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The Private Poet Goes Public : In Centenary Tributes and a Collection of Letters Edited by His Widow, the Intimate T.S. Eliot Begins to Emerge

<i> Stephen is a London writer</i>

In a large, overheated room within the imposing structure of Lloyd’s Bank in the heart of London’s financial district, about 100 people gathered to honor a former bank employee.

A hush came over the crowd as Sir Jeremy Morse, host of the gathering, delivered a speech in tribute to this staff member--a model worker--who started out interpreting the balance sheets of foreign banks and graduated to the information department of Lloyd’s head office.

In his spare time, this employee wrote poetry. He wrote a poem in which he described, among other things, the crowds pouring over London Bridge as they made their way to work near where this young man did his tabulations in a little office below street level. “And each man fixed his eyes before his feet/Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,” he wrote.

The poem was called “The Waste Land” (first published in 1922) and has emerged as arguably the most important of all modern poems. The man who wrote it--the former Lloyd’s Bank official who later in his career received the Nobel Prize for Literature--was T. S. Eliot.

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Centenary of His Birth

Thomas Stearns Eliot--the Anglicized American often called the greatest poet of the 20th Century, whose allusive, enigmatic verse is claimed by both Britain and the United States--is everywhere in London this autumn.

Last month marked the centenary of his birth in St. Louis, Mo. (Eliot emigrated to England at age 26 and became a British citizen in 1927.) In happy--if intentional--coincidence, the first volume of his personal letters, edited by his widow, have been published with great fanfare to coincide with the anniversary (“The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume I, 1898-1922,” Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $29.95).

In a brief interview at the Lloyd’s Bank reception, the poet’s widow, Valerie Eliot, who rarely speaks to the press, said she thought the publication of this volume of letters and more particularly the volume planned for publication in 18 months time will shed new light on Eliot’s relationships with other artists and cause a reappraisal of attitudes toward her husband.

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She also remarked on the occasion of the party: “He would have loved it--to see the bankers and the writers mingling.” Several prominent members of the literary establishment were present: the poet and author Sir Stephen Spender, the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, the well-known critic John Carey, and others.

Guardian of His Reputation

Since her husband’s death in 1965, Valerie Eliot has taken up the formidable job of guarding his papers and his reputation. She is said to be kind to the numberless graduate students who contact her for help with their theses on Eliot. Her skill and dedication as an editor first came to light when she edited the annotated edition of the manuscript of “The Waste Land” published in 1972, which showed the extent to which her husband was in debt to the poet Ezra Pound for editing the work.

She is now a wealthy woman from her share of the revenue from the successful musical “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd Webber, based on her late husband’s collection of children’s poems, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.”

In addition to the tribute by his former employers, there have been memorial services at East Coker in Somerset (immortalized by Eliot in his poem “Four Quartets”) and Westminster Abbey. Readings in memory of Eliot have been given from the major London stage where, on other nights, “Les Miserables” is performed; and the playwright Harold Pinter gave his own reading in a London concert hall in a program that also offered some of Eliot’s works set to music.

Along with tributes on television and radio, there has been a major serialization of the letters in the Times of London, which was marred only by the mistaken substitution of a picture of James Joyce in place of Eliot; and there has even been a spoof of the Eliot letters in the British satirical magazine, Private Eye.

Sir Stephen Spender, who met Eliot in 1928, said in an interview that the image of Eliot that emerges in the letters is that of “a worried man.” Spender said, “I think it should all be looked at in the light of the First World War. I think people have rather overlooked that. There he was, a young American who had chosen to go to Europe, who was seemingly ruining the chances of a successful career at Harvard; he insisted on staying in London through the war. There was very great difficulty getting teaching jobs during the First World War--I can’t understand why--and then his wife had a series of very expensive illnesses. So he was a worried man, sort of drowning.

“Eliot was both warm and kind consistently--and thoughtful. And at the same time, detached. One felt he was surrounded by a very thin sort of vacuum which separated him from you. He didn’t want to cross that line. I think the most interesting thing in the letters is his letter to his mother at the end of the war in which he suddenly shows a complete consciousness of what his position is in England. You suddenly realize that he is a very realistic man about his own abilities and position--although he seems to be nowhere financially and job-wise. Yet he somehow realizes that (in literature) he’s absolutely sort of ‘king of the cats.’ ”

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Though Eliot’s name is being heralded in many quarters, there is a certain ambiguity that infuses some of the celebrations--an attitude Eliot would have expected from the British Establishment.

