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  • Awaiting Illumination
  • Craig Woelfel (bio)
The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 3: 1926–1927. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, eds. Yale University Press. 992pages; cloth, $50.00.

In order to assess this rich and interesting volume of T.S. Eliot’s correspondence, some things first must be said of its origins and the larger context of Eliot scholarship: Volume 3 of the Letters series (2012), covering the years of 1926–1927, is part of an unprecedented effort currently underway to publish new edited scholarly editions of his work. The project has been made possible through the coordination of the Estate of T.S. Eliot, Faber & Faber, The Institute of English Studies, University of London, the AHRC, the Hodson Trust, Johns Hopkins and Emory Universities, and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Texas. The size of that list ought to give some indication of the scale of the project, which has already been underway for some seven years. The plan is for not only Eliot’s Letters to be published, but also a seven-volume Complete Prose, under the general editorship of Ronald Schuchard; a two-volume Complete Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue; and the Complete Plays, edited (like the Letters) by John Haffenden. The project is much needed. Despite Eliot’s vast reputation and influence in both British and American letters, and the wealth of scholarship about Eliot to be found, the availability of his own writing has been quite scant: no complete prose or complete scholarly edition of the creative work, and only the comparatively slim Volume 1 of the Letters (1898–1922, now wholly revised as part of the new series) existed prior to this undertaking. This dearth is in part the result of rather controlled access to Eliot archives, especially when it comes to publication of said archives, the rights for which have long been controlled by Eliot’s widow and literary executor Valerie Eliot and the related Estate.

This leads naturally to what is undeniably the most significant aspect of the new volume of letters: access. This two-year volume alone provides more than 900 pages of letters to and from Eliot over a period that saw critical developments in both his career and life. January of 1926 witnessed the first publication of Eliot’s relaunch of The Criterion (which he had been editing since the seminal year of 1922) as The New Criterion, including his manifesto “The Idea of a Literary Review.” The New Criterion would be the space in which he carried out the construction of a “Classicist” philosophy with other key intellectuals, including the French writers associated with Action Française. One real revelation of the letters is the sheer amount of work in the form of time that Eliot put into organizing the journal’s writers, and one gets a clear sense of his reading and intellectual tastes from his correspondence. January also saw Eliot beginning the delivery of his eight weekly Clark Lectures at Cambridge on the Metaphysical Poets, in which he would refine his thoughts on the relationships between modern poetry, the seventeenth-century metaphysicals, and Dante. Those 1926 lectures, later republished in the superb The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry (along with his 1933 Turnbull Lectures, edited by Ronald Schuchard), rework Eliot’s long-standing interest in the metaphysical poets and Dante as the key touchstones of his literary philosophies and his sense of the import and direction of modern poetry. Such critical endeavors are central to understanding his poetry before and after this period, in which in fact Eliot wrote very little actual poetry. He was busy, as the sheer volume of these letters dealing with professional matters makes abundantly clear. (Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, part of the Ariel poems, was published in 1927. That work, though, would mark the transition from The Waste Land [1922], which I.A. Richards called “a vision of dissolution and spiritual drought,” to the explicitly Christian conversion poem Ash Wednesday [1930] and beyond.)

One risks burying the lead, though, by not discussing the personal changes in Eliot’s life over this period, to which the letters offer profound insight. As edifying...


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