English Poets as Letter Writers
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846 ] English Poets as Letter Writers1 I am really the last person who ought to be talking to you about letter writers , even within the frame to which I have restricted myself. To begin with, I am almost illiterate, although not analphabetic.2 I am an extremely illeducated and ignorant man. I have been trying for some years, indeed, ever since I provided one of my poems with notes, to shatter the fiction that I was a man of vast erudition.3 I have denied this at every opportunity, at first rather diffidently, finally rather querulously, and I have found that no one believes me. Sherlock Holmes, you will remember, when he remarked that his brother Mycroft’s powers of observation were superior to his own, denied with what was for him unusual warmth, that his judgment was in any way biassed by modesty.4 So do I. I am genuinely sorry for my illiteracy; I have a great respect for educated men. I have certainly made use of the few scraps of learning that I possess, I see no reason why I should not use any quotation if it is apposite; but by quoting an author I do not delude myself into believing that I am perfectly acquainted with his works. Nor, until I wokeupandfoundmyselfburdenedbyreviewerswiththeweightoflearning which I disclaimed, did I suppose that any one else would believe it either.5 I ammerelyasmattererinafewverynarrowfields.ButIknowwhatwillhappen .Mywordswillfallondeafears,andeverybodywillgoonbelievinginmy incredible learning until I am dead. I mean until a few days or a few weeks after I am dead; for critics are always very polite to you while you are still in theobituarystate.Andthenoneclevercriticwillhaveanewidea,andobserve that in spite of this and that it must be said that Eliot was an ignorant man who had read very little. Then they will all take it up; until some other critic has the originality to remark that it is really the most significant thing about me; that it is, in fact, the clue to Eliot. Opinion will, I hope, be divided as to whether I knew how ignorant I was, or whether I was justified in making use oflearningwhichIdidnotpossess,orwhetherIwasamereimpostor.Andin all the discussion no one will give me the credit of never having made any pretensions to learning. For the moment I have been speaking, you see, not so much to the present audience as to posterity; for I have an apprehension that the importance of my ignorance is going to be, some years hence, grossly exaggerated. And if I ever print this lecture, you will know the reason why.6 [ 847 English Poets as Letter Writers The desire to write a letter, to put down what you don’t want anybody else to see but the person you are writing to, but which yet you do not want to be destroyed, but perhaps hope may be preserved for complete strangers to read, is ineradicable. We want to confess ourselves in writing to a few friends, and we do not always want to feel that no one but those friends will ever read what we have written. “The best contemporary letters are as good in their way as those of any other time,” Mr. Eliot said (YDN), “No other form of communication can ever supplant the letter . . . Letters in the future will be different from those in the past because they will be typed, but no good letter can be dictated; there must be no third person. Letter-writing permits us to forget ourselves and to express the worthwhile things that come spontaneously. It can be a provocation of and a consolation for solitude. Our minds should be left to wander when writing a letter, and a good letter will focus the reader’s attention on what the letter is getting at, rather than the letter itself.” (YDN) An ideal correspondence, according to Mr. Eliot, will be with a person of the opposite sex, not one with whom the writer is in love, for love letters are monotonous. The recipient of the letter should be a mature friend, sufficiently understanding so that a good deal need not be said, but not to the point where letters will be obscure to others. There should be sufficient sentiment to release the writer’s mind to speak freely, without fear of betrayal, for the greatest pleasure derived from letter-writing is being indiscreet. The two correspondents should have interests in common and should be able to be brutally frank. (YDN) “A poet can be judged by his letters...