Dr Anne Stillman

T.S. Eliot’s One Poem

A review of The Poems of T.S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, 2 vols. (Faber & Faber, 2015)

[from CHR Issue 11 (2016)]

The whole of Shakespeare’s work is one poem; and it is the poetry of it in this sense, not the poetry of isolated lines and passages or the poetry of the single figures which he created, that matters most. 

(T.S. Eliot, ‘John Ford’, 1932)

 . . . It is equally undesirable to think oneself a poet and to think that one is not a poet. That is something we never find out.

(T.S. Eliot, to Alexander Langridge Ford, 1934)

‘(But our beginnings never know our ends!)’ – The exclamation slips into T.S. Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’, where, shaded by parenthesis, it sounds both emphatic and hushed.  Caught up between voices, here, in this poem, where ‘conversation slips / Among velleities and carefully caught regrets’, the phrase seems to deliver its wisdom in an elegantly off-hand key, flushed ever so slightly with innuendo, and, as part of Eliot’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’, pays homage to a strain of Henry James, where an impromptu vacuity can turn surprisingly prismatic: ‘(But our beginnings never know our ends!)’   Coming as it does near the end of a poem that begins with an epigraph insinuating dead ends (‘And besides, the wench is dead’), occurring near the beginning of a poet’s first published collection, following on from that startling début poem, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, which asks ‘And how should I begin?’, Eliot’s line seems to knowingly have its own poetic beginnings in mind as an end in sight. Now, as part of the beginning of The Poems of T.S. Eliot, this little phrase bears a proleptic weight beyond its years: ‘(But our beginnings never know our ends!)’   – Eliot’s endings as a poet are resoundingly audible in these beginnings, ‘In my beginning is my end’ (‘East Coker’). In stating what we can ‘never know’, the line from Portrait of a Lady is a line that knew too much.  Such patterning intimates a poetical choreography across Eliot’s oeuvre, and yet these echoes are not merely tidy symmetries prompting notation, but representative points of return and dwelling, parts in an elusive compositional dance where beginnings and endings are wound around each other in anxious, loving embraces. The beginning of Four Quartets is ‘Burnt Norton’, but the opening of the sequence once made up the end of Eliot’s 1936 Collected Poems. Now, ‘Burnt Norton’ perhaps begins:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

