A Guide to the Ruins

On T.S. Eliot's annotations


in Blog


It’s generally acknowledged that Eliot’s international fame began in 1922, with the publication of The Waste Land. Probably one of the strongest engines powering that fame was the set of Notes he appended to the work. Nothing like them had ever been seen in the first publication of a poem or volume of poems, a fact in part explaining the range of responses to the work, from hushed awe to hilarity to outrage. Objections were voiced along these lines:

Jobbing in dozens of classical bits wasn’t enough. He had to rub our noses in his erudition by naming his sources. Mr. Eliot, where did you get the idea that a poem is a post-grad seminar? And why shouldn’t we just call you the plagiarist that you are?

Answer: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

Meanwhile, the hushed awe was felt by readers of a respectful bent who were thrown back on their sense of inadequacy. They hadn’t read as much as Eliot had, they didn’t know a sufficient number of languages, living and dead, to qualify as a competent audience; but this new literary high priest would show them the way. The head-on collision between reverence and satire produced the controversy that put this scholar-poet on the map, much more than the literary value of the lines that precede the Notes, a value that was also disputed.

The respectful and puzzled fascination inspired by footnotes has never been fully explored. This new comprehensive edition comes with exhaustive scholarly annotations of Eliot’s oeuvre, indeed, some of the most interesting pages concern the origin of the Waste Land Notes, as well as their public reception. When Eliot prepared a catalog of allusions used in the poem, he probably only thought of helping out friends and associates who saw it in manuscript, stymied readers who didn’t know what to make of the classical tags strewn over the poem. Only later did anyone think of appending that catalog to the verse text. Here was the problem: To editors at Boni & Liveright the poem seemed too short to appear in book form. Padded out, though, with a sort of literary telephone directory for the names and bibliographical addresses of Eliot’s sources, the resulting text was deemed substantial enough to be marketable. No one realized that doing so would leave us with an unsolvable riddle: Are the Notes an integral part of The Waste Land or not? Howard Nemerov once put the problem succinctly, asking why the Notes, if they weren’t part of the poem, are always reprinted with it? And remarking that, if they are integral to the poem, they are “damned poor poetry” (He lets it go without saying that the Notes are written in a prose format). I think one could construct an argument to the effect that the Notes, though not at first intended as an integral part of the poem, accidentally became essential to the overall meaning. But it’s not the place of a mere reviewer to make that argument.

Read It

 The Poems of T.S. Eliot Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue

A comparable set of justifications explains why we’re being given a new and expensive annotated edition of Eliot’s poetry. Almost all the works found here have appeared in book form elsewhere, and there are no sweeping changes or additions to the contents of the The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (published in 1962), which is the part of Eliot’s output the author himself regarded as the legitimate basis for his literary worth. Eliot’s Notes for The Waste Land were about a third the length of the poem as such. The annotations for this new edition take up far more pages than the poems themselves. The main reason to acquire it, then, is for the scholarly component — plus the convenience of having all of Eliot’s poetry in a handsomely produced two-volume set. Still, buyer beware: The first volume weighs an unwieldy three pounds, and if you are put off by textual criticism and scholarship you won’t like the annotations.

That much said, the emendations the editors make to Eliot’s canonical texts aren’t utterly negligible. Probably the most startling is the addition of the last line of section II of “The Hollow Men,” which was unaccountably left out in the text published in 1962. Ricks and McCue speculate that it was a typographical error and that Eliot, known to be a careless proofreader, never noticed it. Without its final line, the section concludes this way:

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom

There is no end stop, so surely we have to restore the omitted line (and its end stop), which the editors retrieved from its publication in The Criterion and The Dial: “With eyes I dare not meet in dreams.” Not the poem’s best line, but you can’t leave it out. Another arresting change (in the poems “Gerontion” and “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”) is giving the noun “jew” an upper case “J,” which it didn’t have in Eliot’s own edition. The editors, elsewhere so expansive, justify the change as briefly as possible, conceding that lower case was used until the 1963 edition. But the 1971 edition I have (copyrighted by Valerie Eliot) has reverted to lower case, in accordance with Eliot’s original text. Ricks’s note refers us to his study T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988), which I haven’t read and which may or may not mitigate the feelings of disgust and anger I feel when confronting the nastiness of these two poems and “Sweeney Among the Nightingales.”

Christopher Ricks is among the most famous of contemporary English-language critics, a semi-legendary professor at Boston University who has done remarkable critical and editing work on several major poets. But Jim McCue, a writer with less name recognition, isn’t affiliated with any university and was known up to now mainly as a columnist for the London Times as well as the author of a study of Edmund Burke. These volumes come without a description of how editing tasks were allocated, but McCue is regarded as a model of prose style, so we may guess that he edited the set of scholarly notes assembled by Professor Ricks into a more readable form. Certainly the result is clear and readable, though written with the dry aplomb standard in formal literary studies.

