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How Eliot Became Eliot

Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917

by T.S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks
Harcourt Brace, 428 pp., $30.00

The Waste Land, the 75th anniversary edition

by T.S. Eliot, with an afterword by Christopher Ricks
Harcourt Brace, 47 pp., $4.00 (paper)

In the summer of 1910, when he was twenty-two, T.S. Eliot bought a notebook at a bookstore in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he was vacationing with his parents, and transcribed into it the poems he had written since the previous fall. He continued to use the notebook as a depository for final, or near-to-final, drafts of his work until 1917, when his first volume of poetry, Prufrock and Other Observations, was published by the Egoist Press in London. Two years later, the Hogarth Press, run by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, who had befriended Eliot after he moved to England in 1914, printed seven more of Eliot’s poems in a pamphlet entitled Poems. Then, in 1920, Eliot put the contents of those two books plus several new poems into a single volume which was published in England as Ara Vos Prec and in the United States as Poems. The American publisher was Alfred A. Knopf, who also brought out an edition of Eliot’s first volume of criticism, The Sacred Wood.

Eliot received help with these American editions from John Quinn, the New York lawyer who provided patronage to a number of artists and writers, including Pound and Joyce. Two years later, when Eliot needed an American venue for The Waste Land, Quinn was helpful again. He acted as Eliot’s agent in negotiations with The Dial, which printed the poem in its November 1922 issue and awarded it a cash prize, and with the publisher Horace Liveright, who brought out a book edition a month later. (In England, Eliot printed the poem in his own magazine, The Criterion; the Woolfs did the book.) American publication was especially important to Eliot because he wanted to impress his family with the wisdom of his decision to remain in England and become a literary man rather than return to America and become a professor; and the negotiations were fraught because there were contractual problems, and also because Eliot needed money badly, and had a tendency to feel squeezed by his publishers.

To express his appreciation, Eliot offered Quinn the manuscript of The Waste Land or, if he preferred, the notebook containing his earlier poems. Quinn accepted the gift of the first on condition that he be allowed to purchase the second, which, after Eliot agreed, he did, for $140. Though Eliot had stopped recording his poems in the notebook in 1917, when the Prufrock volume appeared, he stuck into it—possibly at the last minute in order to add value to the whole, since Quinn was having it appraised—pages containing drafts of many of the poems he had written between 1917 and 1920. This may have also been the moment when he scratched out the title he had originally given the notebook, “Inventions of the March Hare,” and replaced it with the slightly less facetious title “The Complete Poems of T.S. Eliot.” He also took the precaution of tearing out several pages of scatological verses.

Quinn received the material in 1923. A year later, he died. The manuscripts passed to Quinn’s sister, then to his niece, but Eliot never inquired after them, assuming (in fact, hoping) that they had been destroyed. But in 1958 they were bought by the New York Public Library. In deference to Quinn’s biographer, the library delayed announcement of the purchase until 1968, three years after Eliot’s death. In 1971, Eliot’s widow, Valerie, published her facsimile edition of the Waste Land manuscript. Now, twenty-five years later, the second half of Quinn’s commission—including the scatological verses, which turned up in the papers of Ezra Pound—has finally appeared, edited and annotated by Christopher Ricks.

Including the loose pages Eliot inserted into the notebook and the obscene verses he tore out, plus a single poem of unknown date, now at the University of Maryland, which Ricks has added, the edition contains fifty-nine poems. Eighteen are copies, with minor variations, of published work—“Preludes,” “Portrait of a Lady,” “Gerontion,” “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” and so on. One is an early version of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” which includes a substantial unpublished section. The rest—forty poems, including four sets of obscene verses—are published here for the first time. Though some of these are sequences, most are short and slight. They tend to be less accomplished versions, practice runs, of the kinds of poems found in the Prufrock volume: urban landscapes (like “Preludes”); satirical sketches (like “Cousin Nancy” and “Mr. Apollinax”); amorous dialogues (like “Conversation Galante”), often featuring clowns or marionettes; prose poems (like “Hysteria”); and night thoughts (like “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”).

A few longer poems are more accomplished. “The Burnt Dancer” has rhythmic premonitions of some sections of Four Quartets:

The patient acolyte of pain,
The strong beyond our human sinews,
The singèd reveller of the fire,
Caught on those horns that toss and toss,
Losing the end of his desire
Desires completion of his loss.

A spooky and sadistic erotic poem called “The Love Song of St. Sebastian” has the familiar Eliotic pattern of liquid internal consonance: towel/ Your ears curl/all the world; and then again: all the world/shall melt/Melt/ shall…your ears…curled.

I would come with a towel in my hand
And bend your head beneath my knees;
Your ears curl back in a certain way
Like no one else’s in all the world.
When all the world shall melt in the sun,
Melt or freeze,
I shall remember how your ears were curled.

