I gotta use words - T.S. Eliot

The first person to annotate a poem by T.S. Eliot was T.S. Eliot. His notes on The Waste Land (1922) were composed partly so that his 433-line poem could be issued by his American publishers Boni & Liveright as a book, and partly, as he recalled in ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ (1956), ‘with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism’. ‘Not only the title,’ Eliot observed in his introductory paragraph to The Waste Land’s notes,
but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.
In these seemingly sober, useful, self-deprecating sentences lurks the MacGuffin, to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s term, that reaches its epic, mind-boggling climax in the publication, nearly a century on, of Faber’s two all-comprehending new tomes, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. The editors promise to ‘elucidate the difficulties’ of Eliot’s work by tracing every possible verbal overlap between the words used in his poems and the words used by other writers, both famous and obscure, in texts that range from Dante’s Divine Comedy to an anonymous scribe’s record of the Acts and Resolutions of the 29th General Assembly of Iowa (1902).

The lines of Eliot’s that most often occurred to me as I worked my way through these thousand or so pages of commentary (set in 10-point type) are from Sweeney Agonistes. In the course of his narrative about a man who ‘did a girl in’, and then kept her body in a bath with a gallon of Lysol, Sweeney explains that the murderer would periodically visit him:

SWEENEY: He used to come and see me sometimes
I’d give him a drink and cheer him up.

DORIS: Cheer him up?

DUSTY: Cheer him up?

SWEENEY: Well here again that don’t apply
But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.

One of the side effects of reading through this edition’s extraordinarily wide-ranging and inclusive notes is the periodical rising of a Sweeney-like urge to declare: ‘That don’t apply.’ Like Sweeney, every poem has got to use words, and those words will also necessarily have been used in the work of earlier or contemporary writers.

To begin at the very beginning: is there a meaningful relationship between ‘Let us go then …’ (the opening words of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’), and the phrase ‘Let us go now …’ which occurs in Chapter 40 of Daniel Deronda (with ‘street’ and ‘sky’ later in the paragraph); between ‘When the evening is spread out against the sky’ (line 2 of ‘Prufrock’) and Thomas Hardy’s ‘forms there flung/Against the sky’ (‘The Abbey Mason’); between ‘certain half-deserted streets’ (line 4 of ‘Prufrock’) and ‘he sought out a certain street and number’ in Chapter 20 of Little Dorrit; or, moving beyond literature, between that phrase and the recording of a payment made to ‘R.D. Bennett, for sprinkling a certain street’ in the aforementioned Acts and Resolutions of the 29th General Assembly of Iowa; between Prufrock’s ‘overwhelming question’ (line 10) and the observation in Chapter 23 of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers that ‘The whole company were a good deal astounded with this overwhelming question’?

Certainly Eliot’s mind was a vast, labyrinthine echo chamber, and perhaps more than any other canonical poet of the English language, with the possible exception of his great antagonist John Milton, he was conscious of the previous uses by other writers of the words he deployed in his poems. But what exactly is the difference, one can’t help wondering while reading such notes, between an interesting allusion or echo and a mere verbal coincidence? And where should limits be set for the recording of these echoes or coincidences in the age of the internet, when it’s possible to pursue any phrase ad infinitum? Should notes in a scholarly edition aspire to the condition of an entry in the OED? Anyone with an interest in Eliot will be grateful for, and marvel at, the truly extraordinary knowledge of all things Eliotic that underpins these volumes, but – to get my quibble out of the way early, so that I can praise the numerous virtues of this edition with a clear conscience – it is not always easy to discern the value of the links the editors posit between Eliot’s words and the analogous phrases, drawn from a bewildering array of writers, presented for comparison in the commentary.

