Eliot in the Wartime Classroom, 1916–1919

On Tuesday 16 May 2017,  Ronald Schuchard gave the University of London International Programmes’ inaugural 1858 Charter Lecture, ‘Eliot in the Wartime Classroom, 1916–1919’. The lecture is reproduced here in full to coincide with the University of London’s publication of the lecture.



The privilege of giving this inaugural Charter lecture behooves me to pay tribute to the 1858 Charter signed by Queen Victoria and its immediate impact on higher education for working men, and twenty years later for working women, in the University of London’s degree programmes. The Charter also led to the University of London Act of 1898, which made the University not only an examining body for its colleges and other affiliations but a teaching institution that made it known truly as ‘The People’s University’. The influence of the Charter also invites mention of some momentous, if not historic, moments in the early twentieth century that had much to do with the gender makeup of Eliot’s Tutorial Classes from 1916 to 1919: the establishment of the Workers’ Educational Association in 1903 and its subsequent formation with the University of London, in 1909, of the Joint Committee for the Promotion of the Higher Education of Working People, which offered five Extension courses that first year. The educational vision of the Joint Committee represented the full flowering of Victorian liberalism and was deeply sympathetic to the women’s suffrage movement, which brought about the enfranchisement of women aged thirty and over in the Representation of the People Act in February 1918, during the second year of Eliot’s tutorial. The Extension courses were meant to be on a university level in the fullest sense, and tutors were vetted not only for academic qualification but for knowledge of and sympathy with working people. The committee’s joint aim, as stated in the foundational document, was to enable working men and women ‘to gain for themselves and their fellows such knowledge as will throw light upon the dark places in industrial and social life. The poorest working man or woman need not be excluded from these classes by reason of the cost’.[1] In nearly all classes there were women students, with some classes created especially for women, whose educational needs were considered equally with those of men. This was the enlightened educational culture that the Joint Committee, far ahead of its time, had created when Eliot accepted his three-year tutorial course on modern literature at the beginning of the 1916–17 academic year, the centenary of which we also celebrate this evening.


T. S. Eliot’s copy of the syllabus for his tutorial class in Modern English Literature, 1917


But let me frame these early developments with a fast-forward to 4 October 1959, when the Joint Committee celebrated its Fifty-Year Jubilee here in Beveridge Hall, fully packed. For that august event, the Academic Advisor for Tutorial Classes, Sir Harold Shearman, invited Eliot to come and share memories of his Extension teaching. ‘We do not forget that you were among the many distinguished people who have … served the University Tutorial Classes Committee as tutors,’ Shearman wrote on 10 September, ‘and I well remember that when you received an honorary degree from the University this link with the Extra-Mural Department was specially mentioned. In fact, I keep in my desk the syllabuses which you prepared for those three sessions at Southall during the years of the first world war’. Although he could not personally attend, on 2 October Eliot sent by hand a ‘message’ that was read to the audience by Shearman, who had prepared an exhibit of Eliot’s syllabuses and class registers for the occasion. He reported back to Eliot that his message ‘aroused great enthusiasm and gave much amusement to us all’.  ‘I remember with a good deal of pleasure’, Eliot’s message began,

and with genuine affection my tutorial classes at Southall: I had, I think, practically the same faithful enrolment during the whole three years during which I travelled to and fro to Southall for the evening meetings. As it was war-time my class was chiefly female with one or two more elderly railway-men, and I must admit that many of the oldest were old ladies. There was one poor young woman who was one of my best students, but was an elementary schoolmistress with a very large class of little children in the daytime and was addicted not only to evening classes but to summer schools, and died, I am sorry to say, of overwork. Some of my pupils were a little eccentric. There was one elderly woman, who I think didn’t had a very happy domestic life, who wrote to me frequently in between classes. Her letters were always stamped – and occasionally insufficiently stamped – in the lower left hand corner, and invariably began with the words ‘Dear Tutor Boy’. There was another elderly lady whose chief interest was in spiritualism, apparitions, ghosts and spectres, who constantly tried to turn the discussion after [my lectures] into her favourite subject so that I found myself having tactfully, in discussing the great Victorian novelists, to bring the subject back from ghosts to literature. Another was convinced that she had the gift of healing, and once when I had to miss a class owing to an attack of influenza, turned up at my flat eager to heal me, and bringing equipment for the night, as she prepared to stay until I was cured. Needless to say my cure was very rapid.

As we return to 1916, we shall find verification of these memories and identification of these wonderful ladies, such that it is only a short stretch to suggest that a composite of their habits may have morphed into Madame Sosostris in The Waste Land.