Perhaps ‘now’ is always sooner than we think. The poem may begin earlier, as its first world exists in the scene with the second tempter from Murder in the Cathedral for which Eliot first wrote those lines and which he then cut from his drama.  There are many instances across Eliot’s poems and within their compositional histories where a backward look signals the intimation of a beginning. As a compositional practice, self-repetition and revision especially fascinate Eliot, as he stresses how poets borrow from themselves, and so commit, in Samuel Beckett’s words, ‘that most necessary, wholesome and monotonous plagiarism – the plagiarism of oneself.’  Acts of self-revision are repeated by Eliot on the level of a single line, but also, as with ‘Burnt Norton’, across works, as if the first attempt were a premonition of an obligation to return: in The Waste Land, ‘(Come in under the shadow of this red rock)’ is shadowed by the previous occurrence of these words, without brackets, in the opening ‘The Death of St Narcissus’; ‘Death By Water’, in that poem, had appeared before, written in French; The Hollow Men reach back, turning old materials into strange new phantom limbs. Such instances, among many others, may prompt us to say of Eliot, as he said of Shakespeare, that his work is one poem.  Or, differently, that he never stopped writing one poem, and that this is an activity in which he was bound; that is, to which he was devoted and by which he was held fast.  Writing one poem, in a way, becomes part of the fabric of Eliot’s last poems, Four Quartets, where the sequence takes the clash between life in time and time impending as its comic and piteous subject.  It may come as only one kind of surprise, then, to learn that Eliot had a moment from Dickens’s Pickwick Papers in mind for the original epigraph to Four Quartets,  ‘What a rum thing Time is, ain’t it, Neddy’.  
            In these two annotated volumes of T.S. Eliot’s poems, Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue leave present and future readers of Eliot’s poems a loving, generous gift. Here, at last, Eliot’s living poetic imagination can be traced across poems, through echoes, variant readings, manuscripts, recordings, textual errors and contingencies, off-chance remarks, doodles, gifts, letters, squibs. This edition helps us to attend to Eliot’s self-borrowings and re-enactments as well as other elusive patterns and echoes, and so we can tune in, as Proust writes of Vinteuil, to hear beneath the apparent differences between works, the ‘similitudes profondes et les ressemblances voulues qu’il y avait au sein d’une oeuvre’, but also capture the ‘ressemblances dissimulées, involontaires’ that break out in different shades across works, recollective traces emerging just when an artist creates something new. Eliot’s thought that Shakespeare’s work is one poem is deeply Proustian in that it is, in a profound sense, biographical: intrinsic to a phenomenal surface where differences play in prismatic colours, is an ingathering of self-identity. An edition of a life’s works is a peculiar species of biography, and Ricks and McCue begin their monumental portrait of the artist with a deftly comic gesture, one that intensifies the seriousness of their endeavour, as they give Eliot’s own voice the last word to the first volume of his annotated poems: ‘I will not allow any academic critic (and there are plenty of those in America only too willing) to provide notes of explanation to be published with any of my poems. […] I want my readers to get their impressions from the words alone and nothing else’.
            This edition makes me feel like Alice on her adventures in Wonderland, as being absorbed by these volumes is like falling down a rabbit hole, and experiencing the bewildered curiosity that child feels as she tumbles past the sides of a deep well filled with cupboards and book shelves, maps and pictures, and an empty jar labelled ORANGE MARMALADE.  Yes, things do get curiouser and curiouser in these books, especially when the ghostly voice of the poet, expressing his wish for no ‘notes of explanation’ winds up prefacing his own volume of poems where pages dripping with annotation take up much more space than the poems themselves. But as in Wonderland, scale is a strange thing: pages of annotation may not ‘outweigh’, as it were, a very short poem. The glossary to the editorial terms reads as a diminutive poem in its way, like choice flotsam from a work by Samuel Beckett: ‘blind-ruled / braced /eye-skip /laid in / orphan / part / quad-ruled / reciprocal / stepped / variant / widow’. In these volumes, as in Beckett’s plays, the directly practical and the elusively metaphysical seem to perform as doubles for one another; listen to, say: ‘blind-ruled impressed with rules but without ink’ and think of Tiresias, in The Waste Land, ‘though blind, throbbing between two lives’; indeterminate between lines and parts, a creature printed, perhaps, in invisible ink. This is an adventure, and the pleasure comes from the perils of losing your way. It is both exciting and peculiar to revisit poems you have known and loved in a new edition: as if returning to a distant, once inhabited childhood interior, and discovering, in some little chest of drawers, secret compartments which you never knew to be there; or finding, in the familiar pattern of the wall-paper, a hauntingly altered landscape, as suddenly a green smudge transforms into a pool of jade. This has been my experience so far with the poems collected here.  Take ‘Mr. Apollinax’, which begins ‘When Mr. Apollinax visited the United States / His laughter tinkled among the tea cups’, a poem that turns into a mad tea party of its own:

His laughter was submarine and profound              Like the old man of the sea’s
Hidden under the coral isles
Where worried bodies of drowned men drift down in the green silence
Dropping from fingers of surf.

I looked for the head of Mr. Apollinax rolling under a chair
Or grinning over a screen
With seaweed in its hair.

            Somewhere between the stanzas, Mr. Apollinax appears to have laughed his head off.  Laughter in Eliot’s poems possesses a wild power; it can discombobulate, disembody. Here the sound transports us to a submarine world of green silence. A signature tune of Eliot’s is at play here, as bodies are picked apart in rip-tides across ‘drowned’ and ‘down’; the drowned men are ‘worried’, in that the sea mangles, chokes the body, and yet in their dead distress these corpses, as ‘worried bodies,’ somehow join with the anxious cares of the living for whom they will never be found. There’s a flicker of uncertainty as to whether it is the old man of the sea or laughter itself that is found ‘Hidden under coral isles’ in this deep place where all is lost.  Eliot’s poems love to beckon you into wondering what is ‘Hidden under’ (the skin, a wing, a shadow, a parenthesis), although once tempted to peek, you won’t be sure what you’ve found.  The commentary takes us further underwater, to a sea with many voices, and many perils, especially the danger of submarines. The notes suggest Eliot wrote this poem during a transatlantic crossing, aboard the SS St. Paul in 1915, and gives us: ‘The Lusitania had been sunk by a German submarine in May, and the danger continued throughout the war. TSE to his father, 14 Jan 1916: ‘The are some signs of war even in this remote western country – a torpedo boat from time to time, and a naval officer who goes out looking for submarines’; ‘TSE to  J.H. Woods, 23 Mar 1917, concerning his doctoral dissertation, ‘I do not quite like to trust the fruit of so much labour to submarines in the channel’; and ‘to his father, 13 June, 1917: ‘I like to think of you in Gloucester soon. The submarines won’t go there!’ I’ve never heard the word ‘submarine’ in this poem under the aspect of these transatlantic dangers. The line ‘His laughter was submarine and profound’ suddenly takes on a worldly glint: this laughter may operate in seemingly unfathomable waters, but it’s also stealthy and destructive, perhaps like Mr. Apollinax (Bertrand Russell?) himself. The real-life danger of death by water then mingles with the imaginative power drowning held for Eliot, and ‘submarine’ draws you into its whirlpool: to Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre, and its dreams of dreaming drowned men in  ‘azurs verts’; to the drowned Phoenician sailor, and to Ariel’s song from The Tempest rippling through The Waste Land; to ‘Dirge’ and to ‘The Dry Salvages’, to the sea-scapes of ‘Marina’, and to the ‘mind of a poet’, as apprehended by Eliot, which can be ‘magnetised in its own way’: ‘There might be the experience of a child of ten, a small boy peering through sea-water in a rock-pool, and finding a sea-anemone for the first time: the simple experience (though not so simple, for an exceptional child, it looks) might lie dormant in his mind for twenty years, and reappear in some verse-context charged with great imaginative pressure’. Passing through all these ‘stages of his age and youth’ I’m chin-deep in a pool of tears.
            An annotation, then, can be like Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole: you might emerge from this submarine wonderland with pearls that were your eyes. Deep-sea diving for treasures in annotation treads a fine-line between blindness and insight. Reading an annotated text can be a bit like being Krapp, in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, as our attention and distraction interleave between surfaces and depths; our focus is snagged by the interstices of words in time, as the past is cast back to the future:

TAPE: –back on the year that is gone, with what I hope perhaps a glint of the old eye     to come, there is of course the house on the canal where mother lay a-dying,        in the late autumn, after her long viduity [KRAPP gives a start] and the –

[KRAPP switches off, raises his head, stares blankly before him. His lips move in the syllables of viduity. No sound. He gets up and goes backstage into darkness, comes back with an enormous dictionary, lays it on table, sits down and looks up the word. ]

KRAPP: [ Reading from the dictionary.] State – or condition – of being –or remaining    – a widow – or widower. [Looks up. Puzzled.] Being – or remaining? …       [Pause. He peers again at dictionary. Reading.] ‘Deep weeds of viduity’.    …Also of an animal, especially a bird …the vidua       or weaver bird ….Black         plumage of the male ….[He looks up. With relish.] The vidua-bird!

