The Other T. S. Eliot

In his rise from an obscure poet to the author of those best-selling novels known as the ALEXANDRIA QUARTET, Lawrence Durrell had T. S. Eliot as his editor, and the Eliot he remembers, laughing, encouraging, and criticizing, is very different from that somewhat solemn picture of the Nobel Prize winner.

WHEN I grew to know him a little better and to value his own creative richness at its true worth I took the liberty of arranging the letters of his name thus, Tse-Lio-t, to suggest that there was a Chinese Taoist sage lurking under the sober cloak of his Anglo-Catholicism; the change amused him, and he did not demur. I think he probably felt that, dogmatic theology aside, there was a suitable kind of root relationship between the rarest and ripest experience in both ways of viewing the world — the Eastern and the Western. There was such breadth and scope to his mind that it was possible to elicit an unusual range of sympathies from him for matters which lay far outside the range of his own personal preoccupations. That is why feel that I knew him quite well, though in fact I know nothing about him; I know no more about his life than Who’s If Who can tell me. The hazards of literary business threw him in my path in my early twenties as a publisher of my poems, and as one of the most truthful and gentle critics I have ever met.

The literary eminence of the house of Faber & Faber today always gives one the impression that it is much older than it in fact is; one thinks of it as a sort of Murray hallowed by several generations of fine publishing and resonant with great names like Byron or Moore. It enjoys this sort of status despite the fact that it is an extremely young firn; I remember its being founded in the twenties under the name of Faber & Gwyer. I he point of these remarks is to suggest that much of its present eminence is due to Eliot’s work; to his farseeing advisory work, which led to the publication of all the best poetry and critical work of the time. No, not all; but very nearly.


If this was for me a fruitful and rewarding relationship, it was entirely due to this painstaking and gentle man whose mind had so fine a cutting edge, and who undertook his duties so seriously and with such method that he went far beyond them in his dealings with the young writers of the house. I cannot believe that my experiences with Eliot the publisher were any different from those enjoyed by other poets and writers from the same stable. The real mystery is where the devil he found time to deal with us all in such detail, criticizing, consoling, and encouraging. In my case it can only be accounted for by suggesting that he was some sort of saint; poor man, he had to deal with an argumentative, combative, opinionated young man — a self-inflated ego betraying all the marks of insecurity and vanity. At times it was necessary to cut me down to size, and whenever I succeeded in irritating him too much, he would do it with such breathtaking elegance and style that it left me gasping. But always without heat, without vanity, charitably. It was unpardonable! Moreover, his views were backed up by accurate and factual work, incredibly detailed and pondered, so that I was torn between exasperation at the justice of his remarks and shame at having driven him to waste so much time explaining things so painstakingly to the refractory child he must have assumed me to be.

A wicked man indeed, for he was seldom wrong, and what is worse, he was never splenetic or smallminded. Happily I have preserved all the letters he wrote me, in which business affairs are often tempered by a witty aside or a penetrating judgment, and they make excellent reading today. From them I can judge how formative an influence he was upon me, not as a writer so much but as a friendly counselor of letters. The public image of him at that time was of a rather humorless literary bonze of the Sainte-Becuve type. (It should be remembered that at the period of which I am writing be had not yet published his plays and his Four Quartets. His fame, which was considerable, rested upon some criticism and upon poems like The Waste Land and Ash Wednesday.) Needless to say he did not correspond at all to this literary image. When first I met him I found his gravity rather intimidating; but as I saw more of him I found that laughter was very near the surface. It came in sudden little flashes.

Henry Miller, who said that he always visualized Eliot as a ‘lean-faced Calvinist,” was most astonished and intrigued when I returned to Paris with an account of my first two meetings with him. So much so, in fact, that he started reading him with attention and prevailed upon me to engineer a meeting with him in London, a meeting which duly took place in a little flat in Notting Hill Gate, loaned to me by Anais Nin’s husband, Hugh Guiler, the painter. I think Eliot himself was a little intimidated by the thought of meeting the renegade hero of Tropic of Cancer in the flesh, while Miller was still half convinced that Eliot would be dressed like a Swiss pastor. At any rate, the relief on both sides was very apparent, and I remember a great deal of laughter. They got on famously; and it was now that Eliot made one of those gestures which displayed not only his kindness but the unswerving, uncompromising truthfulness which from then on was to characterize for me everything he did and thought. He offered Miller a blurb for his book, and myself a prefatory note for The Black Book. This could have compromised his reputation somewhat, for by the standards of the day both of us were “unsavory writers” (choice phrase), while Eliot’s own great reputation was tremendously respectable. But no; he liked the books, and without thought to himself offered us his help. He always had this unfaltering honesty in his dealings. From this delightful evening one small scrap of conversation comes back.