Eliot arrived in the UK in mid-August 1914 from Marburg University in Germany, where he had travelled from his postgraduate studies at Harvard for a summer course in philosophy, only to find after arrival that the course was cancelled and the universities were closed when Germany declared war on Russia and France. He made his way cautiously to London, and then to an awaiting fellowship at Merton College, Oxford, where he studied Aristotle and began writing his dissertation on F. H. Bradley. At the end of the academic year in June 1915 he married Vivien Haigh-Wood and began teaching that autumn at the High Wycombe Royal Grammar School – French, math, history, drawing, and swimming – leaving after a term for the Highgate Junior School in London (where ten-year-old John Betjeman was his pupil), teaching the same subjects plus Latin and baseball – fourteen-hour daily endeavours from which he sought relief. Through his membership in the Aristotelian Society, he met the classical scholar and educational reformer Alfred Zimmern, an active member of the Workers’ Educational Association. Zimmern put in a word for Eliot to his Association colleague, Archibald Ramage, the organizing secretary of the Joint Committee. ‘The result is a tutorial class at Southall’, Eliot wrote to Zimmern. ‘I had already decided that both my health and my interests advocated resigning from my school, and this windfall … is therefore … a very important event to me and I am deeply indebted to you’.[2] The Joint Committee, after examining his Harvard credentials and study at the Sorbonne, resolved at its October meeting that ‘Mr Eliot be the tutor for the Southall I class, provided that there is satisfactory evidence that he will be remaining in England for a reasonable period’. Eliot had his first-year syllabus ready for printing upon the appointment.[3]


It was of course too late for him to resign from teaching a final term at the Highgate School; moreover, he had also applied to and was accepted by the Oxford Extension Delegacy for a course in Modern French Literature, organized in Ilkley, Yorkshire (three hours north), so that he was constantly preparing classes and on the rails that autumn. The heavy load and the transition from grammar school to university-level Extension classes for mature adults did not come easily. For his first lecture in Ilkley on 3 October, he wrote it all out and tried to memorise it, ‘and when I came to deliver it’, he confessed, ‘I found that I had quite enough for two hours talk!’ (L1, 228). After his second lecture, the local secretary of the Oxford Delegacy who visited the class, wrote a report on his teaching to an administrator in the Cambridge Extension Syndicate, to which Eliot had also applied, but which had postponed a decision pending reports about his work for Oxford. ‘His delivery is very monotonous’, the Oxford secretary wrote:

His voice would not be strong enough for a large hall. But he is inexperienced & even the second lecture showed improvement. He lectures from a [manuscript], but he rarely looks at it. His manner is excellent & he uses it in a very interesting way. He gives the impression of wide & thorough knowledge of his subject (Contemporary France). He is very fair-minded. He is friendly & easy in the class. There is nothing of the popular lecturer about him. But at the same time, I find people who know nothing of our present subject, follow him with interest. He has no Americanisms or accent … Mr Eliot’s French is delightful![4]

Eliot had immersed himself in French literature and culture during his year at the Sorbonne in 1910–11, but the most recent intellectual discovery for this course, and those that followed, was the philosopher-poet T. E. Hulme’s Introduction to Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, purchased in May and reviewed in the summer of 1916 before placing it on the syllabus. ‘This was my first introduction to T. E. Hulme’, Eliot inscribed his copy. ‘Mr Hulme is … a contemporary’, he wrote in his review, ‘his introduction should be read’.[5]  Eliot was struck by Hulme’s anti-romantic, anti-humanist moral philosophy and by his classical, religious view – not that man is by nature good and capable of self-redemption – but that ‘man is by nature bad … and can consequently only accomplish anything of value by disciplines, ethical, heroic, or political. In other words, it believes in Original Sin. We may define Romantics, then, as all who do not believe in the Fall of Man’.  Eliot made Hulme’s definitions the foundation of his developing vision of moral reality, sharing it at once with his students: ‘The classicist point of view’, he began his second lecture, ‘has been defined as essentially a belief in Original Sin – the necessity for austere discipline’. ‘The present-day movement’, he declared, prophetically of his own life direction, ‘is partly a return to the ideals of the seventeenth century. A classicist in art and literature will therefore be likely to adhere to a monarchical form of government, and to the Catholic Church’.


Eliot traveled to Southall on 23 October for his first lecture on the Victorians, beginning with Tennyson and the Brownings in the town library. There were now twenty-two tutorial classes in the London district, all following the standard format and requirements: twenty-four two-hour meetings, the first hour for lecture, the second for discussion. Students were required to attend at least two-thirds of the meetings and to write all of the assigned essays in order to qualify for degree credit. Four men and twenty women registered for Eliot’s first-year course, the syllabus of which contained a standard statement of the Joint Committee:  ‘Tutorial classes are based upon the principle of comradeship in study, and it is hoped students will … in the intervals between classes, meet informally to discuss their difficulties and then submit them to the tutor’. As the meetings progressed, Eliot informed  his father of how impressed he was with the educational reform going on and how he anticipated increased activity by the Workers’ Educational Association after the war: ‘If so’, he wrote,

I ought to be in on the rake off, for I am giving the only literature class now going in the whole of the London district … One [member] of the class told me I was the best literature tutor they had ever had … I enjoy it immensely, and the Monday evening is one of the moments of the week that I look forward to. The class is very keen and very appreciative, and very anxious to learn and to think. These people are the most hopeful sign in England, to me. (L1, 177)

He reiterated his enjoyment of the evenings and his working-class students to his sister Charlotte as he began to make comparisons for family and friends about English and American social classes:

These people … are very anxious to improve themselves, though there is not the slightest chance of its helping them to make a better living. In America there would … be less chance for this sort of class. Education [in America] is so diffused, and it is so easy for almost anyone to get a so-called ‘college education’, that education is less prized. … The idea of people studying all their lives is unknown, as also among the more prosperous classes in England, but my [Southall] class is entirely disinterested in its devotion to study and thought.’ (L1, 182–83)


