T.S.Eliot’s Letter to “The Nation”

(A paper given at the American Modernism conference at Brookes University, September 2006)


Some recent accounts of T. S. Eliot’s behaviour during the Great War have presented him as negative and playing safe. Vincent Sherry’s The Great War and the Language of Modernism describes him as essentially ‘opportunist’ and ‘circumspect’, assiduously networking and avoiding trouble during the war years. Carole Seymour-Jones writes in Painted Shadow, her biography of Vivienne Eliot: ‘The war interested him little’i and ‘As the citizen of a neutral country, Eliot was able to benefit from the war… By showing as few signs of life as possible he did not alarm people…’ii Neither of these two scholars touches on an interesting piece of evidence that suggests Eliot’s taking a much stronger interest in the war than has hitherto been recognised. It is a letter that is not only ‘a sign of life’, but one that would definitely have alarmed many of its readers in 1917. Furthermore, it connects Eliot with a context where we might not not otherwise expect to find him.

On June 23rd, 1917, The Nation, a weekly magazine of news and comment, published this letter from T.S Eliot:


Sir – I enclose herewith an extract from a letter lately received from a young officer which I hope may interest some of your readers. I may add that the officer in question entered the Army directly from a public school, and began his service in the trenches before he was nineteen. – Yours &c.,

T. S. Eliot

18, Crawford Mansions, Crawford Street, W.1.

June 17th 1917.

June 8th, 1917

Dear –, -There is rather a good article in THE NATION this last week called ‘On Leave.’ You should read it. I have often heard it said that the curious thing about those who have been to the front is their complete indifference. They appear to be practically untouched by what they have seen and gone through, they talk about war in a callous and humorous way, they even joke about its horrors. The impression one has from them is that it is, on the whole, a dreary and unpleasant business, with its anxious moments and its bright moments, but not nearly such a hell as one really knows it to be.

In the case of the vast majority, however, this is an attitude, a screen – I speak of educated thinking men – and it is not granted to many who have not shared the same experiences to see behind the screen. The reason for this, as the article points out, is the practical impossibility for the uninitiated to realize or imagine even dimly the actual conditions of war. And a man who has been through it and seen and taken part in the unspeakable tragedies that are the ordinary routine, feels that he has something, possesses something, which others can never possess.

It is morally impossible for him to talk seriously of these things to people who cannot even approach comprehension. It is hideously exasperating to hear people talking the glib commonplaces about the war and distributing cheap sympathy to its victims.

Perhaps you are tempted to give them a picture of a leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackening corpses of hundreds of young men. The appalling stench of rotting carrion, mingled with the sickening smell of exploded lyddite and ammonal. Mud like porridge, trenches like shallow and sloping cracks in the porridge – porridge that stinks in the sun. Swarms of flies and bluebottles clustering on pits of offal. Wounded men lying in the shell holes among the decaying corpses: helpless under the scorching sun and bitter nights, under repeated shelling. Men with bowels dropping out, lungs shot away, with blinded smashed faces, or limbs blown into space. Men screaming and gibbering. Wounded men laughing in agony on the barbed wire, until a friendly spout of liquid fire shrivels them up like a fly in a candle. But these are only words, and probably only convey a fraction of their meaning to their hearers. They shudder and it is forgotten.

I need hardly say that on a great number of men war does not produce this effect; of these the old regular officer is a type – blunt, kindly, jolly good fellows – who have never stopped to think in their lives.”

This letter is not included in the published volume of Eliot’s Letters, and is quite unlike anything to be found in that volume. Furthermore, the graphic and disturbing language of the officer’s letter is an exception to the convention of reticence that governed most public discourse in 1917. This unusualness makes it an important document, shedding interesting and unusual light on Eliot and his contemporaries.

