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.