What men choose to forget

Book Review
The Poems of T.S. Eliot: Volume 1: Collected & Uncollected Poems
Christopher Ricks & Jim McCue, eds.
Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, $44.95
ISBN-13: 978-1421420172

We don’t think that T.S. Eliot’s poetry needs to be sold very hard. Over the past century (“Prufrock” turned 100 last June, if you can believe it), Eliot’s work has assumed a central place in the modern English canon. More than that, his poetry is practically part of the patrimony—to borrow John Hunwicke’s language—of Catholics and Anglo-Catholics. To some extent, then, discussing a new volume of Eliot’s work will be a discussion not of the poems, about which everyone long ago formed opinions, but a discussion of the various apparatuses and commentaries in the volume. Though the discussion about individual volumes seems less and less important after one considers Ricks and McCue’s two-volume edition of Eliot’s poems.

One thing about Eliot’s poetry—to immediately undermine our statement about reviewing volumes instead of poems—is that there are multiple ways into his work. On one hand, one can gain access through the modernism of his early work, up to and including The Waste Land and The Hollow Men. On the other hand, one can very easily develop a great fondness for Eliot through his later works such as Four Quartets, Choruses from The Rock, Ash Wednesday, and the Ariel Poems. Christians—those who haven’t simply absorbed Eliot by osmosis—will likely be recommended his later works. But the thing about Ricks and McCue’s annotations is that no matter how one got into Eliot’s poetry, one can find one’s way around very easily with their help.

Every poem is given a serious, thorough commentary, addressing content and context alike. And criticism. And cross-references. And, well, just everything. Eliot’s letters, comments by editors and friends, and historical sources all appear copiously. Ricks and McCue leave no stone unturned, and, in some instances, they point out there a stone was and what one would have found if one had turned it over. For example, in early editions of The Dry Salvages, the text read “hermit crab” where Eliot meant “horseshoe crab” (cf. The Dry Salvages I.19). Eliot acknowledged that he had written the former when he meant the latter, he asked his publishers to make the correction, and he agonized over the error at length; however, it was corrected in subsequent printings. The reader running through the text (including in this edition) would see simply “The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone,” as would have everyone else who read the poem in a corrected edition. Just everything, like we said.

We note that Ricks and McCue’s edition follows several other similarly all-encompassing editions of poets carefully described as “modern.” For example, Archie Burnett’s recent edition of Philip Larkin is full of interesting biographical and literary information about a poet who was very forthright. Jon Stallworthy’s edition of Wilfred Owen is perhaps less heavy on commentary and explication, but very, very heavy on textual issues, drafts, and manuscripts. (In many respects, it supersedes C. Day Lewis’s venerable old New Directions edition.) Plainly, publishers think that they’ll recoup their costs (and a little profit) from annotated editions of some 20th century poets. However, Eliot’s poetry—a product of tremendous erudition—seems to encourage the sort of careful, voluminous commentary that Ricks and McCue provide. One does not really feel the need (we don’t, at any rate) to track down the allusions in, say, “Spring Offensive” or “The Whitsun Weddings” the way we want to track down the allusions in Little Gidding.

It goes without saying that, for a longtime reader of Eliot (or, for that matter, an enthusiastic first-time reader of Eliot), the annotations are a joy. A conversation, really. One is tempted to respond to the notes: “Ah, I knew that,” or “I suspected that’s what he meant,” or, all too often for our self-image, “I had no idea.” And perhaps that’s the right judgment on this edition: Ricks and McCue’s annotations are like having a conversation with someone who knows everything about the poem. For this reason, we recommend dipping in and out of the commentary, lest a treat become tedious—though for poems we are fond of, it is unlikely that the commentary would become tedious. Even the bit about the “hermit crab” mistake in The Dry Salvages was interesting, particularly the extent to which Eliot agonized about a relatively minor mistake.

It seems strange, though, to see these massive, massively annotated editions of modern poets. Larkin, particularly, was working and publishing in recent memory. One’s parents may have been avid readers of Larkin’s High Windows when it first became widely available in 1979. But one’s grandparents may well have been avid readers of Eliot’s work when it was first published. We recall meeting once, briefly, a man who had corresponded with Ezra Pound. Of course, Pound was quite elderly at the time and this man was a young man; but (!) he corresponded with Pound all the same. This is a long way of saying that even Eliot is a poet of living memory. Yet, here we are: considering a monumental annotated edition of his poetry.

Perhaps it is necessary, for, to the extent that the world Eliot inhabited has become remote or that the culture he inhabited has become remote intellectually, Ricks and McCue do the reader a great service with their annotations. It is probably hard to dispute that, in the last fifty or seventy-five years, the West has run headlong away from the idea of Christendom and even the idea that there was something of that culture worth preserving. Certainly, there are aspects of this flight that are reasonable to a point, though they are premised upon a misidentification of a vile, murderous perversion of a cohesive Western, Christian culture with a cohesive, Western Christian culture itself. But, regardless of of the motivation, it must be said that, except to those with great interest, many of the sources upon which Eliot drew are becoming pretty remote. So, even if with only a narrow focus, Ricks and McCue do fine work making some of these sources behind the allusions available.

