Old Possum's Nest - A second look at the poetry of T. S. Eliot.

This long-awaited critical edition of T. S. Eliot's poems is a scholarly milestone, a watershed in publishing history. The elaborate notes Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue have provided for each line—indeed, each word—of each and every Eliot poem are so informative and the overviews for each stage of Eliot's career contain so much of the poet's own germane commentary that one can now trace Eliot's poetic development using no further aids than these two volumes.

The opening background section, "A Beginner in 1908," for instance, reproduces every key statement Eliot made, whether in essays, lectures, or letters to friends, about his literary origins. From a 1946 essay on Ezra Pound, for example:
Whatever may have been the literary scene in America between the beginning of the century and the year 1914, it remains in my mind a complete blank. I cannot remember the name of a single poet of that period whose work I read.
And further, in a 1924 letter to Pound not widely known, Eliot similarly dismisses British turn-of-the-century poets, especially the "Swinburnians," with the words, "I am as blind to the merits of these people as I am to Thomas Hardy." Again—and to me surprising, given the London milieu in which he was circulating—in a 1945 letter to A. Benedict Crannigan, Eliot insists, "I had no knowledge of the so-called Imagists until 1915, and Imagism made very little impression upon me." Henry James was important but, after all, he wrote novels and hence was not much use to a poet.

Indeed, the only significant contemporary, so far as Eliot was concerned, was his great friend Ezra Pound, to whom he repeatedly acknowledges his debt. Otherwise, he insists, his inspiration came from France—from "Baudelaire and his immediate followers, Laforgue, Corbière, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé." And the editors provide references to Eliot's most important remarks on French Symbolist poetry and especially his views on vers libre: "The pleasure one gets out of the irregularity of such verse is due to the shadow or suggestion of regular metre behind." The kind of "free verse" D. H. Lawrence wrote, says Eliot scathingly in a 1924 essay on Whitman, produces "more notes for poems than poems themselves."

Nine pages of close commentary elucidate the background of Eliot's first volume Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), and the title poem is given 17 further pages. No matter how well we think we know "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," there is sure to be new information here. I did not know, for instance, that in a little-known essay (1959) in the Kipling Journal, Eliot remarked that "I am convinced [the poem] would never have been called Love Song but for a title of Kipling's that stuck obstinately in my head, The Love Song of Har Dyal." And under the notes for "Hysteria," one of Eliot's rare prose poems (1917), the editors have culled some of the poet's most important—and little-known—comments on the genre, which are tersely caustic, as in "I have not yet been given any definition of the prose poem which appears to be more than a tautology or a contradiction." Or, conversely, "verse, whatever else it may or may not be, is itself a system of punctuation"—a pithy comment made in a set of letters to the Times Literary Supplement under the heading "Questions of Prose" (1928).

Such notes are more than helpful: They are transformative, and Eliot scholarship and criticism will never be the same. For The Waste Land, the editors have supplied "An Editorial Composite," which is to say "a 678-line reading text of the earliest available drafts of the various parts and passages of the poem." These drafts will be familiar to readers of the facsimile edition of The Waste Land, edited by the poet's widow, Valerie Eliot (1971); but to read the text in its earliest form, before Eliot and then Pound made the crucial cuts and changes, is a sobering experience. It is not just that the overwritten imitations of Popean satire were eliminated, but Pound challenged every phrase, every modifier so that

Terrible city I have sometimes seen and see
Under the brown fog of your winter dawn.


Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn.

The change of "Terrible" to "Unreal" was Eliot's own, thus cementing the echo of Baudelaire's "Fourmillante cité." But the qualifier "I have sometimes seen and see," which dilutes the force of the apostrophe, is bracketed by Pound, and the latter also understands that the "winter dawn" should not be "your" (the city's) but "a."

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