TS Eliot's poems will be opened up by a new comprehensive annotated editionby Sameer Rahim / October 30, 2015 / Leave a comment
TS Eliot was one of the great poets of the 20th century. In the words of Christopher Ricks, though, his work was also “difficult and allusive and subtle.” Along with his co-editor Jim McCue he has brought out a long-awaited two-volume annotated edition of the complete poems, which explains Eliot’s literary references and puts the poems in historical context. Ricks, also one of our most penetrating literary critics, spoke to Prospect’s Sameer Rahim about the project.
SR: What are the origins of this new annotated edition of the poems of TS Eliot?
CR: From my point of view the origins are my having been asked by Mrs Valerie Eliot to edit 50 early unpublished poems by Eliot after his death. I edited those as Inventions of the March Hare—Eliot’s own title for them. It was said at the time that it would be good if this launched a proper annotated edition of the poems as the Complete Poems, instead of only those which he himself wished to preserve, and a complete textual history of the poems, and a correction of the many little errors that have slipped in over a very long time, even though Eliot was in a sense his own publisher. Then there was set in motion a big edition of Eliot’s letters and a big edition of Eliot’s prose. And at that point it did seem strange, it seemed faintly absurd, that everything other than the poems, which are of course his central achievement, was being edited, supplied with the full commentary to the correct text and so on. So that was the start of it… People have said for a very long time that it’s strange that so difficult and allusive and subtle a poet didn’t receive the kind of attention which we’re used to giving to the poems of Milton or the poems of Hopkins or the poems of Donne. That’s the background.
SR: And is it your hope that this edition will open up Eliot’s poems to a general reader?
CR: Well, the answer to that is yes and no. I was talking about this last night [at a British Library event]. I found myself saying, not for the first time—in the company of my co-editor Jim McCue, who agrees with me—that 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. You probably need to be able to read and write, except that people could read poems to you; you probably need to know English, though you and I have probably had the experience of reading poems in a language that we don’t know and being very thrilled by their music and by a strong sense of emotion and pulsation that is in them. I don’t know any Portuguese but when I heard Alberto de Lacerda read his poems and I thought, these are very beautiful, and I wanted to read them in translation. It’s imperative that ordinary readers still have the chance of buying the straight, plain-text edition of the poems that Eliot himself wished.
Do people need to know all the bootleg versions of Bob Dylan songs? Do they need to know all the different outtakes? No, they don’t need to. I think there is a wonderful bonus, repeatedly, in finding out how these poems came to be written, exactly what they may be suggesting, all the ways in which you might have missed this pun here because there was something you didn’t know. You might have missed some things that are going on in a line. I think there was a review of the Larkin edition [by Archie Burnett] where Paul Muldoon said, “anybody reading Larkin for the first time would think…”, but you wouldn’t read Larkin for the first time in an edition which had a hundred pages of notes. So it’s the difference between reading for pleasure, and reading with the pleasure that comes from study. Some of us get terrific pleasure from study—others, my brother was one of them, never read poems for study. He read them solely for pleasure, and that was great except he didn’t have the pleasures of study.
SR: You’ve been writing about Eliot for many years now…
CR: I have. But I’m only 82, and it’s important that we do not exaggerate.
SR: Was there anything in the course of editing that really surprised you or changed your view of Eliot as a poet?
CR: I don’t think anything changed my view. As an editor it’s important to not have favourites. I don’t, myself, ever really enjoy Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats but my duties as an editor don’t have to do with that. They have to do with finding out things about just how they came to be written, finding out things about certain kinds of jokes that are going on. I don’t think anything substantially changed my view. There are lots and lots of places where [in] a particular poem, I have seen dimensions to it which I’d never seen before. That is, my co-editor and I had never realised how [in “Mr. Apollinax”] the power of the word “submarine” and the reference to the “worried bodies of drowned men,” how profoundly that’s affected by the date that the poem is written—1915. Soon after the sinking of the Lusitania, Eliot writes “Mr. Apollinax,” which begins “When Mr. Apollinax visited the United States.” Eliot refused to visit the United States at that time because of the fear of being torpedoed by a submarine. His wife would not travel to America because of the fear of submarines. It was the submarine sinking of the Lusitania which in the end brought America into the Great War. You can’t say “When Mr. Apollinax visited the United States”—and the only way to do that was by sea—say his “laughter was submarine and profound,” and go on to talk about the “worried bodies of drowned men,” without [thinking about the war]. This seems to be only about a social occasion, a rather affected and silly tea party with Bertrand Russell showing off—but it’s actually also a war poem… it’s a great war poem.
SR: Among other things Eliot has this amazing ability to write lines both memorable and elusive. Perhaps that’s why he is so popular with novelists—I can think off the top of my head of A Handful of Dust, No Longer At Ease, The Grass is Singing…
CR: That’s an excellent point. And I think one of the reasons why they’re so popular with novelists is that they can become a kind of epigraph or even often an epitaph for a whole vanished world. This is partly because one of the great things he did 100 years ago with “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” was bring into poetry that whole world of writing which was interested in the novel. One of the two great things that Prufrock and Other Observations does is to have poems with the serious attentive everyday vigilance that we’re used to in novels. Instead of being poesy, instead of being poeticality, instead of only being sensitivity and sensibility. There’s a great remark by Ford Madox Ford when he opened a book of his own poems, and he was amazed and distressed by the complete absence of humour and life as it is actually lived. So the author of “Portrait of a Lady” is bringing the world of The Portrait of a Lady into poems. And bringing the world of drama as well—these are really dramatic poems that imagine dramatic situations.
