The astonishing two-volume The Poems of T.S. Eliot is a vast cathedral of dazzling scholarly annotation. Years in the making, and running to almost 2,000pp, it is set to become the definitive Eliot edition for every scholar and English Literature student for years to come. In fact, it’s difficult to see how this landmark edition will be superseded. While we live in an era of cyberspace research, the edition is a triumph for the printed word, easily outclassing any available internet search engine on its subject. Professor Christopher Ricks, Co-Director of the Editorial Institute at Boston University, ably assisted by Jim McCue, a former editor at The Times, brings a lifetime of Eliot scholarship to bear on the work of the St Louis-born writer who became one of the central gures in modernism, changing the course of modern poetry and bequeathing us haunting lines which are now a per- manent part of our shared imaginative landscape. Featuring a wealth of early and uncollected verse, as well as the poems which established Eliot’s reputation, the book’s exhaustive commentary and textual history help the reader to track and trace the thousands of references, literary and otherwise, which fed into an unprecedented body of work. Just as importantly, the volumes represent the most reliable version yet of the complete poetic canon, correcting textual errors which crept into numerous editions over several decades, with Eliot himself apparently not always being the most reliable proofreader. (The most egregious example, in all editions, being the miss- ing last line of part 11 of ‘The Hollow Men’).

But the size and scope of this outsize edition could prove daunting to some readers, who may not need or desire thirty-odd pages of detailed notes on ‘Prufrock,’ never mind a running commentary on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). For most readers, the 1963 edition of Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909-1962 will remain the first port of call. To their credit, the editors acknowledge the enduring importance of that book by reprinting it in its entirety at the start of volume one. Interviewed by Prospect magazine in November 2015, Ricks, while defending ‘reading with the pleasure that comes from study’, added: ‘it’s not true that anybody needs these annotations or these textual facts. I mean, there’s very little that you ever actually need when it comes to appreciating and getting something very valuable from a poem. It’s imperative that ordinary readers still have the chance of buying the straight, plain-text edition of the poems that Eliot himself wished’. And Ricks, who edited Eliot’s juvenilia, published as Inventions of the March Hare (1996), would be the first to champion the centrality of the poems in the huge editorial enterprise. Eliot famously said that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood and the new edition does not seek to determine the meaning of individual poems but rather to offer clarification and illumination through its copious ancillary notes. (As David Wheatley said in his review in The Guardian, the editors ‘are not in the business of blundering explanations, and their labours enhance, rather than usurp our experience of the poems’). Appropriately, the first volume of their scholarly masterwork opens with ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’, which Ricks has rightly called the most extraordinary opening poem of any literary debut:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table . . .

These opening lines of the volume Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) introduced the literary world to Eliot’s unmistakable and utterly new poetic voice, blending the sights and smells of the modern urban landscape, French Symbolism and a web of literary allusions. It’s in the notes to ‘Prufrock’ and other major Eliot poems that the new edition really comes into its own. Ricks and McCue lavish almost 40 pages of annotations on the poem, from its first publication in Poetry (Chicago) in June 1915 to its elevation as one of modernism’s central texts. The notes trace a complex map of literary allusions underpinning the epoch-making poem, unearthing possible sources and useful quotations from dozens of obscure academic nooks and crannies. Responding to a query in 1951, Eliot speculates that the surname of the poem’s famously reticent protagonist may have been inspired, consciously or not, by the Prufrock-Litton furniture store in his native St. Louis. (But Eliot also contradicted this possible autobiographical source, instead suggesting he chose the name ‘because it sounded to me very very prosaic’). Meanwhile, as for the rest of the poem’s title, Eliot admitted in 1959 that Kipling’s poem ‘The Love Song of Har Dyal’ ‘stuck obstinately in my head’. While Eliot’s comments on his early work can be reductive and must be treated with caution – he dismissively referred to ‘The Waste Land’ as ‘a piece of rhythmical grumbling’ in later life – the quotations from hard-to-find academic journals do enrich our reading experience of ‘Prufrock’ and other central works. For example, asked by the Grantite Review in 1962 if ‘Prufrock’ represented the times or was a character drawn from ‘The Waste Land’, Eliot replied: ‘It was partly a dramatic creation of a man of about 40 I should say, and partly an expression of feeling of my own through this dim imaginary figure’.