When Eliot makes literary allusions, these are conscious and unmistakable, sometimes even signaled by quotation marks or italics, even when not identified in a footnote. Ricks takes matters a step further. He points out similarities in phrasing to earlier texts, so that, for example, (from “La Figlia che Piange”) the line “Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair —” is placed beside similar phrases from Laforgue, Tennyson, Symons, and Coleridge. The presence of the words “weave,” “sunlight,” or “hair” were apparently sufficient justification for citing these as sources. But I don’t think we should consider Eliot as actually alluding to the earlier works. The line acts as all written language does, unconsciously drawing on a common fund of available words and phrases, intending no special connection to earlier texts and requiring no special acknowledgment. Actually, the large number of precedents cited suggests that the phrase isn’t unusual enough to be singled out for scrutiny. In instances like these (and they abound in this edition) we may regard the annotation as overzealous and distracting.

Those familiar with Eliot’s own Complete Poems have no doubt read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats or at least heard the poems in it sung as lyrics in the musical Cats. I suppose Eliot included these slight and seldom really funny poems as an appendage to the serious part of his oeuvre as a way to demonstrate a sense of humor, an affability, a whimsy that might have gone unnoticed by anyone contemplating the general tenor of his writing. Not to mention a skill in manipulating meter and rhyme, a skill he mostly repressed in the interest of being Modernist in form. This edition includes other poems that Old Possum never reprinted, divided by the editors into the categories of Occasional Verses (pieces written at someone’s request, plus one written to his wife and used as a dedication to the play The Elder Statesman), Uncollected Poems (which includes a wide variety of pieces, some of them juvenilia), Other Verses (all juvenilia), Noctes Binanianae (a sheaf of satires privately printed and circulated among friends who regularly met at John Hayward’s flat in Bina Gardens, Kensington), and Improper Rhymes (salacious squibs culled from letters to Eliot’s friends. This last group — redolent of a misogyny, racism, and bawdiness that doesn’t at this point come as any surprise — do more than the Practical Cats, I’d say, to give us a fully human Eliot, drawn to typically human indiscretions. Not poetry, still these jottings are light verse with dark undertones and help us fathom an author often described by acquaintances as “peculiar.” One of his nautical squibs gives us this:

What ho! they cry’d, we’ll sink your ship!

And so they up and sink’d her.

But the cabin boy was sav’d alive

And bugger’d, in the sphincter.

These verses constitute fresh evidence for those who have discerned a streak of same-sex feeling in Eliot, based up to now on his youthful devotion to Jean Verdenal (“mort aux Dardanelles”) and Eliot’s several years’ shared residence with John Hayward, whom he knew to be homosexual. The product of boarding-schools, Harvard, Paris music halls, and close association with London’s cultivated gay milieu (not all of them “hollow men”), Eliot can hardly have remained unmoved and untouched; but we will never know to what extent that part of his psychological makeup mattered to him. Unlike the tormented Dantean soul cited in the epigraph to “The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he was never coaxed into full disclosure about his divided sexual nature.

In the face of an accumulation of scholarship as vast as the contents of these volumes, it can only seem foolhardy to suggest any additions to the notes. I have, though, the support of the poet, scholar and biographer Sandeep Parmar, who has raised the possibility that a long poem by Hope Mirrlees, titled “Paris” and published by the Hogarth Press in 1919, was a strong influence on The Waste Land. The editors are aware of the possibility, as well they might be, given the poem’s publication date, its fragmented, “Cubist” method of presentation, and its choice of a capital city as its subject. In their notes, though, they cite an interview with Mirrlees conducted many years after the fact, in which Mirrlees said she couldn’t confirm that Eliot had read her poem. This, despite the fact that they were friends and both figures on the London literary scene. We can speculate that Mirrlees, a person of considerable modesty and reserve, and by that time almost completely forgotten, would be reluctant to claim any influence on one of the most famous poems of the 20th century. But the editors seem not to know that Eliot was on the subscriber’s list of the Hogarth Press and therefore wouldn’t have failed to read her poem. Surely by 1922 Eliot considered himself a poet mature enough to steal. And to make the theft “into something better, or at least something different.”

The occasion of this monumental publication might seem to require of the reviewer a general appraisal of the value of Eliot’s oeuvre, but there seems little point in formulating one. The fact that I might dislike many of his poems, especially “Gerontion,” “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” and “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” all of them seriously marred by anti-Semitic satire and, in the case of the Sweeney poems, trivialized by a thoroughly Bostonian prejudice against the Irish, doesn’t matter much. Eliot is one of the cornerstones of 20th-century poetry, and not solely in the English language. Conceding that much of what he wrote is shallow, arid, and show-offish doesn’t alter the facts. He got under the skin of the readership of his day and continues to do so now. There’s no denying his way with words, indeed, some of his phrases are indelibly imprinted in our imaginations, still affecting our view of modern urban experience. It’s too bad that we can no longer regard the gathered fragments of civilization as shoring us up against our ruin; or conclude our survey of the contemporary megalopolis by intoning Eliot’s assuaging “Shantih shantih shantih”; or respond to the firestorms resulting from today’s bombings with an assertion that “the fire and the rose are one.” Eliot’s poetry didn’t save the world after all, but his strenuous flailing in the direction of salvation and his zealous devotion to literature deserve respect. This monumental edition, and the editors’ work behind it, support the claim. •

Feature image courtesy of Burns Library, Boston College via Flickr (Creative Commons)