Eliot’s Letters

It’s a pity you are not on the telephone. -T.S. Eliot to Brigit Patmore, 2 March 1921

While living in the undiscipline of moving and because I had that biography of Eliot to return to the Columbus library, I have been carrying around the first volume of his letters which make for good desultory reading. There is always a place for desultory reading in the backwash of time life ends up often dealing, but specially when one is moving.

Some observations:

-the Crawford biography is a good companion to the first volume of Eliot’s letters. I recommend the strategy to anybody. The letters provide detail, the biography coherence.

-Eliot’s turmoil and also the normal things of life become more apparent. The moving, when he could and could not write, how he thought about writing, having a servant, getting a flat, illness, his guilt over the abrupt decision to emigrate and to marry when he writes to the family in America, financial matters, so many things.

He moved a lot, for example, and would write about the landlady, the circumstances, the possibilities. You get glimpses of what they had to do back then in London, and that is interesting. If you move in Colombia, you need to provide for a refrigerator and a washer, but here you don’t (when you’re doing just a flat). When Eliot moved, they had to get the place decorated; they were not do it yourselfers, not at all. Of course, the hand of labor was cheap, but you look at a picture with the dining room and you get a better notion. What reading the letters does is give you a sense of the wider world behind that you could investigate: London, England, life in the dwindling capital in the L’entre deux guerres.

When Eliot could and could not write, how he wrote, how he recovered from a period of not writing, all these are suggested and to me are very interesting. Also, the kind of life at that level of high artistic endeavor: contacts, publications, etc. What Eliot and his circles did was done by scraping and sacrifice. It was in some ways on a very modest scale as far as notice, subscribers, even leisure went, but it was driven by a criterion of excellence to which everything else was subordinated. There are many things that can be observed regarding this and elaborated, but I merely want to suggest at this point.

-His criticism is public in that he published plenty of that, but also his private criticism of other authors, strengths and weaknesses, his appreciation of other things, his advice to editors and writers. Nothing comes out as richly as when C.S. Lewis writes in his letters, but there are suggestions, beginnings which can be further inquired into.

-There is much talk during and after the writing of The Waste Land about hermetically sealing the intellect so that it is not damaged by the vicisitudes of life. Isn’t that interesting? Coupled with his idea of removing personality, of objective correlatives, I think it makes a good lead.

If you shop, like me, at used bookstores mostly, make sure you get the Revised Edition of the first volume, not the original attempt. That way when you get the second and third volumes, they’ll match your first.

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