These three letters give us insights into the composition and publication of the poem. Two are written by the poet himself, and one by his wife, Vivienne (known as Vivien).
In 1921, T S Eliot
and his wife Vivienne stayed in the English seaside town of Margate while convalescing from nervous disorders. During this period of both mental and physical fragility, Eliot worked on The Waste Land
while sitting in the Nayland Rock shelter on Margate Sands. In this letter to his friend and fellow author Sydney Schiff (also known by his pen name Stephen Hudson), Eliot writes ‘I have done a rough draft of part of part III, but do not know whether it will do’. He explains that he has ‘done this while sitting in a shelter on the front’. The letter is dated ‘Friday Night’; it is probably 4 November 1921. As the heading on the paper shows, it was sent from the Albermarle Hotel, Cliftonville, in Margate.
Eliot had been granted three months’ leave of absence from his job at Lloyd’s Bank on account of mental exhaustion. Indeed, he apologises at the beginning for being unable to retrieve a manuscript which is locked in a safe at the office. Eliot had found it difficult to make much progress with writing in London, and in Margate he feels unable to get any reading done. He writes that he has ‘read nothing , literally – I sketch the people, after a fashion, and practise scales on the mandoline.’ He also describes his feelings of nervousness about returning to town, as ‘one becomes dependent, too, on sea or mountains, which give some sense of security in which one relaxes’.
In the version of the poem which was printed in 1922, the end of Part III, ‘The Fire Sermon’, includes the lines
On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The second letter is from 16 October 1922. It is written on the notepaper of The Criterion, the journal which Eliot had taken up editorship of. The first edition had recently appeared, including The Waste Land. In the time which has elapsed between this letter and the last, Schiff has clearly read the poem and written to Eliot to offer his compliments. Eliot replies to thank him, saying:
You could not have used words which would have given more pleasure or have so persuaded me that the poem may possibly communicate something of what it intends.
He ends on a modest, and slightly depressive, note: ‘But I cannot expect to find many critics so sympathetic.’
This letter from Vivien Eliot to Sydney Schiff was also written on the 16 October 1922. In it, Vivien explains that her husband has shown her Sydney’s letter, and she wishes also to thank him for it. She does so at more length than Eliot, and explains her own feelings on the process:
… it has become a part of me (or I of it) this last year. It was a terrible thing, somehow, when the time came at last for it to be published … Yours was the first word that has reached us, and your letter was unexpectedly moving.
In the line ‘I am glad, too, that you like the Criterion', it becomes apparent that Schiff’s letter also praised Eliot’s magazine-editing skills. Vivien writes that this is even more impressive considering that her husband still has to work in the bank. She, too, ends on quite a negative note:
It seems to me an achievement, by a man who has only his evenings, tired out by eight hours in the City, and who fills hot water bottles, and makes invalid food for his wretchedly unhealthy wife, in between writing!
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