The ‘Ariel Poems’ of T. S. Eliot – Journey of the Magi, A Song for Simeon, Animula, Marina and Triumphal March – are a much-loved feature of his poetic oeuvre. Yet the story of how and why they were written is not widely known: for they were commissioned by one of Eliot’s fellow directors at Faber, as part of a bigger series of separate little illustrated poetry pamphlets (price, 1s) for the Christmas ‘gift’ market from 1927 to 1931. Each consisted of just one previously unpublished poem by a major writer of the time, with ‘decorations’ on the cover, and an appropriate illustration (printed in three colours) by a well-known or especially talented younger artist. Collectively known as the Ariel Poems it was intended that they could also be sent as Christmas cards (and indeed Eliot sent copies of his as Christmas presents to Marianne Moore and other poets).
A small exhibition at the Faber offices in June 2011 featured the first series – just 8 poems – that were published by Faber in the autumn of 1927 (in all 38 Ariel poems were to appear by 1931), together with a little of the correspondence relating to them. The poets were asked to write verses either relating to Christmas or on something appropriately seasonal or magical (perhaps in homage to Shakespeare’s Ariel?), and the resulting poems are wonderfully varied. Beginning with Thomas Hardy – albeit not what he considered one of his best poems – the series included verse from older literary figures, whilst also giving space to newer voices in the final poems by Siegfried Sassoon and T. S. Eliot.
The Ariel poems were a bold attempt at the most difficult of marriages, that of word and image. We owe the success or failure of this particularly bold experiment to one man: Richard de la Mare. He had joined Faber as a director in 1925 only a week after T. S. Eliot and, although responsible for all matters to do with the production of books, he was also a gifted commissioning editor in the areas of art, architecture, and the natural world. One of his earliest contributions to the firm, moreover, was to begin to bring the verse and prose works of his father, Walter de la Mare, to the Faber list; and he continued to be involved with other more traditional poetry editions (such as those of Edward Thomas).
In his attempt to persuade eminent poets to contribute an Ariel poem, Richard de la Mare was not shy at telling poets that his father, Walter, had agreed to participate. In any case, he had come to know the older poets concerned through his father: in the displayed draft of a letter to Sir Henry Newbolt, for example, he writes that ‘Daddy has promised to let me have a new poem and so has T. S. Eliot’. In 1927, moreover, several of the writers when replying make polite enquiries about how his father was recovering from a recent illness. Rudyard Kipling was not able to help, but ‘A. E’ and W. B. Yeats were, and many other important literary figures came up with short poems for the sequence.
The freshness and vitality of the artwork that accompanied the poems was notably apparent in this first series. In nearly every case Richard de la Mare made the choice of artist, most of whom were young jobbing artists and illustrators already active in the world of printing and publishing. Most would have been recommended to him by Henry Curwen of the Curwen Press, whose firm printed all of the poems (including also a special limited edition on English hand-made paper, signed by each author). We don’t know whose idea it was to ask the sculptor and engraver Eric Gill to illustrate the poem by G. K. Chesterton, but it was an inspired conjunction of two prominent Catholic creative figures. The American designer E. McKnight Kauffer, who did the strikingly modernist design for Journey of the Magi, was an old friend of T. S. Eliot, and the poet almost certainly suggested his name to de la Mare. Kauffer’s artwork is a good indicator that T. S Eliot’s aesthetic interests were as radical as his poetic ones!
It is interesting for us to consider the manner in which the artists responded to the poems; but it is clear that this did not worry Richard de la Mare (or the poets, as none got to see the designs before publication). When he writes to Siegfried Sassoon enclosing a printed copy (see poem 7, Nativity), de la Mare wisely praises the poetry and not the wonderful design by Paul Nash: ‘it would be difficult to give your poem a garment even approaching in achievement its own perfect joy’. Thanking McKnight Kauffer for his design, de la Mare writes that ‘I was not sure about the cover design at first but it certainly grows upon me. Eliot’s poem, too, I think first rate’.
The Ariel Poems were an important component in the establishment of Faber’s reputation as a literary publishing house. Not only did they stimulate T. S. Eliot to write some of his most popular, and much-quoted, short verses, they were also part of that process of linking the name of Faber with poetry, so that the two are now almost synonymous. Their artistic impact was also significant, as it enhanced contact with a wider group of young artists, some of whom like Barnett Freedman produced iconic dust jackets for Faber and Faber throughout the next two decades.
– Robert Brown, June 2011