Eliot: Of course there is more than one kind of pornography; often it has nothing to do with four-letter words. Miller: Who are you thinking of? Eliot [with immense seraphic gravity]: Actually, Charles Morgan.

“My dear Durrell, I’m sorry that you found my letter acid; I thought it was perfectly sweet myself. But if you like the acid I shall see what I can do. . . .” (1937)

But he was too much of an aristocrat of letters not to scorn the sitting duck, and even at his most acid he remained kind without indulgence. Intellectually, he was not a boxer but a judo expert.

5 Nov. 1937
“Dear Durrell; I have read the ‘Poet’s Horn Book’ with interest and with some apprehension. Let me say at once that for reasons which have nothing to do with its merit I don’t think the Criterion is quite the place for it. I don’t like to publish articles in the Criterion in which my own work is one of the subjects discussed, and on the other hand, if you cut me out of this article it would not only mutilate the article but would in a way have as bad an effect as if you left me in. That is to say, it might give the impression that I liked to publish articles which criticized several of my contemporaries but left me alone. So if you publish it I think it had better appear elsewhere.
“Now first considering the article without relation to yourself. It seems to me that you make out an admirable case if the presuppositions are admitted. But these presuppositions are very great and it would indeed take a good deal of study to find out exactly what they are, as I am not sure that they are all quite conscious. But one can use as some test of the validity of the premises one’s instinctive feeling about the conclusions. It seems to me that there must be something wrong about the presumptions behind a course of reasoning which leads you to dismiss Ezra Pound in a phrase, and to deal with Wyndham Lewis, one of the most living of living writers, in the same category as — and indeed as somewhat less significant than — Aldous Huxley who is one of the deadest. Surely the fact that Lewis writes good English and the fact that Aldous Huxley does not, are relevant?

“Secondly, as for this kind of critical activity as an occupation for yourself, which is the cause of my apprehension [sic]. There seems to me to lie a danger for you as a creative writer in critical work which is particularly concerned with making conscious the activity of your creative mind. If you were concerned with building theories which had nothing to do with, or conflicted with, your creative activity, I should consider this sort of writing a healthy outlet, and also desirable for bringing in a little money. You will doubtless remark that this point of mine is a bit of disingenuous apologetics, to which I will only say that the opinion crossed my mind before it crossed yours. But I have lately had to give a couple of lectures on Shakespeare, without having realised in advance what it was going to let me in for, and I am so alarmed at finding that my interpretation of Shakespeare was really concerned with what I myself am interested in doing in the theatre, that I think I had better leave Shakespeare alone for some time to come. If I am writing a play I think I am better concerned with becoming conscious of how to do it rather than in becoming conscious of what I am trying to do. All this could be elaborated at considerable length but I know that you are quite capable of doing that for yourself whether you agree with my point or not. I have certain opinions which you will no doubt discount; I think, for instance, that you and Miller make far too much fuss about D. H. Lawrence; but that has nothing to do with it. . . .”

