On Reading T. S. Eliot’s Letters

Eliot lettersThere’s something about reading about the lives of people — biographies, memoirs, letters, and journals — that is both boringly quotidian and immensely fascinating. Watching lives play out in slow motion, like a literary reality show, especially in journals and letters, could almost be a radical concept in this day of abbreviated attention spans. Yet the honesty in these works — aside from the self-editing that their authors have performed when composing them — is a welcome alternative to condensed appraisals of great people’s lives.

I’m currently reading the letters of the great poet T. S. Eliot. I have just started the first of eight quite heavy volumes. At nearly 1,000 pages each, the sum of text in this works outweighs Elliott’s own writings by a huge factor. Is even one volume of these letters as great as the 56 pages of his Four Quartets? Of course not, but the letters provide insight into a life that can be both banal and interesting as the man makes his way through a career in letters.

As it stands, in my reading, it is only 1917. World war one is a major preoccupation, (“Life here simply consists in waiting for the war to stop.”) and Elliot has recently married in what we know will be a disastrous marriage. In some ways the knowledge of how things will turn out — the inherent spoilers — makes reading these letters even more interesting. I’m no expert about Elliot’s life, but I have read a biography of him, and I know the major events that occurred during his lifetime. Seeing them occur almost in real time in the letters puts them into perspective. Reading about this man and his financial difficulties makes him seem more like a normal person, and erases the patina of great writer that his name bears.

Of course, he was a great writer, and that’s why reading his letters is interesting. I am at the point where he has his first serious job at Lloyd’s Bank: “I sit in a small office with a mahogany desk and a tall filing cabinet, and feel much more important than my salary warrants, as I have charge of all the balance sheets of their foreign correspondence, filing and tabulating and reporting on them.” And, “I am absorbed during the daytime by the balance sheets of foreign banks. […] All this has made me want to find out something about the theory of banking, and especially Foreign Exchange. Incidentally, tea is served at four.” This humdrum job as a clerk at a bank provides income for the young Eliot, now 28 years old, who has recently written and had published his first major poem: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. (Though his parents seem to contribute often to cover his expenses.)

And you read about his anxieties, both personal and about the world in general. “The world seems a complete nightmare at times; nothing that could happen would be surprising. I wonder if there will ever come a time when we should look back and find that the period we are living through seems quite unreal in retrospect.”

As these volumes continue, I will follow the writer’s life through his day jobs, his publications, his job at Faber & Faber, where he would spend much of his life as an editor, and his Nobel prize. I will read about the composition of his great poems: The Waste Land, and The Four Quartets. I will read of his marital difficulties, and of the banalities of his everyday life. The great writer will appear, as great artists do when you look at them up close, to be a rather ordinary man from day to day. That will make him seem more human, more approachable, and ultimately more interesting.

Collections of letters like this are mostly compiled for scholars, and there are probably not many people read them for pleasure as I do. But there is something immensely enjoyable about the slow process of reading through someone’s life, especially through their own words.

So far, I have purchased the first four volumes, and will get the others as I progress. If you’re interested in T. S. Eliot, check out volume 1. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

10 thoughts on “On Reading T. S. Eliot’s Letters

  1. I have just finished Richard Holmes’ two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It may just be the best work of biography I have ever encountered. Holmes is a neutral, caring, orchestrating voice, presenting source material which tells its own story. It seems like Coleridge was a friend or acquaintance I knew well, and whom I miss now that his story is over. Strongly recommended.
    Not sure I could manage other biographical reading straight away. Most unlikely I could manage 8 volumes. I wonder if you should be capturing more from the undertaking than simply the reading in itself?

    • I’m certainly getting a much better understanding of Eliot as a man, when you strip away the authority of the great author. And every page of his letters is full of interesting language; there are footnotes linking some of the language he uses to various works where there are similarities.

      Letters and journals, even more so than biographies, give a unique window into the mind of their authors. I think it’s impossible to read them without getting to know the authors in a much more personal way than would be possible otherwise.

  2. I have just finished Richard Holmes’ two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It may just be the best work of biography I have ever encountered. Holmes is a neutral, caring, orchestrating voice, presenting source material which tells its own story. It seems like Coleridge was a friend or acquaintance I knew well, and whom I miss now that his story is over. Strongly recommended.
    Not sure I could manage other biographical reading straight away. Most unlikely I could manage 8 volumes. I wonder if you should be capturing more from the undertaking than simply the reading in itself?

    • I’m certainly getting a much better understanding of Eliot as a man, when you strip away the authority of the great author. And every page of his letters is full of interesting language; there are footnotes linking some of the language he uses to various works where there are similarities.

      Letters and journals, even more so than biographies, give a unique window into the mind of their authors. I think it’s impossible to read them without getting to know the authors in a much more personal way than would be possible otherwise.

  3. Quite agree. Given it’s such a commitment to read that much material, I just wondered whether you would make something productive out of the exercise — “the 5 things I learned that changed my view of his poetry forever” to give corny example. Would be interesting to read it if you did!

    • I’ll keep that in mind. So far, halfway through the first volume, he’s not said very much about his poetry at all. I am particularly interested in what he says about the Four Quartets, but that’s a few volumes down the line.

  4. Quite agree. Given it’s such a commitment to read that much material, I just wondered whether you would make something productive out of the exercise — “the 5 things I learned that changed my view of his poetry forever” to give corny example. Would be interesting to read it if you did!

    • I’ll keep that in mind. So far, halfway through the first volume, he’s not said very much about his poetry at all. I am particularly interested in what he says about the Four Quartets, but that’s a few volumes down the line.

  5. We all know that life and art are very different things. You have a chance of seeking perfection in the latter, no shot at the former. But…

    T.S.’s art was in words embodying thoughts and emotions. The same consciousness that created his transcendent poems was behind his correspondence. So you get his responses to ordinary human interactions not translated onto the archetypal plane on which his poetry lives.

    I have Vol. 1 of the Letters. This was like that and then a many-year gap appeared. I haven’t gotten the next volume(s). I think the correspondence is a useful way to get to understand the mind behind the finished poetry.

    Of course the life and the art are different things, but if you can understand the consciousness where they are united, this can be helpful. Especially for Eliot who seems to want to be seen as an owlish presence outside of the poetry he created, like Stravinsky, his contemporary wanted to be seen in the world of music.

  6. We all know that life and art are very different things. You have a chance of seeking perfection in the latter, no shot at the former. But…

    T.S.’s art was in words embodying thoughts and emotions. The same consciousness that created his transcendent poems was behind his correspondence. So you get his responses to ordinary human interactions not translated onto the archetypal plane on which his poetry lives.

    I have Vol. 1 of the Letters. This was like that and then a many-year gap appeared. I haven’t gotten the next volume(s). I think the correspondence is a useful way to get to understand the mind behind the finished poetry.

    Of course the life and the art are different things, but if you can understand the consciousness where they are united, this can be helpful. Especially for Eliot who seems to want to be seen as an owlish presence outside of the poetry he created, like Stravinsky, his contemporary wanted to be seen in the world of music.

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