On 7 February, 1928, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter to his mother, describing Douglas Haig’s funeral procession, on its way to Westminster Abbey:
The funeral started at the Scotch church, which was flying the Scotch flag at half-mast [….] Well then there were the Scotch pipers of the Guards, and they started the ‘Lament for Flodden’, the Scotch national anthem, and there is nothing more dismal and melancholy than the pipers playing that tune. It tears your nerves to pieces. The crowd was very quiet, with its hats off; so you only heard the guardsmen marching to the slow step that is only used for funerals, shuffling, and that horrible Scotch dirge grinding away on the bagpipes. Then came the Grenadier guards, and Coldstream Guards, and shuffle of feet, and all very quiet; and then Belgian troops and French troops; and then Haig’s horse, led by his old servant; and the gun-carriage with the coffin on it, covered with a Union Jack and lots of red poppies; and then the pallbearers, innumerable field marshals with hats covered with feathers; old Lord Methuen, the senior Field marshal and a Boer War veteran, first, and then French, and Foch, and Pétain, and all the English generals; and then the Prince of Wales and his brothers; and then the diplomatic representatives; and everybody you could think of; and church dignitaries; and more Guards and troops all with arms reversed and shuffling in the silence; and then it was Chopin’s Dead March, and you could hear it going on blocks and blocks away as everyone was so quitet; and that is how they buried Haig. So he went to the Abbey; and from the Abbey to Euston Station; and thence to Edinburgh; and thence to be buried with his family at Bemersyde in Scotland.
This description is from one of the more vivid letters in Volume Four of the Collected Letters, which I’ve only just caught up with. Volume Five has been published too, but I shall wait until I can buy it, as I did this one, at a knock-down price. The volumes are, I’m afraid, getting increasingly dull; this one is much taken up with rather routine Criterion business.
Still, anyone seriously interested in Eliot’s poetry will need to explore this collection (Can’t you hear a pre-echo of Coriolan in that description of the funeral procession?) A few letters are very interesting indeed, such as this 1929 reply to E.M. Forster, who had just published an article suggesting that The Waste Land was a response of the Great War. Eliot told him:
I think you exaggerate the importance of the War in this context. the War crippled me as it did everyone else; but me chiefly because it was something I was neither honestly in nor honestly out of, but the Waste Land might have been just the same without the War.
I’m thinking about teasing out the implications of his use of ‘honestly’ there. Is he saying that someone actively involved in the War might write with complete honesty about it, and so might a completely objective outsider, but that for someone like himself, half-implicated, it is difficult?
There are other interesting letters, and I may come back to comment on a few. The volume’s notes are full and useful. The Biographical Register of correspondents is no longer the utter disgrace that it was in Volume Two, but it still maintains the error that The Old Wives’ Tale was the first volume of the Clayhanger trilogy. Do none of the distinguished scholars connected with the publication of the complete Eliot know or care anything about Arnold Bennett?