Eliot For Everyone
Comprehensive collection of works includes classics and juvenilia
By Wong Wen Pu
The Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems
After all, what makes a canon? And what does it mean to be a 'traditional' poet? These were the questions T.S. Eliot attempted to answer in his 1921 essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent'. In the essay, Eliot tells us that a traditional, canonical poet writes with a "historical sense":
For Eliot, the artist presses ahead alone, but only to be part of larger, more powerful currents.
In the tellingly titled Collected Poems, published in 1963 two years before his death, Eliot included only about 50 poems from his entire body of work. To him, these poems were the acme of his impersonal and historical poetics; radically detached and supposedly transhistorical, they marked the beginning and end of his contribution to the Anglophonic poetic tradition.
The expansion of Eliot's oeuvre, however, has now been ongoing for some time, regardless of the poet's poetics. In 2009, Faber & Faber published the first volume of Eliot's full correspondence, and The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition was published in 2014 under Ronald Schuchard's editorship. The Poems of T.S. Eliot, dedicatedly compiled and curated by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, is the latest work to build on Eliot's literary legacy. It contains over 240 poems, many of which till recently have been carefully kept from the public eye by the late Valerie Eliot, wife and literary executor of the Eliot estate.
Some of the previously unpublished works the editors have unearthed from Eliot's letters and diaries might have served the poet's standing in history better had they remained unpublished. Eliot's reputation, which has recently been under attack for his anti-Semitism, is now unlikely to recover with the publication of a fresh set of juvenile racist poems (The Columbiad and the King Bolo poems). The editors have also included a set of racy poems that are decidedly personal and lacking in 'historical sense'. I doubt that Eliot would have approved the publication of the uncomfortably intimate poems he wrote for Valerie:
This untraditional, inconsequential poem seems hardly the epitaph the most parsimonious of poets, who declared that poems "should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event", would have celebrated.
But thankfully, importantly, the great traditional poems upon which Eliot rests his laurels are also all still there, under the section titled 'Collected Poems 1909-1962'. In this section, Ricks and McCue correctly preserve Eliot's arrangement for the definitive edition of Collected Poems. We still begin with Prufrock's grim invitation to wander into the sunset and along "certain half-deserted streets", afterwards we still stumble across the fecund wasteland of Eliot poetry, and the section still ends gratifyingly with Eliot's only open expression of affection for his wife: "this dedication is for others to read:/ These are private words addressed to you in public". All of these still remain magnificently undiminished and perfectly poised in the collection, except in this edition, they are accompanied by an astounding amount of commentary and notes on the textual histories of the poems. In all, there are over 1,200 pages of miniscule, meticulously researched annotations and detailed commentary, to 400 generously spaced pages of poetry. So extensive are the notes that a good deal of the commentary in Volume I spills over into the pages of Volume II.
This makes The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot a work of tremendous erudition. But in case the common reader finds the academic verbosity intimidating, I want to say that this collection is not just for the scholarly; there is a poem in here for everyone. To the casual reader, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, which Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted for his musical Cats, is a collection of light-hearted and family-friendly after-dinner verse. The college student can always lean on the lines of 'Gerontion' to impress his/her date. And the more learned readers of Eliot's poetry will spend many delightful days leafing through the editors' encyclopaedic annotations and commentary and the less well-known or newly-rescued poems.
If James Joyce deserves, as many have argued, the title of high priest of modernist prose, then the Pope of Russell Square is the period's poet par excellence. His mark on the literary landscape is so great that most readers of this review can probably recall from memory snatches of 'The Hollow Men', 'Ash-Wednesday' or 'The Waste Land'. If I quoted a line from Eliot's poetry, say: "I have heard the mermaids singing each to each./ I do not think they will sing to me", the reader of this review would probably have found the lines familiar even if he/she did not recognise its provenance ('Prufrock'). For Eliot, these elusive echoes of poetry's imprint in the mind, these rustles of language nestled in the memory, have always been the communal point of the Anglophonic tradition. But Ricks and McCue's monumental work of scholarship has expanded the Eliot canon and redefined the way we critically read Eliot's poetry. With the extensive annotations, we may now, if we choose, appreciate the full weight of the European tradition and its influences behind Eliot's heavily allusive poems. They reveal a dedicated method in the madness of Eliot's references and allusions. There is a refreshing newness in the way the poems have become so accessible to us. Eliot himself tells us that as readers:
I have read many of Eliot's poems over and over again in the last few years. But to re-read T.S. Eliot in the new light of this boldly edited collection is to encounter Eliot's poetry again for the very first time.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 2 Apr 2016