The most prominent new item is the thirty-eight-line section called “Prufrock’s Pervigilium,” which Eliot added to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and then dropped at the suggestion of his friend Conrad Aiken. It is not obvious why he thought to add it in the first place; the lines are much too melodramatic for a poem whose success depends on its handling of the conventional persona of the self-absorbed flâneur in a witty and self-mocking spirit.

And when the dawn at length had realized itself
And turned with a sense of nausea, to see what it had stirred:
The eyes and feet of men—
I fumbled to the window to experience the world
And to hear my Madness singing, sitting on the kerbstone
[A blind old drunken man who sings and mutters,
With broken boot heels stained in many gutters]
And as he sang the world began to fall apart…

To hear my Madness singing” is exactly the sort of late-Romantic Weltschmerz a line like “Do I dare to eat a peach?” is meant to send up.

The ribald verses, versions of which turn up now and then in Eliot’s correspondence with close male friends, are about as ribald as most people could wish:

O daughter dear daughter I think you are a fool
To run against a man with a john like a mule.

O mother dear mother I thought that I was able
But he ripped up my belly from my cunt to my navel.

Eliot offered some of these compositions to Wyndham Lewis for publication in Lewis’s avant-garde magazine Blast, but Lewis declined, explaining that it was editorial policy at Blast to eschew “Words Ending in -Uck, -Unt and -Ugger.”

All the poems are interesting, because they are by Eliot. Even when he is being imitative or experimental, the technical facility is striking. But the volume as a whole reaffirms one’s sense that when it came to the public presentation of his work, Eliot was a shrewd editor. “You will find a great many sets of verse which have never been printed and which I am sure you will agree never ought to be printed,” he warned Quinn, “and in putting them into your hands, I beg you fervently to keep them to yourself and see that they never are printed.”

Altogether, the forty new poems, plus the expanded “Prufrock,” fill up fewer than a hundred pages, with about a third of that space devoted to lists of variants (since Eliot continued to tinker with the poems after he had recorded them). To this Ricks has added a thirty-page introduction, a thirty-page appendix of excerpts from Eliot’s prose, and over two hundred pages, in small type, of annotation. Adding in the drafts of the eighteen previously published poems, which are printed with variants but without annotation, the whole edition runs to more than 450 pages. If, instead of banishing the thing to America, Eliot had decided in 1922 to publish what remained unpublished in the notebook, he would have come up with a volume of fewer than seventy pages.

Why all the apparatus? “This edition is based,” Ricks explains in the introduction, “on the conviction that, subordinate to the establishing of the text and the textual variants…the important thing is evidence of where the poems came from, and of where they went to in Eliot’s other work.” Such evidence is important, he says, because Eliot himself stressed the value of knowing a poet’s sources. He frequently noted, in his critical essays, where poets had borrowed from one another, and he had many occasions to defend his own practice of echoing lines by other writers. “Readers of my Waste Land will perhaps remember,” he once said, for example, “that…I deliberately modified a line of Dante by altering it—’sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled.’ …I gave the references in my notes, in order to make the reader who recognized the allusion, know that I meant him to recognize it, and know that he would have missed the point if he did not recognize it.” Ricks quotes this, and adds: “That it was only for The Waste Land that Eliot supplied Notes as to his meaning…in no way implies that the question of such recognition is a matter only for the art of The Waste Land.”

Still, pointing out a source does not mean suggesting an interpretation. “An effort has…been made,” Ricks explains, “not to use the notes for exegesis, critical elucidation, explication or judgment.” The editor just provides the data; the reader forms the opinions. Ricks’s sole principle, he says, is to cite a parallel passage only when he has concluded that it could not have been just a coincidence (“though coincidences can be very interesting”). He restricts himself, in other words, to works Eliot is either known to have read or is likely to have read.

This turns out not to be that much of a restriction. The third poem in the notebook, for example, is a ten-line cityscape called “First Caprice in North Cambridge,” dated November 1909. The first line reads:

A street-piano, garrulous and frail;

which receives a page and a half of annotation. Ricks begins by noting references to street pianos in two other poems by Eliot, “Portrait of a Lady” and “First Debate between the Body and Soul” (one of the unpublished poems in the notebook). He locates echoes of the line in poems by Paul Verlaine (“Le piano que baise une main frêle“) and Jules Laforgue (“Les Jeunes Filles inviolables et frêles“), the latter parallel suggesting to him “a filament from TSE’s ‘garrulous’ to Laforgue’s ‘inviolables’ in TSE’s later ‘inviolable voice”’ in The Waste Land. He observes that the Oxford Companion to Music defines “street piano” as a “barrel organ,” and identifies two poems by Laforgue that refer to barrel organs and one that refers to a piano, a poem by John Davidson with “street piano” in the title, and a poem by Arthur Symons about a barrel organ. Stéphane Mallarmé’s prose poem “Plainte d’automne,” which Symons translated, also mentions an instrument like a barrel organ.

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