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)