This is a letter from T S Eliot to the poet and writer Anne Ridler, who worked as Eliot’s secretary at Faber and Faber between 1935 and 1940. Because of the nature of their professional relationship, there is a large collection of letters between the two.
According to the critic Peter Gordon, it was actually another Faber poet – W H Auden – who, along with the Renaissance poet Thomas Wyatt (c.1503–1542) inspired Ridler to write her own poetry. In 1939 she published her first book, Poems, with Oxford University Press, and in 1943, she published in The Nine Bright Shiners. This book sold out in a month; in her memoirs, she described it as ‘the only such success I ever had’.
Eliot’s letter is dated 26 November 1943. It alludes to the fact that Stephen Spender (1909–1995), another Faber poet, had apparently reviewed Ridler’s book for the magazine Time and Tide. On reading the review himself, Eliot says he thought that Ridler ‘might feel slightly (and not unwarrantedly) wounded’. Eliot goes on to try to reassure her by expressing doubts about Spender’s own work:
He sometimes writes … as if nothing good had been written before 1926, and as if, in the present time, everybody was either too old or too young: thus succeeding in being, at the same time, a revolutionist and a die-hard. If he confined himself to the proper subject matter of criticism, he might begin by criticising his own work for indeed I feel that there is a lot of good poetic material wasted among his poetry, for lack of labour.
In explaining that he and Spender have quarrelled in the past, Eliot gives an insight into how he understood his own vocation as a poet – or at least how he wanted people to think he understood it:
I once had an argument with [Spender] because he said he wanted to be a Poet, which is an ambition I can’t understand: I can only understand wanting to get a particular poem written so that it will be a poem, at the time when you have it in you to write.
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