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.
In Donald Gallup's bibliography of Eliot's works this essay appears with the code C126.
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. LXXI, no. 2, (August, 1921) pp. 213-217
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.
The vacant term of wit set in early this year with a fine hot rainless spring; the crop of murders and divorces has been poor compared with that of last autumn; Justice Darling (comic magistrate) has been silent, and has only raised his voice to declare that he does not know the difference between Epstein and Einstein (laughter). Einstein the Great has visited England, and delivered lectures to uncomprehending audiences, and been photographed for the newspapers smiling at Lord Haldane. We wonder how much that smile implies; but Einstein has not confided its meaning to the press. He has met Mr Bernard Shaw, but made no public comment on that subject. Einstein has taken his place in the newspapers with the comet, the sun-spots, the poisonous xxx-jellyfish and octopus at Margate, and other natural phenomena. Mr Robert Lynd has announced that only two living men have given their names to a school of poetry: King George V and Mr J. C. Squire. A new form of influenza has been discovered, which leaves extreme dryness and a bitter taste in the mouth.
The fine weather and the coal strike have turned a blazing glare on London, discovering for the first time towers and steeples of an uncontaminated white. The smile is without gaiety. What is spring without the Opera? Drury Lane and Covent Garden mourn; the singers have flocked, we are told, to New York, where such luxuries can be maintained. They have forgotten thee, 0 Sion. Opera was one of the last reminders of a former excellence of life, a sustaining symbol even for those who seldom went. England sits in her weeds: eleven theatres are on the point of closing, as the public will no longer pay the prices required by the cost. Considering the present state of the stage, there is little direct cause for regret. An optimist might even affirm that when everything that is bad and expensive is removed, its place may be supplied by something good and cheap; on the other hand it is more likely to be supplied by what is called, in the language of the day, the "super-cinema." Yet the Everyman Theatre at Hampstead, formed on a similar ideal to that of the Theatre du Vieux Colombier in Paris, has, I hear, done well with a season of Shaw plays, though the performance has been criticized. And M Diaghileff, who has lately arrived with his Ballet and with Stravinsky, has crowded houses. Massine is not there, but Lopokova in perfection. Not yet having had the opportunity of going, I can say nothing about either of the new ballets, Chout or Cuadro Flamenco. Two years ago M Diaghileff's ballet arrived, the first Russian dancers since the war: we greeted the Good-humoured Ladies, and the Boutique Fantasque, and the Three-Cornered Hat, as the dawn of an art of the theatre. And although there has been nothing since that could be called a further development, the ballet will probably be one of the influences forming a new drama, if a new drama ever comes. I mean of course the later ballet which has just been mentioned; for the earlier ballet, if it had greater dancers--Nijinsky or Pavlowa--had far less significance or substantiality. The later ballet is more sophisticated, but also more simplified, and simplifies more; and what is needed of art is a simplification of current life into something rich and strange. This simplification neither Congreve nor Mr Shaw attained; and however brilliant their comedies, they are a divagation from art.
In this connection, it may be observed that Mr Gordon Craig has incurred abuse by an essay which fills the February number of the Chapbook, entitled Puppets and Poets. Mr Craig's style of writing, from what one can judge of it in this essay or series of notes, is certainly deplorable; but his essay contains a great deal of interest and some sense. He was rebuked for pointing out that the Puppet is not intended to deceive us into thinking that it is human, and afterwards praising one of the Japanese figures illustrated by saying that "this … hand almost seems prepared to shake another hand." Why, says the critic, this is a contradiction: is the puppet intended to resemble a human being or not? If it is, then it is merely a substitute for a human being, only tolerable on account of the high price of actors; if it is not, why should the proximity of the resemblance be a merit? But Mr Craig has merely implied what is a necessary condition of all art: the counter-thrust of strict limitations of form and the expression of life; Ordinary social drama acknowledges no limitations, except some tricks of the stage. A form, when it is merely tolerated, becomes an abuse. Tolerate the stage aside and the soliloquy, and they are intolerable; make them a strict rule of the game, and they are a support. A new form, like that of the modern ballet, is as strict as any old one, perhaps stricter. Artists are constantly impelled to invent new difficulties for themselves; cubism is not licence, but an attempt to establish order. These reflections provoked by the ballet suggest at any rate a theory that might be maintained throughout an evening's conversation.
