‘I bowed to the comely maids…’ Note reveals surprising side of TS Eliot

The poet collected his Nobel in Sweden in 1948 – and an unseen letter from the trip shows the man behind the stuffy image

An intimate glimpse of how it really feels to receive the world’s greatest literary honour, the Nobel prize, has come to light in a previously unpublished letter from TS Eliot, who won the award in 1948. And just as they are today, the demands of fans could be onerous.

“The Swedes seem to have an insatiable appetite for three things; photographs, autographs and speeches,” Eliot complains. “One had only to hesitate for a moment at a street corner and some man, woman or child would rush up with a notebook and a fountain pen.”

The private correspondence of the great 20th-century poet with his sister Marion was only intended to be shared among his wider family. Now, 70 years on, it has been shown to the Observer by the Eliot Estate, in a year in which no Nobel prize for literature will be awarded after a scandal involving the husband of a committee member, who was jailed for rape.

Eliot, author of The Waste Land, Four Quartets and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, writes in the letter of being thrown together with assorted dignitaries after an uncomfortable journey to Sweden from London in the company of a gum-chewing north London hockey team. Finally, he confides, on his last morning in Stockholm he was surprised in his pyjamas in his hotel room.

“While I was shaving, at 6.45, I heard a chorus of young female voices piping a carol in the corridor; it came closer; my door burst open; and six comely young chambermaids, clad in what appeared to be white nightdresses and white stocking feet, with cardboard crowns on their heads with lighted candles in them – looking like walking birthday cakes – marched in singing,” writes the Nobel laureate.

The odd interruption, Eliot later learned, was part of the Swedish custom of marking St Lucy’s day every 13 December with early morning singing.

“I hastily wiped the suds from my face, put on my overcoat over my underclothes, and bowed to them,” recounts the American-born poet and playwright. “They continued to sing throughout, so there was nothing to be said; but one of them held a tray with a cup of coffee and a few sweet biscuits which she held towards me, so I drank the coffee and ate the biscuit. And just at that moment there was a loud flash: a photographer had been concealed behind the door. Then they marched solemnly out again and I went on with my toilette.”

After Eliot’s death in January 1965 his wife, Valerie, collected his letters for eventual publication. Although now owned by the Eliot Estate, the original copy of this letter about his trip to Stockholm is held by the Houghton Library in Harvard, part of a bequest of family papers made by the poet’s brother.

Writing to Marion, Eliot also describes how he found a place to rest on the flight to Sweden: “I had two seats to myself, so was able to lie down flat, though tightly curled up; and in the middle of the night the captain invited me up to sit beside him in his cabin at the controls; explained the various dials and levers.”

Clare Reihill, who administers the poet’s estate, said: “It is so rare for us to see Eliot up close as a human being – people always see him as a buttoned-up banker who became a poet. It’s just fascinating to be able to see him move about the world.”

Eliot was writing at what Reihill suspects was a particularly “poignant time for him”, shortly after the death of his first wife Vivienne, from whom he had long been separated and who was living in a care home because of poor mental health. “Her death affected him deeply,” said Reihill, “and although the letter is a humorous account, he also strikes a somewhat lonely and exhausted figure.”

During the ceremony Eliot was confused about procedure. It was unclear to him, he writes, whether he should give his speech from his place at the table or walk up to a lectern. “I referred the problem to the Crown Princess, who referred it to the Lord Chamberlain on her left, who said that after a fanfare of trumpets my name would be announced, and I should walk round to the pulpit. So, when the coffee had been served, there came the fanfare of trumpets, and I heard my name from a loudspeaker. The distance to walk was considerable: I have never in my life sat at so long a table. I should think it took me three or four minutes to get to the pulpit.”


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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