But even the minor poems in the canon reveal the extent to which Eliot’s imagination was immersed in literature. Anthology favourite, ‘La Figlia Che Piange’, can initially appear a piece of extempore lyrical expressiveness – ‘Stand on the highest pavement of the stair – /Lean on a garden urn – /Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair’. But a glance at the commentary reveals a rich substratum of possible literary links, ranging from Dante, a constant touchstone for Eliot (the poem’s title echoing lines from the Purgatorio), to Rossetti, Laforgue, Tennyson, Dowson, Coleridge, Hawthorne, Baudelaire and Shelley. Of course, generations of readers have responded to ‘La Figlia Che Piange’ without recourse to pages of detailed notes. Some readers may even find the referential apparatus an obstacle to enjoyment of what appears on the surface to be an example of pure lyricism. As Eliot himself said, in a 1961 note to David Jones’s In Parenthesis: ‘Good commentaries can be very helpful but to study even the best commentary on a work of literary art is likely to be a waste of time unless we have first read and been excited by the text commented upon without even understanding it’. But no major poet exists in a cultural vacuum. Eliot’s poetry is nurtured and sustained by the great literature of the past and an awareness of that heritage can only enhance our reading experience.

But for Eliot enthusiasts, the new edition represents the greatest possible research tool, and what Evening Standard critic David Sexton called ‘an extraordinary treasure trove’. For Jeremy Noël-Tod, in his rave review in The Sunday Times, ‘opening these books is like popping the locks on a suitcase packed with banknotes’. Among the rich stash uncovered by Ricks and McCue are the so-called Tall Girl poems, written for Eliot’s second wife, Valerie. Erotic in nature, these late lyrics give the lie to the standard image of the poet as a rather buttoned-up dry stick. The poems were included in a handwritten personal anthology of his own work made up by the poet, called Valerie’s Own Book, which did not come to light until after his widow’s death in 2012. The tone of these private poems – which would never have been published during Eliot’s lifetime – is an odd mixture of the sensuous and the jocular, as though bedroom matters are being explored in light verse: ‘I love a tall girl. When she sits on my knee/She with nothing on, and I with nothing on,/I can just take her nipple in my lips/And stroke it with my tongue. Because she is a tall girl’. Reading such private verses is akin to the experience of coming across steaming love letters written by our parents. It’s hard to resist the overused contemporary admonition ‘too much information’ when faced with this lyrically unlaced Eliot: ‘(as I stand erect before her/And quiver with the swelling of my concupiscence)/ Her breasts look ripe and full/In their summer of perfection’. And as Sean O’Brien commented in The Independent, the lines sound ‘strangely administrative rather than intimate’. The editors are untypically coy about the Tall Girl poems, restricting their generally detailed commentary to a possible link between Eliot’s reference to ‘our middle parts’ and Hamlet and between ‘My toes with her toes and my tongue with her tongue’ and the poet’s inscription to his wife in a copy of Sweeney Agonistes. But whatever their quality, the Tall Girl poems do enlarge our image of Eliot the man.

