“excuse the scrawl”: literary letters from St. John’s special collections

Alongside collections of manuscripts and early printed books, St. John’s College’s Special Collections include personal papers of a number of well-known literary figures: Robert Graves, A.E. Housman, Jane Austen, Philip Larkin, Spike Milligan and Professor J.B. Leishman. Included in these papers is a great deal of correspondence, occasionally between other literary figures, or concerning literary topics.

The library’s current exhibition (Trinity Term – Summer Vacation 2017) displays the letters of twenty-two of these correspondents. All members of St. John’s College are welcome to attend the exhibition and to bring their guests. Non-members should contact the Librarian (library@sjc.ox.ac.uk) to arrange a viewing appointment.

Literary Societies

1) W.B. Yeats to Charlotte Shaw, 22nd September 1932

W.B. Yeats writes to Charlotte Shaw in 1932

While certain literary groupings such as the “war poets” and the Movement of the 1950s were never formally endorsed by its supposed members, the Irish Academy of Letters, discussed in this letter from W.B. Yeats to Charlotte Shaw, was different altogether. The Academy sought to organise Irish writers chiefly in order to counter censorship. By September 1932, when this letter was sent, James Joyce had refused an invitation to join the Academy, while authors such as Padraic Colum and James Stephens, the novelist Edith Somerville, the short story writer Frank O’Connor, and the dramatist Lennox Robinson, had all become members.

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Correspondence of Faber & Faber and Letter to ‘The Times Literary Supplement’ (1954), in the Robert Graves Collection

 

A portrait of Robert Graves by Bill Brandt          T.S. Eliot working at Faber & Faber

St John’s College Robert Graves Trust received 26 boxes of archival material from Graves’s home in Deya, Mallorca, on 3rd March 2008, bequeathed by Graves’s widow, Beryl. The collection contains those papers remaining in Deya at the time of her death in 2003, and consists of drafts of Graves’s work, diaries, correspondence, press cuttings and pamphlets. It was catalogued professionally between 2008 to 2010, and can now be viewed on request.

T.S. Eliot helped to publish Graves’s work at Faber & Faber in the 1940s and 1950s, and the collection includes a series of his letters to Graves – written between 1945 and 1951, while he was a director at the firm. All of these are typed on headed note-paper, and only signed by hand – either “T.S. Eliot” or “T.S.E.” before 1949, and simply “Tom” after that.

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The letters are addressed from Eliot’s office at 24 Russell Square, and mainly concern publication of Graves’s work. They offer evidence suggesting that Eliot had a remote concern for Graves’s welfare. On the 25th November 1946 he expresses his hope that his client is “comfortable and well fed”, being content to guess “the possible implications” of his last letter. Eliot’s confidence in Graves’s work conditioned the warmth of tone in the letters. They praise Graves’s intellectual labour and the interest of his writings. Therefore their hesitancy is a paradox. Eliot regularly announced delays in publication, and the letters regularly apologise for delays in being written! He appears uncomfortable with his responsibility both for Graves’s work and for Graves as an author, finding it difficult to act in accordance with his sense of duty. He develops the theme of printing delay in two 1945 letters, and refers to paper shortages during the war on 7th February 1946, to explain “possible delays in publication”. Two 1946 letters apologise for the length of time taken to return Graves’s manuscript for editing.

Faber & Faber offices at 24 Russell Square           Eliot's Office at Faber

Eliot explained the delay in his judgement of ‘The White Goddess’ in two letters of 1950: reflecting on the controversial nature of its religious content, he says that he is waiting for the book to prove its value despite his critical stance, a stance shared more generally at Faber. Two letters in 1951 defer judgement of ‘The Nazarene Gospel’ to others – the first to an expert in theology, the second to other members of the Faber Board, who decided not to publish. Eliot tells Graves that the manuscript cannot “be judged from a cursory glance” on 21st June 1951, suggesting that he finds the work arcane. Graves would have said that Eliot was inadequate to judge. A letter written to The Observer on 14th July 1961 criticises Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas and Eliot, stating that his “refusal to dissociate poetic failings with failings of character, is no joke”. He refuted an anonymous reviewer who named him among “poets of smaller stature than Mr Eliot and Mr Pound” in The Times Literary Supplement, suggesting that Eliot and Pound were neither good nor great. This was almost a decade after Eliot’s Four Quartets had significantly strengthened his public register, but Graves’s critical opinion of Eliot’s poetry had been formed long before, straining his relationship with Faber & Faber. In a letter of 3rd October 1940 Geoffrey Faber asks Graves to rephrase a potentially libellous remark on Eliot before its appearance in a Faber publication of The Long Weekend. The remark stated that Eliot was “known for a few, slight, bitter, and rather pornographic vers de société”. Does it voice Eliot’s suspicion?

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References

Ronald Bush, ‘Eliot, Thomas Stearns (1888-1965)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; online edn.

[http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/32993, accessed 17th October 2014]