Published in The Dial magazine
In 1921 and 1922 T.S. Eliot was the London correspondent to The Dial magazine published in New York by his Milton Academy and Harvard University schoolmate Scofield Thayer. The Dial published eight letters written by Eliot about the cultural scene in England. Although Eliot continued to have articles published in The Dial he no longer had time to keep up the London Letter series as he started editing his own publication, The Criterion, the first issue being printed in October, 1922.
The first four "London Letter" essays (the ones that were published in 1921) are also available in print in the book The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose edited by Lawrence Rainey (see below.) Rainey has added extensive notes on the people, books and events written about by Eliot.
In Donald Gallup's bibliography of Eliot's works this essay appears with the code C130.
For more information about T.S. Eliot and The Dial see the "Notes" section on the Table of Contents page.
The page numbers from the original edition of The Dial have been inserted into the HTML markup of this file. Use your browser's "view source" feature (or equivalent) to view them.
Additionally, information about linking to specific headers or paragraphs in this letter are supplied in the "Hyperlinking" section on the Table of Contents page.
Eliot, T.S. 'London Letter,' The Dial, New York, vol. LXXII, no. 5, (May, 1922) pp. 510-513
Eliot, T.S. The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose. Lawrence Rainey, ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (2005) ISBN 0-300-09743-3
Gallup, Donald. T.S. Eliot: A Bibliography, A Revised and Extended Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (1969)
Having been published in the U.S. prior to 1923, it is my understanding that this work of Eliot's is in the public domain in the U.S. but perhaps not in other countries (particularly in the U.K. and E.U.) Be careful about republication.
London, after three months, appeared to me quite unchanged: the same things one liked, the same things one detested, and the same things to which one was indifferent. I set about to hear any important news, of books, of people, of productions or events, and found nothing worthy of mention. This, of course, might happen anywhere. Nevertheless, after a separation, one is disposed to generalize about impressions; so I have been led to contemplate, for many moments, the nature of the particular torpor or deadness which strikes a denizen of London on his return.
There is certainly, in the atmosphere of literary London, something which may provisionally be called a moral cowardice. It is not simply cowardice, but a caution, a sort of worldly prudence which believes implicitly that English literature is so good as it is that adventure and experiment involve only unjustified risk; lack of ambition, laziness, and refusal to recognize foreign competition; a tolerance which is no better than torpid indifference; not cowardice merely, but still a composition of inertias which is usually to be found in general cowardice. It is facilitated by conditions which are universal as well, by democracy (in the vague habitual sense of the word) by the newspapers, the reviewing of books, the journalistic life; by the actual and by every proposed economic system, which give so high a place to Security--whether in the form of gilt-edged bonds or old-age pensions--and so low a place to adventure and contemplation. But in London these poisons are either more pernicious, or their effects more manifest, than elsewhere. Other cities decay, and extend a rich odour of putrefaction; London merely shrivels, like a little bookkeeper grown old.
This is the principal impression one derives from the consideration of any and every anthology of contemporary verse that appears. As the two last that I have seen are Methuen and Company's Anthology of Modern Verse, and Mr Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry, I fall upon these as text-books for a comparison. With the merits of the anthologies I have nothing to do; only with a general impression of English and American poetry. It is very difficult, so different have the verses of the two sides of the Atlantic become, to censure the one without appearing to favour the other; nevertheless, this nice feat should be attempted. Both appear to me to insult the English language, but in different ways; both appear to me conventional and timid, but in different ways.
The instinct for safety it may be--as in the bird the ostrich, not always a safe instinct--or a complexity of causes, which seems to make the English poet take refuge in just those sentiments, images, and thoughts which render a man least distinguishable from the mob, the respectable mob, the decent middle-class mob. An appearance of daring, even a real daring in non-literary respects (for political courage is still respected) may do no harm, and may even please; for it makes the reader feel that he is daring too. But a truly independent way of looking at things, a point of view which cannot be sorted under any known religious or political title; in fact, the having the only thing which gives a work pretending to literary art its justification; the having something which the public have not got: this is always detested. Sometimes it is not recognized, sometimes it can be ignored; and then a man may have a deserved immediate popularity; but when it is recognized and cannot be ignored, it is certainly feared and disliked. The popularity of certain war poems was due, I think, to the fact that they appeared to represent a revolt against something that was very unpleasant, and really paid a tribute to all the nicest feelings of the upper-middle class British public school boy. But if I had to pick out, from the Methuen anthology, some poem which more than the rest contained a dignity of the individual, it would be, I think, Lionel Johnson's Statue of King Charles. Johnson, however, is hardly to be claimed by the present literary generation.