For his cousin Eleanor Hinkley he recounted how he had ‘steered them through Browning (who arouses great enthusiasm), Carlyle, Meredith, Arnold, and am now conducting them through Ruskin’; he went on to describe the makeup of the class, regretful that there were ‘not many working men at present, except one very intelligent grocer who reads Ruskin behind his counter; most of them are (female) elementary schoolteachers, who work very hard with large classes of refractory children all day but come with unabated eagerness to get culture in the evening (stimulated, I hope by my personal magnetism)’. And then he turned to name two of the ladies remembered so fondly in his Beveridge Hall ‘message’ of 1959:

I sit at the head of a table flanked by Mrs Howells and Mrs Sloggett. Both are mad. Mrs. Howells is a spiritualist and wanted to give me mental treatment for a cold in the head. She writes articles on the New Mysticism … and presents them to me. Mrs Sloggett writes me letters beginning Dear Teacher, Philosopher, and Friend, and her special interests are astrology and politics. She has written a character study of me (very flattering) … and spends some of her time writing letters to cabinet ministers. (L1, 185)

Eliot loved to bring Mrs Sloggett up in his letters, describing her to his father as ‘a middle-aged woman who is quite cracked, and keeps writing me letters (which I do not encourage) … She wants to cast my horoscope – I declined’ (L1, 195).  ‘The rest of the class are quite sane,’ he continued with Eleanor, ‘and some of them are remarkably clever, and I have to do my best to keep up with them in discussion. This class of person is really the most attractive in England, in many ways; it is not so petrified in snobbism and prejudice as the middle classes, and yet is very humble. To an American, the English working classes are impressive because of their fundamental conservatism; they are not, as a whole, aggressive and insolent like the same people in America’ (L1, 185). In describing his admiration of England’s working class over its middle class to his Harvard mentor, Professor James Woods, he wrote: ‘you see I am by way of being a Labourite in England, though a conservative at home. … Some day I shall write a book on the English; it is my impression that no one in America knows anything about them. They are in fact very different from ourselves’ (L1, 188).


In his half-session report to the Joint Committee, Eliot wrote that he was ‘very well pleased with the work of the majority of the class. Under considerable difficulties some of them have done excellent work. … The most conscientious members of the class number about twelve or fourteen. There are others who need constant stimulation, and about a dozen who have so far written no essays. I am writing personal letters to each of these, as well as making appeals in the meetings’. Illnesses, family problems, the distractions of war, and the demands of their workplaces made it difficult for exhausted students to come to all the evening classes, impossible for some to write the required papers.  Though Eliot was extremely conscientious about reading and commenting on the essays submitted, in the end only three students were credited with fulfilling the first-year writing requirement satisfactorily.  ‘Of the three writers’, he wrote in his final report, ‘I think that on the whole Miss Gardner deserves the most praise. Her work always showed a careful and intelligent grasp of the subject, and her eager interest was an unfailing support’. Second was Miss Hastie, whose writing he thought less even: ‘Miss Hastie already had a far wider store of reading than any other member of the class … and this was a distinct advantage to her, especially in more purely literary criticism, where she did her best and most original work’. The third, Mrs. Howells, the spiritualist, he ranked ‘far below these two, but showed some improvement in composition, and read faithfully’. Alas, the adoring Mrs Sloggett  did not qualify. Eliot was most disappointed by the loss of Mr Coltman, whose writing he found ‘first-rate, refreshingly vigorous and independent, and his summons to the army deprived the discussion of a good deal of its liveliness. …  I regret’, he concluded, ‘not having had more papers from the others who wrote, as several were quite promising’.


Eliot’s days did not end with the preparation and delivery of his lectures. After completing his dissertation, he began his career in literary journalism, writing reviews at night on philosophical, theological, and literary works for the International Journal of Ethics, the New Statesman, the Monist, and the American  Little Review, submitting twenty pieces while conducting the first-year course, including his first significant essay on poetry, ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’. In March he took a full-time position at Lloyds Bank in its Colonial and Foreign Department, ‘tabulating the balance-sheets of foreign banks’. ‘The war has at least brought variety into our lives’, he wrote to sister Charlotte: ‘I am at present combining the activities of journalist, lecturer, and financier’ (L1, 182). He was also arranging the poems for his first volume, Prufrock and Other Observations. All the poems had been completed before he began his Yorkshire and Southall classes; none had been written since. But suddenly he overcame the dry spell, having found inspiration from his course on modern French literature:  ‘I have felt more creative lately’, he wrote to his mother:  ‘Besides my lectures, which are now on Ruskin and involve some reading in political economy, and considerable reviewing … I have been doing some writing – mostly in French, curiously enough it has taken me that way – and some poems in French which will come out in The Little Review’ (L1, 194). He had indeed in the last month completed his four undated French poems – ‘Le Directeur’, ‘Mélange Adultère de Tout’, ‘Lune de Miel’, and ‘Dans le Restaurant’, the first three of which appeared with ‘The Hippopotamus’ in the Little Review in July. In ‘Mélange Adultère de Tout’ he begins with the description of himself sent to his sister after composing the poem: ‘En Angleterre, journaliste;  /  … En Yorkshire, conférencier;  / A Londres, un peu banquier’  (Poems, Vol. I, 41). The intellectual intensity of his lectures and reviews had clearly begun to stimulate his poetic creativity, creating a synergy between them that would increase over the next two years.


