You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Between the Potency and the Existence

The Letters of T.S. Eliot: Volume 1 (1898–1922)
Edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton
(Faber and Faber, 871 pp., £35)

The Letters of T.S. Eliot: Volume 2 (1923–25)
Edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton
(Faber and Faber, 878 pp., £35) 

In these two volumes we find more than 1,600 pages of letters and T.S. Eliot is not yet forty. The heroic task of getting Eliot’s writings properly assembled, edited, and annotated has begun in earnest: Christopher Ricks is doing the poems, Ronald Schuchard the prose, and Hugh Haughton has taken on the editing of the letters, begun by Valerie Eliot with the publication of a first volume in 1988 (now re-issued in revised form and with “some 200 new letters”). The letters, expertly and fully annotated by Haughton, tell a peculiar, driven, and somewhat ghastly tale, including (in the first volume) Eliot’s unsuccessful school days and his “loafing” through his first two years at Harvard; his increasing academic success, followed by a year in Paris and London; his progress toward a Harvard doctorate in philosophy, and his study of philosophy for a year at Oxford, with the expectation that he would (after defending his dissertation) join the philosophy department at Harvard; his repudiation of that academic future by staying in England, marrying Vivienne Haigh-Wood in 1915, and (encouraged by Ezra Pound, whom he had met in England) deciding that he would become a writer, while somehow making a living (teaching, which he disliked, gave way to employment at Lloyds Bank). Prufrock and Other Observations, published in 1917, was followed in 1922—after Eliot’s nervous collapse and treatment in Switzerland—by the English and American publication of The Waste Land, the work that in its cosmopolitan scope and haunting free verse changed the face of modern poetry.

Now, in Volume Two, we can see Eliot founding his literary review The Criterion, and suffering, while also in part causing, the excruciating breakdown of his marriage (a terrible tale to be continued in future volumes). At the same time Eliot becomes, by his constant production of arresting prose (Homage to John Dryden, The Sacred Wood), the most impressive literary critic in England. His professional and social doings are tracked by the letters almost day by day, but his marital life—experienced under intolerable pressure—bursts through only sporadically and incoherently in the relatively few intimate letters here. And intertwined with these narratives—the publication of poetry and prose, the management of The Criterion, the marriage, the social engagements with the Bloomsbury set and their wealthy friends—is the more intermittent narrative of Eliot’s relation with his family, especially with his mother Charlotte and his brother Henry, the two family members closest in sensibility to the poet. The most occluded narrative, perhaps naturally, is that of the genesis of the poems. It is frustrating to see Eliot writing to his mother in 1920, about The Waste Land, that “I want a period of tranquility to do a poem I have in mind”—and nothing more. These letters are not the place to search for the psychological origins of the poetry. To guess at those internal sources one needs to go to the early poems (edited by Christopher Ricks in 1996 under Eliot’s title Inventions of the March Hare) and to the facsimile edition of The Waste Land (edited by Valerie Eliot in 1971).

When we stand back from the main narratives visible through the letters, we can view the entire improbability of Eliot’s life and art. His taking literary London by storm was hardly conceivable, given his beginnings. He was an introverted and high-strung young American from St. Louis, shy, virginal, and inexperienced in business; he had no independent income of a reliable sort; he had no ready-made London literary network; he worked from nine to five in a taxing bank position, dealing with international financial relations; he had no gift for addressing the general public. He did have Pound urging him on, but Pound soon fled London for Italy. What Eliot did possess—or was possessed by—was a nature driven not only toward the composition of poetry, but also toward an evangelism that would release modern poetry from convention without detaching it from tradition.

Some have seen his evangelism as a will to power, exerted from the bastion of The Criterion; but Eliot primarily wanted the journal so that he could have a public role in the altering of taste. (He turned down the opportunity to be second-in-command to another editor.) Since he had no money, Eliot was always looking for patronage of a sort. The Criterion was financed by a rich society woman, Lilian Rothermere, who had heard of Eliot from his Harvard friend Scofield Thayer, the wealthy founder of the American literary magazine The Dial and the person through whom Eliot met Vivienne. Not only did Eliot not have money, he also could not entertain those members of society whom he wished to cultivate as backers: his wife was perpetually ill, and they lived in a succession of small flats. He depended, as conduits toward upper-class society, on Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who published his first poems and his first book of criticism, and on friends of theirs such as Ottoline Morrell, whose weekends at Garsington brought together the affluent and the gifted.

