Review: The T. S. Eliot International Summer School

Cécile Varry, Université de Paris

The 11th T. S. Eliot International Summer School (London, 6th to 14th July 2019)

I attended the T. S. Eliot Summer School for the first time in 2018, and it was a revelation. I was in the first year of my PhD — a year of people asking me (in a spectrum of tones ranging from irony to genuine concern) what on earth was left to be said about T. S. Eliot, and frankly, I was starting to wonder. In this context, and coming from a higher education system in which one gets regular friendly reminders that the Author is Dead, I was surprised to discover that T. S. Eliot, and T. S. Eliot studies, were very much alive. I left with renewed enthusiasm and unprecedented levels of confidence in my project.

When I returned to London on 6th July for the opening of the 2019 Summer School, I thought I was all conferenced out. I had been involved in three events in the space of a month, including Troublesome Modernisms and Modernism in the Home, and it was going to take a lot to keep my eyes open and my brain focused. But the week did not fail to deliver, and this year’s Summer School confirmed last year’s feeling. Anthony Cuda (University of North Carolina, Greensboro), in his introductory speech as the new Director of the Summer School, described the soon to be completed collection of the Complete Prose (with the 8th and final volume scheduled for a 2019 release) as a ‘newfound embarrassment of riches’, cheerfully setting the tone for a programme concerned with training and inspiring the new generation of scholars and encouraging a spirit of collaboration. The range of subjects tackled in the lectures and seminars provided attendees with a broad view of the current landscape of Eliot studies. Beginners were able to get a sense of what’s going on in the Eliot world, while more advanced students and readers had a chance to figure out how their ideas would fit into the directions taken by the wider community. Other scholars could use the school to deepen their understanding of Eliot’s poetry and draw connections to their own research and reading interests.

Julia Daniel’s seminar on Eliot’s ecologies. Photo credit: Aleksandra Majak

This year, topics of conversation included popular culture, material culture, jazz, collage, houses and gardens, ornithology, eco-criticism, psychoanalysis, longing, grief, belatedness, and theology, among other things. For the purposes of this review, I will only mention a few of the talks I particularly enjoyed, although there is no chance of my doing them justice in such brief descriptions: Elizabeth Micakovic’s (Deputy Director of the Summer School) insightful and thoroughly documented exploration of Eliot’s voice recordings, Joanna Rzepa’s (University of Essex) contribution to the dialogue surrounding the word ‘modernism’ (which TMR is also engaged in), reflecting on the original theological meaning of the word; Mary Ann Lund’s (University of Leicester) meditative approach to Four Quartets, encouraging readers to approach the poems with ‘deliberate purposelessness’, and to look for ‘words that make room for attention’; Julia Daniel’s (Baylor University) seminar on Eliot’s ecologies. I will put in a special mention for Jewel Spears Brooker (Eckerd College – whose latest book I reviewed for TMR) whose talk on the motif of the thrush in Eliot’s poetry included three full minutes of listening to bird song — a presentational choice I thoroughly approved of.[1]

Photo credit: Aleksandra Majak

My favourite moment, however, is hard to compete with. Nancy Fulford, the archivist for the T. S. Eliot Estate, gave a wonderful talk on the curation of the T. S. Eliot collection, and gave us an exclusive view of a few unreleased treasures from the archives.[2] First, a short audio clip from when the tape kept rolling after Eliot recorded a message for the British Council to be broadcast to an audience of a performance of The Cocktail Party in Ankara, Turkey. The clip features Eliot casually chatting with British Council Staff, joking about how he would be reticent about recording all the poems in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, because some of those cats require a lot of energy (he did do them all, however, a couple of months later). The second surprise was a compilation of video clips filmed by Valerie Eliot. When you have spent a good chunk of your life as a scholar immersed in the pains and anxieties of Eliot’s early poetry, it feels very special to hear him laugh, joke and hesitate; to see him play solitaire on a sun-dappled table, take off his glasses as he realises he’s being filmed, pose for the camera and look tenderly at the person holding it. There was also a small clip of Mr and Mrs Eliot in full Sunday attire, showing off their outfits with a half-concealed, yet discernible sense of pride. They must have asked a third party to film them as they walked towards the camera, hand in hand, slightly out of frame. Some good hat tipping, as well. Then Eliot on a boat, in the wind, looking happy. What images return!

