Published in The Dial magazine
In 1921 and 1922 T.S. Eliot was the London correspondent to The Dial magazine published in New York by his Milton Academy and Harvard University schoolmate Scofield Thayer. The Dial published eight letters written by Eliot about the cultural scene in England. Although Eliot continued to have articles published in The Dial he no longer had time to keep up the London Letter series as he started editing his own publication, The Criterion, the first issue being printed in October, 1922.
The first four "London Letter" essays (the ones that were published in 1921) are also available in print in the book The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose edited by Lawrence Rainey (see below.) Rainey has added extensive notes on the people, books and events written about by Eliot.
On page 202 Rainey also produces evidence that Eliot's first "London Letter" was actually written in January, 1921, not March, 1921.
In Donald Gallup's bibliography of Eliot's works this essay appears with the code C123.
For more information about T.S. Eliot and The Dial see the "Notes" section on the Table of Contents page.
The page numbers from the original edition of The Dial have been inserted into the HTML markup of this file. Use your browser's "view source" feature (or equivalent) to view them.
Additionally, information about linking to specific headers or paragraphs in this letter are supplied in the "Hyperlinking" section on the Table of Contents page.
Eliot, T.S. 'London Letter,' The Dial, New York, vol. LXX, no. 4, (April, 1921) pp. 448-453
Eliot, T.S. The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose. Lawrence Rainey, ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (2005) ISBN 0-300-09743-3
Gallup, Donald. T.S. Eliot: A Bibliography, A Revised and Extended Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (1969)
Having been published in the U.S. prior to 1923, it is my understanding that this work of Eliot's is in the public domain in the U.S. but perhaps not in other countries (particularly in the U.K. and E.U.) Be careful about republication.
I take up this task of writing a London letter with an overwhelming sense of difficulty. As I first proposed it to myself, there was no difficulty at all: it was to mention any work, or any momentary appearance of intellect or feeling, which seemed to deserve mention, to use any opportunity to consider the writing of living authors whom I respect, and to construct such a portrait of the time as might be in my power. Then I reflected that there is in contemporary English literature a very great deal which I cordially detest; and that I could not make an honest portrait without calling attention to these things. Yet I recognized that by so doing I might arouse the glee, and draw upon myself the approval, of exactly that part of American opinion which I abominate. One must face the fact that the imbeciles on either side of the water are very glad and quite able to perceive, by that sort of hostile sympathy which exists only among members of the same family, the imbecilities of the great fraternity on the other side; and that this perception only confirms them in their own variety of stupidity. I can claim no great originality in diagnosing either of the two stupidities; the only possible originality is in their collocation. There is Mr Mencken, a brilliant specialist in American depravity, whose last book I have read with strong admiration. And only recently, when I mentioned, rather gently as I thought, a very conspicuous feature of English stupidity, I was gaped at by one of the smaller English reviewers, for my words of "elegant anguish." It pleased me to reflect that a critic of the same stripe had once referred to Matthew Arnold as an "elegant Jeremiah"; although this coincidence merely proved the immortality of the English reviewer, and not any similarity between Matthew Arnold and myself. However, if these letters succeed in being written with any competence, I am almost certain to become an object of international execration; a disaster in which I pray very vigorously that The Dial may not share.
Mr Harold Monro has just produced a book entitled Some Contemporary Poets: 1920, which is a particularly useful book for my horrid purpose. It is, I hope, no injustice to Mr Monro to say that his book has every appearance of having been written to order. We have all written books to order, or we have conceived the desire, at times of penury, of being asked to write a book to order, and some moralists tell us that desire is as sinful as commission. But the peculiar effect of Mr Monro's labours appears to be, that everything in contemporary poetry (1920) is reduced to a precise level of flatness. Our judgement is thus left free, if unguided. It is to be wondered what the "general reading public," to whom its publishers say it should appeal, and who can hardly be other than a small section of what Arnold called the Philistines, will make of it. Some of the poets whom Mr Monro chats about are dull, some are immature, some are slight, some are downright bad; Mr. Monro's effect is to make them all seem dull, immature, slight, and bad. And some are good, but we do not get that impression from the book.