But first, who was the soldier who wrote the letter? In 1917 London was full of young officers, and Eliot probably met several of them, but there is one very likely candidate. Maurice Haigh-Wood was the brother of Eliot’s wife, Vivien. He had gone straight from Malvern College to Sandhurst, and went out to France in the year that he was nineteen. This is how Eliot described him in a letter of 1916:

‘He is a tall, rather stylish boy, with a bristly little moustache, and looks nearer twenty-five than twenty. He is thoroughly WORN OUT, and from some of the horrors which he once entertained us with I am not surprised. A boy of nineteen… who is quite used to the sight of disjecta membra and has spent nights when he couldn’t sleep in shooting rats with a revolver, makes me feel comparatively immature. But his life has not made him callous at all’iii

In April 1917, however, Vivien wrote that Maurice was one of those for whom the war had caused ‘A sort of desperation, and demoralisation of their minds, brains and character. I have seen it so often.’

The officer is responding to ‘On Leave’, an article in The Nation of June 2nd, signed ‘H.M.T.’ That would be H.M.Tomlinson, who had been war correspondent for the Daily News, until exposure to gunfire on the Western Front caused a deafness that afflicted him for the rest of his life. In 1917 Tomlinson joined The Nation as literary editor, and in 1930 he would write a best-selling novel about the war, All Our Yesterdays. In ‘On Leave’ Tomlinson puts himself in the place of an officer returning from France:

‘Coming out of Victoria Station into of London again, on leave from Flanders, must give as near the sensation of being thrust suddenly into life from the beyond and the dead as mortal man may expect to know…
You really have come back from another world… These people will never know what you know.’

Imagining an officer returning to the pleasant suburbs, he asks: ‘What would happen, if he uncovered, in a sunny breakfast-room, the horror he knows?’

The language of Tomlinson’s article has none of the brutal explicitness of the letter. The horrible sights and smells of war are defined by contrast with a description of what the returning officer would see in England when summer is ripening :
‘The yellow-hammer is heard on the telegraph wire, and the voices of children in the wood, and the dust of white English country roads is smelled at evening.’
When the readers of The Nation read this in their ‘sunny breakfast rooms’ they would not have the whole horror ‘uncovered.’ All it did was hint, but clearly this was enough for one officer to feel that it was an article touching on important truths.

(If you wish to read the whole of Tomlinson’s article, you can access an online version by clicking here.)

In 1917 The Nation was a very controversial magazine. It was a weekly paper, committed to traditional Liberalism, financed by the Rowntree family – the chocolate people – and edited by H.W.Massingham, a radical journalist with considerable prestige. In 1914, on the outbreak of war, The Nation had undergone something of a crisis. Up till then it had taken the line that Britain should avoid war at all costs. When the country was finally committed, though, it had come out in support of the war – alienating some of its more pacifist readers and contributors.

As the war progressed, however, Massingham and his team had increasingly come to feel that there was a conflict between their Liberal values and the prosecution of a total war. There were doubts about the character of Lloyd George, about Indian trade policy, about the licencing acts, and above all about conscription. Conscription in 1916 was the issue which changed Massingham and his paper from being cautious supporters of the war effort to firm advocates of a negotiated peace. There were other papers that protested against the war from the political margins, but The Nation was the only magazine that consistently took a critical attitude towards the war from a position within the political Establishment (It held editorial lunches at the national Liberal Club). Lloyd George didn’t like it, but there was a feeling that free expression should not be totally stifled. A free press was something that could be shown off as a key indicator of the difference between militaristic Germany and tolerant England.

Massingham showed his independence by printing articles that took an objective view of the war effort, and, for example, in an article of March 3rd, pointed out that Germany was ‘still the master of surprises’ on the Western Front, and that the German submarine campaign was succeeding.

On Thursday 5th April 1917 the editor of The Nation was informed by the War Office that ‘matter published in your periodical, THE NATION has been used by the enemy for purposes of propaganda’. Consequently an order was given that no copies of the magazine were now allowed to be despatched to France, America, the Dominions, or any neutral country.