One issue that has dogged Eliot’s reputation for decades is his alleged anti-Semitism. The controversy was reignited with the publication of Anthony Julius’s T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form (1995). While a partial defence of the poet was outlined in Ricks’s own T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988), and a more robust one in a 2007 monograph by Craig Raine, the issue, like Larkin’s alleged racism, has never really gone away. The textual ‘proof’ for Eliot’s anti-Semitism is largely based on comments in his book of lectures at the University of Virginia, published as After Strange Gods (1933), most notoriously his statement that ‘reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable’. Responding to the line in Prospect magazine, Ricks said: ‘It is a terrible thing to have written in the 1930s’. The poetic ‘evidence’ usually cited for Eliot’s anti-Semitism is based on two poems dating from 1918-19. ‘Gerontion’ contains the lines: ‘My house is a decayed house,/And the Jew squats on the window-sill, the owner,/Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,/ Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London’, while the offending lines in ‘Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar’ read: ‘The rats are underneath the piles./ The Jew is underneath the lot’. While Craig Raine attempted to undermine Anthony Julius’s charges of anti-Semitism in great detail, Ricks and McCue restrict their relevant commentary to literary references, specifically Pope, Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and to putting Jewry in a commercial and church context. While the commentary reveals that all Eliot editions used the lower-case ‘j’ for ‘Jew’ until as late as 1963, the editors also note that James Joyce, another founding father of modernism, used the lower-case ‘jew’ no less than 66 times in Ulysses.

Tom Paulin once called ‘The Waste Land’ (1922) ‘that cento of stolen quotations’. A cento is a poetical work made up of quotations from other works and ‘The Waste Land’ is certainly a literary echo chamber. Generally interpreted as a dark vision of civilisation on the brink of collapse in the aftermath of the First World War, the poem is also an exploration of personal, societal and religious sterility, often symbolised as the desert. The new edition offers us two versions of ‘The Waste Land’ – the standard poem and what is called an ‘Editorial Composite,’ representing the poem as it originally appeared, before poet and Eliot promoter Ezra Pound helped to reshape modernism’s most influential poetic collage, including hacking large chunks from the original manuscript. Taking his cue from a line in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, Eliot initially called two sections of the poem, ‘HE DO THE POLICE IN DIFFERENT VOICES’, reflecting the polyphonic nature of ‘The Waste Land’. The speculative composite version increases the poem’s length from 433 to 678 lines, showing how the interlinking lyrics may have shaped the poem’s structure and meaning, before they were jettisoned. The notes to ‘The Waste Land’ and the later ‘Four Quartets’ together total more than 250pp, representing almost stand alone reference books in their own right.

In truth, the size and scale of The Poems of T.S. Eliot make it a very frustrating edition to review. Getting to grips with the vast commentary and textual history feels like scaling a mountain, and a conventional review can only hope to scratch the surface. For practical reasons, the poems and notes are split into two bulky volumes, but most Eliot readers will probably want the first volume, which contains the most important work. But while volume two is the poorer literary relation, collecting the Cats poems, Eliot’s translation of St-John Perse’s Anabasis, his lighthearted academic verses and so-called ‘Improper Rhymes’, it does also complete the dual annotated volume in style with a useful textual history, spanning poems in both volumes. The Poems of T.S. Eliot is an extraordinary edition, setting an amazingly high benchmark of scholarship for decades to come.

The Poems of T.S.Eliot, The Annotated Text, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, Faber & Faber, 2015, Vol.1: Collected & Uncollected Poems, 1,311pp; Vol.11: Practical Cats & Further Verses, 667pp, £40 each (hard- cover)

By Terry Kelly

Matthew Scott writes:

It is with great sadness that I have to report that Terry Kelly died suddenly in his sleep on January 13th, 2016, at the age of fty-seven. We mourn the passing of an outstanding re- viewer and friend of this magazine, one who wrote as regularly as any contributor since our relaunch in 2010. As is amply demonstrated in the foregoing essay, Terry has been an instrumental gure in the restoration of the high standards of literary journalism that readers of The London Magazine now enjoy and his commitment was such that he continued to write even when he was not well. He lived in Jarrow, working as a journalist covering the North East, and was very active in the cultural life of the area. His literary interests had a wide range: a well-regarded expert on Bob Dylan, he was highly knowledgable about American poetry in general. Most of his writing in The London Magazine focused on modern and contemporary British poetry and included especially impressive accounts of Philip Larkin, Basil Bunting, Geoffrey Hill and Ian Hamilton. Like Hamilton, whom he admired, he could be a fierce critic, but above all his writing revealed an infectious sense of enthusiasm for the art of poetry. He is survived by his wife Val and his daughter Kate.


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