            Krapp is trying to re-read himself by playing back his own voice, discovering strange, new vistas in what perhaps once was merely old hat. The word ‘viduity’ seems to have gone dead for Krapp; by looking it up, he brings its deep weeds of mourning back to half-life. ‘Viduity’ takes mysterious flight, ruffling its black plumage. The instant dramatises for me one aspect of reading this edition of Eliot’s poem: the commentary is like a vast, back-stage world made up of properties which, if brought to the spot-light, will illuminate the facets of words, making their long tattered shadows play across the stage. One such prop is indeed a very large dictionary, and the hesitation Krapp performs here between ‘Being – or remaining?’, the relish he takes in the additional sense that the vidua bird may possess, in its back plumage, speaks closely to Eliot’s own compositional practices: his love of big dictionaries (‘the dictionary is the most important, the most inexhaustible book to a writer […] you want a big dictionary because definitions are not enough by themselves’ ); to his worry over creaturely details, in the composition of ‘The Dry Salvages’, correcting his preference of the sound of ‘hermit crab’ to the more accurate sense of ‘horseshoe crab’; and to his deep attention to how words may elude our attention, or grasp, ‘Words strain,/Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, /Under the tension, slip, slide, perish’; ‘each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate’; ‘Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph’.   Eliot, like Krapp, struggles to re-read himself, to return life to words gone dead; but, more deeply, Eliot, like Beckett, apprehends creation as epitaphic.
            Eliot was his own first  annotator. In the ‘Notes to The Waste Land’ (notes for which we now have notes), and earlier, in his Colombo verses, which teasingly mock editors:

Just then they rang the bell for lunch
And served up Fried Hyenas;
And Columbo said ‘Will you take tail?’
Or just a bit of p(enis)?
The bracketed portions we owe to the restorations of the editor, Prof. Dr Hasenpfeffer (Halle), with the assistance of his two inseparable friends, Dr Hans Frigger (the celebrated poet) and Herr Schnitzel (aus Wein). How much we owe to the hardwon intuition of this truly great scholar! The editor also justly observes: ‘There seems to be a double entendre about the last two lines, but the fine flavour of the jest has not survived the centuries’. Yet we hope that such a genius as his may penetrate even this enigma. Was it really the custom to drink ice-cream soda just before lunch? Prof. Dr Hasenpfeffer insists that it was. Prof. Dr Krapp (Jena) believes that the phrase is euphemistic. See Krapp: STREITSCHRIFT GEGEN HASENPFEFFER. I.XVII 376, also Hasenpfeffer: POLEMISCHES GEGEN KRAPP I-II. 368ff. 490ff.

            Eliot’s jokes here bring out the ways in which annotation itself can spoil a joke. (It’s tempting to imagine that Beckett’s Krapp may be distantly related to Eliot’s Dr Krapp). How flattening it can be when, say, reading Anthony and Cleopatra, we are told by a poker-faced voice that in the words ‘the soldier’s pole is fall’n’, there may be an insinuation of detumescence. No kidding. Yet Eliot’s parody of annotation here does point to an uncertain ground, which any annotator must tread, between, as Ricks puts it in his edition of What Maisie Knew, knowing and guessing: ‘Even though we may not have known as much, we did guess as much, or sense as much.’ Part of the pleasure of reading Eliot, like James, is in the pleasure of guessing; they are, in different ways, deeply seductive writers.  These volumes are intensely alive to that pleasure in Eliot, and, for the most part, the annotations I’ve read so far don’t muffle or flatten the powers of innuendo in the poems. Part of Eliot’s lyric power as a poet, in his earlier verse in particular, is the economy and the intensity with which his lines can prompt narrative desire, while ever eluding its satiation:

‘My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart
Under my feet. After the event
He wept. He promised ‘a new start.’
I made no comment. What should I resent?’

