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CR: From my point of view the origins are my having been asked by Mrs Valerie Eliot to edit 50 early unpublished poems by Eliot after his death.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.