SR: You’ve also written about how subsequent poets have been influenced by Eliot or have indeed resisted his influence, recently, notably, Geoffrey Hill.
CR: Yes, I think Geoffrey Hill is the great English instance. Robert Lowell is the great American instance. Lowell’s engagement with Eliot, the way that he too is a poet-critic, he too is an American who has spent part of his life in England, he too is fascinated by the way in which French poetry can fertilise English and American poetry. It’s not I think paricidal, it’s not the Harold Bloom story about wishing to kill your predecessors because they are a damn nuisance; it’s much more a story about the difficulty of emulation, and keeping emulation from becoming envious or enemy-like.
SR: Jim McCue has talked about Eliot as a kind of “hinge” between different poetic worlds. Would you concur with that?
CR: Yes, I think it’s true. I think the great thing about “hinge”—I was struck by him saying that, I hadn’t heard him say that before—is that it has to be equally loyal to the door and the jamb. I’m very aware of this in universities. The Dean has to be the hinge between the faculty and the senior registration. The difficulty of being a hinge, as a dean or as anything else, is to be equally wedded to the door and to the jamb. That whole hinge between past and present, between present and future. Eliot’s very good about it being important not to be in hoc to the future, not just to the past. So that triple sense of past, present and future, which makes so much out of patience. A lot of Eliot is about having patience, and valuing patience because patience is past, present and future in one. Patience means continuing to be something, and continuing from the past into the future. It’s the three tenses all in one. Which isn’t true of courage. Courage is wonderful but you can be brave here and now in the moment. It doesn’t make sense to say I’m going to be patient in the moment. It’s a very beautiful continuity.
SR: In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Eliot’s reputation was assailed by critics who pointed out his alleged anti-semitism or misogyny. You wrote about that very powerfully in TS Eliot and Prejudice, and I wonder whether with this new edition, and also with Robert Crawford’s new biography, you feel we’ve moved on from attacking Eliot to trying to understand his complexities?
CR: Well I don’t think that there can be a “moving on” from it for lots of reasons. One is that there are very ugly touches: “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable,” is a terrible thing to have written in the 1930s, it is terrible. I think it’s very very unusual in Eliot; it’s in the prose not in the poetry—the poetry’s more vigilant than the prose—and it’s in the book which Eliot himself refused to reprint and repudiated, and did apparently say that “I should have said that I, too, like DH Lawrence, was a sick man when I wrote After Strange Gods.” So you can’t quite move on from it because it goes to something very deep in Eliot.
And secondly, I’ve committed myself to saying works of art have to be accusable. That is all erotic art has to be accusable of being pornography. The accusation doesn’t stick in the end, or if it does stick you think “this isn’t the greatest erotic art.” All religious art has to be accusable of blasphemy… And when Dylan sings “Just Like a Woman” the song has to be accusable of misogyny. It is a song about misogyny, which is accusable, but the accusation doesn’t in the end stick because misogyny is a pleasure to the misogynist. It’s not a pleasure at all, the feelings you have when Eliot is near women or when Dylan’s near women of a certain kind, it’s of no pleasure, no gloating at all. So I don’t quite think it can be, as it were, “we’ve got over that, that was just rather inattentive of us or fashionable to care about those things.” I think, for instance, that all the improper rhymes that Eliot wrote are terrible. All the Bolo poems. Unlike Robert Conquest, who was often very witty with limericks, Eliot was never successfully witty with obscene poems. And that’s to his credit. He shouldn’t have written them, but it’s to his credit that actually they’re very bad, these completely pointless, racist, misogynist, coarse things.
SR: Can they help inform us about his greater poetry?
CR: Oh yes it does, yes absolutely. There’s a real continuity of certain kinds between a brothel poem like “Sweeney Erect”—that’s a poem where really wonderfully powerful and terrible instincts and cross-currents are all in play, or self-tormenting as they are often in Donne, or in the self-torments of religion in Hopkins. Now there are very important filaments that connect the poems that don’t really work to the ones that do. There are very strange connections between the Bolo poems and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. It’s as if there’s something very childish about a certain kind of smutty, silly joke and what children want.
SR: Do you think one of the reasons for his greatness is his ability to reconcile and keep in balance his own divisions—American and British, Anglo-Catholic, conservative critic and revolutionary poet?
CR: Yes I think that’s all true. Last night at the British Library somebody quite rightly picked up the question of “what do you really mean by the greatest?” (I hadn’t said it, Jim said it.) Can one at least offer some characterisation of what greatness in a work of art would be? And I had to reach, was grateful to be able to reach, for Coleridge on imagination, and talking about “the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities.” And it is a great thing to be able to do, to balance and reconcile opposite qualities. A lot of that is in Eliot. The way in which something can be simultaneously full of fear and very brave about acknowledging that it is full of fear. Prufrock is a coward who is very brave about his cowardice. To keep asking yourself, do I dare to do these things, is a kind of bravery which most of us don’t manage most of the time. He’s not pusillanimous.
SR: Finally, on a personal note it must give you great satisfaction to have worked on critical editions of Tennyson—I won’t say the greatest, but a very great poet of the 19th century—and Eliot, a very great writer of the 20th century?
CR: Well it has made me very very happy. To go back to the hinge idea, [I was surprised when] Mrs Eliot came to a talk I was giving on Eliot. I had not been in good odour with Mr Eliot, whose lawyers sent a letter once to the New Statesman about a joke that I had made—it was a good joke, but was not truthful enough. Mrs Eliot then, to my surprise, asked me if I would be interested in editing those 50 early poems. And she said, “Tom would have loved your Tennyson edition.” So that was a great pleasure for me to hear that, and it did lead to this very generous and genuinely thrilling opportunity.