The Poems of T. S. Eliot: Volume I, Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue

Faber & Faber (1344 pp. £40 hardback).

If I were teaching Eliot I’d see this book as an indispensable support. It will clearly be a vital quarry for lecturers and researchers for many years to come. My concern is with its interest for the general reader, however.

It isn’t for the Eliot beginner or for someone happy to enjoy the words of the poems without worrying how their resonances may have changed: its sheer weight makes it something to read alongside, rather than instead of, the kind of slender volume you can hold comfortably in an armchair. This one needs to lie open on a desk or table.

That said, writing as a general reader myself, I’ve found it a delight, an incredible treasure chest to rummage in, skimming over things that don’t have a fairly immediate interest for me, picking out those that do, and enjoying the way the editors have left me free to decide how I’ll use the information they provide.

We start with the poems themselves in a generously spaced, beautifully clear format, an improved text of the Collected Poems 1909 – 1962, then Uncollected Poems, including a useful editorial composite of The Waste Land, but not Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which has been kept for Volume II. Most of the book is taken up by the Commentary, though, and this must be the main reason for buying it. It involves a vast compendium of quotations of passages that may or may not have fed into Eliot’s writing, comments on the poetry by friends, by critics and by Eliot himself, passages from Eliot’s writing on other matters that may shed light on a particular poem, friends’ anecdotes and reminiscences, snippets of relevant social and historical information …

As such a list implies, one profound pleasure of the book is the way it humanises the poems, grounding them in the accidents of Eliot’s life and reading. It lets you see everything he wrote, however absolute it may seem in its finished state, as the outcome of countless contingencies, dependent on the materials he happened on and absorbed. This vivifies our sense of his originality. Instead of taking the achieved words for granted, seeing them as marvellous, of course, but somehow just there, we have a sharp sense of the artistic and imaginative leaps that brought them into being. Sometimes this brings a simple flash of pleasure at the power of Eliot’s genius: some of the materials suggested as parallels or sources seem so unremarkable in themselves that all we can do is admire how much he has made out of comparatively little. More lasting food for thought is given by cases where there’s a double delight, first in the beauty or interest the cited phrases have in themselves, independently of their possible influence on Eliot, and second in the way they’ve been transformed and redirected by immersion in Eliot’s own peculiar and brilliant mind.

Many notes illuminate minute particulars in a way that restores specificity and bite to lines that have lost point because things that were obvious to Eliot’s first readers have dropped out of sight for us. For example, take the line “Bin gar keine Russin,  stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch”. I’d always just read this as simple if insecure nationalist pride. Ricks and McCue quote a critic’s observation that in Munich at the time the woman speaking would have been a stateless person. This sets up a little tremor of connection between her and the “hooded hordes swarming” in the apocalyptic final section. Similarly, with reference to “The Fire Sermon”, learning that silk handkerchiefs were allegedly used as contraceptives gives a sharp twist to what I had thought a rather emptily decorative element in the line “silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends”. There are multiple ironies in the allusion to contraception in a poem as tortured by ambivalent feelings about sterility and fertility as “The Waste Land”, of course, and the whole passage plays devastatingly against poor Lil’s grinding marital pregnancies and disastrous abortion in the previous section. Perhaps above all, though, the implied image of the silk handkerchief sticky with semen brings together luxury and sexual disgust in a way that powerfully intensifies the lines’ counterpointing of lyricism and squalor.

Restoring specificity to background assumptions is equally illuminating, though in a quite different way, in relation to Four Quartets. In them, Eliot has created a haunting, rarefied music that shimmers between lyricism and a liturgical drone. Concrete images are etherealised or smoothed into generality, although you only have to read the poems to see how far this is from involving loss of precision in the writing (two small-printed pages of the Commentary are devoted to quotations recording Eliot’s efforts to find the right phrase for the dusk before dawn in the line “The first-met stranger in the waning dusk”). However, rather than sharpness of external image, Eliot is now seeking precision and smooth evolutions of tone, register and music. So how is it still illuminating for Ricks and McCue to take us back to concrete experiences underlying the poem? How is it still helpful to gloss the stanza of “Little Gidding” beginning “Ash on an old man’s sleeve” by telling us that London was choked with burning paper after the bombing of warehouses of books, and by quoting Eliot’s description of how as a fire warden he would watch the slow settling of dust and fine white ash for hours after a raid? What does it add to our appreciation of the poem when, in connection with the lines

Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot
Of sanctuary and choir

they tell us that the ten Wren churches ruined on 29th Dec 1940 were as often destroyed by the water putting out the fires as by the fires themselves? Such information is interesting in itself, but the point of restoring it is not to undo Eliot’s careful abstraction from the particular; it’s to help us value this abstraction more perceptively. It brings us a little closer to the position of a contemporary who, sharing Eliot’s experience of the Blitz, would be able to appreciate how such experience had been subsumed into wider and more timeless perspectives by the transformative power of his art and religious vision.

At £40 this is something of a luxury item, but well worth the money as long as you have time for browsing the sections that interest you and processing the information they offer.

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to reprint this review, which appeared in Acumen 86.

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