> 36 M.P.s and 39 men and women of letters sent letters or telegrams of support to The Nation in protest against this ban, but it stayed in place. The magazine could still be published in England, but it had been warned that it should not go too far.

On June 7th – the day before the officer wrote his letter to Eliot, Siegfried Sassoon lunched with Massingham at the Reform Club. This was the time when Sassoon had come to his decision that the war was wrong, and that he must make some kind of public protest against it. Ten years later, Sassoon wrote a thinly fictionalised description of the meeting in his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer – Massingham becomes Markington and The Nation becomes The Unconservative Weekly. Sassoon offered to write an article about conditions at the front, and Massingham:

‘explained that if he were to print veracious accounts of infantry experience his paper would be suppressed as prejudicial to recruiting. The censorship officials were always watching for a plausible excuse for banning it, and they had already prohibited its foreign circulation. “The soldiers are not allowed to express their point of view. In war-time the word patriotism means suppression of truth,’”he remarked, eying a small chunk of Stilton on his plate as if it were incapable of agreeing with any but ultra-conservative opinions.’v

So it is possible that by printing Eliot’s letter, Massingham was going just as far as he could in the direction of truthful depiction of horrors of the front – and he might have felt that it was safer to print a reader’s letter than a full article officially endorsed, as it were, by the magazine (in the same way that he prints reader’s letters from campaigning pacifists like Bertrand Russell, but does not give them the status of official contributors to the magazine).

A likelier possibility is that he wanted to protect Sassoon. As Sassoon himself put it: ‘I had, so to speak, received the call, and the editor of The Unconservative Weekly seemed the most likely man to put me on the road to martyrdom.’ Two days later, on June 9th, Sassoon lunched at the Reform Club again, with Arnold Bennett. In his journal, Bennett does not mention any protest plans of Sassoon’s, but he communicates a very strong impression of Sassoon’s recklessness and disregard for danger. Massingham would have known that if he published a highly controversial article by a serving officer, that officer could find himself in extremely serious trouble. He may have refused Sassoon’s article to protect Sassoon from himself. (The consequence was that when Massingham refused his article, Sassoon would find an even more confrontational and dangerous method of martyrdom, but Massingham was not able to foresee that.) The letter Eliot forwarded had the advantage of anonymity. It had not been intended for publication, and so its officer author would be safe from any military reprisals.

What was Eliot doing, sponsoring this letter? His words are few but his action is eloquent, and as I suggested at the beginning, it is an action that does not fit in very neatly with recent accounts of his wartime behaviour. When he made this contribution to the public debate, Eliot was definitely not ‘playing possum’.

It is likely that at this time Eliot was not hostile to the general political tone of The Nation. Some commentators read Eliot’s later politics back on to this period, and stress his reading of Charles Maurras and T.E.Hulme, to give the impression that he was always reactionary in all things, but four years after this letter, in 1921, Eliot called The Daily News and The Star ‘the least objectionable of the London newspapers in their political views.’vi These were two Liberal daily papers whose politics were not far from those of The Nation, and owned by another chocolate family, the Cadburys.

Eliot may also have felt sympathetic to The Nation because the year before it had reviewed his poems generously. In any case, we can see his contribution as at least tacit support for the paper against the government ban, in line with the anti-censorship campaigns he would run in The Egoist, supporting the work of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis, and the generous review he gave to Douglas Goldring’s anti-war novel The Fortune, which had run into trouble with conventional opinion.

It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Eliot’s contribution implies a pacifist attitude, or that it necessarily means that he supported Massingham and The Nation in the campaign for an immediate negotiated peace. Other evidence shows that he had a complex attitude to the war. He wrote a letter to his father dated 13th June 1917 (that is between his receiving the Officer’s letter, and his forwarding it to The Nation):

To me all this war enthusiasm seems a bit unreal, because of the mixture of motives. But I see the war partly through the eyes of men who have been and returned, and who view it, even when convinced of the rightness of the cause, in a very different way: as something very sordid and disagreeable which must be put through. That would be my spirit.

