THE years 1931-41 were highly productive ones for Eliot. These letters shed crucial light on his writings at the time, especially the Four Quartets, but also on his opinion of other writers, his understanding of poetry, his attitude to the war, and his view on education. In 1939, he wrote The Family Reunion, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, The Idea of a Christian Society, and some teasing, comic verses with friends.
In 1940, he completed “East Coker”, and, in the course of writing, conceived the idea of its being the second of a quartet. “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding” quickly followed. The last gave him particular difficulty, and, initially, he thought that it was a “flop”, although later he came to the opinion that it was the best of them. Eliot sent a draft of the poems to John Hayward and other literary friends, and these letters contain critical points made by them, with Eliot’s responses.
Although Christopher Ricks and John McCue clearly drew on these letters in their 132 pages of commentary on the Four Quartets in their annotated edition of the poems, it is good to be able to read these exchanges in context, and also learn of the associations of a number of images in the poem.
When bombing started in London, Eliot acted as a fire warden for several nights each week, and lodged in different parts of the capital. He got no sleep, and became totally exhausted; so he changed his routine so that he was well looked after in the country for four days of the week. He thought that it was very important for writers to continue to write, despite the war, and he did just this in those days.
As before, these letters have been meticulously edited by John Haffenden, and all kinds of interesting information can be confirmed or picked up from the footnotes. We learn, for example, the real reason for the suicide of Virginia Woolf, whom he regarded as akin to a member of his own family; that W. H. Auden wrote to Eliot to say “Thanks to Charles Williams and Kierkegaard, I have come to much the same position as yourself”; and that, according to Valerie Eliot, Eliot’s conversion was a “long, slow process”.
Eliot thought that we had no option but to fight the Nazis, but that we would do so effectively only if we “understand ourselves, and our own weaknesses and sins”. Even more than winning, he worried about whether there would be any moral and spiritual foundation for the rebuilding of Europe. Deeply dismayed by Munich, he believed that it had raised “a doubt about the validity of a civilisation”. That doubt was still there in the background.
As a distinguished churchman, he was asked to contribute to the great conference at Malvern in 1941, but became increasingly uneasy about the kind of statements that church leaders were producing. A person of the utmost truthfulness and precision, he could not cope with the fluffiness of their wording. His particular concern was education. About one set of pronouncements, he wrote that what he disliked was “the emphasis on individual opportunity rather than on the good of the community as a whole. If you start in the wrong place you will end in the wrong place.”
These letters reveal the extraordinary care that Eliot took of other people: for example, trying to find employment for out-of-work writers. His flatmate John Hayward, who was chairbound because of multiple sclerosis, was having to live in Cambridge away from London’s intellectual life; so Eliot often wrote to him long, witty, gossipy letters, several times a week, to cheer him up.
Letters related to Eliot’s alleged anti-Semitism appear in this book, and Haffenden, in his preface, gives as balanced an assessment of this as we are likely to get, and the volume is worth getting hold of for that alone. But there is a great deal else of value as well.
The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.
The Letters of T. S. Eliot: Volume 9, 1939-1941
Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, editors
Faber & Faber £60
Church Times Bookshop £54