The Poems of T.S. Eliot: The Annotated Text. Volumes 1 & 2, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, book review
A landmark edition of the poet’s verse includes his smut and juvenilia annotated alongside his greatest work
Sean O'Brien Thursday 22 October 2015 15:43 BST
This is a magnificent piece of work, although when I found myself reading the richly detailed editorial commentary here not only on The Waste Land but also Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with the close attention that might be required by Milton or Keats, I began to wonder if I’d gone mad. But then, why should Old Possum not receive the same scholarly attention as the rest of Eliot’s work? Could anything that Eliot wrote be undeserving of the distinguished editorial services of Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue?
Of course not, but among the good-humoured, faintly amusing additions there are poems that I would rather not have read. The racism and mirthless obscenity of the King Bolo pieces, like the utterly tedious Columbiad, are a form of punishment, like being locked in at the Ivy League equivalent of an interminable rugby club dinner. Hamlet says of his father, ‘He was a man. Take him for all in all’, and we must do the same for Eliot, while wondering how grateful he himself might be for such liberal consideration. (Interestingly, Ricks wrote a famous critical book called Keats and Embarrassment.) Eliot left as much a possible out: the 1963 Collected Poems, published two years before the poet’s death, contains only fifty-odd poems (though several of these have multiple parts). The process of expanding the Eliot canon has been in going on for some time, and this edition seems to be its fulfilment, though posterity may correct that view.
The adolescent and not so adolescent smut assembled in the current two volume annotated edition seems unlikely to hold the interest of most readers for long. They will understandably be more curious about the poems Eliot wrote for his second wife Valerie Eliot, with whom he spent what seems to have been a happy old age, and who as executor of his estate carefully defended Eliot’s privacy, for example forbidding Peter Ackroyd to quote Eliot’s poems in the first serious biography of the poet. In the well-known, ‘A Dedication to my Wife’, Eliot concludes: ‘this dedication is for others to read: / These are private words, addressed to you in public.’ Can this be true of ‘How the Tall Girl and I Play Together’, ‘Sleeping Together’ or ‘How the Tall Girl’s Breasts Are’? In the last of these, ‘When my beloved stands tall and naked / Proud and rejoicing, not in her own beauty / But in the knowledge of the power of her beauty / To quicken my desire (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.’
‘Her breasts look ripe and full’: Eliot with his wife Valerie, the inspiration for his love poems
Unsurprisingly, the editors have no comment to make on this. Though manifestly sincere, it sounds strangely administrative rather than intimate. If the biblical Song of Solomon seems audible in the background here, it only indicates the difficulty Eliot faces in achieving the right tone. In the closing section of ‘’Little Gidding’ (1942), the last of the Four Quartets and Eliot’s last major poem, the achievement of the apt tone is shown as both an aesthetic and a moral necessity – ‘The word neither diffident nor ostentatious, / An easy commerce of the old and the new, / The common word exact without vulgarity, / The formal word precise but not pedantic, / The complete consort dancing together’ – but that tone, that late-Eliot voice, prepared to risk sententiousness in pursuit of exactitude, does not simply transfer to the context of the love poem of old age. As a result the reader of the latter may feel more like a trespasser than a fellow creature on the common ground of human experience.
But the great poems – ‘Prufrock’, The Waste Land’, ‘Ash Wednesday’, ‘Sweeney Agonistes’ and Four Quartets – are all still there, their resonance extending through the twentieth century and into this one, with no loss of their compelling power to dramatize ‘the boredom, and the horror, and the glory’ of life. Ricks and McCue bring us as close as we seem likely to come to seeing the poems clearly. With The Waste Land, which is here shown in an editorial composite, showing elements Eliot considered and excluded, we can trace the process of composition.
If the poems comprise a secondary world within the one where we live, such intensity of scholarly scrutiny goes some way to creating a third: what Eliot tried and rejected and edited out, or allowed Ezra Pound to edit, is made present in a forensic map of the imagination. The effect recalls Freud’s description of the mind as resembling the city Rome with its successive ages are all simultaneously present. At times this feels almost heretical. At times it feels like a Borges story where an imagined world consumes the real one. Given his artistic commitment to the idea of impersonality, of the work being in a sense self-sufficient, free of its creator, one wonders what Eliot would have made of this. In our time the insistence that what writers write about is ultimately themselves grows ever louder, as though the imagination is being arraigned for being untruthful, as though the only truth is testimony or confession. But the poems are still there, and that extraordinary sober, thrilling music can be described but thankfully not possessed, as at the close of ‘Little Gidding’: ‘heard, half-heard, in the stillness / Between two waves of the sea. / Quick now, here, now, always - / A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything) / All shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one.’ The ‘facts’ can do a lot of things for us, but they can’t do this.
Sean O'Brien's latest collection of poems, 'The Beautiful Librarians', (Picador) is shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize 2015