‘Dear Mrs. Eliot’, Vivien wrote to her husband’s mother on the last day of April, 1917: ‘At 12 o’clock last night I asked Tom how much longer his work would take him – and he said about two hours. “And then”, he said “I am going to write to my mother”. He looked so tired that I begged him to let me write to you this week instead’:

He was working all yesterday and last night on his last lecture to the working people – it is the last one today, of this course. The lecture is on George Borrow. Tom has made a great success of his Class, and has kept up the number so well that it has been a surprise to everyone. Most of the other classes of the same sort have fallen off dreadfully in numbers this year. … But Tom has done really well – and he feels it I know. His people are most obviously fond of him. (L1, 196).

In writing his final report for the Joint Committee, Eliot stated that at the end he devoted ‘four evenings to Ruskin and one to George Borrow. In retrospect, I believe that I might have coordinated the work better; so far as I was concerned, the work was largely experimental and tentative’. He was of course actively assimilating the readings into his own developing creative and critical theories. ‘It was possible, however,’ he continued,

to call attention to the background of Victorian literature; the importance of such phenomena as the Oxford Movement, Utilitarianism, the Manchester School, Darwinism and Renanism, especially in dealing with Arnold, Carlyle and Ruskin. … In proceeding, I think there is ample material for a year on the rest of the 19th century, without dealing with living authors, which I do not favour. I do not wish to slight the personal element, but if the course could be arranged on the basis of subjects – instead of passing from one man to another, I think more papers would be written; as the members sometimes are deterred by thinking that before they can read a book and write about it, the author will have been dropped.

Over the previous six months Eliot had read and discussed a massive amount of French and Victorian literature, including a supplementary reading list of literary criticism, which he would build on, address, and contest as he began his reaction against the literary and cultural principles of the Victorians. For his first-year labours in the Southall classroom, he was paid £60 and claimed £3 for travel.



Under the influence of Ezra Pound, the Egoist Press published Prufrock and Other Observations in June 1917, the month in which he was made an assistant editor of its journal, which allowed him to focus on literary reviews and essays while continuing to review philosophy for the others. But this was not the only new responsibility he took into the second year of his Southall class in October. To supplement his income, he applied to the London County Council for a course of twenty-five lectures on Victorian Literature, at £1 a lecture (out of which came his travel and evening meal), in Sydenham, on the opposite side of London. ‘I am very busy with my lectures’, he wrote to his father, ‘as I give one on Fridays and one on Mondays, I have hardly finished one before I begin to think of the next. But they cost me far less in effort and time than they used to; I only make a couple of pages of notes now, and I can talk away for an hour or more. … Most of my spare time after lectures goes in to the Egoist editing’. Lloyds Bank had him taking Spanish and Danish lessons, ‘mostly at lunch times; and they let me have all the Spanish and Italian and Portuguese financial papers for myself’ (L1, 228–29).


The Joint Committee had asked Eliot to start the second year with Emerson and William Morris and go on to the Pre-Raphaelites,  Samuel Butler,  Robert Louis Stevenson, the nineties, and Thomas Hardy, with thematic focus on the influence of science, changes in religious outlook, the development of Socialism, continental influences, and different ideals in poetry. After the publication of his syllabus, he learned that the war, the constant calls for nursing, illness, and other misfortunes had reduced the number of students to fifteen; only twelve remained at mid-term. Vivien, complaining that her husband never returned home on teaching days until 11:00 or after, began accompanying him to Southall and Sydenham, encouraging him in his improving lecture style. ‘Vivienne says I am getting better and better as a lecturer’, he wrote to his mother, and Vivien wrote to his sister Charlotte that ‘he is giving very interesting lectures this year, I enjoy them immensely, especially the Southall ones’ (L1, 226). The Sydenham lectures included a different set of authors and subjects, with much new reading required. ‘Lately I have been at a point in my lectures where the material was unfamiliar to me’, he informed his mother:

I have had to get up the Brontës for one course and Stevenson for the other. Of course I have developed a knack of acquiring superficial information at short notice, and they think me a prodigy of information. But some of the old ladies are extraordinarily learned, and know all sorts of things about the private life of worthies … which I have never bothered my head about. But I am looking forward to lecturing on Dickens. I found Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights amazingly good stuff, but I cannot endure George Eliot. (L1, 249)


In the process of ‘cramming’ four George Eliot novels for his next lecture, he wrote to say that a single story had altered his perception. ‘I was surprised to enjoy her so much. Of course there is a great deal of endless prosing, and I think my memory of pleasure is based chiefly on one story –  Amos Barton – which struck me as far and away ahead of the rest’ (L1, 251). No longer commenting on English social classes, he found new pleasure in exercising his taste and sounding off for and against the Victorians with his correspondents. ‘I come more and more to demand that novels should be well written’, he wrote to Eleanor,

and perceive more clearly the virtues and defects of the Victorians. George Eliot had a great talent, and wrote one great story, Amos Barton, and went steadily down hill afterwards.  … Romola is the most inartistic novel I have ever read … Meredith knew what he was doing, but unfortunately it wasn’t worth doing, don’t read him. The Way of All Flesh was written by a man who was not an artist and had no sense of style; it is too long … and the adventures of Ernest are dull, but the character of Christina is amazing. … Christina is one of the finest pieces of dissection of mental dishonesty that I know anywhere; Butler pursues her relentlessly to her death. It is a book you must read. (L1, 259)


