When The Waste Land first appeared, there were rumours that it was a hoax. It seemed so strange: 400 lines in many languages, and even the sections that were in English looked as if the author was only teasing. ‘Twit twit twit’ ran one line: ‘Jug jug jug jug jug jug.’ Eliot’s long poem was published first in Criterion in October 1922, and then in an American magazine the following month. Eliot had also sold the rights to publish it as a book, but his publishers feared that the poem alone was too short. To make it a little longer, Eliot added half a dozen pages of sporadic notes.
The notes Eliot added are as odd as the rest of the poem. They give a handful of helpful references while denying others. He points the reader to St Augustine, a birdwatching manual and 17th-century plays. ‘I do not know the origin of the ballad from which these lines were taken,’ Eliot writes in one: ‘it was reported to me from Sydney, Australia.’ The notes play an essentially modernist game: they fill in the gaps in the poem and yet also mark the limits of how much we can know of the poem. They are also a joke about academic ways of reading literary texts. Finally, they are a reminder that the poem is a material object, something to be sold, taken apart and put together again. For Eliot, the notes were all part of the fun.
Now, in the two lush volumes of the new Poems of T.S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, Eliot’s poetry has been given all the notes anyone could wish for. There are 160 pages of dense, small- typeface notes on The Waste Land alone, including one extensive note on the various versions of that ballad from Sydney, which the editors have of course tracked down. And while the majority of the 2,000 pages of these two volumes is prose, including commentary on printing history, the most startling element is the poems. The old Faber edition of Eliot’s Collected Poems 1909–1962 is 238 pages in total and includes just over 50 poems. The new Ricks and McCue edition includes all these — in corrected versions — and adds 200 more: poems from Eliot’s letters to his friends, for public occasions, or to his wife.
The new edition begins just as Eliot did, with the poem which appeared first in his first published volume of poetry: ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Even after all this time, it remains a knockout opening, both invitation and affront:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the
Like a patient etherised upon a table.
The first and second lines sound like the most conventional poem in the world, until that vicious turn on the simile in line three: for surely only a cruel or deeply isolated man would liken a sunset to a patient undergoing surgery, laid out and bleeding. The image is both startlingly good poetry and highly efficient: it tells much about the gaudy look of sunsets and just as much about the speaker’s own obsessions and fears, revealed as if by mistake. The image is, like all great poems, about several different things simultaneously: trauma and manners, sunlight, and the dangers of description.
This is a showy opening, both for a poet and a poem, and the reader might turn from it to the commentary given by Ricks and McCue, only to find a warning from Eliot quoted there. The poem has, he insisted to a correspondent, ‘no emotional content whatever’.
This is a distinctive editorial habit of Ricks and McCue. Their commentary is dominated by quotations, from Eliot himself and the other writers or books he alludes to. On those first lines from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufruck’, the commentary refers the reader to similar phrases in a novel by George Eliot, a poem by Thomas Hardy, the Book of Job, and for patients under ether lists a further 13 quotations from previous sources, taking in French Symbolist poetry, the history of surgical anaesthetic and the proper name for operating tables.
This is beautifully handled, and the commentary reveals how rich these images are, but even as they help a reader to account for the power of the poem, they acknowledge too how much depends upon restraint: upon all the things it does not say but only lets us glimpse. This is true for many poets, but perhaps most true of all for Eliot, whose art lies in unfilled gaps. The title is a name: J. Alfred Prufrock. Ricks and McCue include a reminiscence by a friend of Eliot’s, who recalls that Eliot once told him that Prufrock’s first name was Joseph. Is the J. a Joseph, or is this only another game of hide and seek? It is all these things at the same time, and the greatest accomplishment of this new edition is that it preserves the essential weirdness which makes Eliot’s poetry so powerful.
Eliot’s insistence that ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ has no emotional content is of a piece with his repeated claim that the best poetry is impersonal. As he put it in his essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: ‘The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ His contemporaries often found him guarded. Virginia Woolf joked that Eliot was so buttoned-up he wore a four-piece suit, but Ricks and McCue here collect dozens of previously unpublished poems in which Eliot reveals himself to be filled with life. He was sociable: here are rhyming toasts (‘I’d gladly drink a pint of beer/ In honour of the Dr. here’) and poems written to be engraved upon a wineglass, in celebration of a wedding anniversary, or as a thank-you letter after a dinner. This is an unbuttoned Eliot: as a child of nine or ten, writing a note to the postman upon an envelope: ‘O Postman! take a little skiff/ And ply your oar to HAMMERSMITH.’ He wrote a letter in verse to Groucho Marx, asking for his autograph.
Two categories of these informal poems stand apart from the easy jocularity of the rest. The first volume includes a group of flirtatious poems addressed to his second wife Valerie, written in blue ink in two school exercise books in the late 1950s. These are unguarded and tender, but they remain poised. In one, he declares:
I love a tall girl. When we stand face to face
She with nothing on and I with nothing on;
She in high heels and I in bare feet,
We can just touch nipple to nipple
Tingling and burning. Because she is a tall girl.
Each phrase is carefully picked, and the syntax is both casual and precise; the image is both of mismatch (he is taller than she is) and coming together (they are made the same height). This could only have been written by Eliot.
In the second volume, Ricks and McCue include the rhymes Eliot traded with friends about the ongoing adventures of ‘King Bolo’s big black queen’. This is old- fashioned bawdry, and jingly dated racism:
King Bolo’s big black basstart kuhween
That plastic & elastic one,
Would frisk it on the village green,
Enjoying her fantastikon.
Eliot took these very seriously, describing them to friends as ‘Aristophanic’ and ‘the true Bolovian rhyme’. As with the notes to The Waste Land, the mock scholarly pomp is part of the point and the humour.
One question remains: do we need all this? Aren’t we better off with the grand Eliot of The Waste Land and ‘Prufrock’? Eliot insisted that the life’s work of a great writer forms a single piece. ‘The whole of Shakespeare’s work is one poem,’ he wrote, and ‘Joyce’s writings form a whole.’ It has always been tempting to divide Eliot into two: the anti-Semite and the great, humane poet; the young American and the middle-aged European. W.H. Auden wrote that Eliot was really two figures, a conscientious churchwarden and a 12-year-old boy ‘who likes to surprise over-solemn wigs by offering them explosive cigars, or cushions which fart when sat upon’. All these poems — casual, funny, flirtatious, severe — are Eliot.
It is insufficient to say that Ricks and McCue have produced the best edition of Eliot’s poems. It is certainly that, but it is also — almost incidentally — the best biography of Eliot, and a very fine study of the modernist imagination. Nobody remembers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature (Eliot, 1948), but these volumes are the real prize: loving, respectful, bold.