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Old Possum and the Parrots

Jeremy Diaper

The Letters of T. S. EliotT. S. Eliot
Ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden
The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 4: 1928 – 1929
Faber, 2013
826 pages
ISBN 978-0571290925



The fourth volume of the letters of T. S. Eliot sees Old Possum move into his forties and continue to undertake the roles of editor, poet, critic, and director of Faber and Gwyer (which became Faber and Faber in 1929). Despite these multiple forms of employment, Eliot still finds himself in a position of relative economic hardship: “I must supplement my income, just as I did ten years ago, by reviewing, articles, prefaces, lectures, broadcasting talks, and anything that turns up”. In addition, with Lady Rothermere relinquishing her patronage of The Criterion in December 1927, Eliot’s literary review is placed precariously “on the point of being stopped altogether”, and he is forced to seek out financial support from guarantors. After successfully gaining assistance from various figures (including his affluent cousin Marguerite Caetani and Bruce Richmond, editor of the Times Literary Supplement), The Criterion returns to Eliot’s preferred format of a quarterly journal and receives complete backing from Faber’s publishing house. Understandably, Eliot becomes increasingly fatigued by the many duties which accompany his literary career in this period. In 1929 he confesses to his brother Henry: “I have begun life three times: at 22, at 28, and again at 40; I hope I shall not have to do so again, because I am growing tired”.

As with the previous instalment of Eliot’s letters published in 2012, much of the correspondence contained here relates to his role as editor of The Criterion. There are numerous letters, for example, in which Eliot seeks to determine whether a book is worthy of review and to assign the task of reviewing it to a suitable specialist. Certainly, the sheer volume of letters pertaining to his quotidian duties as editor does not always make for riveting reading. Eliot himself glumly notes in a letter of October 1929 that “the constant stream of mean books in smart covers which pours into the office and out again to reviewers is enough to kill any zest one had in reading”. After perusing all 826 pages of this particular volume of Eliot’s letters, one soon empathises with such sentiments. This is not to suggest, however, that all the correspondence relating to The Criterion is uninteresting or uninformative. On the contrary, there are a number of illuminating letters contained here. For instance, in response to Herbert Read’s gripe that the journal’s aims were too indistinct, Eliot asserted that “they are rather so definite that I have deliberately tried to keep them in the background; or rather to make them indefinite enough to be shared with a number of persons…”. Unfortunately, though, Eliot’s letters to Criterion contributors are all too often characterised by bland and routine politeness: “Your story is at present in the hands of one of my colleagues; but I have asked him to return it immediately, and will give you a decision. With renewed apologies and regrets…”.

Nevertheless, this makes the occasions when Eliot lets his professional guise slip all the more absorbing. One memorable example is when he writes to R. Ellsworth Larsson to inform him that his poem “Listen! Listen!” would not be suitable for publication. Questioning Larsson’s use of rhythm, Eliot states that “I do feel there is a tendency in modern verse to make the eye do duty for the ear”. He then appears to offer some useful counsel: “I have found myself that it is a great assistance to me to correct my verses by reciting them aloud to myself with the accompaniment of a small drum”. Taking into consideration Eliot’s propensity to give assistance to aspiring poets, one may at first mistake this for a piece of earnest advice. Yet, upon further reflection, this is surely an example of Eliot’s mischievously jocular side, which is most frequently seen in his correspondence to Ezra Pound and Bonamy Dobrée (whom he playfully addresses upon one occasion as “Buggamy”).

Despite the large amount of professional correspondence contained in volume four, some fascinating aspects of Eliot’s personality are revealed to the reader. His love of felines has been immortalised by Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), and this is reinforced here in a letter to William Rothenstein in October 1928. Rothenstein had been in touch about the possibility of drawing a portrait of Eliot, who accepted his offer whilst suggesting that “I should try to include my Cat in the picture”. Remarkably, an equal captivation with parrots also emerges. On January 24 1928, he informs Bonamy Dobrée that he is going to support the sufferers of the Thames flood “by presenting a Young Talking Parot (sic) to the pub. in Hammersmith”. Later that month Eliot excitedly tells Frank Morley about the most “remarkable Parret” in the Prince Albert pub, and urges him that “we ought to go down to Islington way and see about this Parret”. It was this very parrot, as a detailed footnote informs us, which served as the inspiration for Eliot’s light verse “Billy M’Caw: The Remarkable Parrot”, published in The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross in 1939.