Those first ten lines of ‘Prufrock’, for instance, elicit, as well as the citations I’ve already mentioned, quotations from Jules Laforgue, W.E. Henley, Théophile Gautier, Russell S. Fowler (author of The Operating Room and the Patient, a 1906 book which includes a reference to ‘anaesthetic tables’), William James, James Thomson, William Acton, Charles-Louis Philippe, W.R. Burnett (a crime novelist in whose High Sierra – published in 1940 – the phrase ‘She was … a one-night-stand type’ occurs), Edward Winslow Martin (author of The Secrets of the Great City, 1868, which mentions ‘cheap hotels’), the London Baedeker, Cooper’s The Prairie and Hamlet’s ‘overwhelming question’ – ‘“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Perhaps also OED 6: “to pop the question (slang or colloq.), to propose marriage” (1725)’. In addition, the notes on these ten lines draw our attention to eight other Eliot poems, as well as including quotations from The Cocktail Party and a number of his essays and letters. It’s worth remarking at the very least that the parameters established for this edition constitute a new frontier in the use of notes to record verbal echoes and overlaps, as well as to include tangential facts. The quote from The Prairie, for instance, is adduced because Eliot always sounds the final ‘t’ in ‘restaurants’ in his various recorded readings of ‘Prufrock’; ‘OED,’ the editors add, ‘gives a pronunciation in which it is not sounded, and the spelling of its first citation, from Fenimore Cooper, 1827, points to the French derivation: “At the most renowned of the Parisian restaurans”.’ This is a good instance of the sort of knowledge you will pick up from Ricks and McCue’s commentary as an unexpected bonus. It illustrates their generous wish to impart as much information as possible, and while their method throws up all manner of fascinating trouvailles, surely even the most devoted Eliot scholars will occasionally find themselves scratching their heads when ordinary words such as ‘toast’ (‘the taking of a toast and tea’) are glossed by an OED definition – ‘Bread so browned by fire, electric heat etc.’ The editors’ kitchen-sink approach to annotation makes even Longman editions, such as Ricks’s own wonderful three-volume edition of Tennyson – who published an awful lot more poetry than Eliot – seem modest by comparison.

Modernist writing often foregrounded in unignorable ways the issues raised in the opening sentences of Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land. The difficulties presented through his use of allusions and source materials required elucidation by reference to other books, and readers had to be persuaded that getting to grips with an anthropological text on medieval legends in order to understand the poem that it supposedly inspired was ‘worth the trouble’. On occasion Eliot himself expressed remorse for having kickstarted the business of allusion-hunting with his ‘bogus scholarship’, while conceding that the poem and its notes were wed for ever: ‘I have sometimes thought of getting rid of these notes; but now they can never be unstuck. They have had almost greater popularity than the poem itself – anyone who bought my book of poems, and found that the notes to The Waste Land were not in it, would demand his money back.’ Maybe so, but Eliot’s notes hardly offer a reader-friendly exposition of the poem’s mysteries: they assume proficiency in French, Italian, Latin and German, and they struck Arnold Bennett, whose help Eliot sought while he was at work on Sweeney Agonistes, as a spoof: ‘I said to him,’ Bennett recorded in his Journals, ‘“I want to ask you a question. It isn’t an insult. Were the notes to Wastelands a lark or serious? I thought they were a skit.” He said that they were serious, and not more of a skit than some things in the poem itself.’

Much of Eliot’s poker-faced humour – like much of the savagery or violence in his work – derives from his confounding of the difference between ‘a lark’ and the ‘serious’, and the mock scholarly aspect of the notes is to the fore in annotations such as the one with which he glosses the lines ‘To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours/With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine’: ‘A phenomenon which I have often noticed.’ At times he seems almost to be taunting the philistine English poetry-lover who can’t see beyond the Georgians, as when he recommends to those unable to read Sanskrit Paul Deussen’s 1897 translation into German of Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad, where the ‘fable of the meaning of the Thunder’ can be found. His note, on the other hand, on Tiresias (the blind ancient Greek prophet who had been both man and woman) suggested a way of reading The Waste Land that has had a deep and lasting influence on the poem’s reception, for it implied a coherent overall plan and a way of understanding the various characters the poem presents:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
This seems to encourage us to view The Waste Land not as a ‘heap of broken images’ or a series of sprawling, disconnected ‘fragments’ shored against the poet’s ruins, but as a skilfully orchestrated jeremiad by a prophet-like creator who, rather than a pulpit, uses collage and allusion and other avant-garde (as well as traditional) poetic techniques to alert his followers to their perilous spiritual state. The note acts as both a declaration of the ‘impersonality’ of the poem and as a kind of prophylactic insulating Eliot from Tiresias. We are not, it warns, to assume that the poet is dramatising his own divided state and dilemmas through his all-uniting ‘personage’, although, reading against the grain, the note may also prompt us to think that this is exactly the use he is making of the old man with wrinkled dugs who foresees and foresuffers all.

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