July 1949
“Dear Larry,
Your undated letter is a masterpiece. In future, when your letters are undated (as they usually are) I propose to date them a week earlier than my reply, which will therefore always be immediate; and when in future they are also unsigned (as they have sometimes been in the past) I hold myself free not to answer them at all without blame. But, as I say, it was a good letter and I approve it. I always believe it is a good thing to encourage authors to believe that their work is a little better than it is —not much better than it is, but a little. It is normal and proper that authors should consider their publisher not quite up to their latest work; it is only a grievous error, sometimes leading to calamity, when they cherish the illusion that there may be some other publisher more intelligent, more alert, more understanding of his own interests even (in the long run, the very long run) than the publisher they have. However, this leads to a further consideration of Sappho, which I have not neglected, but have re-perused from time to time ever since. (You must remember that your letter was written only a week ago: the transatlantic air-mail is very quick nowadays). Now, I still don’t see how it could be produced without a surgical operation; and I am sure that the surgical operation by a good producer would be so beneficial that I had rather print the play after than before. Nevertheless I think it a good piece of work; not quite so good as you try to persuade yourself (for the first paragraph of your letter was addressed to yourself, not to me) but still good. The author is a little pretentious, and sometimes makes the mistake of trying to emulate Shakespeare in gnomic utterances put in a queer way, but on the whole he does know his onions, and plants them right side up. And it is refreshing always to find a poet who does understand that prose sense comes first, and that poetry is merely prose developed by a knowledge of aeronautics. So, even if it isn’t produced, I want to publish it.
“But this is only the beginning. First we must scc how On Seeming to Presume does: and in the present state of the poetry market (the bottom of which has fallen out) (I could quote you some amazing figures of three digits) you are not to expect anything but misery. Nevertheless I shall try to persuade my board to publish Sappho. But, my dear Larry, do you realise what that means? This is an enormous book of 179 pages, far bigger than any poetry volume; nowadays, what with the wages the printers and binders get, much more than authors, that is a price of at least 10/6 per copy; which reduces the market to wealthy poetry lovers — and of course poetry lovers are not wealthy. Do you sce now why I should like to hold forth some promise of stage production? Few people buy poetry; fewer still buy poetic drama — unless it has had such a succes d’estime on the stage that they think they ought to seem to know about it. The money we shall lose by publishing Sappho. . . . Meanwhile a few points of detail, assuming that you have a carbon copy of the text in my hands.”
Here follow two pages of detailed corrections and queries which could not have cost him less than two hours to elaborate. The letter ends as follows:
“Read Antony and Cleopatra and simplify. Shakespeare was lucky in his time, as all great dramatists have been: and we are unlucky. We have got to make plays in which the mental movements cannot find physical equivalents. But when one comes to the big moment (and if we can’t get it we can’t do drama) there must be some simple fundamental emotion (expressed, of course, in deathless verse) which everybody can understand.
Yours in haste
T.S. Eliot.”

“Yours in haste”! But he never appeared to be hurrying about anything; his pace was slow and thorough, vegetative, ruminative. And being the very type of the leptosome — in the classification of Kretschmer — he shared some of the mental habits of the ilk. A slight tendency to think twice before making a decision, to ponder, to list all the reasons why not — in fact, the complete opposite to his client. At first I found this most provoking, but gradually, as I began to understand the sort of man I was dealing with, [ grew ashamed of pestering him and making him waste so much of his time on me. I allowed him to wrestle me down, confident that his judgment was nearly always sounder than mine. The result was that everything of mine, by the time it reached the press, was all the better for having passed through those skillful hands. I often tried to get a poor poem past him, but if I did do so, I was left in no doubt about his own reservations.

Now, if he did all this for me, what did he not do for the other and better poets on the Faber list? One shudders to think what he would have earned in overtime today.

OUR actual meetings in the flesh over twenty years were few and far between, and I began to regret not being able to see more of him. However brief, there was no occasion when he did not leave me some small fragment of conversation to think over. He never “made conversation”; he always talked. The idlest and silliest question always produced a deeply deliberated answer. He did not turn things aside and take refuge in persiflage as most of us do. Even sometimes when I was teasing him he riposted very neatly in tones of perfect sobriety. “Though your writing betrays great intelligence,” I once said, “there is a mystery in it for me. How can an intelligent man be a Christian, much less a Catholic?” He gazed smilingly at me for a moment. I went on. “After all, if you examine Christianity from the historical point of view, you come out somewhere among the Eleusinian mysteries, no?” He sighed and agreed, still smiling. “And then,” I went on. warming to my task, “how suspect your poems are, littered with Buddhist references and snatches of Heraclitus and so on. I can’t think how they let you into the Church.” Eliot put on a very sober expression and said: “Perhaps they haven’t found out about me yet?”

