Description

The poet T S Eliot wrote a series of comical nonsense verses called Practical Cats. The collection was first published in 1939. Shown here is a selection of the letters that Eliot wrote between 1934 and 1937, containing the original drafts of some of the poems.

Who were the letters written to?

Geoffrey Tandy (1900–69) was a writer, broadcaster and scientist who worked at the Natural History Museum, London. Eliot and Tandy struck up a close friendship in the early 1930s, with Eliot often visiting the Tandy home. He became friends with Tandy’s wife, Doris – known as Polly – and godparent to their daughter, Alison. These letters to the Tandy family show the warmth and informality of their relationship. Eliot addresses Polly affectionately as ‘Pollytandy’ or ‘Pollitandy’. Often he signs himself with variations on ‘Old Possum’: sometimes Tom Possum, or ‘TP’. ‘Possum’ was the affectionate nickname given to Eliot by Ezra Pound, a fellow expatriate American poet whom he met in London. Pound chose it because of the Possum’s habit of pretending to be dead in order to survive, indicating that Eliot’s serious demeanour was just an act.

The letters and poetry

Eliot was fond of cats. He had several as pets during his life, and gave them absurd but affectionate names. He began writing poems about cats around 1934–35, as presents for his godchildren, among them Alison Tandy.

These letters cover a range of subjects but are full of references to cats and reveal initial drafts of some of Eliot’s popular cat poems.

Most of the letters addressed to Alison are entirely in verse, and introduce some of Eliot's most loved characters such as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, Rum Tum Tugger and Old Deuteronomy.
In 1937 Geoffrey Tandy was the first to broadcast the poems; on Christmas Day he read a version of Practical Cats on a BBC radio broadcast.

For more T S Eliot content explore works published by Faber & Faber.

Transcript