‘On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect

            The river that ‘sweats’ in this part of The Waste Land seems here to have tossed up the scattered limbs of short-stories, parts that perhaps once had whole bodies in mind are here sketches; the vulnerability of fragments are cut by this verse into enduring medallions, the lines hone the tremors of voice into transmissions with steely edges, not without fragile tremors; meanwhile, the remnants of a lost song float past, in overflowing emptiness: ‘la la’. Through the word ‘nothing’ the notes direct us to possible parallels in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to King Lear, and provide an intriguing gloss on ‘la la’ as both a refrain and an expression of derision. I think the editors, at this point, could have done without adding the inclusion of John Hayward’s sniffy comments to their annotations: ‘Margate: Hayward: ‘a popular sea-side resort, in the isle of Thanet, Kent, 74 miles east of London, at the tip of the North Foreland, much frequented by city dwellers and their ‘humble people’ for summer holidays.’ This knows both too much and too little, and ruins guessing.    
            In the prefatory notes on the edition, the editors present Eliot’s own varied remarks on annotation. Of an edition of John Marston’s works, Eliot writes ‘Our only complaint against both editors is that they have conscientiously limited themselves, in their notes, to what is verifiable, and have deprived themselves and their readers of that delight in aside and conjecture which the born annotator exploits’.  Just beside this, of his own poems, ‘I am averse to the publication of my own poems with explanatory notes […] I cannot give my consent to their publication in an annotated edition’.  One of the virtues of this edition is the presentation of the diverging elements of Eliot’s writing life, without comment; so that here, by giving us these statements side by side, we are left to imagine, for Eliot, the differences between feeling one way about an annotated edition of another poet, and another way about the prospect of an annotated edition of his own.  It may seem comical to say, of volumes with many pages of commentary, that there is a strong principle of thrift at work.  But in these notes we are not given conjecture, or explanation; rather, we are presented with material for own comparison and analysis. The editors write: ‘an effort has been made not to use the Commentary for criticalelucidation. The frontiers are uncertain, but an effort has been made to provide notes which constitute or proceed from a point of information’. This principle conditions the generosity of the edition to its readers.  The editors are scrupulously truthful about editorial dilemmas, as in, for instance, the striking question of what to do about an error in the dedication to Jean Verdenal, which opens Prufrock and Other Observations. The historically correct date of birth of Eliot’s friend was 1890; here it appears as 1889, ‘The dedication has stood for almost a century and it has been thought best not to alter it’. Of parallels with other writers, the editors write that these will ‘sometimes not only suggest a source but amount to an allusion. Conversely, it may not be a source but an analogue which brings back what was in the air’. They say, ‘Notes of this kind try to put down only the parallels themselves (though in the awareness that annotation is inseparable from interpretation, selection and judgement), leaving the reader to decide what to make of what the poet may have made of this’. This seems to me to be a sound principle. It involves both the understanding that an annotation is bound up in the imaginative trinity of the poet, the editor, and the reader. But, at a recent lecture in Cambridge for the T.S. Eliot society, this edition was presented as excessively long. The notes to the opening of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ were displayed as specimens of the implausible, the distracted, the excessive.  In this lecture it was seriously (I think), suggested that we no longer have a need for books made like this when we can type things into internet search editions. At the risk of sounding like a vidua-bird, dressed in deep weeds of mourning for the apparently obsolete, I beg to differ. Internet search engines do not perform labours of love.
            Of wit, Eliot once wrote, ‘It involves, probably, the recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible’. In these volumes, readers and students of Eliot are given such possibilities. These editions bring a wealth of uncollected material together; Ricks and McCue have spent years saturated in Eliot’s writings, and these books are an invocation to new work on Eliot. The editorial materials on The Waste Land here, printed in two forms, will prompt innovative ways of understanding this composite body and its lyrical interludes. I can imagine new writing on Eliot’s comic verse from these volumes; material on Eliot and children; illustration; painting; ballet, and on. A book on Eliot and performance could arise out of these generous volumes. The dust jacket wears Ezra Pound’s words: ‘The more we know of Eliot the better’; the edition itself tells the beautiful tale of their relations, in mixed light and shade. Turn to page 582 of these editions for a collage of late-sorrow, for all that is misremembered and forgotten, and for a portrait of Eliot’s loyalty, in friendship. Eliot’s life’s work may be one poem; most of us are, more or less,  trying to be one person, leaving only a tangle of tatters, meagre, illegible traces behind. These volumes can return us to attending to the shapes we can, urgently, make in life; and so cause us to repeat, again, as Pound repeated of and for Eliot, once his friend and collaborator had died, the injunction:  ‘Let him rest in peace. I can only repeat, but with the urgency of 50 years ago: READ HIM.’