The Letters of T. S. Eliot.,
Volume I: 1898 – 1922 (Revised Edition)
Edited by Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton
Faber and Faber – £35.00
As the English language becomes ever increasingly ingrained within the rancid fibre of acute simplistic-speak; signed, sealed, delivered and ultimately designed for a dumbed-down society of nothing other than moronic moguls – should it be at all surprising that the art of letter writing, essentially died decades ago?
Just so long as (hordes of) white males continue to replicate the switch-blade nuance of many a Camberwell gangsta, and their female equivalents, the saccharine, cloying annoyance of those (s)advertising carpets and/or motor-car-insurance as if on a penultimate edition of Strictly, then we may as well kiss the English language goodbye.
Indeed, the rich and varied language of the likes of William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Beckett and Richard Burton et al, is moving ever further aside to make way for The Eastenders- Sun-Speak of folly induced, cretinous, turgid, wank, innit?
All the more reason to remind ourselves of how very potent and powerful, inspiring and influential (not to mention wondrous and majestic), language actually can be. And this revised edition of The Letters of T. S. Eliot., Volume I: 1898 – 1922, is as good a place to start as anywhere.
Home in on almost any of these 817 pages (excluding List of Illustrations, Acknowledgements, Introduction, Preface to the Revised Edition, Biographical Commentary, 1888-1922, Abbreviations & Sources, Editorial Notes, Glossary of Names, Index of Correspondents & Recipients along with a General Index), and one will be immediately reminded of what I write.
I would hasten to add that it might help if one is actually interested in the subject matter and the rather magnificent work(s) of T. S. Eliot; but to all intents and linguistic purposes, much of the language herein is of a f-a-r higher standard than that which would nowadays, be hurriedly dashed off by text.
Furthermore, it is surely an indicative sign of the times, that there are so many letters. There again, we are talking of someone who made (some of) their living by way of being an outstanding writer. There again, Valerie Eliot, has since 1988, continued to gather material from libraries and private sources in Britain and America for use in subsequent volumes. Of the correspondence that has come to light, a good many letters date from before 1923, so a revised edition of Volume One has been prepared to take account of approximately two hundred new items.
It might thus be said, that the new letters fill important gaps in the record, notably enlarging our understanding of the genesis and eventual publication of The Waste Land. Valuable, too, are letters from the earlier and least documented part of Eliot’s life, additional correspondence with family members in America along with an ever widening circle of friends and contacts.
Assimilated together, they undoubtedly give a far more detailed picture of not only the poet’s engagements, friendships and daily movements in London during and after the First World War, but they also shed much light on that of his reading materials: ”I received last night by the post a package bearing a label which indicted that it came from the offices of The Dial. When opened, it was found to contain The House of Dust by Conrad Aiken, and nothing else. There was no enclosure or inscription to indicate why the volume was sent to me. It occurred to me that it might be intended for review; and if so, I fear it was a piece of naughtiness on your part at Conrad’s expense.”
Naturally, it might be said that it is with reference to quite possibly his greatest work, The Waste Land, that will invariably invoke and trigger the most enthusiasm among readers.
This, alongside his wanton debt to the equally brilliant poet, Ezra Pound, are mentioned throughout a number of letters in the final quarter of the book, with, as the letters flood by, ever increasingly clarity: ”My only regret (which may seem in the circumstances either ungracious or hypocritical) is that this award should come to me before it has been given to Pound. I feel that he deserves the recognition much more than I do, certainly ‘for his services to Letters’ and I feel that I ought to have been made to wait until after he had received this public testimony. In the manuscript of The Waste Land which I am sending you, you will see the evidence of his work, and I think that this manuscript is worth preserving in its present form solely for the reason that it is the only evidence of the difference which his criticism has made to this poem” (to John Quinn, September 21st 1922).
With exquisite letters written entirely in French by his friend, Jean Verdenal, there are also a number of doodlings and drawings by Eliot himself, that, along with two wonderful sections of black and white photographs; all in all account for The Letters of T. S. Eliot., Volume I: 1898 – 1922, being the masterful tomb of regal recollection that it is.