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Not enough to be a gent

by
01 July 2016

Richard Harries reads more of T. S. Eliot’s correspondence

MS Thr 560 (87). Houghton Library, Harvard University Library, Cambridge MA

Troubled souls: Eliot with Virginia Woolf (centre) and Vivienne, 2 September 1932. It is the last known photograph of him with his wife before their separation. From the book

Troubled souls: Eliot with Virginia Woolf (centre) and Vivienne, 2 September 1932. It is the last known photograph of him with his wife before their s...

The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 6: 1932-3

Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, editors

Faber & Faber £50

(978-0-571-31634-2)

Church Times Bookshop £45

THESE letters cover the period five or six years after Eliot had been baptised as a Christian and had announced to a shocked literary world that he was now an Anglo-Catholic. It therefore contains correspondence with a range of Anglo-Catholic clergy of the time, as well as famous figures such as George Bell and William Temple. We see him being invited to speak at Christian gatherings and contribute to Christian thought.

The bulk of the book, however, consists of letters in connection with his scrupulous editorship of The Criterion and as a director of Faber, encouraging some authors and offering criticism of others, all in his characteristic tone, at once kindly and magisterial.

The period also covers his lecture tour of the United States, which he undertook to try to pay off income-tax arrears, and the extensive footnotes are especially informative at this point, recording as they do the impression he made on a range of people he met there. It also includes the period when, through lawyers, he made a formal legal separation from his wife, ending the 17 years of married hell that he had endured, but accentuating the pain and misery of Vivienne, whose erratic and highly disturbed letters are also included in this volume.

Like previous volumes in the series, it is wonderfully edited.

The Eliot that emerges here still has something of the boyish about him. Despite the misery of his life and his severe appearance, he still has a capacity for light-hearted fun with children and risqué jokes with certain friends. Also, he retains the affection and respect of nearly all those he meets, however different their views are from his own.

Two sections of the volume may be of particular interest, one his correspondence with Stephen Spender in connection with Eliot’s 1932 broadcasts, in which Eliot discloses something of how his mind moved towards faith. He needed to hold to values without which he would perish, but values, in his view, depended on religion. Those values would be expressed in highly disciplined Christian living. He had nothing but scorn for the average product of the English school system, which sought, he believed, to turn out gentlemen rather than Christians, the two being antithetical.

He also argues that the real choice to be made is between Christianity and Communism, though he certainly did not want to be aligned with the usual anti-communists. He said that he loathed both Communism and the society in which he was then living. He reserved further scorn for the Conservative Party of the time, which he saw as nothing more than an unsavoury alliance of liberalism and laissez-faire economics. He looked for an alternative, Christian way of ordering society, an idea that took book form some seven years later.

The other area of particular interest is his defence against the charge of anti-Semitism. What worried Eliot was a Judaism sundered from its religious foundation, as he was concerned also with a so-called Christian culture cut off from its religious roots. He responded to Ezra Pound’s insults to his own religion by saying that this “includes the Jewish religion”.

 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

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