Volume One of the Letters of T. S. Eliot, edited by Valerie Eliot in 1988, covered the period from Eliot’s childhood in St Louis, Missouri, to the end of 1922, by which time he had settled in England, married and published The Waste Land.
Since 1988, Valerie Eliot has continued to gather materials from collections, libraries and private sources in Britain and America, towards the preparation of subsequent volumes of the Letters edition. Among new letters to have come to light, a good many date from the years 1898-1922, which has necessitated a revised edition of Volume One, taking account of approximately two hundred newly discovered items of correspondence.
The new letters fill crucial gaps in the record, notably enlarging our understanding of the genesis and publication of The WasteLand. Valuable, too, are letters from the earlier and less documented part of Eliot’s life, which have been supplemented by additional correspondence from family members in America.
Volume Two covers the early years of his editorship of The Criterion (the periodical that Eliot launched with Lady Rothermere’s backing in 1922), publication of The Hollow Menand the course of Eliot’s thinking about poetry and poetics after The Waste Land. The correspondence charts Eliot’s intellectual journey towards conversion to the Anglican faith in 1927, as well as his transformation from banker to publisher, ending with his appointment as a director of the new publishing house of Faber & Gwyer, in late 1925, and the appearance of Poems 1909-1925, Eliot’s first publication with the house with which he would be associated for the rest of his life.
It was partly because of Eliot’s profoundly influential work as cultural commentator and editor that the correspondence is so prolific and so various, and Volume Two of the Letters fully demonstrates the emerging continuities between poet, essayist, editor and letter-writer.
The period covered by this richly detailed collection, which brings the poet to the age of forty, T.S. Eliot was to set a new course for his life and work. Forsaking the Unitarianism of his American forebears, he was received into the Church of England and naturalised as a British citizen – a radical and public alteration of the intellectual and spiritual direction of his career.
The demands of Eliot’s professional life as writer and editor became more complex and exacting during these years. The celebrated but financially-pressed periodical he had been editing since 1922 – The Criterion – switched between being a quarterly and a monthly, before being rescued by the fledgling house of Faber & Gwyer. In addition to writing numerous essays and editorials, lectures, reviews, introductions and prefaces, his letters show Eliot involving himself wholeheartedly in the business of his new career as a publisher. His Ariel poems, Journey of the Magi (1927) and A Song for Simeon (1928) established a new manner and vision for the poet of The Waste Land and ‘The Hollow Men’. These are also the years in which Eliot published two sections of an exhilaratingly funny, savage, jazz-influenced play-in-verse – ‘Fragment of a Prologue’ and ‘Fragment of an Agon’ – which were subsequently brought together as Sweeney Agonistes. In addition, he struggled to translate the remarkable work Anabase, by St.-John Perse, which was to be a signal influence upon his own later poetry.
This correspondence with friends and mentors vividly documents all the stages of Eliot’s personal and artistic transformation during these crucial years, the continuing anxieties of his private life, and the forging of his public reputation.