It is nothing short of amazing that Eliot, while composing poetry and working full time, founded, edited, and perpetuated The Criterion (which was replaced by The New Criterion in 1925, after Eliot became a director of the firm of Faber and Gwyer, later Faber and Faber). It is hard to think of any other American poetic genius carrying off such a feat of organization, entreaty, direction, writing, coordination, and fund-raising. Not for nothing had Eliot grown up as the son of a businessman. Although his father died still thinking his son a failure, Eliot’s tenacious work on The Criterion suggests a will in the poet to prove himself competent in his father’s world of money and business.

The Criterion correspondence, it must be said, is the most tedious part of the second volume of the Letters. In his search for contributors, Eliot “fawns [on] and flatters” (Virginia Woolf’s words, uttered in annoyance) author after author, in England and abroad, inviting them—in English, in fluent French, even in basic German—to submit work to his new journal, pleading with one writer to introduce him to another, finding channels through which to meet foreigners, imploring Hermann Hesse for a meeting, becoming depressed when he receives no answer from Proust (both Hesse and Proust eventually contributed), setting up exchanges with foreign literary journals, manipulating reviewers, offering payments, mediating quarrels, assembling number after number (always at the last minute), writing for the journal even as he edited it evenings in his flat, corresponding with the printer, reporting on his work to Pound and others.

Nobody—unless engaged in a history of The Criterion—would willingly read all this correspondence in substantive detail. And reading it as an index of work hours is painful: all those hours taken from poetry. But the bank did not pay enough to live on and support a wife in any bourgeois fashion; and Eliot believed that the only way, in the long run, to gain a living wage as a writer was to find prestige through a journal. He actually thought of establishing a second journal (even while the first was exhausting him) which would be given a title such as Symposium or Cahiers, and would collect pieces by a number of authors on a common topic, but this idea never came to fruition. Although Eliot had distinct literary and political opinions, he did not wish the journal to be composed solely of essays, as many postwar journals tended to be: he wanted to print work by poets and novelists as well. Yet although the creative authors he printed by no means espoused a single point of view, over time the essays and commentaries in The Criterion took on a cast reflecting Eliot’s own political and religious sentiments. 

In the meantime, the literary avant-garde in the United States was not always pleased with Eliot, who had deserted America for Europe. John Crowe Ransom, from a legislative height, declared The Waste Land “one of the most insubordinate poems in the language.” It probably gave Eliot a certain pleasure to reject the poems of Allen Tate and R.P. Blackmur, writing dryly to the latter in 1925:

I think that your verse tends to diffuseness and to use of words of too general a meaning. Your poppy is not a definite poppy seen in a particular place or associated with particular circumstances and emotions. I think that you need to work the precise image. “Laughter like hot ashes in the throat” is not a very good comparison because one does not know what hot ashes in the throat are like and they do not suggest any kind of laughter.

Eliot usually ended such a rejection letter with a mollifying remark, as he does here: “Later, I should very much like to see more of your work.” There were endless such letters to be written, a task requiring severity, delicacy, and prudence alike.

If the Criterion narrative tends toward the tedious, the marital narrative spirals into the harrowing. Never had any two people (as Vivienne herself says in a letter) “made such a fearful mess of their obvious possibilities.” The story begins as Eliot, at twenty-six, meets Vivienne at Oxford. They marry in a registry office three months later, without notifying either set of parents. In his seventies, Eliot wrote in a private memo:

To explain my sudden marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood would require a good many words, and yet the explanation would probably remain unintelligible.... I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or a mild affair: I was too shy and unpractised to achieve either with anybody.... To her the marriage brought no happiness ... to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land