On another occasion I had spent the whole morning trying to get a biography of Giordano Bruno, and my reception at a famous Catholic bookshop had been so equivocal and frightened that it put me in a rage. I had to see Eliot directly afterward and said: “There, you see your blasted Catholics. I go down to try and find something about Bruno, and they behave as if I had asked for the Marquis de Sade.” He grinned and said: “Perfectly right and proper.” I said, “But Eliot, they were Catholics, and he is a very important figure!” He nodded. “I agree about that,” he said, “but I think you are very lucky they didn’t take your name and address. Now you try going to the--Bookshop” (a Communist bookshop) “and ask them for a little book about Trotsky. . .”

About poetry, his own and other people’s, he often had striking things to say; things which lodged in my mind because they explained his own working stance. For example: “A poet must be deliberately lazy” and “One should write as little as one possibly can” and “I always try to make the whole business seem as unimportant as I can.”

I tried to lure him to Greece, but he said that he preferred gloomy places to write in, and added: “Now The Waste Land I wrote in a rainy pension in Geneva.” He warmly agreed with Dylan Thomas’ views about the dangers of lotus-eating and too much sun. And once when I was moaning about having no time to write, he asked quietly whether I hadn’t discovered that the early morning was the best time. He said that when he had had to work as a bank clerk he got up two hours earlier and spent a good hour working for himself before going to his job. Later I discovered that Valéry used the same working pattern when he was employed by Havas.

The only time I have ever seen Eliot put out of countenance was after he had discovered that I had spent a whole winter in Rhodes with nothing to read except Sherlock Holmes. At the mention of the name he lit up like a torch. He, it seemed, was a tremendous fan of Holmes and could quote at length from the saga. “I flatter myself,” he said — and this is the nearest to an immodesty that I had ever heard him go — “that I know the names of everyone, even the smallest character.” Two minutes afterward he found he could not recall the name of one of Doyle’s puppets. His annoyance was comical. He struck his knee with irritation and concentrated. It would not come. Then he burst out laughing at himself. While we were still on the subject of Holmes that evening the conversation turned sideways toward his own Quartets, which had just come out and had created a great impression. Many were the complicated exegeses being published tracing his debts to people as various as Lao-tse and Saint Augustine, and goodness knows who else. “By the way,” he said anxiously: “I trust that you, as a genuine Holmes fan, noticed the reference to him in Burnt Norton.” I had not. He looked shocked and pained. “Really not?” he said. “You do disappoint me deeply. A clear reference to The Hound of the Baskervitles. I refer to the ‘great Grimpen Marsh,’ do you recall?” Yes, then I remembered; but I had forgotten that it features in the Holmes story. “But listen, Eliot, with all this critical work on your sources, has nobody mentioned it?” His eye lit up like the eye of a zealot. “Not yet,” he said under his breath. “They haven’t twigged it. But please don’t tell anyone, will you?” I promised to keep his secret.

These few notes are intended only to serve as a short personal sketch of the Eliot I knew, the publisher and critic and warmhearted acquaintance. It will remain for others to do the serious tasks of assessment, if indeed they have not already been done. Anyway, I am no critic, as Eliot himself warned me, and have learned my lesson. Our views often diverged radically — about playwriting for example; I accused him of writing masques, not plays. He thought that plays about people were not of much interest to a poet. But he always listened and brooded heavily before starting one of his Socratic excursions with an “if” or a “but.”

As far as I understood the artist Eliot, I should say that he differed very greatly from others I have known, in the qualities of self-abnegation and a sense of responsibility to the culture of his time. He was a responsible man, who felt that his words were acting as a formative influence on the age and that it was necessary to use them creatively, to further insight. He could not stand displays of temperament and talent devoted to inferior ends like glory. He could not, for example, support Lawrence: he admired his gifts; indeed, admitted his genius; but insisted that his ideas were “claptrap.” He forced himself to be a conscious artist and wasted no efforts to examine and test his own workshop ideas so that his own gift might be directed. It will be understood that I am not talking about dogmatic assumptions of any sort, but simply an orientation toward what he believed to be the sources of our culture and its insights. He wanted to help and not hinder self-understanding. Both his critical and poetic work are securely anchored in a notion of gradual self-definition by the ego; what is defined as easier to master, and easier to shed. At any rate, that is how I see him.

But I was lucky that the hazards of chance enabled me to catch sight of the human being, who is often hidden in his work. The sober and cautious and humble man could also laugh; and it is his laughter that I best remember.