Jason Harding and Ronald Schuchard, editors: The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition: English Lion, 1930-1933.
John Haffenden, editor. Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume5--1930-1931. Faber, 2015. Ixi + 862 pp. 40 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978 0 5713 1632 8.
Towards the end of his final Charles Eliot Norton lecture at Harvard on 31 March 1933, T. S. Eliot addressed "the vexed question of obscurity and unintelligibility," identifying "several reasons" for difficulty in poetry that range from "personal causes which make it impossible for a poet to express himself in any but an obscure way" and "novelty," to the nature of readers' expectations and the "difficulty caused by the author's having left out something which reader is used to finding" (689). The editors of the most recent volume of the ongoing edition of his Complete Prose, Ronald Schuchard and Jason Harding, suggest that these comments indicate how "stung" Eliot felt by "perplexed responses" to his meditative poem, Ash-Wednesday, after it was published in 1930 (xxix).
Eliot's correspondence in the fifth volume of John Haffenden's edition of his letters, provides some confirmation about his personal motives. Sending copies of Ash Wednesday to friends and acquaintance proved a mixed experience for Eliot, who discerned disappointment in the response of the critic, A. L. Rowse and took humorous umbrage at Virginia Woolf's observation that she could not "fathom" it ("Are you not aware," he wrote, "that there are many people who consider your own works the depths of obscurity?" ). He also had to field earnest inquiries about the poem's "symbolism" from Oxford students and other enthusiasts.
Away from his audience in a Harvard lecture theatre, Eliot took a slightly different stance on "obscurity." Writing to a new friend, the Reverend Geoffrey Curtis, he observed:
As for obscurity, I like to think that there is a good and a bad kind: the bad, which merely puzzles or leads astray; the good, that which is the obscurity of any flower: something simple and to be simply enjoyed, but merely incomprehensible as anything living is incomprehensible. (220)
This reference to "the obscurity of any flower" recalls Mallarme's "Crise de vers" ("I say: a flower!") with its relish for formal poetic difficulty as a response to the inevitable disparity between language and the objects it seeks to describe.
Ten years previously Eliot had felt a sense of obligation or imperative here. In his essay on "The Metaphysical Poets" (1921), he had declared that "poets in our civilisation, as it exists at present, must be difficult" Whilst not wholly incommensurate, tensions between his open critical pronouncements and his correspondence in the 1930s make it clear how much Eliot's sense of his public position and the degree to which he felt accountable to readers had shifted over time.
The allusive connection to Mallarme broadens the scope of Eliot's letter to Curtis, suggesting a consciousness of the way that other voices might impinge on their conversation, drawing it into relation with wider literary discourse. It illustrates how letter writing is not simply a private act and straddles public forms of utterance too. Eliot, for example, wrote officially as the editor of the Criterion magazine or on behalf of Faber and Dwyer, the publishing company where he worked, but also adopted more intimate forms of expression when writing to friends on other occasions. As Haffenden records, Eliot expressed dislike to an old girlfriend, Emily Hale about the idea of exposing his "private life" to public scrutiny by publishing his letters (xxi). But for someone of Eliot's stature and repute, it must have been hard not to write with a sense that his words might resonate beyond his immediate interlocutor.
The Complete Prose and Letters speak to each other in important and significant ways. For example, Eliot's detailed correspondence with members of the clergy, from Curtis to the Archbishop of Canterbury provides insights into the theological and political backgrounds to his public statements on religion and the church in pamphlets such as Thoughts After Lambert (1931). As such, the work of Haffenden, and also Harding and Schuchard belong to the great recent surge in revelatory editorial work on Eliot that includes Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue's edition of the poems.
Its unfortunate here that although Eliot's old employer, Faber is involved in each of these projects, there does not seem to have been a great deal of coordination. Individually, they all represent significant achievements in terms of textual research and scholarly annotation, but the result is far from a uniform edition of Eliot's works. Sadly, there is no agreed convention for referring to Eliot's writings, so current volumes of the Letters and Prose refer to the previous edition of his poems. Likewise there are minor points of overlap: both Letters and Prose, for example, reproduce correspondence with periodicals and newspapers, such as Eliot's letter to the Dublin Review of April 1931 about Jacques Maritain.
