The first volume of The Letters of T S Eliot – immaculately edited by his widow, and published in 1988 – closed with The Waste Land just published, and Eliot (in addition to a full-time job at Lloyds Bank) editing a newly launched quarterly magazine, The Criterion. He had been married for seven years to Vivienne, a tyrannously disruptive and shrewish invalid who catered to his emotional masochism and need of spiritual anguish but made him miserable, weary and ill. Twenty-one years later this new volume of letters is dominated by the cognate themes of overwork, illness and marital misery: it reveals a lonely, thwarted man full of faith in his powers, stuck in querulous penury, wrestling with adversity. Though individual letters are often monotonously dispiriting, their ultimate effect is uplifting, for they chart Eliot’s rise from an object of fashionable curiosity among a small set of English cognoscenti to part of the general fund of European thought. This volume is enthralling for anyone who cares for Eliot’s poetry, or is interested in the emergence of literary criticism as an austere and systematic discipline, or in pan-European cultural ideas, or in the neuroses of the American rentier class.
Eliot took no pay for his editorial work on The Criterion, preferring to allot the money to contributors’ fees; and his onerous duties (often undertaken after his evening meal) meant that he hadn’t time to visit his dentist or barber, let alone write poetry of his own. He