two lengthy indexes, and short biographies of Eliot's 70 some correspondents, a Who's Who of 20th-century British and American literature that includes Bertrand Russell, R.G. Collingwood, Virginia Woolf, Conrad Aiken, Ezra Pound, Robert Graves and W.H. Auden.

Mr. Haffenden, working with Eliot's widow, Valerie, has done a masterful job, setting the standard for collections of literary letters like those planned for David Foster Wallace and Salman Rushdie.

• Matthew Walther is a writer living in Marquette, Mich.