The marriage was to prove the single most instructive event of Eliot’s emotional life. Before he married, his closest tie had been to his high-minded mother, to whom he wrote passionately devoted letters until her death. The youngest of seven children, born when his mother was forty-five, and growing up in a family of settled habits and emotional taciturnity, he fled from the Eliot constriction to the gaiety that he found dancing with Vivienne. Had her health, both physical and mental, held out, the marriage might have been somewhat less disastrous; but Eliot would perhaps have neglected any wife, given the intense demands of his will to write. As it was, however, the Eliots’ marriage ran into very bad luck. The letters reveal scarcely a day of their domestic doings which does not contain an account of illness.

For Vivienne alone, the physicians’ diagnoses (as mediated in the letters) range from neuritis to neuralgia, from catarrh to “stomach” to migraine, from colitis (with “explosions”) to influenza, both “septic” and “gastric,” from eye problems to dental problems, from rheumatism to bronchitis to pneumonia to sinus to insomnia, from anemia to “defective circulation” to “paralysis of the intestines,” to a “hard liver,” “an extraordinary excess of streptococcus fecalis,” and other increasingly improbable verdicts. One doctor, according to Eliot, “immediately diagnosed her whole trouble as glands.” He outlined “a perfectly new and violent cure.... She is to have the glands of animals, but of course this at present is purely experimental, and it may take a long time before they find the right glands.”

One wants to weep at the Eliots’ medical history: Vivienne reports of the doctor that “he gave me some glands to take called Ovarian Opocaps and told me that this was a ‘shot in the dark.’” Vivienne’s father became ill, and when she became ill herself, Eliot speculated in desperation that “the standing so much by her father’s bed precipitated internal displacements.” The conjoined ignorance of the doctors and the Eliots led to treatments not only of dubious benefit but also of positive harm: regimes of starvation, peculiar massages, enemas, “manipulation,” and “serum and Bulgarian bacillus.” On one occasion Vivienne is reported to be in “screaming agony”; on another, she gets up and immediately falls down. She takes to her bed for weeks. Eliot’s acquaintances (except for Bertrand Russell, who had an affair with her) disliked Vivienne. Virginia Woolf notes, among her visitors in 1924, “Mrs. Eliot—this last making me almost vomit, so scented, so powdered, so egotistic, so morbid, so weakly.” Katherine Mansfield calls Vivienne “this teashop creature.”

Years passed without the American Eliots meeting Vivienne. Finally, a visit of two months from Eliot’s “terrifyingly energetic” mother, his sister Marion, and his brother Henry was arranged. When his mother left (causing some sort of “fit” of Vivienne’s at the departure), he was desolate. Vivienne cried out in a letter to Henry against the Eliot chill: “I was extremely anxious to show no emotion before your family at any time, and then I ended in a fit! I found the emotionless condition a great strain, all the time. I used to think I should burst out and scream and dance.” Eliot’s own total breakdown followed a month later. Charlotte Eliot’s chilling judgment on her son’s predicament was that “it was not an eugenic marriage.” When she visits again in 1924, Eliot writes to Woolf that “I have been boiled in a hellbroth.”

Yet that same marriage, as I have said, was for Eliot the most revealing experience in his emotional and sexual life. It plunged him into an insoluble physical and intellectual abyss, where he could neither withdraw nor advance. It taught him what philosophy had failed to teach him: the irreducible grimness of the invalid body, his own as well as Vivienne’s, and the loathing that could grow between incompatible souls. The situation exceeded the powers of rationality, and the powers of sympathy. His family’s Emersonian “transcendental atheism” did not give the poet a religion he could find consoling. He was unwillingly brought to acknowledge his own helplessness as he lost the struggle against nervous collapse; and in the single most revealing sentence in these letters, he describes to John Quinn, his New York friend and patron, a feeling of pervasive horror that never left him: “Whenever I get very tired or worried I recognise all the old symptoms ready to appear, with half a chance, and find myself under the continuous strain of trying to suppress a vague but intensely acute horror and apprehension.”

