“It was marvellous to hear Tom’s poems and to have them read so well,” she said. It is 86 years since TS Eliot published The Waste Land, revolutionising English poetry and placing him as its greatest 20th century exponent.
The readers were Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, actor Jeremy Irons, The Wire’s star Dominic West and actress Anna Cartaret as part of the TS Eliot International Summer School. It is more than 44 years since Valerie Eliot was widowed and she has been the sole executor of his literary estate ever since, cleverly allowing Andrew Lloyd Webber to use her husband’s feline verse for the musical Cats which effectively bankrolled Faber & Faber as the music became a global hit.
The reading in the Brunei Gallery was organised by Josephine Hart, who has pioneered public poetry readings at the British Library and recorded CDs of verse read by Harold Pinter, Ralph Fiennes, Roger Moore, Edward Fox and many other great British actors, with a CD and book given to every secondary school, introducing pupils to the auditory power of poetry.
Mrs Eliot, 82, married the American-born poet in January 1957; he was 37 years older than her. She was the great love of his life, rejuvenating him after his disastrous first marriage to Vivien who was mentally ill.
Mrs Eliot edited the first volume of her husband’s letters and also the facsimile volume of The Waste Land with the manuscript showing how Ezra Pound cut it brilliantly by a third, ensuring its position as the most important poem in modern history.
She said she was moved and exhilarated by the readings which were fast, lively and produced a standing ovation from the audience.
“History before our eyes, an incredible connection,” said Heaney.