But such opinionated epistolary criticism was merely a warm-up for taking on the Victorians in his reviews and essays. In ‘Reflections on Contemporary Poetry’, published in the Egoist in November 1917, Eliot wrote of William Morris, shortly after lecturing on him: ‘The style of William Morris is a “style like speech”, only it is the speech of Morris, and therefore rather poor stuff. The Idylls of the King sound often like Tennyson talking to Queen Victoria in heaven, and The Earthly Paradise like an idealized Morris talking to an idealized Burne-Jones’  (CPTSE, Vol. 1, 610). Eliot was entering a free-wheeling attack mode, evident in his review of a new book on Meredith (written after giving his lecture on ‘Philosophy in Poetry’ in Meredith): ‘[The author] speaks of Meredith’s ‘profound philosophy.’ Of course it is the first duty of a philosopher to be clear and logical and simple, and he can then afford to let the profundity take care of itself; but the fact is that most of Meredith’s profundity is profound platitude. His blood and brain and spirit trinity may be a profound analysis; he has left the clarity and precision to Plato, who had already conceived a somewhat similar anatomy. The style which runs to excessive metaphor is simply the style of a lazy mind’ (CPTSE, Vol. I, 763).


And what about Ralph Waldo Emerson leading off the Victorian syllabus? Surely it was Eliot’s suggestion more than that of the Joint Committee. Of course Emerson had important relations with Arnold, Carlyle, Ruskin, and other English writers,  but Eliot had already revealed his satiric motive in a poem included in Prufrock, ‘Cousin Nancy’, in which a relative’s ‘modern’ New England ways, unsettling to her aunts, are under the guidance of Eliot’s spiritual bête noirs, ‘Matthew and Waldo’, their influential surnames withheld. Eliot had long since dissociated himself from the Unitarian beliefs of Emerson and of his own New England ancestors, and from the religion of culture and the ‘best self, making for righteousness’ of Arnold, those ‘guardians of the faith’ who make man and culture the measure of all things, humanitarians who make up ‘The army of unalterable law’, a line silently and satirically borrowed from Meredith’s  poem ‘Lucifer in Starlight’ to mock their delusions and those of their modernist travelers (Poems, Vol. I, 24). Emerson (whose spiritual and cultural weaknesses allowed Eliot to dramatize those of the Victorians) takes it on the chin again in Eliot’s new poem, ‘Sweeney Erect’: ‘(The lengthened shadow of a man / Is history, said Emerson / Who had not seen the silhouette / Of Sweeney straddled in the sun.)’ (Poems, Vol. 1, 37). Eliot’s anti-romantic, anti-humanitarian views were already intact, as were his classical and religious sensibilities, leading him to write in a new review, ‘Neither Emerson nor any of the others was a real observer of the moral life.’[6] Though Eliot’s conversion was a decade away, he was on his way.


In his reports to the Joint Committee, Eliot continued to praise the papers of Miss Gardner and Miss Hastie, noting briefly but generously that ‘Mrs Howells and Mrs Sloggett have both shown considerable improvement … Considering the difficulties with which we have had to contend, including a number of evenings when there were raids, and evenings suitable for raids, the attendance has been very faithful’. But the pressures of his double lectures, on top of his reviewing, editorial, and banking responsibilities had begun to take their toll. ‘Sundays and Thursdays, being the days before the lectures, are always terrible days,’ Vivien wrote to Eliot’s mother. ‘Tom looks very white and thin. The winter has tried him beyond endurance. I feel that he must not ever do this lecturing again. … It is more than one can endure to see a young man so worn and old-looking … It wears me out to see him. … Poetry and literature are the very only things that Tom cares for or has the faintest interest in. And not the kind of Poetry or literature which earns money. He hates to write for money’ (L1, 254–55).


After the second year ended, however, a discussion with the Joint Committee about the third year left him greatly enthusiastic about continuing the tutorial: ‘My Southall people want to do Elizabethan Literature next year,’ he excitedly informed his mother, ‘which would interest me more than what we have done before, and would be of some use to me too, as I want to write some essays on the dramatists, who have never been properly criticised’ (L1, 263). Over the summer he read Elizabethan poets and dramatists assiduously, though with serious concern that the class might be discontinued, for the number of original students was fewer than required by the Board of Education. In the uncertainty, and with America having entered the war, Eliot applied diligently but unsuccessfully for a commission in US Naval Intelligence. In the face of the threatened cancellation of his tutorial, he offered to conduct it for a reduced fee if the Board refused to pay grant on it: he neither wished to desert the remaining students nor lose the opportunity to lecture on and write about Elizabethan literature. ‘I am looking forward to it’, he informed his mother, ‘as I prefer it infinitely to the 19th century – to any periods of English Literature’ (L1, 265). When the secretary of the Joint Committee appealed to the Board on Eliot’s behalf, the request was allowed – a major decision for the future of English literature.



