The Gifts Reserved for Age

T. S. Eliot, Early Achiever & Late Bloomer
This story is included in these collections

T. S. Eliot’s Collected Poems, 1909–1962 was published in 1963, two years before he died. More than one review remarked at the time how austere was Eliot’s decision to let these two hundred and some pages stand for the poems by which he wished to be remembered. By comparison, the collected poems of contemporaries such as W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, or Robert Frost ranged from two to three times longer. This disparity is due in part to the fact that after Four Quartets was published in 1943, Eliot wrote very few poems (he was in part preoccupied with writing poetic dramas), while Yeats, Stevens, and Frost continued with undiminished energy to turn out lyrics until overtaken by death. It thus comes as something of a shock to see this new two-volume edition of his poems, which comes to almost two thousand pages with annotations. None of Eliot’s contemporaries, including the three mentioned above, has received such an editorial tribute.

The two volumes are arranged as follow: Volume I contains 219 pages of collected poems, followed by uncollected ones, then an “Editorial Composite” of The Waste Land, and about a thousand pages of commentary, plus introductory material, bibliography, and index. Volume II contains Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Eliot’s translation of St. John Perse’s Anabasis, followed by other verses, then “Improper Rhymes,” featuring Eliot’s “Columbo” and “King Bolo” poems, scatological and humorous (or so the poet hoped) in character. Concluding the two volumes are 350 pages of textual history for all the poems. Together, the two volumes weigh about ten pounds and are hard on one’s wrists and knees.

Christopher Ricks, head of the Editorial Institute at Boston University, is the most authoritative scholar and critic of Eliot in the world. While these volumes were in preparation his co-editor, Jim McCue, published essays on the special challenges and difficulties of editing Eliot. In the introduction to their commentary, they address the question any interested reader is likely to ask: Is all this necessary and does it not smother rather than illuminate Eliot’s work? In Ricks’s introduction half a century ago to his splendid edition of Tennyson’s poems, he spoke directly to what a fully annotated edition consists of, and justified the frequency with which sources and influences were cited in the annotation. His project was to “illustrate the range of possible likenesses...from conscious allusion to another poet, then unconcious reminiscence, then phrasing which is simply an analogue and not a source.” The notes, he argued, should refrain from interpretative explanation but instead offer points of information, leaving the reader free to make up his own mind about how useful the information is.

The seeking out of parallels is the most controversial aspect of an annotated edition such as this one. The recipients of such scholarly attention have not always been appreciative of the honor. When in his Illustrations of Tennyson, John Churton Collins, a late-nineteenth-century critic, put his encyclopedic mind to work in detecting echoes of all sorts in Tennyson’s poems, the bard responded as follows:

There is, I fear, a prosaic set growing up among us, editors of booklets, book-worms, index hunters, or men of great memories and no imagination, who impute themselves to the poet, and so believe that he, too, has no imagination but is forever poking his nose between the pages of some old volume to see what he can appropriate. They will not allow one to say “Ring the bell” without finding that we have taken it from Sir P. Sidney, or even to use such a simple expression as the ocean “roars,” without finding out the precise verse in Homer or Horace from which we have plagiarized it.

Whether the echo was a source, an allusion, or an analogue, mattered not a bit to the annoyed Tennyson, who allegedly called Churton Collins “a louse on the locks of literature.” (Subsequent research has determined that Tennyson’s name for Collins was “Jackass.”)

As for Eliot, he seems to have been of two minds about the propriety of annotating his poems at all. In a letter written near the end of his life to the master of a Cambridge college, he declared emphatically, “I will not allow any academic critic (and there are plenty of them in America only too willing) to provide notes of explanation to be published with...my poems.” In Ricks’s edition of Eliot’s early uncollected poems, Inventions of the March Hare (1997), he quoted this letter but balanced it somewhat by pointing out that Eliot had sometimes “applauded” an annotated edition, and that he himself provided notes for the most allusive of his poems, The Waste Land. The editors’ statement in The Complete Poems, that the notes “proceed from a point of information,” leaves open possible disagreement about whether a particular note does or does not constitute “information,” or whether it may instead constitute interpretation. We shall never know whether Eliot would have admired this massive work, been appalled by it, or expressed mixed feelings about it.