True, there may be great joy in running down Eliot’s allusions yourself; however, where do you begin? If you didn’t know that Eliot was alluding to St. John of the Cross in East Coker III and if you weren’t familiar with St. John of the Cross or mystical theology more generally, then you would probably have a hard time knowing where to begin running down the allusion. There is Google, we suppose, but sifting the signal from the noise on Google can be a daunting task. One does not have the feeling that one has to sift Ricks and McCue’s work that way.

But, at the same time, we have a slight reservation. The sheer amount of information, the obviously indefatigable research, and the clear erudition of Ricks and McCue give their annotations a strong sense of authoritativeness. (They plainly have authority, but that’s not quite the same thing, is it?) And an editor imbued with authoritativeness can present a problem to the reader without the reader knowing it; editors, like everyone else, have opinions, maybe even agendas, about their subject. Most of the time, the reader can suss out the opinions and agendas, and push back. But when an editor has authoritativeness, it becomes harder and harder to resist those opinions and agendas. After all, they’ve marshaled so much information that they have to be right. We do not mean, of course, to suggest that Ricks and McCue have an agenda: we haven’t read the book so thoroughly that we can form an opinion. But, if they did, it would be awfully hard to resist it given the sheer quantity and, honestly, quality of their annotations. But all of that may be overthinking the problem a little bit.

While the list price is a little steep—and the Amazon price was not much below list when we bought the book there—this edition is very much worth considering, even if you, as many people do, have one or two (or several) other volumes of Eliot’s poetry. Obviously, if it is available at a local library or it could be procured by a local library on a permanent basis, it is an easy choice to borrow. And borrow and borrow.

Quid proficit tantum nefas?

We had it in mind to write a piece on the feast of the Holy Innocents, but then we checked New Liturgical Movement and found that Peter Kwasniewski had written a very fine essay on the feast. He notes,

Thoughts like this often occur to me on the strangely melancholy post-Christmas feast of the Holy Innocents. I say melancholy because, right after Christmas, we have a feast of unspeakable slaughter, bloodthirsty egotism, the ugly shadow of corrupt politics looming over the cradle of Bethlehem, the chill breath of the world against the cheek of humility. I cannot be the only one who winces when the Gospel passage is read out, and thinks of all the ways in which our world has still not let itself be redeemed, is still waging war against the Christ-child, is still scheming to suppress the King of kings.

But then I remind myself why it is a feast and not a day of penance like January 22nd. The Holy Innocents are true martyrs who stood in for Christ: they anticipate in their flesh the scourging, the nails, and the spear by which our salvation was wrought, and by which theirs was completed. What a triumphant victory, to have won without fighting, to have rushed ahead into the mystery of the Cross, without waiting for leave!

(Emphasis supplied.) Read the whole thing there.

Once upon a time, the feast of the Holy Innocents was a feast with a penitential, mournful character. Guéranger tells us:

In the midst of the joy, which, at this holy time, fills both heaven and earth, the Holy Church of Rome forgets not the lamentations of the Mothers, who beheld their Children cruelly butchered by Herod’s soldiers. She hears the wailing of Rachel, and condoles with her; and, unless it be a Sunday, she suspends on this Feast some of the manifestations of the joy, which inundates her soul during the Octave of her Jesus’ Birth. The Red Vestments of a Martyr’s Day would be too expressive of that stream of infant blood which forbids the Mothers to be comforted, and joyous White would ill suit their poignant grief; she, therefore, vests in Purple, the symbol of mournfulness. [Unless it be a Sunday; in which case, the colour used is Red.] The Gloria in excelsis, the Hymn she loves so passionately during these days, when Angels come down from heaven to sing it – even that must be hushed today: and, in the Holy Sacrifice, she sings no Alleluia. In this, as in everything she does, the Church acts with an exquisite delicacy of feeling. Her Liturgy is a school of refined Christian considerateness.

(Emphasis supplied, but italics in original.) Somewhere along the line, the feast became, well, more festal.

We note also that other aspects of the liturgy have changed significantly. In the books of 1960, the responsories at matins and the little chapters at lauds, vespers, and the little hours were taken from Revelation, primarily chapter 14 regarding the 144,000. Guéranger notes,

The Church shows us, by her choice of this mysterious passage of the Apocalypse, how great a value she sets on Innocence, and what our own esteem of it ought to be. The Holy Innocents follow the Lamb, because they are pure. Personal merits on earth they could not have; but they went rapidly through this world, and its defilements never reached them. Their Purity was not tried, as was St. John’s; but, it is beautified by the blood they shed for the Divine Lamb, and He is pleased with it, and makes them his companions.

(Emphasis supplied.) We wonder if the choice goes beyond that, though. Obviously the office wants us to associate the Holy Innocents with the 144,000 in Revelation 14. The office also alludes to the souls of the martyrs under the altar in Revelation 6. Plainly, the Church takes the occasion of the Holy Innocents’ feast to point to some very obscure passages in Revelation. In the Liturgia Horarum, however, many of the mysterious selections from Revelation have been replaced with selections from Lamentations. Perhaps a little more easily comprehensible, but awfully rough on the mysterious aspects of the feast.

