Wednesday, 13 January 2010

T.S. Eliot's Lost Lecture

On 12 September 1917 T.S. Eliot wrote to his mother about the new adult education classes he was preparing to teach: ‘I have begun to be very busy the last few days preparing my lectures. One set covers very much the same ground as my lectures at Southall last year, but more broadly, beginning with “The Makers of 19th Century Ideas”, lectures on Carlyle, Mill, Arnold, Huxley, Spencer, Ruskin, Morris – then the poets, and then the novelists’.

Six weeks later, on 24 October, he wrote to her again, about a farm in Surrey at which he and his wife Vivien had been staying: ‘It is four miles from a village, completely in a forest … We had beautiful weather too. I took down books and prepared my lecture on William Morris. I no longer write them – I set down about three pages of notes. Vivien says I am getting better and better as a lecturer’.

Alas, that lecture, which would have been the most extended encounter between the greatest of all Anglo-American modernists and the greatest of all the Victorian prophets or Sages, has not survived. Instead, all we have are snippets, such as Eliot’s famous (and unfavourable) contrast of Morris’s ‘Nymph’s Song to Hylas’ with Andrew Marvell’s ‘bright hard precision’ in his seminal 1921 essay on Marvell’s poetry.

We can therefore only hope that Eliot’s three pages of lecture notes on Morris might still linger in some dusty attic or unconsulted archive somewhere and might one day blessedly resurface - a consummation devoutly to be wished.

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