The sordid and the disagreeable are certainly conveyed in the letter Eliot forwarded to The Nation, but the statement that the war is something “which must be put through” suggests an essential commitment to the project of the war. During the later part of 1917 and 1918 Eliot was actively seeking a commission in US Naval Intelligence.

In her analysis of Eliot’s critical prose of this period, Hannah Sullivanvii has pointed out that the words “serious” and “seriously” are constantly repeated. “We must learn to take poetry seriously,” Eliot wrote, and “all this war enthusiasm” doesn’t even take the war seriously. He certainly didn’t feel that most war poetry took the war seriously. At a time when patriotic effusions were just about everywhere, he pointedly remarked that “Antwerp” by Ford Madox Hueffer was “the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war”. “Antwerp” is a poem about the paradox of courage and endurance emerging among men who appear banal. It does not evade “the sordid and disagreeable” and shows how the business “must be put through”.

Eliot was looking at the English war not just through the eyes of an American who could see the oddity of much that the English took for granted, but with a sensibility educated by reading Laforgue and Baudelaire. The banal, the sordid and the horrific were subjects with which poetry must in some way deal. Eliot’s critical prose of the war years is full of praise for writers who face the horrific, and ridicule for those who avoid it, or try to explain it away.

When he became assistant editor of The Egoist, Eliot composed a column of fake readers’ letters, including one one that was supposed to come from one Helen B. Trundlett of Batton, Kent, a Rupert Brooke fan:

‘Brooke’s early poems exhibit a youthful exuberance of passion, and an occasional coarseness of utterance, which offended finer tastes; but these were but dross which, as his last sonnets show, was purged away (if I may be permitted this word) in the fire of the Great Ordeal which is proving the well-spring of a Renaissance of English poetry.’

What Eliot is parodying here is an evasion of reality that shows itself in an inattention to language and an inattention to reality, as the fire somehow turns into a well-spring without the emotional Miss Trundlett noticing that she’s said anything silly. Perhaps we can see his sharing the officer’s letter as a statement against this sort of gush, a reminder that those who are sending others to war are sending them to something very sordid and disagreeable indeed.

Eliot did take the war seriously – and I would suggest that this letter can be seen as a small piece of evidence in the series that shows his growing identification with his adopted country, especially as it was written at a time when his life was changing. No longer merely a peripatetic poet and scholar, in this month he took up two institutional positions in England, as an employee of Lloyds Bank, and as assistant editor of The Egoist. In Eliot’s critical prose of the period, by contrast, we find an increasing use of “we” and “us” to mean the English.

Eliot’s response to the War went deep – studies by Sandra Gilbert viii and others over the past decade have shown how wartime imagery is embedded in The Waste Land – the corpse that won’t stay buried, Lil’s demobbed husband, Rats’ alley, and the death by drowning that is reminiscent of the death of Jean Verdenal at Gallipoli. It is notable, however, that for the first seventy-odd years of the poem’s existence, the war subtext was not identified by critics as significant. Eliot has subsumed the war experience into a deeper sense of life’s horror, of which the war is one symptom.

It is tempting to relate the “ Wounded men laughing in agony on the barbed wire” of the officer’s letter to the horrific laughter of the Sweeney poems, and the returning dead of “On Leave” to the dead crossing London Bridge in The Waste Land, but this kind of searching for direct relevance would not, I think, be productive. On the other hand, we can perhaps see Eliot’s poetry as an answer to the implied challenge in the officer’s despair at communicating horrors – “They shudder and it is forgotten.” When we read “Sweeney Erect”, we shudder and it is not forgotten.

This letter shows that the War mattered greatly to Eliot, but the impact of the war on Eliot’s great poetry, is more than can be suggested by just looking for war references in the poems. I would like to finish, though , by speculating that on at least one occasion Eliot did write a poem that was very directly about the Great War.