The title page of Eliot’s syllabus for the third year retained the general course title, ‘Modern Literature’, but it contained eighteen subject-headings on Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, including the authors on whom he wished to write: Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, Webster. The beginning of his lectures in early October coincided with the publication of four new poems in The Little Review, including ‘Whispers of Immortality’, on Webster  and Donne, Jacobeans with whose visions of sensuality and death he strongly identified: ‘our lot crawls between dry ribs / To keep our metaphysics warm.’ (Poems, Vol. 1, 48). In his lecture on Webster, Eliot focused on his ‘skill in dealing with horror’, a skill that became a criterion and remained at the forefront of his later essays on Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists.


‘At the beginning of the Session’, Eliot wrote to the Joint Committee, ‘the Class found that it had lost several of its best members through death, removal and more essential work. Several new members joined in their place. … The influenza epidemic during November, and the December elections were disturbing factors and reduced the attendance’. During that autumn session, as the Armistice Day finally came, Eliot worked in what little spare time he had to put together a volume of his poetry and prose for possible publication in America, tentatively titled ‘The Art of Poetry’, explaining to John Quinn in January 1919 that he was ‘not at all proud of the book – the prose part consists of articles written under high pressure in the overworked, distracted existence of the last two years, and very rough in form.  But it is important to me that it should be published for private reasons. … You see I settled over here in the face of strong family opposition, on the claim that I found the environment more favourable to the production of literature. This book is all I have to show for my claim – it would go … towards satisfying them that I have not made a mess of my life, as they are inclined to believe’ (L1, 315). Especially his father, whom he most wanted to please. The next day he received the grievous news of his father’s death. But as we shall see, this was but the first traumatic event to come.


As Eliot mourned and the book proposal failed, he wrote to his mother that he still hoped that his Southall lectures would provide ‘some of the material for a book on Elizabethan blank verse’ (L1, 320). The opportunity was soon at hand: John Middleton Murry, the new editor of The Athenaeum, invited Eliot to review a book titled The New Elizabethans, a study of English poets killed in the war. In his review, titled ‘The New Elizabethans and the Old’, Eliot brought the Old Elizabethans from his lectures – Raleigh, Sidney, and others – to bear comparatively on the New and to challenge the editor’s assumptions about the Old : ‘The Elizabethans were not always consistent or self-critical people’, Eliot wrote,

but their vice was rhetoric, not sentiment; it disfigured their expression, but did not affect their minds. … The virtues of the New Elizabethans are not so much the virtues of the Elizabethans as they are the ideals of the Victorians. … The literature produced was very much of the period; it was not Elizabethan, and it was not good writing. (CPTSE, Vol. II, 13)

Murry was so impressed by the review that he asked Eliot to become his assistant editor. After much deliberation about job security, he decided to remain at the bank, but for the next two years he was to become one of Murry’s chief contributors, enjoying room to write longer and more substantial literary reviews, many on Elizabethan literature.


Epigraph to ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ from Poems by T. S. Eliot, Hogarth Press 1919.


In recent years biographical scholarship has discovered one of the most painful episodes in Eliot’s life – Vivien’s three-year affair with Bertrand Russell, the Earl Russell, under whom Eliot studied Symbolic Logic at Harvard, where Eliot, having already intuited Russell’s sexual prowess, caricatured him in ‘Mr Apollinax’, a poem in which Russell is portrayed as ‘Priapus in the shrubbery, / Gaping at the lady in the swing’ (Poems, Vol. I, 25). The affair began shortly after the marriage, during the six-week period when Eliot returned to America alone to inform his parents of his plans to remain in London; it continued after his return, when Vivien and Russell schemed for the penurious couple to share Russell’s flat, and intensified when the threesome leased a country house in Marlow, near Oxford, where Eliot’s wife and mentor would spend time together during the week and banker Eliot would join them on the weekend. It is not known when Eliot first suspected or discovered the affair: possibly in the spring of 1918, when he suddenly turned to writing the Sweeney poems, inhabited as they are by the brothel keeper Mrs Turner, Doris, and other sexual grotesques in illicit encounters, with allusions to lechery and betrayal – particularly ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’ (slang for prostitutes), with a single epigraph from Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1343, in Greek, discussed below, ‘ᾢμοι, πέπληγμαι καιρίαν πληγὴν ἔσω’ (Poems, Vol. I, 51), published with ‘Whispers of Immortality’ that autumn. But he certainly knew of it between January and May 1919 when the affair completely collapsed, the Marlow house was emptied, and the relationship with Russell came to a permanent end.