Other highlights included a private screening of the Four Quartets ballet by Pam Tanowitz, and a wonderful poetry reading at the London Library by T. S. Eliot Prize winner Hannah Sullivan (University of Oxford), followed by a swish wine reception. Sullivan read from her 2018 debut collection, Three Poems (which I can’t recommend enough). Her poetry weaves into its rhythms a familiar kind of Eliotic detachment, with its meditative turnings, returnings, puzzlements and ponderings; but it does so with a freshness of voice and feeling, deftly balancing irony and tenderness. Poetic detachment is pushed into depths of intimacy and physicality as the poems explore the particular incarnations of youth, sex, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. Hannah Sullivan is a master of the art of the long line, and very good reader (she has already done an excellent recording of Three Poems, which is available online). She also shared with us unpublished excerpts from her recent work, and generously offered to answer questions about influence, composing, and revising; how difficult it is to write a long poem; how difficult it is to write about childbirth.

Hannah Sullivan’s reading at the London Library. Photo credit: Aleksandra Majak

The most memorable moments of this year’s Summer School, for me, were not the ones advertised in the schedule. I had conversations with so many scholars whose work I read and admire, who volunteered advice about writing, reminded me about the importance of a sense of wonder and surprise in good academic style, or shared their impatience to access unreleased archival materials. We talked about the place of new Eliot scholarship within the New Modernist Studies, the relevance of biography in literary criticism, Eliot’s concern with the environment, and that one time in the 1950s when Eliot decided to do the nice thing and hijack his colleague’s baby’s pram to take the baby for a stroll around Russell Square without feeling the need to tell his colleague or his colleague’s wife about the initiative (true story).

Anecdotes aside, I also felt that I was given the keys to understand a series of important debates and disagreements within Eliot studies. There was a lively discussion about the ethics and practicalities of scholarly annotation, with a debate between the emphasis on facts and concision (as in the Complete Prose) and the emphasis on networks of palimpsestic literary echoes (as in the 2015 edition of the Collected and Uncollected Poems). In general, I was struck by the degree of care and conviction with which those debates were carried out, which, to me, was a good example of Eliot’s continuing capacity to elicit scholarly passions.

Photo credit: Aleksandra Majak

On a slightly less enthusiastic note, Sean O’Brien’s opening address left me a bit perplexed. I enjoyed his discussion of poetic rhythm as ‘the pure pleasure of sounds taking shape’, and strongly approved of his praising of Wendy Cope as a master of light verse, as well as his hailing of Alice Oswald as a great descendent of the Eliotic tradition. The main point being made was that a growing section of contemporary poetry lacked intellectual commitment, and therefore weakened the capacity of poetry to ‘contain multitudes’ and to make the reader feel that something is at stake. Don’t get me wrong: I like my share of the poetic tension between emotions and the intellect as much as the next Eliot scholar, and I’m not one to disregard the ‘intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’. I wonder, however, about the practice of citing other living poets to make a point about the decadence of a certain type of modern poetry. I would have liked to hear more of what Mr O’Brien liked about contemporary poetry; he must have sensed that he was stepping into something controversial, as he declined to take questions.

The last lecture of the Summer School was given at Burnt Norton by Robert Crawford (University of St Andrews, author of the critically acclaimed 2015 biography, Young Eliot), who ambitiously (and masterfully) set out to piece together Eliot’s relation to his first love, Emily Hale. Ambitiously, because such an entreprise necessarily includes a good deal of speculation, and we are on the eve of an historical event which might (or might not) change the game: the Princeton archive containing Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale will open at the start of next year in January 2020 — something the Eliot community has been awaiting for years. If you don’t know about the Emily Hale story, and you want to hear more about T. S. Eliot’s great mysterious transatlantic romance, I recommend both Lyndall Gordon’s and Robert Crawford’s excellent biographies. And if you’re interested in the gossip, there might be an article about the opening up of the archive in TMR by the end of this year — watch this space.

Robert Crawford Lecturing in Burnt Norton. Photo credit: Aleksandra Majak

What else could I tell you about the Summer School? Yes, people made too many Eliot puns and used too many Eliot quotes. Yes, we did an ‘Unreal City’ walking tour of London, visited Little Gidding and Burnt Norton, looked at roses that might or might not have the look of flowers that are looked at (don’t ask), and I cannot count the number of times someone volunteered a ‘HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME’ at the end of a lecture. I have to warn you, there is something unabashedly nerdy about the Summer School. But I must also confess that I enjoyed it — and that on the last day, as I walked back to the station, I realised I had been singing ‘That Shakespeherian Rag’, aloud, and hoped that no one else had heard me.


[1] Other brilliant lecturers included David Chinitz, Robert Crawford, Anthony Cuda, Robert Von Hallberg, Jean-Michel Rabaté and Jayme Stayer — you’ll just have look them up on the programme!

[2] Although all of Eliot’s letters are now being published (either in print volumes edited by John Haffenden or on tseliot.com), the Eliot Foundation archive is a private archive, kept in Eliot’s former home, and is not openly accessible to scholars.

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