A Peaceful, but Very Interesting Pursuit


Even after he published Prufrock and The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot continued to work his day job at a bank. The new volume of his letters reveals his financial anxieties and his unexpected attitude towards work and writing.

From 1917 until 1925, T.S. Eliot worked in a bank. A simple, declarative sentence, a biographical fact. Not the subject of dissertations or the reason two hefty volumes of The Letters of T.S. Eliot (Volume 1: 1898-1922; Volume 2: 1923-5) have just been published, but along with his disastrous and draining marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, Eliot’s employment at Lloyd’s Bank of London was the driving force of his life in the years of these letters, until he left Lloyd’s in October 1925 for a position as an editor at the publishing house Faber & Gwyer (later to be Faber & Faber).

There is a general antipathy about hearing too much about a writer’s day job once he has become successful, and Eliot’s successes piled up as he rose at Lloyd’s: Prufrock and Other Observations was published in 1915; his essays collected in The Sacred Wood in 1921; The Waste Land stormed both sides of the Atlantic in 1922, etc. Like Eliot at the bank, we know Wallace Stevens sold insurance, but nobody wants to think about the poet at the water cooler, or, even worse, pouring over actuarial tables. Same goes for William Carlos Williams being a doctor: Do we want a man so skilled with words to perform our annual physicals? It’s fine for a writer to have a quirky or strange day job, like nude model, “oyster pirate,” even garbage man. Yet the point of the writer’s life must remain to end up at the writer’s desk somewhere, with all that nonsense left behind.

Eliot subverts that plot by continuing to work at the bank even after his poems are successful and he’s made a substantial reputation as a critic. For Eliot to show up every day at a bank, and, as his letters confirm, find the work more conducive to writing poetry and criticism than taking a more literary job might be (and certainly better for his health than starving for his art), upends the way we want writers’ careers to progress. Eliot, the modernist upstart, was also a timid—and incorrigible—bourgeois.

Eliot considered himself lucky to have landed the job at Lloyd’s through a connection of his in-law’s. After a taxing and poorly paid stint as a school teacher the job at the bank was financially, at least, a godsend. He wrote to his mother in March 1917:

I am now earning £2 10s a week for sitting in an office from 9.15 to 5 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in the office. It’s not a princely salary, but there are good prospects of a rise [raise] as I become more useful. Perhaps it will surprise you to hear that I enjoy the work. It is not nearly so fatiguing as schoolteaching, and is more interesting, I have a desk and a filing cabinet in a small room with another man. The filing cabinet is my province, for it contains balance sheets of all the foreign banks with which Lloyd’s does business. These balances I file and tabulate in such a way as to show the progress or decline of every bank from year to year.

Not only was Eliot at the bank, but as the letter above demonstrates, he was happy to be there. A certain pride creeps in to his accounting of his accounting: the salary, the hours, the filing cabinet which is “my province.” To read Eliot’s letters is to get a full picture of the routine demands of this job, which he clung to despite rigorous efforts from his friends and supporters to free him from the shackles of international finance.

Eliot resists the characterization of a writer as willing to forgo the niceties of daily life in order to make art. What he wants are not luxuries—the early letters testify over and over to the Eliots’ impoverishment despite Tom’s bank wages, with thank-you letters to his American relatives for sending checks that fill in the financial gaps so he can have new underwear and pajamas, not brandy and cigars. Rather, Eliot craves security. He writes again and again of trying to free himself from worry, for his own but even more for the nervous and unhealthy Vivien’s sake. Has any writer (Stevens excepted) ever had so much anxious correspondence about life insurance? Eliot is prostrate over what will happen to Vivien if anything should happen to him.

The multiple breakdowns both Eliots suffer from stem from anxiety over finances as much as any other source.

“A Peaceful, But Very Interesting Pursuit”

Eliot started out as a clerk in Colonial and Foreign department of Lloyd’s “on the false pretense of being a linguist” (one supposes his Harvard Sanskrit probably did not get too much use, though he did know French and Italian, and picked up a little Norwegian, Spanish, Dutch, and Swedish). He took the job because he thought it would leave him time to write both verse and criticism in the evenings. In 1914 he was already contributing to the New Statesman, and the promise of work in the American magazines like the Dial and the Century were on the horizon. Commissions from British magazines would soon follow.

Both Eliots’ health improved once he started working at the bank, a fact which is not to be underestimated. The letters are in large part a catalogue of ailments and unsuccessful cures, especially Vivien’s. But the bank, in the early years, exerts a stabilizing force on the couple: “Vivien was very anxious about my health while I was at home—it seemed to get worse and worse; and now I am better and more cheerful and find she is much happier. Then too I have felt more creative lately.” The bank has stirred Eliot to write poetry again along with his critical essays. Eliot is genuinely interested in his banking work as well, as he writes to his father: “I am absorbed during the daytime by the balance sheets of foreign banks. It is a peaceful, but very interesting pursuit, and involves some use of reasoning powers.” Vivien, perhaps over-enthusiastically, goes so far as to write to Eliot’s mother that Tom is considering banking asa “money-making career!” She continues, “We are all very much surprised at this development, but not one of his friends has failed to see, and to remark upon, the great chance in Tom’s health, appearance, spirits, and literary productiveness since he went in for Banking. So far, it has obviously suited him. He is extremely interested in finance, and I believe he has a good deal of hitherto unexpected ability in that direction.” Vivien prattles on that she feels in a couple of years Eliot might be able to continue at the bank both making money and producing poetry, as he has written five “most excellent poems in the course of one week” and oh, what a miracle that would be.