 

THAT SAID, we can remark more particularly on features of these two volumes. First, if we may momentarily detach him from his co-editor, a word about Christopher Ricks. In Inventions of the March Hare, Ricks quotes Eliot saying about Shakespeare that he “read with the most prodigious memory for words that has ever existed.” I think it fair to say that on the evidence of his long career as a critic, scholar, and editor, Ricks has exhibited a comparably prodigious memory for words. We know that Harold Bloom possesses a prodigious memory because he has often told us so. (He can recite the whole of Paradise Lost and all the poems of Hart Crane). But Bloom consistently shirks the task of describing the verbal interanimation of poems he has brought up for commentary. Ricks’s own style in his essays, in which his words are so interanimated with puns, anti-puns, double-entendres, playful twistings of language in every direction, has bothered critics who prefer a plainer style. But there is no denying his remarkable ability to call up analogies and parallels to the particular line under consideration. To take but one example (and to refer perhaps unjustly to Ricks in isolation from his co-editor): Eliot’s “What the Thunder Said” (The Waste Land Part V) has a memorable evocation of aridity in the lines “But sound of water over a rock / Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees / Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop.” The commentary tells us the drip-drop line was anticipated by Coleridge, Poe, and W. E. Henley. The Coleridge citation is brief: “Drip! drip! drip! drip!—in such a place as this / It has nothing else to do but drip drip drip.” The citation is to Act IV of Osorio. Only a Coleridge specialist will have even heard of Osorio, which turns out to be a failed play from early in the poet’s career, eventually retitled and produced in 1812 with the help of Lord Byron. Such a calling-up from this obscure source is beyond the reach even of Google. Then again, no reader is going to say, “Aha! This is what I’ve been waiting for—now I understand Eliot’s line.”

But in many other instances we are helped by a note to fill in something we only imperfectly understood, if at all. In the lines from “East Coker”—“Had they deceived us / Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders”—it may or may not have occurred to us to think about the Biblical anecdote of Susannah and the Elders, but it occurred to the editors, and they provide possibly relevant sentences from the four-page story of Susannah in the Apocrypha to the Book of Daniel. The editors gloss “deceived themselves” by adducing similar phrasing about “elders” in Eliot’s essay “Thoughts After Lambeth,” and they conclude with a parallel which, like the “drip drip” in Osorio, will have occurred to nobody else, but is pleasant to have anyway: Henry Adams’s reference to Garibaldi as a “quiet-featured, quiet-voiced man in a red-flannel shirt.”

At a higher level of annotative usefulness and interest, here is part of the commentary on lines opening the second part of “Little Gidding”: “Ash on an old man’s sleeve, / Is all the ash the burnt roses leave. / Dust in the air suspended / Marks the place where the story ended.” We may remember that during World War II Eliot was an air-raid warden, and sometimes “watched” at Faber, his place of business, as well as near his home in Kensington. But the particular salience of these lines is enriched by sentences from a letter Eliot wrote to William Levy about such fire-watching: “During the Blitz the accumulated debris was suspended in the London air for hours after a bombing. Then it would slowly descend and cover one’s sleeves and coat with a fine white ash. I often experienced this effect during the long night hours on the roof.” Or there may be an unexpected enrichment of a particular moment in a poem—even a moment not to every reader’s taste. In perhaps the prosiest section of Four Quartets, the follow-up to the beautiful lyric about the fishermen in part II of “The Dry Salvages,” Eliot draws a distinction between real happiness, a “sudden illumination,” and lesser sorts of happiness: “Not the sense of well-being / Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection, / Or even a very good dinner.” A friend of mine used to writhe over that business about the good dinner as an unattractive example of Eliot in his most churchwardenly mode. The editors quote a letter to Eliot’s boss, the publisher Geoffrey Faber, about moments of illumination, quoting St. John of the Cross about how the soul must be divested of its cravings for wordly things: after this happens, writes Eliot, “One returns (I do anyway) to the Canard Aux Oranges or the Moules Marinières or whatever it is with a keener pleasure.... If we are rightly directed, a good dinner can lead us toward God, and God can help us to enjoy a good dinner.” My friend wouldn’t have been won over, but I shall now read these lines in a slightly enhanced way.

 

IT WOULD BE disingenuous for a reviewer to suggest he has followed all or even most of the Commentary. I singled out the 163 pages devoted to The Four Quartets as a good spot for concentration, especially the fifty-five pages given to “Little Gidding,” which Eliot once called the best thing he had written. Before the notes on individual lines and passages, there are introductory pages dealing with the history of the poem, its composition, the “Dante” section, and the history of its reception. There are twenty-four pages of notes about the unforgettable seventy-line encounter with the ghost (“some dead master”) who says:

Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
                To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
                First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
                But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
                As soul and body begin to fall asunder.

The unrhymed tercets both remind us of, and are distinct from, Dante’s terza rima and were described by Eliot in a letter: “What is quite interesting is that the austere Dantesque style is more difficult, and offers more pitfalls than any other.” The commentary on this passage, filled with illuminating statements about it by Eliot, makes for fascinating reading in its own right.

In fact, the fineness and human resonance of this edition’s critical apparatus is mainly found not in its notes on particular lines but in the more general commentary drawn from Eliot’s letters and other communications, which show the depths of ennui, despair, and self-recrimination that marked the man. Often the sardonic bite, a darkly humorous one, is apparent, as when, asked by W. H. Auden why he liked to play Patience, Eliot responded that it was the nearest thing to being dead. Or a quite unhumorous confession, perhaps the bleakest self-assessment I’m aware of by any writer, comes in a summing-up he made to his close friend, John Hayward, in 1936:

I have no family, no career, and nothing particular to look forward to in this world. I doubt the permanent value of everything I have written. I never lay with a woman I liked, loved, or even felt any strong physical attraction to. I no longer even regret this lack of experience. I no longer even feel acutely the desire for progeny which was very acute once.

These words stop the curious reader in his tracks. What rescued Eliot from the despair he located in “The Hollow Men”—“the lowest point I have reached in my sordid, domestic affairs”—was his conversion to the Anglican Church in 1927, but more dramatically his marriage to Valerie Fletcher eight years before he died. In an undated communication he wrote, with reference to the grim ending of The Waste Land, “If I had known that I was, late in life, to have the felicity to have this radiant angel, Valerie, my Valerie, as my wife...I should have been myself radiant with joyful hope.”

New to me and I suspect to most readers, is the existence of an “exercise book” made for his wife and titled “Valerie’s Own Book.” It consists, in no special order, of many poems Eliot had previously written and then copied into the book for his wife. The contents range from famous poems like “Prufrock” to a few of the infamous obscene verses, gathered in our edition under the title “Improper Rhymes.” On a wedding announcement card he sent to his old friend Conrad Aiken in 1957, he declares himself “intensely happy, except for the fact that Valerie wants to learn about King Bolo and thus far I have resisted her attempts.” He finally relented, and what is more surprising wrote three poems about their marriage: “How the Tall Girl and I Play Together,” “Sleeping Together,” and “How the Tall Girl’s Breasts Are.” They contain such revelatory passages as this:

I love a tall girl. When we lie in bed
She on her back and I stretched upon her,
And our middle parts are busy with each other,
My toes play with her toes and my tongue with her tongue,
And all the parts are happy. Because she is a tall girl.

What happened to Old Possum? Who would have thought that the author of Four Quartets—or, for that matter, of “King Bolo and his Big Black Bastard Queen”—would have been capable of such unprotected, intimate sincerity to a beloved? It is one of the more surprising of the Eliotic selves displayed in this magnificent, overwhelming edition.

Published in the May 6, 2016 issue: 

William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

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