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Letters debunk myth of TS Eliot's cruelty

india Updated: Nov 01, 2009 10:45 IST

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Nobel laureate TS Eliot, widely considered the greatest poet of the 20th century, was dogged throughout his later years by the charge that he was a cruel husband and an anti-Semitic.

Now, more than 40 years after his death, a new volume of letters has finally debunked the myth about the character and personality of Eliot and restores the personal reputation of the troubled writer, 'The Sunday Times' reported.

The correspondence, mostly written by and to Eliot during the 1920s, shows that the American-born poet was often deeply concerned about the severe ill-health of his wife, Vivien, a former Cambridge governess. The couple had married in 1915 when Eliot was 26.

He was so driven to despair by her undiagnosed yet debilitating medical and mental problems that he railed at her doctors, calling one a charlatan and another a "German brute". He even wrote: "I have tried to kill myself."

In April 1924, Eliot wrote to his brother: "The last illness of V's has been indescribable. She suffered more in spirit than ever before. I have not been able to leave her for three months."

Eliot, who became a British subject in 1927 wrote to John Middleton Murry, the novelist and critic, that his wife had been so ill that for three days she felt her mind had left her body.

He wrote of his own agony: "I have deliberately killed my senses -- I've deliberately died -- in order to go on with the outward form of living."

In fact, the letters, to be published this week and complied with the help of Eliot's second wife Valerie, show him in a different light.

Eliot, who was working as a clerk at Lloyds bank in London, only continued with this job, which he did not like, to earn money for his sick wife. At the same time he was also exhausting himself by writing poems and editing The Criterion, a literary magazine.

Many of the letters show his concern for his wife. In April 1923, he wrote to Murry that "Vivien was very ill indeed — in fact for hours at the point of death. It is the worst time she has ever had - she just escaped by indomitable luck."

The correspondence also reveals that Eliot had a number of close Jewish friends, which might rid the long-held argument that he was anti-Semitic. One friend was Horace Kallen, the American academic, and their correspondence shows that Eliot helped to get European Jewish refugees to America during the Second World War.