The Poems of TS Eliot: The Annotated Text, Volumes 1 and 2 review
Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue’s awe-inspiring and illuminating work examines the poet’s many different voices, and how he did them, writes Michael O’Loughlin
The Poems of TS Eliot: The Annotated Text, Volume I - Collected & Uncollected Poems
Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue
Faber & Faber
Some reviews of this awe-inspiring work of scholarship have paid much attention to the uncollected poems that it includes, which allegedly reveal little-known sides to TS Eliot, such as the husband erotically musing on his younger wife, and the unpleasant Harvard clubman. None of those poems is much good:
Columbo and his Caravels
They set sail from GenOHa,
Queen Isabella was aboard! –
That famous Spanish HO-AH . . .
Rather than provide any great new psychological insight they just show a poet on his time off, playing around with tonalities, the maestro banging out a tune on a banjo. The same poet who wrote those lines in the morning would, in the evening, write:
Lady, three white leopards sat under a
In the cool of the day, having fed to
On my legs my heart my liver and that
which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull . . .
Eliot, as the original title of The Waste Land has it, does “the police in different voices” and how he constructed those voices is the real subject of these two enormous volumes of poems and commentary.
Every Leaving Certificate student has some awareness of Eliot’s method of gathering and transforming quotes and fragments from many languages and many eras into the texture of his poems, but the degree to which he did this, precisely documented here, comes almost as a revelation. The editors are careful to state that their work is not critical as such – something Eliot made clear he didn’t want. He was reluctant at all times to give permission for his work to be set to music, or illustrated, as he felt that this in some way imposed an interpretation between the reader and the words.
Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue make clear that their aim is simply to show us the building blocks that the poem is made of, as comprehensively as they can. In this they are triumphant, and the books are a happy hunting ground for the habitual Eliot reader. For example, I was delighted to learn from a slightly tongue-in-cheek exchange with Robert Graves, quoted here, that Sweeney’s nightingales, which sang within the bloody wood when Agamemnon cried aloud, are actually not to be found anywhere near the bath house in Argos where Agamenon was murdered but are imported from the groves of the Furies at Colonnus, as described by Sophocles.
Another, more significant detail, perhaps, is in the commentary on Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar, with its often discussed lines:
The rats are underneath the piles.
The Jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs . . .
From Ricks and McCue we learn that Eliot’s native city of St Louis, Missouri, was founded as a fur-trading post and at the time of his childhood had the world’s largest trade in furs, thus associated in Eliot’s mind more with money than with Venus.
Their commentary traces just how consciously the young Eliot went about developing his poetic voice. Eliot himself says, with regard to English and American poetry: “There was no poet, in either country, who could have been of use to a beginner in 1908. The only recourse was to poetry of another age and to poetry of another time.”
The commentaries delineate how much the striking freshness and originality of his early works owe to Laforgue and Corbière, as well as Webster and Donne, and how all through his life his poetry would be informed by readings of the classics, the Bible, Dante and Milton.
As conscientious scholars, the authors are even handed, devoting as much attention to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as to Four Quartets. However, there are many readers of Eliot, and I am one of them, who, while admiring the craftsmanship of later works, such as Four Quartets, are more drawn to the unsettling, neurotic energy of the earlier work:
“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad.
Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak.
What are you thinking of? What
I never know what you are thinking.
I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
The Waste Land is one of those works of art that have come to lead lives of their own in the culture, epitomised by Anthony Blanche declaiming it through a megaphone at the opening of Brideshead Revisited. And The Waste Land is in some ways the centrepiece of this volume. Not only does the commentary on it run to hundreds of pages but also, alongside the standard text, the editors provide what they call an editorial composite, a 678-line text of the earliest available draft before it was radically changed, both by Eliot and by the editorial interventions of Ezra Pound.
The draft is fascinatingly different, with the famous opening line occurring only at line 55. So was The Waste Land a conscious attempt to create a work of experimental modernism, a reflection of decaying western civilisation or, as the later royalist, Anglo-Catholic Eliot would claim, “a piece of rhythmical grumbling”?
Ricks and McCue supply materials for the debate. They quote Anthony Cronin, writing in The Irish Times on June 16th, 1972: “Some six or seven years before his death, TS Eliot recalled meditating a long poem as far back as 1918, and said that the effect of reading episodes of Ulysses was, for the time being, ruinous . . . He abandoned his poem. Eventually, Pound told him that ‘even if the thing has been done in prose, it is necessary to do it in poetry also’.”
On the other hand, in a discussion of the drafts that were eventually found in the 1960s, Valerie Eliot said: “The years of The Waste Land were a terrible nightmare to him . . . if he had seen those drafts, they might have brought back all the horror.”
Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay the editors is that, after an illuminating stroll through the cathedral they have constructed around it, the mystery of the greatness of TS Eliot’s poetry abides.
Michael O’Loughlin’s most recent poetry collection is Another Life (New Island, 2011)