In the meantime, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, much impressed by the Prufrock volume, invited Eliot to let them publish at their Hogarth Press some of his new verse, which led to the soft-cover Poems (1919), as did John Rodker at his Ovid Press, which led to Ara Vos Prec (1920). In both of these volumes Eliot added a new epigraph to ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales’, taking the lines from an anonymous play in his Elizabethan syllabus, The Raigne of King Edward the Third (1596), in which King Edward becomes infatuated with the Countess of Salisbury while her husband is away at war. The amoral seducer, in comparing the Countess’s voice to the music of the nightingale, asks himself the question that Eliot takes for epigraph: ‘Why should I speak of the nightingale? The nightingale sings of adulterate wrong’.[7] The lecherous king thinks it too self-satirical to conceive of his lust for her as adulterous, rationalizing semantically that to be virtuous with such a lovely lady would be sinful, to be sinful with her virtuous. To give the poem a more vicious Elizabethan stamp, Eliot had Rodker raise the italics in the Hogarth volume to large block capitals in Ara Vos Prec, emblazoned there to catch more surely the guilty eye of an adulterous Earl, his Mr Apollinax, his Sweeney Erect, indeed.  Eliot chose to remove the epigraph after these two printings, its personal immediacy served, keeping the epigraph in Greek – the voice of Agamemnon crying out from the palace as he is murdered by his unfaithful wife Clytemnestra, ‘Alas, I am struck a mortal blow within.’ The sudden shock of betrayal is, for Agamemnon, as well as Eliot, a greater, a more horrific blow ‘within’ the mind, than the certain bodily death-blow of the dagger. For Eliot, too, Vivien’s betrayal brought a death-blow within, killing what was left of the marriage. ‘To her the marriage brought no happiness,’ Eliot wrote in reflection, ‘to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land’ (L1, xix), which he soon began drafting.[8] There Eliot’s deleted epigraph would be replaced by a score of new allusions to sexual betrayal, in close association with the myth of Philomel and the nightingale: ‘yet there the nightingale / Filled all the desert with inviolable voice / And still she cried, and still the world pursues, / “Jug Jug” to dirty ears.’ (Poems, Vol. I, 58).


And yet, during this dark period of domestic stress, Eliot somehow, almost miraculously, lifted his critical writing to an entirely new plane, nowhere more evident than in the 1919 publication of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, his most famous essay, his last contribution to the Egoist before its demise that year.  While conducting wartime lectures from 1916 to the close of 1918, Eliot had published sixty-five reviews and essays, most of which afforded him little pride, none of which would be collected in his lifetime. But they provided the foundation and the springboard for the astonishing critical leap which followed in 1919 and into 1920. As he carried epigraphs and allusions from Shakespeare, Marlowe, and other Elizabethans to ‘Gerontion’ and the drafting of The Waste Land, he turned all his critical energy to those unwritten essays on Elizabethans whom he believed ‘had never been properly criticized’. In rapid succession appeared, mostly in the Athenaeum, ‘Some Notes on the Blank Verse of Christopher Marlowe’, ‘Hamlet and His Problems’, ‘Ben Jonson’, ‘Philip Massinger’, ‘Swinburne and the Elizabethans’, pitting them against the Romantics and the Victorians, against ‘imperfect’ critics  and ‘The Second Order Mind’,  placing them in a larger context with essays on ‘The Perfect Critic’, and ‘Dante’.  In effect, in less than two years he wrote all the canonical essays that made up the contents of The Sacred Wood (1920), perhaps the most influential critical volume of the twentieth-century, certainly the fruit of his Extra-Mural courses on Victorian and Elizabethan literature, the perennial seedbed which continued to flower in later volumes.


Indeed, there are numerous striking instances of works assigned in the Elizabethan syllabus that are carried forward not only into Eliot’s later prose, where Hulme and Original Sin are prominent, but into his later poems, including the Four Quartets. Eliot’s second lecture was on the rise of Renaissance humanism and the works of its proponents, including The Boke Named the Gouvernour, the 1531 humanist tract by his distant English ancestor Sir Thomas Elyot, a grandson of Simon Eliot of East Coker. Eliot, working off the anti-humanist attitude of Hulme, who was blown up in a Flanders trench the previous year, expressed in the lecture his belief that the influence of humanism was ‘not always beneficial’.  In future essays he became more aggressive in opposition to certain humanist ideals and moral philosophies, particularly the exhausted humanism of Irving Babbitt, Norman Foerster, and the American humanists who advocated humanism as a substitute for religion, or humanism without religion.[9] So when he came to write ‘East Coker’ in 1940, in the midst of another war, he drew in Part I upon what he called a ‘fairy-like vision’ from Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Gouvernour, adapting and quoting the passage from the Everyman edition he taught twenty-two years earlier:


In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire

The association of man and woman

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –

A dignified and commodious sacrament.

Two and two, necessarye coniunction,

Holding eche other by hand or the arm

Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire

Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,

Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,

Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth

Mirth of those long since under earth

Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,

Keeping the rhythm in their dancing

As in their living in the living seasons

The time of the seasons and the constellations

The time of milking and the time of harvest

The time of the coupling of man and woman

And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.

Eating and drinking. Dung and death.  (Poems, Vol. 1, 185–86)


The idyllic vision of a Tudor celebration of the rituals, rhythms, and seasons of life in communal concord is abruptly closed with Eliot’s searing vision of what succeeds the illusion of serenity and wisdom: ‘Dung and death’. A few days before the poem appeared in Easter week, Eliot wrote in an uncollected letter: ‘the ideals of The Gouvenour, the ideals of John Locke, those of Thomas Arnold, are all equally exhausted and inapplicable to any future Christian society.  And while wisdom and holiness are unchanging,’ the humanist attitude is not ‘the starting point from which salvation may be come by.’[10] In Part II of the poem he turned the force of that deliberate statement into a passionate address to all humanist ‘elders’:


What was to be the value of the long looked forward to,

Long hoped for calm, the autumnal serenity

And the wisdom of age? Had they deceived us,

Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders

Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?