The first suggestion which, this book gives me is that what I may call the centre of gravity of dulness lies, in America and England, at different points. Nearly the whole body of the Established Church of contemporary literature in America must appear a little ridiculous, if no worse, to even the most latitudinarian littérateurs of Established contemporary literature in England. I cannot conceive Mr Edmund Gosse, for example, really being taken in by the effusions of Miss Repplier or the Reverend Mr Crothers, although I can conceive of his commending them with a kindly Olympian patronage which might take in the recipients. The Polite Essay, is in fact, done rather better in England, and this truth is not reserved for a few profound minds. Nevertheless the Established Church of Literature does occasionally patronize, with the semblance of enthusiasm, American literature which happens to amuse it. It is creditable that Spoon River should for a time have aroused interest here; unfortunately, its success has been more lately duplicated by the poetry of Mr Vachel Lindsay. His apparent "Americanism" and vigorous freedom from shame about his simple tastes amuse the orthodox, while his Y.M.C.A. morality represents something more remote than a massacre in Armenia. His verses have appeared in an English periodical. But I cannot believe that he is treated with more respect than that with which Clemenceau and Lloyd George bonified President Wilson.
One must therefore reject the belief that there is any near equivalent in England for the Reverend Mr Crothers, or Lindsay, or Mr Mabie, or that there is any exact parallel anywhere between English life and American life (though there are constant curious resemblances when one has ceased to expect them). And the standards by which one disposes of American bad writing and English bad writing will not be the same. The conventional literature of America is either wretchedly imitative of European culture, or ignorant of it, or both; and by this standard one easily expels either the Reverend Mr Crothers, with his parish tea-party wit, his dreadful Nonconformity, or Mr David Graham Phillips, with his exploitation of the Noble Fallen Woman who, in England, has vanished into the underworld of romance. But there is no simple international comparison of cultures by which to deal so easily with, let us say, Mr John Drinkwater. I cannot point to any existing society which produces finer average specimens than Mr Drinkwater; I can only point to a few individuals in England; and it is always open to Mr Drinkwater's admirers to protest that my few individuals are impostors. The most obvious thing to say, the thing which makes it difficult for the critic to say more, is that the work of Mr Drinkwater is dull, supremely dull. But when one turns to view the work of a numerous host of Drinkwaters, incipient Drinkwaters, decayed Drinkwaters, cross-bred Drinkwaters, this adjective ceases to satisfy the intelligence. Any social phenomenon of such dimensions must present more interest than that.
I do not make the mistake of supposing that Keats, or Shelley, or Wordsworth, or Tennyson can be incriminated in the production of the Georgian Anthology. Good poets may usually have a bad influence, but their influence is usually much more restricted. I cannot see in the Georgian Anthology any such influence as Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley had upon Arnold, Tennyson, and Browning. The dulness of the Georgian Anthology is original, unique; we shall find its cause in something much more profound than the influence of a few predecessors. The subtle spirit inspiring the ouija-board of Mr J. C. Squire's patient prestidigitators is not the shattered Keats but the solid and eternal Podsnap himself. This party represents, in fact, the insurgent middle class, Mr Monro's General Reading Public. At the very moment when the middle class appears to be on the point of perdition--beleaguered by a Coalition Government, the Three Trades-Unions, and the Income Tax--at this very moment it enjoys the triumph, in intellectual matters, of being able to respect no other standards than its own. And indeed, while its citadels appear to topple, it is busy strengthening its foundations. Year by year, royal birth-day by royal birth-day, it gains more seats in the House of Lords; and on the other hand, if it rejects with contumely the independent man, the free man, all the individuals who do not conform to a world of mass-production, the Middle Class finds itself on one side more and more approaching identity with what used to be called the Lower Class. Both middle class and lower class are finding safety in Regular Hours, Regular Wages, Regular Pensions, and Regular Ideas. In other words, there will soon be only one class, and the Second Flood is here.