In addition to his penchant for parrots, there are a number of significant remarks made by Eliot in reference to his new-found Anglo-Catholic faith. After his first confession, Eliot observes that he “had crossed a very wide and deep river” and that this had resulted in an “extraordinary sense of surrender and gain”. Shortly afterwards, he wrote of his intention to “”keep my soul alive” by prayer and regular devotions” and claimed “that nothing could be too ascetic, too violent, for my own needs”. Moreover, Eliot expresses a deep conviction that his Christian beliefs were the only thing capable of filling “the void that I find in the middle of all human happiness and all human relations”.

Another important dimension of this volume is the letters of his first wife (Vivien), as without them the reader would have no real sense of her mental fragility and the disintegrating state of their marriage. Whilst her letters are more infrequent than in the previous volume, her mental illness is just as evident. She laments to Lady Ottoline Morrell, in January 1928, that “I am very miserable, and it is all quite useless“, before claiming that Eliot “simply hates the sight of me”. Elsewhere, she tells Mary Hutchinson that she can’t attend a London party because “I have no dress – am ugly and have rough hands”. Indeed, the severity of her paranoia is at times quite shocking, as when she notes to Morrell that “If you hear of me being murdered, don’t be surprised!”. Such statements help to contextualise Virginia Woolf’s blunt comment on the situation: “Tom is in a great taking, with Vivien as mad as a hare”.

One disappointment is that many of Eliot’s letters to his mother have been destroyed: the letters to her that have survived are amongst the most interesting. For instance, in a letter of February 1929, he bemoans his Harvard education: “the old system by which a student merely chose his courses in any combination according to caprice, really did the most harm to the most active minds”. In another letter a year earlier, he takes issue with the verdict to bury Thomas Hardy’s body in Westminster Abbey and his heart in Dorchester: “That was a scandal […] Curio hunting I call it. Why not divide him joint from joint, and spot him about the country?”. Although Eliot did not attend his mother’s funeral (she died in 1929), his devotion to her is palpable in the letters contained here: “Everything you say is precious to me; for I feel more closely in sympathy with you than with anyone living”.

The figure of Eliot as poet and critic is rather overshadowed in this volume by the demands of editing The Criterion and his difficult marriage to Vivien. Yet, notwithstanding the burdensome aspects of his professional and personal life, Eliot was remarkably prolific in this period. His literary and critical output included A Song for Simeon, “Perch’io non spero” (Part I of Ash-Wednesday), Animula, and For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order. Thankfully, there are a few occasions when we gain some invaluable insights into Eliot’s poetry. We learn, for instance, that at one stage Eliot’s proposed title for Ash-Wednesday was Ash-Wednesday Music, and that the first two words at the end of the first part were changed from “be with” to “pray for”: “One might as well stick to the exact quotation”. Furthermore, we are also given brief glimpses of Eliot’s own thoughts on his poetry. Interestingly, he would not permit the publication of separate sections from The Waste Land in anthologies and was wholly against it being seen in anything other than its entirety: “I really don’t feel that I could bear to let one bit be published by itself”.

In spite of the fact that Eliot destroyed much of his most intimate correspondence, volume four of his letters provides another valuable look behind Eliot’s multifarious masks. The standard of editing demonstrated here is commendable and maintains exhaustive attention to detail throughout, although with Valerie Eliot’s death in November 2012, this will be the last volume to benefit from her own unique insights into Eliot’s persona. It remains to be seen, though, whether the most revealing letters will prove to be those written by Eliot to his childhood sweetheart, Emily Hale. This collection, which consists of “approximately 1,131 letters and related enclosures”, remains under embargo until 2020, but is tantalisingly within reach of Eliot scholars. Until that time, this volume provides plenty of material for critics to ruminate on and will surely open up new areas for discussion in Eliot studies.

Jeremy Diaper is a doctoral researcher in English at the University of Birmingham.