In Conversation Books

Old timber to new fires: Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue about the new critical of T.S. Eliot’s poetry

Christopher Ricks   | Photo Credit: Boston University

Sir Christopher Ricks, former Oxford Professor of Poetry, has written and edited books on Milton, Tennyson, T. S. Eliot and Bob Dylan. The most distinguished literary scholar of his generation, he speaks as eloquently as he writes. Together with Jim McCue, his former student, who has worked with The Times, London, for 15 years, Ricks has edited and annotated The Poems of T.S. Eliot: Collected and Uncollected Poems, Volume 1 and The Poems of T.S. Eliot: Practical Cats and Further Verses, Volume 2. Excerpts from an interview:

How and why did you embark upon this project? What challenges did you face?

JMc: From his very first book, in 1917, with its riddling title Prufrock and Other Observations,readers have been unsure how to take Eliot’s poetry. It is dense, unconventional, complex, but it speaks directly to readers. Very often, part of the answer is that he is quoting, or misquoting, or remembering other writers, or earlier works of his own, and luckily it is possible to trace a great deal of his reading as well as the events of his life, so lots of factual information has been discovered over the past century, which we were able to sift and add to.

Jim McCue

Jim McCue  

Even before Eliot’s death in 1965, there was talk of an annotated edition, though he said clearly that he didn’t want one.

CR: I had been asked to give the T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent in 1987. The poet’s widow, Valerie Eliot, graced the occasion, and she was then wary of, although not exactly vexed by, the book of mine that followed: T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988, the centenary of Eliot’s birth).

Aware of the editorial work that I had done (“Tom would have loved your edition of Tennyson”), she later asked me if I would edit the 50 or so early unpublished poems that became, in 1996, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917.

Mrs. Eliot was happy with this presentation and its editorial decisions, but was not — at that time — happy about the prospect of a full critical edition of all the poems. What changed her mind was her proceeding with the edition of Eliot’s letters and then her authorising an edition of the collected prose — which left the poems conspicuously pining to be edited. She, and later the Estate, proved altogether generous.

The scholarship of these two volumes is reminiscent of what was seen in the late 19th and early 20th century, the kind which is hardly to be found now. What made you persist with this very detailed project? Who is the ideal reader you are addressing with these notes?

JMc: During the research, I was at a bus-stop reading a book about Eliot, and a woman in her sixties asked me what it was. She turned out to be a nurse, and said she’d read Eliot’s poem, ‘Journey of the Magi’, aloud to her sister that morning. When I told her about work on the edition, she was thrilled at the prospect of more poems and deeper understanding.

Of course, a 2,000-page academic book is mainly for students and teachers, and in part it’s a work of reference, but there really is a general public for Eliot too, and comments and sales on Amazon and so on have been very encouraging. He was Britain’s favourite poet in a poll a few years ago.

CR: The risk that a large-scale edition like ours cannot but run is its giving the false impression that a reader, in order to find enjoyment and wisdom within these poems, must need to know monstrously much. Answer: there is very little that you need to know. (“Genuine poetry can communicate before it’s understood”, in the words of this acute poet-critic.)

But oh the bonus, again and again, if you do know the poet’s ways and his out-of-the-way findings, happenings, feats of imagining anew!

T.S. Eliot scholarship went through a phase when he was derided for his anti-Semitism and misogynistic views. By publishing these volumes are you in some way ‘restoring’ his reputation as a writer and a poet?

CR: I had earlier tried to answer my long-standing puzzlement about Eliot. (How could so sensitive a man — a mind, more than a mind, more than a consciousness, even — be apparently so insensitive, give such unthinking offence, whenever his art engages with today’s ruling trinity: race, class, and gender?)

The work on the edition taught me things, but, for my part, I had already worked out what I think thereabouts, in T.S. Eliot and Prejudice. I haven’t had to change my mind about what that book’s jacket maintained: “All of T.S. Eliot’s poetry... is alive to the philosophical, social and political problems of prejudice. Eliot is the great poet of an age when the siege of contraries is unprecedentedly fierce: never has the accusation of prejudice been more inflamed and yet never has there been so wide an agreement that no understanding of anything is possible without preconceptions.”

JMc: In his final great poem, ‘Little Gidding’, Eliot wrote “last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” It’s an extraordinary thing: with 20 years yet to live, it’s as though he’s handing on a baton. He had transmitted and transformed a tradition, and now it was for others.

His politics are full of a kind of admonitory realism — this isn’t wise, that’s not true, and so on — which brings you up short, but it was the language itself that mattered most to him. I hope we’ve directed attention back to that.

What are the exciting discoveries you made for these editions?

JMc: Well, I was intrigued to discover how deep and long-standing his engagement with India had been. He says that he spent two or three years studying Sanskrit and Pali, and he quotes the sacred texts in ‘The Waste Land’ and elsewhere. From his Harvard days, he was interested in questions of Empire and Indian politics as well as religion and philosophy.

CR: For me, many of the most revelatory findings had to do with Eliot and the Great War, or more exactly, with “Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres”, the devastating sense that history, and we with it, are always between two wars. I hadn’t till now, till the many thing that we learnt of and brought forward, appreciated. Not only the deep dark relations between ‘The Waste Land’ and the Great War but the ways in which so many of the poems bring the War, including the Coming War, to mind.

The interviewer is an independent international publishing consultant.

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2021 6:52:50 AM |

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