This social evolution is not, of course, peculiarly British, and I am ready to admit that it may have more revolting forms elsewhere. I have no wish to dwell upon the subject; I only introduced it as a background to the Georgian Anthology. I do not wish either to dwell upon the dulness of this book; that the writers cannot help. What I wish to comment on is the extreme lack of culture on the part of a number of writers in prose and verse; and when I say this I hear already the repeated epithets of "elegant anguish," and "dusty face," and "précieux ridicule" with which my efficient clipping-bureau has lately refreshed me. I am prepared to be accused, so unconscious is the humour of the multitude, of self-advertisement. But it is certain that culture does not reside solely in a university education, or in extensive reading; and it is doubtful whether culture is perceptibly developed by a busy life of journalism. A literature without any critical sense; a poetry which takes not the faintest notice of the development of French verse from Baudelaire to the present day, and which has perused English literature with only a wandering antiquarian passion, a taste for which everything is either too hot or too cold; there is no culture here. Culture is traditional, and loves novelty; the General Reading Public knows no tradition, and loves staleness. And it must not be supposed that this great middle class public which consumes Georgian poetry corresponds to the public of Mrs Ella Wheeler Wilcox. I intend no disrespect to that lady, whose verse I have read with ease and some pleasure. The Georgian public is a smallish but important public, it is that offensive part of the middle class which believes itself superior to the rest of the middle class; and superior for precisely this reason that it believes itself to possess culture.
Returning to Mr Munro's book, we find a number of poets, a very small number, who cannot simply be described as purveyors to the General Reading Public. There is Mr Nichols, who is too nimble to be dull, and who is very immature; if he could free himself from the circumambient vulgarity and in several ways forget himself, he might rise to a superior place. Then there is the curious spectacle of Mr Huxley, one of the very few who have experienced the influence of Laforgue, and who writes (I believe it is no secret) one of the brightest pages in the Athenaeum; before he has thoroughly worked out Laforgue into a perfect language of his own, skews off into Leda, which, although the work of a much more sophisticated temperament then Mr Squire's, is really a concession to the creamy top of the General Reading Public. There is Miss Sitwell. She is tediously given to repeating herself, but this repetition is perhaps her consciousness of the fact that she has a genuine little vision of the age, quite her own. This peculiar way of seeing things, which is not capable of much development, is what is interesting; not her technique, which is insufficient. And individually, there are poems by Mr Herbert Read and Mr Aldington which endure. But what is good (on looking over for the last time Mr Munro's list of names) is very scattered. and the bad poetry is very compact. I have avoided mentioning the Elder Poets, such as Mr Bridges, or Mr Yeats, or Mr Pound. One becomes old very quickly in these days.
What I propose to myself, in continuation of this tentative essay, is to compare the use of the English language in contemporary English and American verse, a comparison which will probably show a balance in favour of London (or Dublin); and further to institute a comparison of English and American verse with French. There are pitfalls too in the question of the Revival of Criticism in England; I should rightly have discussed the revival of criticism in this letter, as it may be dead before I write again. Again the Palladium has at this moment an excellent bill, including Marie Lloyd, Little Tich, George Mozart and Ernie Lotinga; and that provokes an important chapter on the Extinction of the Music Hall, the corruption of the Theatre Public, and the incapacity of the British public to appreciate Miss Ethel Levey. Next week the admirable Phoenix Society will perform Volpone or the Fox and this requires a word on Shakesperian acting in England. All of these problems are integral to my plan, and I hope can be included before the next visit of M Diaghileff's Ballet. A small but varied exhibition by Picasso is the most interesting event of London at this moment--but that lies outside of my province.
T. S. Eliot