On these occasions, the overlap is revealing about the different approaches that these editorial teams have adopted in relation to their primary materials. Annotations in the Prose are placed at the end of each article or essay and provide useful elucidation of literary and historical references and points of connection with Eliot's other works. In comparison, the Letters provide running footnotes beneath the text of each individual letter; they tend to be documentary in approach and contain more biographical information. There is even an appendix with potted summaries of Eliot's key correspondents.
Points of overlap also reflect an admirable drive towards completeness and an impulse to include as much of Eliot's work as possible which characterises both of these projects. Indeed, volume five of the Letters is so complete that the 800 pages cover only two years of Eliot's life. A note at the front acknowledging the efforts of Eliot's second wife, Valerie, to track down pieces of his correspondence even draws attention to this. Unlike Haffenden's previous work on the letters of William Empson, however, there is no selection here. As a consequence, significant material jostles with more trivial letters about his tax arrangements and minor notes, making or breaking appointments. Such everyday matters are unlikely to interest anyone who wants to find out more about the poetry. There are occasional items that offer insights into his creative activity, such as the remarks on obscurity quoted above, or Eliot's pained letters to William Force Stead about Hell and the possibility of an afterlife, but such passages are rare. Perhaps this too reflects Eliot's increasing consciousness about his public status. He was circumspect about personal matters, so that the most salacious material in the volume stems from other voices as they occur in the notes. There we find Woolf's description of Eliot's first wife, Vivienne as a "bag of ferrets [...] round his neck" and we encounter his friend, Geoffrey Faber's attempts to stop Richard Aldington from publishing a roman a clef about the Eliots' unhappy marriage.
It would be a mistake, however, to think of the Letters as being dry: the documentary approach and style of Haffenden's notes constitute an important act of recovery in themselves. The Letters provide a fascinating window onto the British literary and cultural scene during the 1930s that extends through Eliot's career at Faber and beyond, to a host of his contemporaries, from publishers to poets, to scholars and figures from the religious establishment. In this context, it is entirely to the point to find out when, where and with whom Eliot took his tea.
Still, the Complete Prose is likely to be of more immediate appeal and use to readers interested in Eliot's poetry and his development as a critic and thinker. The fourth volume republishes reviews and articles from the Criterion, the Times Literary Supplement and elsewhere, that Eliot did not reissue during his lifetime. As well as publishing the scripts of lectures from Eliot's tour of the United States, Harding and Schuchard attempt to reconstruct talks which have survived only in the form of newspaper reports and recollections of audience members. The authority of these texts may be a little dubious, but they offer insights into Eliot's views on topics such as the poetry of Edward Lear which he did not discuss elsewhere or in print. The Complete Prose performs an important service here in rescuing Eliot's writings from the archive and making these different kinds of material more widely available.
Or it ought to. The decision to release this edition exclusively in electronic form through an annual subscription service is thoroughly disconcerting. All scholarly editions are expensive, but such arrangements leave subscribers with nothing to show for their outlay if they cease to participate or the service is withdrawn. It can only serve to deter the readership these materials ought to find. Strangely, this electronic release takes the form of individual document files for each essay that replicate the text in the same style as the printed edition would assume. Recent online versions of work by Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett indicate that imaginative and stimulating use may be made of various digital formats to augment the reader's experience. So it seems odd to release a new edition of such a major figure as Eliot electronically without taking advantage of the technological possibilities this creates.
Perhaps the present format of this electronic edition reflects the future plans mentioned by the editors to release the Complete Prose in physical, printed volumes when the series is complete. I certainly hope so. Haffenden's Letters is a handsome object; if only both of these significant achievements were equally available to the public they deserve.
University of Glasgow, Scotland
MATTHEW CREASY is a lecturer in English literature at the University of Glasgow. His critical edition of Arthur Symons' The Symbolist Movement in Literature was published by Fyfield-Carcanet in 2014. He has written articles and essays on the work of James Joyce, Arthur Symons, William Empson and Villiers de l'Isle-Adam. He is a contributing editor to the Year's Work in English Studies.
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|Title Annotation:||Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume5--1930-1931|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2017|
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