Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote to a friend, “being absent from you...I must satisfy myself with the second best alternative of a letter.” One rarely if ever writes an email in that sort of spirit. We have lost the kind of friendship sustained by epistolary contact—and no one under the age of 50 even knows what he or she is missing. For this reason alone, I find collections of letters worth close consideration; but this time, there is something more important to consider.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) and Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) were, during the time these letters were written, the two most important American poets. They were exact contemporaries, and these volumes overlap nicely. Eliot’s letters are from 1930 and 1931 and Jeffers’s, in the first of the volumes considered here, date from 1931 to 1939.
Since the first appearance of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot has never gone out of style. He probably remains the most emulated poet in English, briefly eclipsed by Dylan Thomas in the 1950s, then Seamus Heaney in the 1990s. Not so Jeffers; widely acclaimed in the 1930s—his editor James Karman tells us that the April 4, 1932, issue of Time featured Jeffers on the cover and called him “the most impressive poet the U.S. has yet produced”—he became an outspoken critic of U.S. participation in World War II and fell rapidly out of favor. His reputation never recovered and he remains an enigma.
Jeffers self-published a collection, Tamar and Other Poems, in 1924, that shows a rugged, free-verse form he learned from Walt Whitman and never abandoned. The attention that book received quickly led to mainstream literary publishing success. As for the more familiar Eliot, his collections The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday were all published by 1930.
But most striking about these letters is how they demonstrate that each man’s reputation is incomplete without serious consideration of his wife. In different respects and to varying degrees, the wives of Eliot and Jeffers are the reason their literary reputations are what they are.
In Jeffers’s case, this extends to the actual writing of his correspondence. Una (his first and only wife) was Robinson’s mouthpiece more often than not. In Letters Volume 2, I counted 53 letters penned by Una to 47 by the poet among the first 100. This pattern continues throughout that volume. In Letters 3, one has to turn to the 15th letter to find one written by Robinson, and that then becomes the pattern. Una was not his secretary; she was writing from the household but also frequently as from the mind of her husband. In the 14 letters that open Letters 3 (all from January to March 1940), Una gives news of her children to friends, critiques new work of a poet, describes attending a Good Friday service at the Carmel Mission (“extremely impressive.—But between ourselves, some of the Catholic manoeuvres are pretty hard for me to watch”) and expresses the isolationist doctrine that would fill her husband’s late poetry—before we ever hear him seeing anything. Even on occasions when Robinson wrote a letter himself, he would often pen mistakes of fact and Una would correct them by hand before mailing it.
Who, then, is the real Robinson Jeffers? Jeffers made his home by the sea in California with stones brought up the hill in his own wheelbarrow. In his rebellion against religion (he was the son of a biblical scholar-Presbyterian pastor), lone independence, asceticism of physical habits and love for the American West, he was often compared to D. H. Lawrence. He admits his deficiency in letter-writing again and again. “I’m constitutionally unable,” was a frequent complaint, and the letters usually demonstrate this. “Think of me as one of those friendly natural objects like a tree outside the window, that hasn’t much means of communication but all it has is well intended,” he penned to another poet in 1931. But most often, what Robinson writes, rather than Una, reveals a man who is uninteresting and uninterested in most of the world around him. Sometimes he and others label this a kind of mysticism. I would be less generous.
One wonders how he spent his time. Intensely solitary, he seems to usually be in his tower (literally: he built one and worked in it) thinking deeply while Una runs his world, trying not to bother him much. The great poet apparently lived to be mostly silent and to write his verse all alone. In early fall 1940, Una writes to a friend that she must refuse his offer of a review copy of his new book because Robinson hates to write reviews and between the poem he’s working on and preparing for a one-hour reading that will take place two months later in New York City, he is simply too busy.
This is also, simultaneously, what can be attractive about Jeffers. Even in his abrupt letters, we occasionally glimpse the interior process and its potential beauty. He wrote to a friend, for instance, in early January 1938: “I’d like to be buried for six years under deep forest by a waterside, not think, not remember, know nothing, see nothing but darkness, hear nothing but the river running for six years and the long roots growing, and then be resurrected. How fresh things would look.” Any writer (or anyone?) can relate to that in spades.
And there are moments when he does engage, usually with another writer who is analyzing his work, and it is startling, as in this instance from 1932: “I think it is quite possible to ‘fall in love outward’ without hating inward. It seems to me the Jesus of the gospels, perhaps, and many mystics have done so. But it is hard if not impossible to make a story or poem about it....”
He was also able to write a heart-felt, long-form letter when arguing with his publisher out of delaying his new book beyond the following spring. He needed the income, and “because it seems to me the best thing I have written.” When the publisher responded with gracious agreement, plus an advance against future royalties, Robininson wrote back, also kindly, “My recent letter seems to me to have been a little petulant.”
The contrast with Eliot, in terms of industry, energy and mood, could not be greater. Eliot’s letters are full of the details of work he loved, and he lived at the epicenter of a golden time in English literature, in the heart of the English-language’s literary capital (London), writing daily to people like Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, Clive Bell, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Spender, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. He was a director at the young, but already venerable, publishing firm of Faber & Faber as well as the editor of one of the great literary journals of the day, The Criterion. He was constantly encouraging, recruiting, promoting and critiquing the work of other writers—in his correspondence—and keeping up with writing essays, new poems and books of his own. He was also nursing and worrying about his first wife, Vivienne, who struggled throughout adulthood with health problems and depression. Eliot would formally separate from her in 1933, and she was committed to an asylum by her brother five years later.
It is Eliot’s second wife, Valerie (they married in 1957; she was 30, he was 68), the primary editor of all the volumes so far published of her husband’s correspondence, who concerns us here. Valerie Eliot was devoted to Tom even before they wed. She read him as a teenager and was a secretary at Faber & Faber when they began dating. Once they married, Valerie’s assistance went a long way toward making possible Tom’s reputation as the most influential literary figure of the century. All of the volumes of his letters (this is the fifth in what are bound to be 10) are astonishing for the breadth and depth of Valerie’s scholarship. “Labor of love” doesn’t begin to express it.
For instance, spanning pages 87 and 88 of this one, she provides a footnote of more than 600 words on the life, personality and career of one of her husband’s colleagues at Faber, Frank Vigor Morley. F.V.M. would have earned an entry in the massive “Biographical Register” at the back had the letter been written to him, but since it only mentions him, this footnote. Valerie spent nearly half a century of full-time devotion and industry tracking down her late husband’s correspondence, solving literary puzzles, purchasing letters at auction at great personal expense, finding those that she knew possessed material central to understanding his poems and various other writings and deciphering his myriad relationships and avenues of interest and influence. As her co-editor writes in an essay about her work in the frontmatter to this volume, “The scale of Valerie’s success in reconstituting the story of T. S. Eliot’s life through his letters, which is in so many ways the history of modern literature and modern times, is seriously impressive.” Had she not done this (she died in 2012 before this volume went to press), Eliot’s reputation would be scanter.
Eliot was never able to thank his widow for what she did for his oeuvre. Jeffers, in contrast, outlived Una. He often used a line from William Wordsworth that Wordsworth wrote of his sister, Dorothy—“She gave me eyes,—she gave me ears”—to describe Una. Una’s partnership was essential to his work, not just his life, and theirs was really a joint authorship. In the preface to Letters 3, Karman quotes from an unpublished poem of Robinson’s written after Una’s death from cancer: “I used to write for you, and give you the poem / When it was written, and wait uneasily your verdict…but now, to whom?” For all of these reasons and more, these letter collections beg us to reconsider the authorship of both men.