Mr Lytton Strachey's Queen Victoria has succeeded and far surpassed Mrs Asquith's book in popularity: it is found at every level; it is discussed by everyone and is discharged into the suburbs by every lending-library. It would be absurd to say that the vogue of the book is not deserved; equally absurd to say that it is deserved, since vogue and the merits of a book have nothing in common. Its popularity is not due to faults, but rather to merits, though partly to the qualities which are not the most important. The notices which it has had, long and enthusiastic, from every paper, have been of great interest as an index to the simple and unsuspecting mind of the reviewer. What is of most interest in the book is Mr Strachey's mind, in his motives for choosing his material, in his method in dealing with it, in his style, in his peculiar combination of biography and history. It was evident from Eminent Victorians, and is equally evident from Queen Victoria, that Mr Strachey has a romantic mind--that he deals, too, with his personages, not in a spirit of "detachment," but by attaching himself to them, tout entier à sa proie attaché. He has his favourites, and these are chosen by his emotion rather than design, by his feeling for what can be made of them with his great ability to turn the commonplace into something immense and grotesque. But it must be a peculiar commonplace, although Mr Strachey is limited only by the degree of interest he takes in his personage. There must be a touch of the fantastic, of a fantastic that lies hidden for Mr Strachey to discover. Gladstone appears to be without it; Disraeli appears to be too consciously playing a rôle for Mr Strachey to extract much fantasy from him. What is especially charming is the fusion of irony with romance, of private with public, of trivial and serious. The fusion is reflected in the style, which, although Mr Strachey's, may be formulated as a mixture of Gibbon with Macaulay-Gibbon in the irony, and Macaulay in the romance. Mr Strachey, without your being aware of it, places his sitter in just this light, and with a phrase--"Lord Melbourne, an autumn rose"--"Mr Creevey, grown old now," imposes his point of view. The innocent accept this under the impression that they are acquiring information. If it were not under the spell of Mr Strachey's mind, if we examined the letters of the Queen, or Balmoral, or the Albert Memorial, or the Crystal Palace, without Mr Strachey's directions, we might see them very differently, and quite as justly. Mr Strachey never appears to impose himself, he never drives a hint towards a theory, but he never relaxes his influence.
Mr Strachey is a part of history rather than a critic of it; he has invented new sensations from history, as Bergson has invented new sensations from metaphysics. No other historian has so deliberately cultivated the feelings which the inspection of an historical character can arouse. The strange, the surprising, is of course essential to art; but art has to create a new world, and a new world must have a new structure. Mr Joyce has succeeded, because he has very great constructive ability; and it is the structure which gives his later work its unique and solitary value. There are several other writers--among the very best that we have--who can explore feeling--even Mr Ronald Firbank, who has a sense of beauty in a very degraded form. The craving for the fantastic, for the strange, is legitimate and perpetual; everyone with a sense of beauty has it. The strongest, like Mr Joyce, make their feeling into an articulate external world; what might crudely be called a more feminine type, when it is also a very sophisticated type, makes its art by feeling and by contemplating the feeling, rather than the object which has excited it or the object into which the feeling might be made. Of this type of writing the recent book of sketches by Mrs Woolf, Monday or Tuesday, is the most extreme example. A good deal of the secret of the charm of Mrs Woolf's shorter pieces consists in the immense disparity between the object and the train of feeling which it has set in motion. Mrs Woolf gives you the minutest datum, and leads you on to explore, quite consciously, the sequence of images and feelings which float away from it. The result is something which makes Walter Pater appear an unsophisticated rationalist, and the writing is often remarkable. The book is one of the most curious and interesting examples of a process of dissociation which in that direction, it would seem, cannot be exceeded.
T. S. Eliot