An Anti-Romantic Poet

Yet one letter after Vivien’s above, a snake creeps into the garden: Eliot decides to take a contributing editor job with the Egoist, a monthly magazine which has been publishing his poems. It is this extra task that leads to Eliot’s return to the condition of “overwork” in December 1917, one the letters find him in over and over again. The position with the Egoist marks the beginning of Eliot’s time as an editor, a job he will pursue and refuse over the next eight years. In March 1919 John Middleton Murry offers him the assistant editor post at the Athenaeum. Eliot writes to his mother that Murry “is very anxious to get me as assistant, and says he would rather have me than anyone in England.” Eliot goes on to list the advantages and disadvantages of the offer. He passes over the advantages—more money, social prestige—quite quickly. But he is clear on the disadvantages: “4. The work might be more exhausting than the bank work; and would have no more relation to my own serious work than the bank work has. 5. I have lately been shifted into new and much more interesting work at the bank which is not routine but research – practically economics and am in fact a kind of bureau by myself.” Plus there is the stability of the bank, as Murry cannot guarantee more than two years, and no raises in pay. Eliot is a an anti-Romantic poet: not only does he believe that “English literature ends well before 1800,” he has no tolerance for risk. No Byron off to Greece to fight or Shelley thwarting sexual convention is he. In his criticism and his life, he remains a conservative man.

So Eliot stays at the bank. As he tells his mother, there are two main reasons, one practical and one ego-based: “I should be worrying all the time about whether it would succeed. The bank work offers prospects of a very good salary. I know the people and like them, and they like me very much. I know where I am with them.” Then Eliot writes of being above the scurries of journalism, retaining a social position by working at a bank. “I can influence London opinion and English literature in a better way. I am known to be disinterested…There is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England.” He continued to publish criticism and poetry and get raises at the bank, and at the beginning of 1923 Eliot became the head of the Intelligence Department, making it harder for him to leave just as his friends were pressuring him to do just that.

The Failure of Bel Esprit

Bel Esprit was a scheme hatched by Ezra Pound and others to enable Eliot to leave the bank in 1922. The plan was to find thirty guarantors of £10 per year, giving Eliot a “salary” of £300. A circular Pound wrote in March 1922 stated: “[TSE] certainly is not asking favours, our plan was concocted without his knowledge. The facts are that his bank work has diminished his output of poetry, and that his prose has grown tired. Last winter he broke down and was sent off for three months’ rest. During that time he wrote Waste Land, a series of poems, probably the finest that the modern movement in English has produced, at any rate as good as anything that has been done since 1900, and which certainly loses nothing by comparison with the best work of Keats, Browning or Shelley.” Yet Eliot is opposed to Bel Esprit on the grounds that it will not provide the stability that the bank does. “I see no advantage for myself in an indefinite income for five or ten years only,” he writes his friend Richard Aldington in June 1922, and the scheme falls apart when it is made public. What embarrasses Eliot most about the revelation of Bel Esprit in the media is that it might be inferred that he left the bank, though privately he writes to Pound in November 1922, “Of course I want to leave the Bank, and of course the prospect of staying there for the rest of my life is abominable to me. It ought not be necessary to say this.” The rest of his letter, however, reiterates the reasons he cannot abide Bel Esprit: no long-term security for himself or for Vivien.

It is in part the business skills he learned at the bank which enable Eliot to free himself from it. He starts a quarterly periodical called The Criterion in 1922, and his correspondence becomes a window into his vision for this venture. All the while he tries to get his patron, Lady Rothmere, to give him a salary for the enormous amount of work it takes to run The Criterion (and enlists others to persuade her as well). But it is interest in him as an shrewd editor—and writer, of course, as he is a regular contributor to The Criterion—which piques the interest of Geoffrey Faber in Eliot as a potential member of his publishing firm. After they agree on terms, Eliot finally has his way out of the bank, with a job that has security and future prospects.

In his letter of resignation, Eliot writes that he “must seek some employment which would give me the time to attend to my domestic anxieties,” meaning Vivien’s deteriorating health. Curiously, he does not mention writing as a reason for his exit. The tone of the letter is remarkable, though, for its humility, and sincere (or sincere-sounding) regret on having to leave a place which has been kind to him. It is not throwing off shackles but begging forgiveness. He writes of regretting not seeing the Intelligence Division to its fruition, and of letting down his colleagues there. He names particular coworkers whose “abundant generosity and sympathy I shall never forget.” And he sums up by saying, “At this time, all of my feelings are numb; but I know that it is, and I fear always will be, very painful for me to have severed my connection with Lloyd’s Bank in this way—a way which could justly be qualified as desertion rather than resignation.” Eliot leaves Lloyd’s Bank the same way he came: gratefully.

Lisa Levy is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. She blogs at Deadcritics.com and is @RealLiveCritic on Twitter. More from this author →