T.S. Eliot Illustrates His Letters and Draws a Cover for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats


Like so many poets, Thomas Stearns Eliot could write a fine let­ter. Unlike quite so many poets, he could also illus­trate those fine let­ters with an amus­ing pic­ture or two. The T.S. Eliot Soci­ety’s web site has sev­er­al exam­ples of what the author of “The Waste Land” could do when he got think­ing visu­al­ly as well as tex­tu­al­ly. At the top of the post, we have a cov­er he drew for a book of his own, Old Pos­sum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats, a well-known work of Eliot’s in its own right but also indi­rect­ly known and loved by mil­lions as the basis of Andrew Lloyd Web­ber’s musi­cal Cats. Well before this satir­i­cal feline mate­r­i­al attained such grand embell­ish­ment for and far-reach­ing fame on the stage, it took its first, hum­ble pub­lic form in 1939. Had you bought Old Pos­sum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats then, you would have bought the one above, with Eliot’s hand-drawn cov­er. (It runs $37,000 now.) The very next year, a new edi­tion came out ful­ly illus­trat­ed by Nicholas Bent­ley. The inim­itable Edward Gorey took his turn with the 1982 edi­tion, and the lat­est, pub­lished in 2009, fea­tures the art of Ger­man illus­tra­tor Axel Schef­fler.


Above and below, you can see a cou­ple more sur­viv­ing exam­ples of what Eliot could do with pen and ink, albeit not in a con­text nec­es­sar­i­ly intend­ed for pub­li­ca­tion. While Eliot’s actu­al hand­writ­ing may not make for easy read­ing, even if you can read the Ger­man in which he some­times wrote, his draw­ings vivid­ly dis­play his impres­sions of the peo­ple pre­sum­ably men­tioned in the text. I’d have tak­en such pains, too, if I had the expec­ta­tion some 20th-cen­tu­ry men of let­ters seemed to that their col­lect­ed cor­re­spon­dence would even­tu­al­ly see print. Yet Eliot him­self went back and forth about it, “torn over whether to allow pub­lic access to his pri­vate let­ters after his death,” writes Salon’s Kera Bolonik. “ ‘I don’t like read­ing oth­er people’s pri­vate cor­re­spon­dence in print, and I do not want oth­er peo­ple to read mine,’ he said in 1927. But six years lat­er, he admit­ted he had an ‘inerad­i­ca­ble’ desire for his let­ters to reach a wider audi­ence. ‘We want to con­fess our­selves in writ­ing to a few friends, and we do not always want to feel that no one but those friends will ever read what we have writ­ten’ ” — or see what we have drawn.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to T.S. Eliot Recite His Late Mas­ter­piece, the Four Quar­tets

T.S. Eliot Reads His Mod­ernist Mas­ter­pieces “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Bob Dylan Reads From T.S. Eliot’s Great Mod­ernist Poem The Waste Land

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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