Although Eliot had a rational interest in religion that arose from his family roots in New England and his Harvard studies of both Christianity and Buddhism, he found himself addressing religion under duress from the despair of the marriage, and from his guilt for his part in its failure. His mother, after reading The Waste Land with considerable discomfort, wrote that “I would like him to supplement The Waste Land by its natural sequence [for “sequel”?] ‘The coming of the Grail.’” Charlotte Eliot herself wrote a dreary Browningesque verse drama on Savonarola, showing the preacher’s mother heartening her idealistic son. When he failed to place it with Knopf, Eliot paid to have it published by the printer for The Criterion, and wrote a foreword (in which his relation to the author went unmentioned) speculating that a new sort of verse drama would be the next modern literary feature. Years later, in writing Four Quartets, Eliot was at last fulfilling his mother’s desire that he should write of finding the Grail. And his (erroneous) prophecy of the importance of verse drama to the future of literature led to his own plays in verse, received respectfully but rarely resuscitated for the stage.

And what was occurring in the poetry during the period covered by these two volumes? Most of Eliot’s best work: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” The Waste Land, “The Hollow Men,” “Gerontion,” and Poems 1909–1925. The self-portraits in these works are full of contempt, as Eliot the satirist of pinched New England turns his eyes obliquely—in second or third person—upon himself, revealing “The thousand sordid images/Of which your soul was constituted.” These images are externalized in desolate environments, landscapes, and buildings, and spoken with the air of dread and paranoia seen in the speaker of “Gerontion”:

My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill,
the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of
Blistered in Brussels, patched and
peeled in London.
The goat coughs at night in the field
Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.

The casual St. Louis anti-Semitism of Eliot’s mother (“I have an instinctive antipathy to Jews, just as I have to certain animals”) takes on, in the hysterical anxiety of those lines in “Gerontion,” the sinister tones of European anti-Semitism, in which Jews are the financial controllers of the world, squatting on hoards in Antwerp, Brussels, London. Stepping through Eliot’s repellent landscape one finds the occasional moss and flower, yes, but one encounters, too, rocks and iron and excrement under foot (and even the flower is called “stonecrop”).

And stepping into an equally repellent social scene, one finds Eliot’s disgusted portraits of the social world, “high” and “low” alike: Princess Volupine and Sir Frederick Klein, Sweeney and Doris, are exposed in knife-sharp, at-arm’s-length quatrains. Life is—and the poet too is (as he says in a poem in French)—a “Mélange Adultère de Tout”:

En Amérique, professeur;
En Angleterre, journaliste;
C’est à grands pas et en sueur
Que vous suivrez à peine ma piste.
En Yorkshire, conférencier;
A Londres, un peu banquier.

In America, he is a professor; in England, a journalist; in Yorkshire, a lecturer; in London, a banker; it will take many leaps and a quantity of sweat to follow his trail.

Self-definition by trade or profession is expressed with such sarcasm by Eliot because there exists no worldly trade-name for a poet. The poet—or at least this poet—is a hollow man, having neither a commercial profession nor a religious vocation, balked of both. Once The Waste Land had been completed, and the broken self was evacuated, Eliot writes his own (collective) epitaph:

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw, Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Paralyzed, the hollow men cannot actualize any potential, sexual or creative; their every effort is blocked, their very lines falter:

 Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow.

The voice falls silent after a futile attempt to finish the Lord’s Prayer, breaking up in static as it utters its final whimper:

For thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

Beneath Eliot’s letters in the second volume—so preoccupied with journalism on the left and marital horror on the right—one hears the hollow men’s meaningless whispers. Eliot is heading toward religion, but is unable as yet to carry a religious utterance through to finality. In a letter in 1925 to Herbert Read, Eliot sets out the dangers of pursuing a religious identity:

Of course the religious difficulty is the great one and it is impossible to tell what one’s solution will be.... One must be on guard against the prejudices of one’s training on the one hand and any emotional collapse on the other. I certainly do not want to fall into the pit of obscurantism. But one way or the other it will need an heroic effect [for “effort”?] to keep from allowing oneself illicit conclusions. 