The book Inventions of the March Hare mostly contains poems from the Berg notebook. There is one poem slipped into the edition that is not from that notebook, though. Its manuscript seems to have slightly mysterious antecedents, but at one time belonged to Maurice Haigh-Wood. The poem is untitled, but begins “In silent corridors of death”

Christopher Ricks suggests that the corridors might have connotations of prisons or cemeteries, but during or just after the war years the phrase “corridors of death” would surely to most readers have suggested the trenches. The silence is something that many soldiers noted, when there was no deafening bombardment. You kept quiet, because if you didn’t you might attract the attention of a sniper. Richard Aldington wrote of the silence in a poem that Eliot would later print in The Egoist:

The fifth day there came a hush;

We left our holes

And looked above the wreckage of the earth

To where the white clouds moved in silent lines

Across the untroubled blue.’ix

So here, I tentatively suggest, is T.S. Eliot’s war poem; a poem about there and here; about a place of horror and a place away from it that can still be infected by the horror:

In silent corridors of death

Short sighs and stifled breath,

Short breath and stifled sighing;

Somewhere the soul crying.

And I wander alone

Without haste, without hope, without fear

Without pressure or touch

There is no moan

Of souls dying

Nothing here

But the warm

Dry airless sweet scent

Of the alleys of death

Of the corridors of death.

Update: I sent details of this letter to Hugh Haughton, co-editor of the new edition of Eliot’s correspondence, and it has now been included in the new Volume One.


This is Crawford Mansions, the block of flats in which
T.S.Eliot was living in 1917, and from which he sent
the letter. It was a new block - bearing the date 1915,
but the area seems to have been more downmarket ninety years
ago. It is very near the Edgware Road area, which today
is an area with a large Arab population. When I took the
photo, I saw people of Middle Eastern appearance entering
the block of flats.


iCarole Seymour-Jones, Painted Shadow Page 60

iiPage 159

iiiLetters p 147

ivPainted Shadow p.176 Letters p 173

v Memoirs of George Sherston page 472

viDial London Letter May 1921 Rainey p.166

viiHannah Sullivan “But we must learn to take literature seriously”: T.S. Eliot and the little magazines of modernism, 1917-1920 CRITICAL QUARTERLY 46 (2): 63-90 Summer 2004

viiiGilbert, Sandra M. “”Rats’ Alley”: The Great War, Modernism, and the (Anti)Pastoral Elegy”, New Literary History Volume 30, Number 1, Winter 1999, pp. 179-201

ixBombardment (Near Lens 1917) The Egoist March-April 1919 page 23

One Comment

  1. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted October 10, 2010 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    I first encountered this letter about a dozen years ago, I believe in Dominic Hibberd’s “The First World War,” and used it in a university class I was teaching on war literature. The placidity of my 21-year-old American students was appropriately disturbed. They’d never suspected a reality like that! The writer still deserves our thanks.
    And thanks to you for this article!

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] “[Y]ou are tempted to give them a picture of a leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackening corpses of hundreds of young men. The appalling stench of rotting carrion, mingled with the sickening smell of exploded lyddite and ammonal. Mud like porridge, trenches like shallow and sloping cracks in the porridge – porridge that stinks in the sun. Swarms of flies and bluebottles clustering on pits of offal. Wounded men lying in the shell holes among the decaying corpses: helpless under the scorching sun and bitter nights, under repeated shelling. Men with bowels dropping out, lungs shot away, with blinded smashed faces, or limbs blown into space. Men screaming and gibbering. Wounded men laughing in agony on the barbed wire, until a friendly spout of liquid fire shrivels them up like a fly in a candle. But these are only words, and probably only convey a fraction of their meaning to their hearers. They shudder and it is forgotten.” [T. S. Eliot's Letter to The Nation] […]

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: