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The Poems of T.S. Eliot

Nick Spencer

The Poems of T.S. Eliot Volume 1: Collected and uncollected poems
Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue
Faber and Faber, 1,344pp

The Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume 2: Practical Cats and further verses
Edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue
Faber and Faber, 688pp


Post-mortem inflation is a danger for any great poet. Ted Hughes published quite a bit in his lifetime, but his 1,376 page Collected Poems still came as a bit of a shock when it was published in 2005. Philip Larkin published rather less - three slim volumes of note - in his time, yet his Complete Poems still reached 768 pages with the aid of Archie Burnett's commentary. T. S. Eliot beats them both hands down, however.

Most people when pressed to name Eliot's poems would, I guess, struggle to get beyond half a dozen or so: The Waste Land, Four Quartets, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Ash Wednesday, Journey of the Magi, The Hollow Men. His Collected Poems, first published over 50 years ago, contained rather more but was still only about half an inch thick. Eliot groupies always knew there was more, much of which leaked into public over subsequent decades. Drafts of The Waste Land, wisely cut down by Ezra Pound, were published in 1971. Eliot's juvenilia came out in 1996, under the title Inventions of the March Hare. Various scurrilous ditties dripped into public consciousness as his early letters were published.

Even given this steadily inflating corpus, however, few would have been prepared for the complete two volume edition of Eliot's verse that was published in November 2015. Respectively 1,344 and 688 pages they are a monument to the greatest English poet of the 20th century, and a testimony to one of the language's great textual editors, Christopher Ricks.

The two volumes are, in effect, three and might, I humbly submit, have benefited from being published as such. Volume I begins with the poems of the original 1962 Collected Poems, stretching from Prufrock and other Observations in 1917 to five 'Occasional Verses', retaining Eliot's original selection and order throughout. These comprise a coherent volume in their own right (as Eliot clearly believed), and would have made a hefty volume on their own with the 700 pages of notes they are given.

They are followed, however, by a hundred pages of 'Uncollected Poems' (many of which will be familiar from Inventions of the March Hare, although there are some previously unpublished late verses written for and about Eliot's second wife, Valerie), and 30 pages 'editorial composite' of The Waste Land, a 678-line long reading text of 'the earliest available parts and passages of the poem' intended to 'illustrate how radically [the poem] altered during composition'. These verses, clearly of secondary importance in Eliot's mind, would have comprised 400+ page volume in their own right.

Volume II is made up of Eliot's Old Possum cat poems, his translation of Alexis St. Léger Léger (alias St.-John Perse)'s poem Anabase, published in 1930 as Anabasis, and then various occasion and 'improper' verses. Eliot was proud of his feline verses, and spoke highly of St.-John Perse but would, I suspect, have preferred his doggerel about 'King Bolo's big black basstart queen' to have remained private. Volume II then concludes with 300 pages of textual history which, amusingly, begins by claiming that 'considerations of scale mean [this] cannot claim to be comprehensive'.

It should be clear that these two volumes are not for the casually-interested, or weak-wristed. For those moved primarily by the rhythm music of Eliot's verse - he once told an aspiring writer that he composed with the use of a small drum to help inform the pace of the verse - the featherweight Selected or Collected Poems offer a better (and cheaper) option. For those who want to understand better what his profound yet elusive poetry might mean, these two volumes are indispensable.

If I have one criticism (other than the one that three volumes would have been better than two) it is that the poems' notes are confined to the end of the volume (in Volume I at least; oddly they come after individual sections or individual poems in Volume II), rather than at the foot of each page, as they do, say, in Ricks' Longman edition of Tennyson. Footnotes on each page tell you where to look for commentary and textual history but that still means there is an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing when reading the poems.

That said, it is easy to see why Ricks and McCue chose this option. 'Mr Appolinax' is one of the shorter and less well-known poems from Prufrock and Other Observations. Its 22 lines, however, still earn it ten pages of commentary and three of textual history. Combining text and commentary on each page would have resulted in 'iceberg' text, with ten times more notes lurking under the surface of each line. Or even more: The Waste Land's 433 lines are given a 40-page headnote, and then 122 pages of commentary.

Have the editors gone overboard here? The answer - admittedly from an Eliot groupie - is no. Eliot wrote in an echo chamber of Western literature, his erudition as impressive as his ear. Ricks and McCue wisely refrain from telling readers what poems 'mean', a questionable task for any editor, and an impossible quest an editor of Eliot, who publicly pooh-poohed the very idea. When asked once by a student what he meant by the line, 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree', from Ash Wednesday, he replied impatiently, 'I mean, "Lady, three white leopard sat under a juniper tree."'

The editors do, however, offer an astonishing rich resource for those who do want at least to try to decipher the poetry. Quoting widely from letters to, from and about Eliot, they give a variety of perspectives on the creation and revision of the poems, as well as an invaluable view of what Eliot himself thought of them (usually not very much). They offer plenteous cross-references with Eliot's other verse, prose and drama, and with the centuries of European literature that formed him. Although only the most diligent Eliot student or the most hardened Eliot junkie will use even half of these notes, anyone with an interest in his verse will benefit.

Someone once remarked unkindly that the recent death of Valerie Eliot, who had diligently guarded Eliot's archive, marked a thaw in Narnia. These two volumes accompany