The intersection of the timeless moment

At Dissent, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a staff writer at The New Republic, has a piece titled “Why the Left Needs Religion.” The piece itself takes (more or less) a historical look at Christian influences on historically leftist trends, and, thus, comes to a conclusion firmly rooted in history. It seems to us that this is exactly the wrong way to look at it. The Christian critique of capitalism and liberalism—the Christian emphasis on the common good and the human aspects of the market is perhaps a better, more accurate way of phrasing the issue—is a subject of no small interest to us. Accordingly, while we were interested to see Bruenig’s comment (she has become something of a voice for a leftist or left-friendly Christianity in recent years), we were disappointed to see the critique remain so solidly earthbound. The force of the Christian critique of liberalism and capitalism does not depend on reference to specific problems. (Disordered individualism and the all-consuming, convenience-driven drive for profits do not require specific problems, either, to show themselves. The basic reason, of course, is that they are symptoms of a problem as old as Eden.) However, Christianity’s critique, when applied to specific problems, as the Holy Father did brilliantly in Laudato si’, is always timely.

As our Breviary tells us, post Nonam explicit tempus Adventus et incipit tempus natalicium. So, from Semiduplex, to all of our readers:

Merry Christmas!

Crastina die delebitur iniquitas terrae.
Et regnabit super nos Salvator mundi.

Come all without, come all within

Today, the Holy Father gave his Christmas address to the Curia. Last year, his address was a catalogue of the various spiritual diseases that he diagnosed in the Curia. This year, the Holy Father gave a lengthy discussion of “Curial antibiotics,” using an acrostic analysis of Misericordia. He also quoted with high praise a prayer, which he attributed to John Cardinal Dearden, long-time archbishop of Detroit and prime mover behind the 1976 Call to Action conference that is so fondly remembered by so many elderly men and women as the high-water mark of a certain tendency of American Catholicism.

The lost race of men

Gregory DiPippo, recently named editor of New Liturgical Movement, has a very interesting piece about the Neo-Gallican preface for Advent. The preface itself is quite lovely, as we’ll see in a second, but DiPippo gives us a neat summary of the history of the Neo-Gallican liturgical books. In short, the Church in France, especially the Archdiocese of Paris, kept on doing its own thing despite St. Pius V’s Tridentine reforms. The French had various reasons for their innovations, and, as all liturgical innovators do sooner or later, they made some archaizing arguments. But the amazing thing is that this state of affairs continued for hundreds of years after Quod a nobis and Quo primum. Indeed, the preface DiPippo quotes was written for the Parisian Missal of 1738. That is to say that, almost 170 years after Quo primum was issued, Ventimille, the archbishop of Paris, promulgated a new missal with new prefaces.

The preface itself is lovely (this translation was provided by DiPippo, though there are a couple other translations floating around out there):

Vere dignum … Per Christum, Dominum nostrum. Quem pérdito hóminum géneri Salvatórem miséricors et fidélis promisisti: cuius véritas instrúeret inscios, sánctitas justificáret impios, virtus adiuváret infirmos. Dum ergo prope est ut veniat quem missúrus es, et dies affulget liberatiónis nostrae, in hac promissiónum tuárum fide, piis gaudiis exsultámus. Et ídeo etc.

Truly…through Christ, Our Lord. Whom in Thy mercy and fidelity Thou didst promise as Savior to the lost race of men, that His truth might instruct the ignorant, His holiness justify the wicked, and His power help the weak. Therefore, since that the time is nigh that He Whom Thou art to send should come, and the day of our liberation should dawn, with this faith in Thy promises, we rejoice with holy exultation. And therefore etc.

We particularly like the reference to the perditum hominum genus—the lost race of men—which points up the gravity of the situation immediately before the Nativity. (This is perhaps something we lose sight of in Advent occasionally.) The three parallel clauses pointing to three different attributes of Christ—whose truth might instruct the ignorant, whose sanctity might justify the unholy, whose strength might help the weak (our translation)—tell us how God is going to save the lost race of men. It’s nothing particularly elaborate or complicated, but it a nice, elegant expression of a fundamental truth: without the Incarnation, mankind would be doomed.

“Þu wysdom þat crepedest out”

A Clerk of Oxford has a fine piece about Middle English renderings of the great O Antiphons, which are said beginning tomorrow, December 17, in both forms of the Roman Rite. We won’t spoil the fun by quoting them. (Except, of course, for the little bit we spoiled with the title.)

One of our (several) idées fixes is that the Church lost something valuable—and probably irreplaceable—when it lost the regular, public celebration of the Divine Office. Part of that loss is the fact that the trajectory of the great seasons of Advent and Lent is shortened and hastened tremendously. We hop along, from one Sunday to another, moving toward Christmas and Easter in a few short weeks. To put it another way, a good deal of the expectation and penitential character of Advent is found in the Office. And the O Antiphons are an example of that expectation, “ancient songs of longing and desire,” as the Clerk puts it.