The poet’s eventual decision—to convert to Anglicanism and to take a vow of celibacy—is not yet in view. In the implicit war for Eliot’s affections, his mother in the end prevails.


Of all Eliot’s correspondents, his brother Henry (hitherto a vague figure in the public mind) comes off the best. Henry is the mediator between Eliot and his mother, carefully explaining the nature of “Tom’s” poems to her, putting them in their best light. He is a genius of tact, writing to his difficult brother with warmth and generosity. He even leaves his own typewriter behind after his visit to England, having silently noticed the broken-down machine on which his brother is depending. Henry has extraordinary self-knowledge and is an eloquent writer; his understanding of the Eliot family’s character—the reticence, the avoidance of all subjects concerning the body, the Puritanical rectitude—is helpful to his brother. In England, on their mother’s second visit, he provided a buffer between Vivienne and Charlotte. A thoroughly kind person, Henry advised his mother on her financial decisions and her will, all the while funneling money of his own to the impoverished Tom and Vivienne. They were, of course, not impoverished in an elemental sense: they kept a servant, they had a flat, Tom had a job. But they did not have middle-class comforts, or any financial cushion; Henry was a reassuring presence in their distress.

One of the rewards of reading the best of these letters is Eliot’s impeccable prose. His sentences—so precise, so well-turned, so quietly efficient in business letters—convey his violence of temperament in the tortured letters of April 1925 to John Middleton Murry. Any reviewer would feel obliged to mention these moments at which Eliot tears off his mask and his disguises, and almost singes the paper as he describes the ten years of his marriage:

In the last ten years—gradually but deliberately—I have made myself into a machine. I have done it deliberately—in order to endure, in order not to feel—but it has killed V.... Is it best to make oneself a machine, and kill them by not giving nourishment, or to be alive, and kill them by wanting something that one cannot get from that person? ... Must I kill her or kill myself? I have tried to kill myself—but only to make the machine which kills her.... I feel now that one cannot help another by ruining one’s own soul-I have done that.

We have not yet arrived in these volumes at the moment when Vivienne’s brother (with the implicit consent of Eliot) commits her to a mental “nursing home,” in which she will remain until her death in 1947. But already in these early volumes she has exhibited symptoms of madness (in which the many drugs that she was taking surely played a part). Convinced that she is losing her mind, she stays in bed and becomes more and more deranged. Eliot reports to her brother:

She became more and more frantic as time went on and took to making the most shocking faces and hypnotising herself. I can say no more of this; it is too horrible. I leave it to your imagination.

The doctors’ verdict, at this stage of Vivienne’s disintegration, is for residential treatment. Vivienne writes her husband a piteous letter from the nursing home:

I am sorry I tortured you and drove you mad. I had no notion until yesterday afternoon that I had done it. I have been simply raving mad.... Please write to this doctor instantly and tell him the truth, that we have had sexual relations. Do these things for me. Especially about our married life and make him see it had been good. All here believe not.

And this is how these volumes end. Eliot has left Vivienne and gone abroad, first to recover at the Hotel Savoie in La Turbie in southwest France, near the Viscountess Rothermere, and later to see Pound in Rapallo. The doctor reports that Vivienne’s hysteria is less frequent and that “considering that her will to take drugs is being systematically opposed, she is a good case.” But Vivienne is threatening suicide, and she is subsequently sent to a different nursing home run by Seventh-Day Adventists, where she needs a private nurse to see her through her insomniac nights. And when Eliot returns to London, the relentless machine of the Criterion correspondence grinds on. (In one letter, Eliot writes to F. Scott Fitzgerald, telling him that The Great Gatsby “has interested and excited me more than any new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years.”)

Eliot is thirty-seven as the second of these volumes comes to a close in 1925. He lived until 1965, so there are many more volumes to come. Eventually, in 2019, the thousand restricted letters at Princeton written by Eliot to Emily Hale—the woman he loved, or thought he loved, in his youth—will be opened to scholars. Those letters will revise yet again our idea of the Eliot of these volumes. As for her letters to him, he burned them.

For more TNR, become a fan on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.