August 23, 2011:
The latest tomes came in the mail the other day, two volumes weighing in at just under seven pounds, each one a little over 870 pages long. What are they? THE LETTERS OF T. S. ELIOT, Vols. 1 and 2, the first covering his life from 1898 to 1922, the second from 1922 to 1925. Each volume contains 1,400 letters. Because they're so thick and heavy they present a problem to read beside the tedium of reading through somebody else's mail at such length, a problem that's sheerly physical: how do you hold them? would a reading stand be more comfortable than holding them in your lap? won't they be tiring to read? Small exercise weights come in this weight but not this size; the weights have handles, they're designed to be easily gripped. Books like this, not so much. You can manage them, but having big hands is a real help and even then it isn't easy, unless you read them at a table; and then it becomes a matter of finding a comfortable chair and figuring out how not to have to bend over the table, which is fatiguing. Books this size can be daunting, in short, in more ways than one.
But I am delighted to have them nevertheless. I'm not an Eliot scholar and will never read the entire text, but for dipping into in a relaxed frame of mind, other people's correspondence is as good as it gets. And Eliot: at Princeton in the 1950s he was our guru, chief critic, maker and breaker of reputations (Milton was never the same after Eliot had finished with him), not to mention the Modernist poet who led us all out of the wilderness of Edwardian sentimentalism with the kinds of imagery nobody had ever seen in poetry before--no American student, I should say, raised on Victorian gentility and "The Chambered Nautilus." Was it Eliot, or was it my late professor Russell Fraser, who pointed out the difference between Milton's line, "Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds," and Shakespeare's "silver snarling trumpets"? I first read John Donne under the tutelage, as it were, of Eliot's influence. And then to read Eliot himself: Prufrock's "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Or to see the evening laid out against the sky "like a patient etherized upon a table," or the great procession of the dead over London Bridge; or another line I love, "The salt is on the briar rose, the fog is in the fir trees," as good an evocation of the infiltration of the sea into the coast of northern Massachusetts, at Eastern Point, as it happens, a place I'm familiar with, as we'll ever get. It was Eliot, too, who gave us OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS, and thereby the musical CATS, which was great fun.
And now here is my first find, a letter Eliot wrote to his cousin Eleanor Hinkley when he was living in France for a year, and it's all about fun, and amusing her; he has just spent two weeks in London and he describes his appetite for visiting places off the tourist route, ordinary city churches, for instance, as opposed to St. Paul's or Westminster Abbey, and he mentions a visit to Cricklewood, too. "'Where is Cricklewood?' said an austere Englishman at the hotel. I produced a map and pointed to the silent evidence that Cricklewood exists. He pondered. 'But why go to Cricklewood?' he flashed out at length. Here I was triumphant. 'There is no reason!' I said. He had no more to say. But he was relieved (I am sure) when he found that I was American. He felt no longer responsible. But Cricklewood is mine. I discovered it. No one will go there again. It is like the sunken town in the fairy story, that rose just every May-day eve, and lived for an hour, and only one man saw it." Later in this same letter he mentions that he "gave the apterix a bun," draws a picture of himself tossing a bun to what looks like a rabbit, and then comes this remark: "Perhaps it was not an apterix." When we refer to the annotations, which are at the bottom of the page, thank god, we find that Eliot wrote three book reviews for The Egoist in 1918 under the name "Apteryx" or "T. S. Apteryx." An apteryx is not at all like a rabbit, in fact; it is a New Zealand bird, a kind of flightless goose. But it's the word that's delightful more than the bird.
So who wouldn't want to have been T. S. Eliot's cousin, and get such letters?
I'm sure more such treasures will appear from this vast treasure house to lighten my burdens. But there's an elegiac note that comes with it, because how many more such collections will come our way? Few write letters any more, we write emails, we twitter, we make remarks on Facebook, we communicate instantly all over the world and it all vanishes as soon as it's read. Modern means of communication have made it more, not less difficult to keep track of other people's minds. I bridge this transition in my own life, having gone from writing letters, all too many of them, some better never sent, and writing emails that slip away into space somewhere, presumably never to be seen again. So I'm grateful for this splendid, overdone collection, which comes from Yale University Press, the best of the university presses. Having his correspondence will lead to other books about Eliot, numerous reevaluations, and the game will go on. The game ought to go on. Intellectual life has to be sustained on a great many levels, and continuously, for a culture to survive. Eliot's letters are like what he once called poetry itself: the highest form of entertainment.