Most marked, and newsworthy, was the vociferous opposition to a fund established in Eliot’s name by the London Library, a private library in the St. James’ district of central London, which Eliot used from his early impoverished days in England. The fund was set up to enable students, who could not afford membership, to make use of the library’s facilities.

Because of the establishment of the fund, there was much discussion in the press of anti-Semitic references that surface from time to time in Eliot’s writings. But an influential columnist, Bernard Levin, wrote in the Times that though Eliot’s attitudes were abhorrent, they were not unusual for a man of his background at that time. The fund is reported to have reached three-quarters of its goal so far.

Eliot the person, rather than the poems he wrote, is the object of interest amid all the tributes. In recent years there has been a rise in interest in literary biography in Britain, with biographers attracting unusual amounts of money and attention for their work.

Eliot requested early in his life, just as his potential for fame was becoming evident, that no official biography of him be written. One of his dictums in his literary criticism was the importance of “impersonality” in literature, and in his personal life he was intensely private.

Nevertheless, his life has come under scrutiny. “T.S. Eliot: A Life,” an award-winning biography by Peter Ackroyd, was published by Simon & Schuster in 1984, written without the cooperation of the poet’s widow who even refused Ackroyd permission to quote from the poems.

Eliot’s life--though unusually restrained--is not without controversies. His first marriage, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, stands with Tolstoy’s tempestuous marriage as one of the most difficult unions in literary history. During the course of their relationship his wife was plagued by physical and emotional illnesses. Eliot said later that this marriage produced the state of mind that created “The Waste Land.”

A happier story is how he met and married his second wife, Valerie, after his first wife died in a mental hospital. By then Eliot was secure in his niche as an editor of poetry at the prominent British publishing house Faber & Faber and as a poet and critic. His secretary had resigned and he had to interview candidates to fill the post.

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One of them was Valerie Fletcher, who was especially eager to get the job. She was then in her 20s, but as a 14-year-old, she had heard a recording at school of the actor John Gielgud reading an Eliot poem. The emotional impact of that experience she has described as “like a bomb” going off beneath her. She has said of that moment that she realized she just “had to get to Tom, to work with him.”

Trained as a Secretary

Having trained as a secretary and apprenticed herself to another author, she was very nervous when the time came to be interviewed by the man whom she admired so much. But he hired her, and for eight years she worked with him, always referring to him as “Mr. Eliot.”

Through a mutual friend they finally began to get to know each other socially, and Eliot proposed to her in his office at Faber in 1956. He said he would have asked her to marry him sooner, but had had “no idea” of what her feelings had been toward him. They were happily married for eight years, until his death.

According to Craig Raine, the young poet who occupies Eliot’s chair as poetry editor at Faber, Valerie Eliot has read virtually everything her husband read, giving her, along with her personal experience with him, a unique perspective on his work. She is known for her sunny, down-to-earth disposition, the qualities which evidently drew Eliot to her, and her fondness for dressing in bright colors.

Mrs. Eliot has been criticized for excluding at least one important letter from her collection. A letter which Eliot wrote to his friend Richard Aldington in 1921 in which he is said to have expressed his “profound hatred for democracy” has been left out without explanation. A fear of undue controversy cannot really be the reason, according to critics, as it is widely known that Eliot favored authority in politics, as he did in literature and religion.

And there are other letters missing--though it is not the fault of the editor that these have been left out. More than a thousand letters that Eliot wrote between about 1927 and 1947 are kept in the library at Princeton University and will remain unavailable for scrutiny or publication until 2019.

These are letters Eliot wrote to Emily Hale, an American schoolteacher whom he had met as a young man in Boston. After his separation from his first wife, he visited Emily Hale in America and she came to see him in England. Eliot wrote a “private paper” that has become public in which he said that Emily Hale was the only woman he had loved up to that time.

The second volume of a biography of Eliot by Lyndall Gordon, soon to be published by Oxford University Press, says that Emily Hale was devastated by the news of his second marriage, at which time he ruled her completely out of his life. In 1963, Eliot asked a friend to burn a box of what were presumed to be her letters to him.

And there are other letters of which it will be the prerogative of Valerie Eliot to publish or keep private. Though they were hardly separated for more than a day during their eight years of marriage, T.S. Eliot nonetheless was in the habit of writing to her once a week.

It is widely believed that this late marriage provided his only real, affirmative experience of human love. The image of Eliot as the restrained, formal man, who blended in with bankers, may be confounded if the world ever gets to read what may turn out to be (a genre absent from the current collection) the love letters of T.S. Eliot to his wife.


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