Why are T.S Eliot’s letters so deathly dull? We asked an expert to ask other Eliot experts about OId Possum's epistolary style.
Let me be clear: I am a fan of T. S. Eliot’s writings. At 16, I read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and now I have a PhD in modernist literature. I regret to admit that I am even charmed by his critical prose. What can I say? I fall hard for the charisma of literary bullying, for his scathing but oblique condemnations (‘But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things’ – a merited dig at Wordsworth) and back-handed compliments (like this praise of Swinburne: ‘That so little material as appears to be employed in The Triumph of Time should release such an amazing number of words, requires what there is no reason to call anything but genius’). Eliot was a mean girl, and I want to sit with her at lunch.
But having for several years dipped in and out of his published and unpublished correspondence, it is no longer possible for me to deny that the man could be, epistolarily speaking, a bit of a drip. And I’m not alone in my assessment. ‘I’ve carried them everywhere,’ confessed Dr Beci Carver, a lecturer at Exeter University who writes often on Eliot. ‘I’ve carried them to Austin [Texas] and London and Cambridge and Oxford in my suitcase, hoping to get through them finally, but I’ve never gotten very far.’ Yet despite being ‘devoted to this book’ and despite finding respite in some occasionally ‘lovely letters’ (such as Eliot’s correspondence with his friends John Hayward and Virginia Woolf), Carver told me, ‘for the most part, I find them kind of stiff.’ Professor Anthony Cuda of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, one of the editors of Eliot’s Complete Prose, had to admit that, at the very least, he wouldn’t read the letters for pleasure. ‘I use them all the time, as a researcher writing on Eliot, and as an annotator writing on Eliot, but I don’t pick them up for fun,’ he conceded.
Carver and Cuda were speaking mostly about the printed letters, periodically published by Faber in enormous volumes of a little under 1,000 pages each; each tome covers on average one or two years of the poet’s prolific letter-writing life. As a supplement to these, the website of the Eliot estate (tseliot.com) hosts the rest of his unpublished correspondence, also painstakingly annotated by series editor John Haffenden. While no selection principle is explained in the printed volumes or online, it is evident that the online letters are considerably less juicy than the ones in print: if the printed letters have occasional grand canyons opening up new perspectives on Eliot, the online letters are more like endless, rolling dunes of sandy sentences, with just the occasional mirage of personality, sometimes too fantastic to be real.
Online, there are two ways to sift through the letters: chronologically, or by correspondent. Each of these opens up its own worlds of boredom, its own vast saharas of crisp Eliotic prose. Read by correspondent and you’re likely to find records of missed connections or transactions of literary business: Eliot can come to lunch, then he cannot come to lunch; he would like to have you for tea, then he is sad he has not been able to see you while you were in London; the Criterion are interested in translations of Rosanov, then Eliot does not want the Rosanov, but he may find a place for the Dostoevsky. Read by date and the dull rhythms of the calendar pulse metronomically as you click ahead: on New Year’s Day, Eliot catches up on business and writes thank-you cards; as time goes by, there are lunches and teas and honours accepted and declined form a kaleidoscope in greyscale, punctuated by summer travel. There is something almost soothing in this – one of The Fence editors called these letters ‘mesmerically boring’ – because it is pleasing, in a way, to see all the most banal parts of a normal life chugging along, without the disturbance of too much charm or emotional authenticity.
This iceberg lettuce word salad might correspond to what Virginia Woolf – a notably superior epistolary stylist – called the ‘non-being’ or ‘the cotton-wool’ of life, the better part of each day that is ‘not lived consciously.’ It is very normal, which is why it is so dull: nobody loved being a normie as much as T. S. Eliot, a very secret weirdo who relished normality like a kink. And within the grand history of human epistolarity, ‘it’s actually the anomaly,’ as Cuda insisted to me, to write truly entertaining letters, the kind we might pick up for an evening’s occupation.
Yet Eliot had thought critically about great poets’ letters and how they came to be. In a speech on ‘English Poets as Letter Writers’ in 1933, he meditated on the conundrum he was no doubt facing as he saw himself passing into canonicity: ‘The greatest pleasure derived from letter-writing,’ he winkingly told his audience, ‘is being indiscreet,’ as one can be in private. He admired writers like Keats, he said, who could ‘express great truth and yet be frivolous’,
At his rare best, Eliot can do this: his letters to Hayward, the sillier moments in serious poems like Four Quartets, gesture at truth in frivolity. They are moments when the ‘Old Possum’, as Eliot was known to his friends, played something other than dead, and played it so well we might in a way believe it. But for the most part, and for different reasons, Carver and Cuda don’t find the comparison to Keats to be a flattering one. Eliot told his audience at Yale that ‘letter-writing permits us to forget ourselves and to express the worthwhile things that come spontaneously.’ In Carver’s view, he simply couldn’t forget his own rule that ‘there must be no third person’ – he knew too well that there would be a third, and a fourth, and the editors of The Fence, captivated by their own boredom, and junior research fellows at Oxford who like to make fun of their research subjects. There are moments, Carver told me, when she feels ‘the burst of a giggle coming through’ a letter, ‘a ripple of exuberance’ that ‘doesn’t feel altogether voluntary.’ Yet the occasions when he was ‘prepared to take risks’ were rare; he knew the stakes too well.
Cuda agreed with Carver, in part: ‘I think the question of being overheard is a big one for people like him and Woolf – because after a certain point, they’re writing with the knowledge of this future reader.’ But for Cuda, the total desiccation of so much of Eliot’s correspondence suggests that he was actually ‘remarkably unselfconscious in that regard, sometimes.’ In other words (very much not Cuda’s), the letters might be boring because Eliot really was just boring, and writing them provided a rare opportunity for him to luxuriate unselfconsciously in his innate drabbery.
But you know what they say: one man’s drab is another man’s pleasure. What’s boring can, for the right person, blossom into something fascinating. Even in reading Eliot’s most workmanlike letters, we get something like a secondhand thrill of the archive, a little trace of the pleasure in illicit access. In our eavesdropping, we are being just a tiny bit bad, but in a way that the English can stomach – the intellectual equivalent of running through a field of wheat. Eliot’s letters will be what we make of them, and no doubt someday every one of Haffenden’s painstaking annotations will bear delightful and surprising fruit. In the meantime, I will be glad that I am not an academic in the age of The Complete DMs of Sally Rooney [Digital Edition].