T. S. Eliot edited The Criterion from October 1922 to January 1939, when he closed it down, telling his readers that “a feeling of staleness has crept over me.” The fifth volume of the Letters is almost entirely a record of his day-to-day efforts to keep volumes IX and X of The Criterion going as a vehicle of European thought, not merely of English thought. But it never became European, despite his persistent efforts: he was not sufficiently in touch with European writers. As late as March 28, 1931, he wrote to Stephen Spender:
There is a philosopher named Martin Heidegger—a disciple of the great Husserl, who really is good, I think, though far from lucid—whom I have been agonizing over.
He admired Jacques Maritain, Ramón Fernández, Rémy de Gourmont, and E. R. Curtius, but those four swallows did not make a summer. To fill the journal with essays and reviews, he had to rely on the home team: John Middleton Murry, Herbert Read, Montgomery Belgion, Bonamy Dobrée, Father Martin D’Arcy, I. A. Richards, William Empson, A. L. Rowse, and a few more.
As a correspondent, Eliot was hopeless. Nearly every letter begins with an apology. He discovered a hundred ways of saying “I’m sorry,” sometimes adding “humbly” to ensure forgiveness. An instance: one day in October 1930, C. S. Lewis submitted to The Criterion an essay, “The Personal Heresy in Criticism.” No reply. Six months later, on April 19, 1931, he wrote to Eliot to enquire about the status of the essay. Meanwhile, on November 2, 1930, as Professor Haffenden reports, Lewis’s friend and colleague Owen Barfield approached Eliot on Lewis’s behalf. To no avail. Again, on May 28, 1931, Barfield pleaded:
I dare not say that so helpless and unjustifiable a creature as a freelance contributor is “entitled” to anything, but in the circumstances it certainly seems to me that equity looks to you for an act of grace.
The act came forth, half-heartedly. Eliot’s “Dear Sir” letter of June 1, 1931, started with an apology, followed by the suggestion that Mr. Lewis might care to submit the essay again in nine months’ time, “if you have not meanwhile published it.” Lewis replied, the following day:
I have no objection to waiting nine months: what I should like to be more assured of is the prospect I have at the end of the nine months. . . . I am quite prepared for the risk of your “corrected impressions.” What I am less ready to lie at the mercy of is the mere richness or poverty of suitable contributions—the fullness or emptiness of your drawer—nine months hence, which nobody can predict . . .
Having been so cheeky, Lewis relaxed to the extent of giving Eliot an account of the relation between the essay and the “neo-Aristotelian theory of literature” which the rest of the book, when complete, would enforce. The reference to “corrected impressions” indicates that at least one further letter from Eliot to Lewis is missing. In the event, it hardly mattered. Eliot did not publish Lewis’s essay; it had to wait many more months than nine to be published in Essays and Studies of the English Association (1934).
Two of the letters in Volume 5 detained me. The first was from Eliot to Reverend Charles Harris on November 25, 1930, addressed “Dear Harris” and marked Confidential. It didn’t stay confidential. Eliot intended writing something in reply to the Report of the Lambeth Conference (1930) and, before doing so, to discuss various issues with his ethical experts Reverend Harris, Reverend Francis Underhill, and the Bishop of Chichester. The discussion with Harris included the question of contraception. Eliot wrote:
I agree with you about the actual odiousness both of idea and methods: it is one reason (among others) why in my younger and unregenerate time I found (without any sense of sin) adultery to be quite unsatisfactory.
He did not indicate when his younger and unregenerate time had ended: maybe it ended on June 26, 1915 when he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, or on Shrove Tuesday, February 20, 1928, when he made his first Confession and, then or thenabouts, took a vow of chastity. He did not explain, in the letter to Harris, the additional reasons for finding adultery unsatisfactory. That is an awkward word to use even if we regard his sense of sin, for the moment, as null.
The second ambiguous letter is from Eliot to William Force Stead, dated December 2, 1930:
Could you come up and lunch with me soon? I want to talk to you—as for your suggestion—my dear—it has been put strongly by my wife’s R. C. doctor—by Underhill—and by others less qualified. But I shd like to talk to you because you know how difficult it is. I will say that I have now a certain happiness which makes celibacy easy for me for the first time. I think you will know what I am speaking of.
Professor Haffenden’s note reads in full:
Gordon, T. S. Eliot, 294, construes this letter thus: “Father Underhill took it upon himself to advise separation.” Seymour-Jones [biographer of Vivienne], 465, concurs.
Haffenden doesn’t say whether or not he too concurs. Celibacy doesn’t necessarily entail separation. I concede that when Kenneth B. Murdock, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, wrote to Eliot on October 27, 1931, inviting him to take up the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship for the academic session 1932–1933, Eliot did not delay long in accepting, and in deciding that he would travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts, by himself, leaving Vivienne to spend seven distraught months alone in London. In the event, the seven months extended themselves to nine, allowing Eliot to give a set of lectures at the University of Virginia and another set at Johns Hopkins. In the middle of May 1933 he wrote to his solicitor in London, instructing him to arrange a Deed of Separation from Vivienne—a document which, presented to her for her signature, she refused to sign.
In Thoughts after Lambeth (1931), the word “adultery” does not appear, but “contraception” does, as in Eliot’s rebuke to the bishops for leaving unanswered the questions: “When is it right to limit the family and right to limit it only by continence? And: When is it right to limit the family by contraception?” He himself did not answer those questions in Thoughts after Lambeth, but in a letter of November 25, 1930, to George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, he wrote:
As for the Sex Resolution, my own view is very simple: I welcome the independence of the Bishops in not slavishly following Rome, and I only regret the insertion of the clause allowing private judgement: it seems to me to be distinctly the place for insisting that the laity should take spiritual counsel and direction—and incidentally for gradually making the parish clergy prepare themselves for being able to give (perhaps with the collaboration of medical men) wise direction. You may find such suggestions impertinent from me, but these are among the matters which I should like to discuss with you.
Not for the first time, I am astonished by Eliot’s creativity, in those two years, given the domestic turmoil with which it had to contend. “Ash-Wednesday,” “Marina,” and the two parts of “Coriolan”—“Difficulties of a Statesman” and “Triumphal March”—a translation of Saint-John Perse’s “Anabase,” six BBC broadcast talks on seventeenth-century poetry, three further talks on Dryden, essays on Tourneur, Dryden, and Heywood, and Thoughts after Lambeth: such an achievement disarms criticism. Not that the work is all of a piece. “Ash-Wednesday” and “Marina” issue from the same imagination under different propulsions, while the two parts of “Coriolan” adumbrate a different kind of poetry and an imagination in a virulent relation to itself. But I should report that Geoffrey Hill regrets that Eliot did not fulfill the promise of “Coriolan.” If he had continued the “Coriolan” sequence beyond “Difficulties of a Statesman” and “Triumphal March,” “he would have possessed an instrument of great range and resonance.” “Coriolan” remains, as Hill writes in Alienated Majesty, “one of the major ‘lost’ sequences in English poetry of the twentieth century and Four Quartets is the poorer for Eliot’s having ‘lost’ it.”
As for the domestic woes with which Eliot, in those two years, had to contend: Vivienne was endlessly ill, bedridden much of the time, and, in the rare intervals in which her health improved, she was wild to a degree that raised a question of insanity. Eliot was patient and tender until his patience wore out and his tenderness sought relief in cruelty. I can’t understand how he decided to go to Harvard for seven months and extended his absence for a further two months from the most vulnerable person in his world. The arrangements he made for The Criterion and his duties as a director of Faber and Faber seem, by comparison, almost light-hearted.