The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,

The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets

Useless In the darkness into which they peered

Or from which they turned their eyes.

The Christian poet answers his own questions with a stinging Elizabethan rebuke of humanist


Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,

Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,

Or belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.  (Poems, Vol. 1, 187–88)


Inscription in T. S. Eliot’s copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse, given to him by students of his Southall Tutorial Literature Class.


When Eliot arrived in Southall for his final lecture on May 6, 1919, he was met with gifts from his loyal working-class students, to whom over three years he had given seventy-four two-hour lecture-discussion classes and encouraged their writing in university-level courses for the Joint Committee. ‘My class seemed to be satisfied’, he wrote to his mother, ‘and presented me with some very nice books to mark the completion of the three years’ course’ (L1, 353). One of the books was Arthur Quiller-Couch’s edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse (1918), inscribed to Eliot by one for all, ‘with the gratitude and appreciation of the students of the Southall Tutorial Literature Class May 1919’. The volume remains in his library.


‘It was at that time an arduous life’, Eliot concluded his message to that Beveridge Hall audience in 1959:

I was working in a bank during the day-time, and also reviewing for two or three periodicals at night-time. The transport between Southall and Marylebone, where I lived, was sometimes interrupted too by the primitive air raids which took place during that war. … But I was happy in my classes and I must admit that I learnt more about English literature than my class did, in as much as I had to read a good many books which I ought to have read but had not read, in order to take my pupils over the ground properly.

I hope that tutors to-day enjoy their work as much as I did those three years.

With best wishes for the future of the Department of Extra Mural Studies, I am,

Yours sincerely, T. S. Eliot.

Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of T. S. Eliot, to this 2017 Beveridge Hall audience, on the 108th anniversary of the Joint Committee for the Promotion of the Higher Education of Working People, we thank you.






[1] From a leaflet, University Tutorial Classes for Working People, published by the Joint Committee for the Promotion of Higher Education of Working People (University of London, 1918), the text of which is included in Charles Patrick Sweeney, Adult Working-Class Education in Great Britain and the United States – A Study of Recent Developments, in Bulletin of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, No. 271 (August 1920), 19; online.

[2] The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Vol I: 1898–1922, ed. Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton; revised edition (London: Faber & Faber, 2009), 172; hereafter abbreviated L1.

[3] The five syllabuses by Eliot cited in this essay have previously been printed in my Eliot’s Dark Angel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 27–49, and in the online edition on Project Muse of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vol 1: 1905–1918, ed. Jewel Spears Brooker and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber, 1914); hereafter abbreviated CPTSE, Vol. I.

[4] Quoted in The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Vol 1, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 459; hereafter abbreviated Poems, Vol. I.

[5] Eliot’s review appeared in The Monist, 27 (July 1917), 478–79, and is included in CPTSE, Vol. 1, 558–61.

[6] The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vol 2: 1919–1926, ed. Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber, 2014), 23; hereafter abbreviated CPTSE, Vol. 2; online.

[7] II.i.109–10; Eliot’s italics in Hogarth Press printing; read: ‘And why . . . speake . . . singes’; in Ara Vos Prec, read also: ‘ADULTEROUS WRONG’. The play is included among fourteen others attributed to Shakespeare in The Shakespeare Apocrypha, ed. C. F. Tucker Brooke (Oxford: Clarendon, 1908), 67–101. When the contents of Ara Vos Prec were reordered and published as Poems (1920) in America, Eliot wrote to his brother on 15 February: ‘Some of the new poems, the Sweeney ones, especially “Among the Nightingales” and “Burbank” are intensely serious, and I think these two are among the best that I have ever done. But even here I am considered by the ordinary Newspaper critic as a Wit or satirist, and in America I suppose it shall be thought merely disgusting’ (L1, 441).

[8] In December he told his mother that ‘my New Year’s Resolution is “to write a long poem I have had on my mind for a long time and to prepare a small prose book from my lecture on poetry”’ (L1 424).

[9] See Eliot’s ‘The Humanism of Irving Babbitt’ (1928), ‘Second Thoughts About Humanism’ (1929), and ‘Religion without Humanism’ (1930).

[10] From a letter, under the heading ‘Education in a Christian Society’, to the editor of The Christian News-Letter, No. 20 (13 March 1940), Supplement [3]. The letter  is included in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vol 6: 1940–1946, ed. David E. Chinitz and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber, 1917), 22. Eliot softened his critique in a January 1941 lecture, ‘The Christian Conception of Education’, stating that ‘humanism as a way of life, and in particular as a way of education, is not enough. … Humanistic wisdom can provide a helpful, if in the end joyless nourishment for the intelligent educated individual – on another level, there is a comparable wisdom of the countryman rooted in village tradition and the life of the countryside and the procession of the seasons – but it cannot sustain a whole society’ (250).