The audience at the British Library for a discussion about a new annotated edition of T.S. Eliot’s poetry was largely academic: professors, students, researchers with the British Library, likely a few poets. And two Americans on (mostly) vacation. Our trip was punctuated by poetry and writing highlights: a Keats Walk in Hampstead and Hampstead Heath, a visit to the Charles Dickens Museum, the Samuel Johnson House, a visit to Merton College at Oxford (Eliot’s college and where J.R.R. Tolkien taught).
And finally, with two days left in London before we would depart, we were listening to this discussion at the British Library by Jim McCue and Christopher Ricks, co-editors of T.S. Eliot: The Poems, Vol. I (Collected & Uncollected Poems) and T.S. Eliot: The Poems, Vol. II (Practical Cats & Further Verses).
Collecting and annotating the poetry of a writer like T.S. Eliot is fraught with challenges and difficulties, not the least reason being Eliot himself editing his poems over time, or manuscripts of the same poem with variations, and one version published in one collection and a slightly different version published in another.
And the variations, said Ricks, often had to do with events in Eliot’s life. With Mr. Apollinax, for example, published in Prufrock and Other Observations in 1920, the versions changed to reflect what happened with submarine warfare in World War I. McCue adds an example: the prose poem The Engine, written in 1915 and previously uncollected, reflects Eliot’s experience traveling from England to the United States in 1915. “You cannot be on a ship going to the United States in 1915, ” McCue says, “and not think about the ship going down.”
And the availability of numerous manuscripts allowed the editors to trace the development of lines in Eliot’s poetry, like Four Quartets, over a period of years and in a variety of poems. But the process of sorting, analyzing and classifying those manuscripts and printed versions was intense.
One of the many things they learned from studying and annotating Eliot’s poems was how he balanced and reconciled opposites, Ricks said. “And his discernment of how much we feel in any given situation is stunning.”
McCue pointed out how much Eliot re-appropriated old ideas. “Eliot is very steeped in those old literatures he has read, ” he said, “and what a writer reads is often the most important part of what he does…A huge price is paid, and a huge reward received, for appropriating the old ideas and themes.”
The editors are asked if Eliot would have anticipated the annotation of what he produced.
“He would have been alarmed, ” McCue said, “but he would have wanted it. By the 1940s, he knows his place in literature. We know he didn’t want to be interpreted. This annotated edition won’t come between the poems and the readers; instead, editors should help readers and critics understand the poems.”
Ricks also responds to the question, but in a very different way, emphasizing the importance of reading Eliot for pleasure. “Unless there is a world that reads Eliot for pleasure, the world of the study of Eliot will cease to exist. The question we asked ourselves again and again through this process was how will people—the reader for pleasure—be helped by annotation?”
The discussion ends with a final observation by McCue, a recognition of the importance of poet Ezra Pound to T.S. Eliot’s poetry. “Eliot might have given up writing serious poetry without Ezra Pound, ” he says, “who saw Eliot as the greatest living American poet. Pound put up money he didn’t have to help publish Prufrock and Other Observations. He also pushed Eliot to write quatrain poetry, and he helped Eliot structure and restructure The Waste Land.
The discussion ends, but not the evening. The official publication date is Nov. 5, and at the time of the event, we are about three weeks shy of that. But copies are available, and without hesitation I buy both volumes (a not insignificant investment; at 40 British pounds each, the total comes to about US $130). And I will pack them in my carry-on bag for the flight home.
The books are a reminder of an evening discussion at the British Library about the man who was the 20th century’s greatest poet. They are also a reminder of a certain high school student, some 45 years ago, who read The Waste Land in his English class and was so taken that he bought Four Quartets during his next visit to the local bookstore, and who still has that treasured edition on his bookshelf. It is that same student who read Eliot for pleasure, and still reads Eliot for pleasure, and in so doing helps make the study of Eliot possible.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish