Don’t Give Up The Day Job

Virginia Woolf is like a London bus: you wait all morning for one mention, and then two come along at once in quick succession.

Having yesterday brandished a faded sepia picture of the darling of the Bloomsbury set, resplendent in a bushy beard and kaftan, I have stumbled upon her once again, on a mercy mission to stop one of the greatest poets of any time working in a bank.

A poet? Work in a bank? The very idea.

But that was precisely what TS Eliot did, for seven years, from 1917 until 1925. He worked for Lloyds, beginning in its Colonial and Foreign department. He left finally to take an editorship at publishers Faber and Gwyer.

And he loved it.

His passion for banking is revealed in the quiet details of his letters of those years: “I am now earning £2 10s a week,” he writes,  “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.”

The Bloomsbury set were aghast. And letters unearthed for an exhibition in 2009 show how Virginia Woolf and other prominent members conceived the idea of the Eliot Fellowship Fund, to which people would subscribe to provide an income of at least £500 a year so that Elliot could concentrate on his poetry.

Alas, they missed the point.

“Eliot was by turns amused, embarrassed and irritated by it,” the British Library’s curator of modern literary manuscripts Rachel Foss told the Guardian. “…He was actually very interested in the minutiae of everyday life – he …. thrived on the routine of office life at Lloyd’s and then later at Faber.”

Poetry was what Eliot used to reflect on a life lived. Not the life itself.

Eliot’s love of banking was mentioned in an impish letter to the Times, written by Robert Graves.

His letter, written in March 1962, when he was in his fifties, answers one I cannot find, from Cecil Day-Lewis. It seems Day-Lewis entreated the public not to forget The Poet.

But Graves’ letter was entitled: Ignore the poet.

Because, he argued, poets have principles. Whoever pays the piper, calls the tune. “Obsession with principle,” says Graves, “keeps him out of literary gang-warfare, commerce and patronage.”

Now, pretended poets, says Graves: they’re different.

“A pretended poet,” runs his letter, “with nothing urgent to say, joins a movement, studies fashion, courts publishers, badgers elder poets for testimonials and expects the nation to support him.”

Tongue firmly in cheek, this quintessentially British poet has such a fine-tuned sense of irony. A true poet writes, he says, because he must, not because he hopes to make a living from his poems.

Better for a poet to be discovered as late in life as possible: “The older he is when fashions change and the money suddenly pours in…the less self-reproach he will feel, and laugh the louder.”

So, writers all: the day-job calls.

All the best creative geniuses had them.

Picture source here


51 thoughts on “Don’t Give Up The Day Job

  1. Wonderful post! I had no idea Eliot liked the bank job or that the Bloomsbury set didn’t approve. I guess he didn’t need a room of his own.

  2. Wonderful. Those people without a life who think they can write about life.

    The pretend-poets who have done such wonderful things that last in the memory no longer than the last full stop. The chef who doesn’t appreciate his own food, the novelist who writes of perfect families and lives.None of them real.

    Some kind of veneer taking the place of life combined with talent.

  3. How nice to see the day job–especially because I’m try to get one right now–extolled not as a necessary evil, but rather a necessary good. (These days, it’s also starting to feel like a rare privilege.)

  4. He did have a point. I am beginning to look forward to my morning lesson on the lesser known details of the lives of luminaries past 🙂

  5. Well done with something enlightening to start my day with. Actually, lots of things I’ve taken some moments to catch up here in my brief absence and, thanks to you, I am off to a rollicking good start of my day.

  6. Drama! And while I didn’t know that about Eliot, it certainly makes sense. His poetry, for all its fancy, has its feet firmly in the mundane.

  7. While the romantic notion of the writer or poet as a hermit travailling a lonely path of genius may please, if they’re not immersed in the world where would they find their inspiration? 🙂

  8. I’ve always liked Eliot, now I like him even more – the best poets (& writers) surely are more than a poem (etc) machine…

  9. I think of thing intelligent to add, that hasn’t all already tabled.

    Seems or feels, as if your giving up secrets of creative minds. Probably a book worth of misconceptions regarding the ‘top rung’.

      1. Takes a snap shot of the future.

        Quill in one hand, anthropologist/historian brush in the other and clutched between teeth in ready -a needle an thread.

  10. Seems to me a day job is an important way for a writer to keep one foot in the “real” world and keep updating and enriching his or her knowledge and experience banks. Or maybe that’s just a good rationale for writers as yet undiscovered.

  11. I’m glad to have such great encouragement from Elliot himself. He sounds like a very confident man, to me, and I can imagine he’d be more than a little irritated that his friends didn’t approve of his life choices. It would be so interesting to not need to subdivide time into so many different niches…writing and creating without any other obligations! I say this as I am writing to you at 11:00 pm…we do what we do as we can! Right? 🙂 I think I’ll need to remember TS and stop using work as my excuse! Apparently he didn’t! Debra

  12. An intriguing post – I wonder what Eliot’s poetry would have been like had he been working as a Farm labourer or as a Navigator building the railways or canals? Imagine the change to the landscape of Ingerlish Literarture. Of course, he would almost certainly have been ignored, regardles of the quality of his work, had those been his professions. Now how about some A E Houseman? 🙂

    1. A patent clerk…good call, Martin. He’d just failed his degree at Oxford I believe and snapped up the Professorship at University College when it was offered.

  13. “He was actually very interested in the minutiae of everyday life” – this, I think, is one of the secrets to a happy or, at least, contented life – these rituals that comfort us and ground us. I understand Eliot’s love for the ordered routine of his work, and believe this is often the perfect fuel for creativity when let loose. Very interesting, Kate.

    1. It is something to think about, isn’t it? It makes blogs – which are so often based on minutiae – make sense. It’s where we can reflect our everyday lives.

  14. hmm..this must have been after Woolf inherited her own 500 to ‘just write’. It surprises me she would be such a snob about the working class. ~

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