We have, then, a large number of writers giving the public what it likes; and a large body of reviewers telling it that it is right to like what it likes; and the Morning Post to tell it that everything new is a symptom of Bolshevism; and the London Mercury to tell it that it is already such an enlightened public that what it does not like cannot be really good. I do not say that a more intelligent journalism would produce better poets; it is a part of the situation, this unintelligent press; a part of the so-called modem democracy which appears to produce fewer and fewer individuals. I mean that some of the same causes that make American poetry what it is have contributed to make English poetry what it is, only the result in the two environments is very different. The English language is of course badly written in both countries. In England it is not ungrammatical, but common; it is not in bad taste, but rather tasteless. English imposes less upon the writer than French, but demands more from him. It demands greater and more constant variation; every word must be charged afresh with energy every time it is used; the language demands an animosity which is singularly deficient in those authors who are most publicly glorified for their style.
The lack of any moral integrity, which I think is behind all the superficial imbecilities of contemporary English verse (imbecilities which an American public is quite able to see for itself) is disguised in various ways; the disguise often takes the form of noble thoughts, and (in serious prose writers also) in an endless pomposity. It is the mark of the man who has no core, no individual moral existence, to be possessed with moral notions, to be goaded by the necessity of continual moral formulations. In this he finds repose. Writers often start out hopefully, apparently to look out something for themselves, but the strain is too great; they relapse into the preacher or the prophet. I observe that Mr Clive Bell, who used to divert the readers of The New Republic with his pranks, is lately fallen into this cathedral manner in addressing the American public; and I hope that he will not let the practice grow upon him.
I know that the word "moral," which I have used so often, will give offence. Well, I have lately perused selections from some of the American poets, in Mr Untermeyer's anthology, and I think that the word can be applied here too. Perhaps it is not a representative anthology; certainly I fail to find one or two of the writers who interest me most. At any rate it contains the most noted; and in several of them I seem to find exactly the same weakness as in the English. It does not matter whether they are crude or experimental; I do not find them either so crude or so experimental as they are said to be. I am told that Mr Sandburg is now the great American representative poet. Some of his smaller verse is charming; but appears to be rather an echo of Mr Pound, who has done it better. In his more ambitious verse, however, there is just the same surrender as in England, to what the people want. You must talk about America, just as here you must talk about England: only, there are different things to say. It is necessary to pretend that England is a green and pleasant land; at present, you need not say that America is pleasant, you can make it infernal; but you must make out that it is big, that it is new, that it contains the germs of a colossal growth. And beneath this there is commonplace and conventionality. Mr Sandburg may blame the anthology, but there it is. The same is true of Mr Lindsay, whose verse has no moral significance; and that of Mr Masters, whose verse has not enough; and Miss Lowell appears to have nothing that she has not borrowed from Mr Pound or from Mr Fletcher. Mr Frost seems the nearest equivalent to an English poet, specializing in New England torpor; his verse, it is regretfully said, is uninteresting, and what is uninteresting is unreadable, and what is unreadable is not read. There, that is done.
I know that if I lived in closer proximity to Mr Burleson, and to Professor Sherman, and to the Methodist Episcopal Church, I should probably take a different tone. But if people will admire Whitman for the wrong things …
This should have been a London letter. But Ulysses does not exactly tumble into it; and must certainly be discussed apart; time enough to include it here when we are able to mark its effect upon London. (The London Mercury has already devoted three pages to Mr Joyce; perhaps London will be revolutionized in three months.) Wyndham Lewis' art review, the Tyro, has only just now appeared.
In Paris I had the first and most welcome reminder of London in seeing Mistinguette at the Casino de Paris. She has other roles which no English actress could possibly fill; she is versatile; but in herself she played a part which I thought would have been better understood and liked by an English music hall audience than it was at the Casino de Paris. I thought of Marie Lloyd again; and wondered again why that directness, frankness, and ferocious humour which survive in her, and in Nellie Wallace and George Robey and a few others, should be extinct, should be odious to the British public, in precisely those forms of art in which they are most needed, and in which, in fact, they used to flourish.
T. S. Eliot