Magazine article The Spectator

'The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 6, 1932-1933', by T.S. Eliot, Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 6, 1932-1933', by T.S. Eliot, Edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden - Review

Article excerpt

F.R. Leavis once denounced the Twickenham edition of Pope's Dunciad for producing a meagre trickle of text through a desert of apparatus, the trickle sometimes disappearing altogether. In this volume of T. S. Eliot's letters, from 1932-1933, the footnotes, the infantry and the grunts, are the stars -- shooting stars, flares with flair, illuminating apparently unpromising basic materials.

For example, this is a letter to Auden in April 1932 in all its Spartan amplitude:

Dear Auden, The modifications of the few passages which I discussed with you the other day have been agreed upon. As for the preface I felt myself from the beginning that it was not really desirable and I find my own opinion confirmed by two other directors who feel as I do that there is no need to apologise for obscurity. I hope to send you a copy of page proof before long. Yours ever, T S Eliot.

About as enlivening as an epidural.

John Haffenden's footnote, in summary, tells us that, in 1965, Auden remembered '[he] had used [in "The Orators"] the phrase "A fucked hen". In 1932, publishers still boggled at four-letter words and a substitute had to be found.' Eliot suggested 'A June bride'. Auden was initially baffled that this should be thought to be equivalent. Eliot explained that in an election, the defeated candidate, asked about the voting figures, said he felt like a June bride: 'sore but satisfied'. The victor was also asked how he felt about the voting figures: 'Like a June bride,' he returned, 'I knew it would be big, but I didn't think it would be that big.' In 1965, this anecdote was suppressed to spare Valerie Eliot's feelings. But Humphrey Carpenter retailed it in his 1981 biography of Auden and the robust Mrs Eliot wrote to him: 'The anecdote about TSE and the June bride is delicious!'

This is of a piece with the limerick quoted and/or composed by Eliot in a letter

(26 December 1932) to Frank Morley, his Faber colleague: 'There was a young lady named Ransome/ Who surrendered five times in a hansom,/ When she said to her swain / He must do it again/ He replied: "My name's Simpson, not Samson".' According to Harvard students, Eliot was an aficionado of limericks, hammered out at the piano, and thought often to be his own work. On 28 January 1932, Eliot mildly complains to Leavis that his 'use of quotation seems to clothe me in the most orthodox solemnity'. The process has continued. But here we see an Eliot capable of reporting that he was introduced at his old undergraduate Harvard club thus: 'Tom Eliot is a member we are all proud of, but I want to say that he is really just a good old fart like the rest of us.'

At Harvard, Eliot gave the Charles Eliot Norton lectures, a performance he disparages regularly with apparent sincerity when he comes to prepare the text for publication. The lectures were part of a fearsome schedule. He also gave three Page-Barbour lectures at the University of Virginia. Not to mention the Turnbull lectures at Johns Hopkins, and lectures in Los Angeles, Chicago, St Louis, St Paul, Ann Arbor, Buffalo, Washington and Yale. He needed to be 'mercenary' because he was in debt to the 'Inland Revenue Commissioners in Somerset House'. In his audiences were William Burroughs, Elizabeth Bishop and Mary McCarthy. He was under enormous strain: Richard Eberhart reported that Eliot 'had a Renoir on his wall and a cold sore on his lip'. Eliot calculated that he had spoken in public 'between 70 or 80 times' in the USA. This is what Virginia Woolf stigmatised as 'the heavy stone of his self-esteem'. …

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