Academic journal article The Hudson Review

T. S. Eliot: The Annotated Poems

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

T. S. Eliot: The Annotated Poems

Article excerpt

This annotated edition of T. S. Eliot's poems is an impressive work1-flying in the face of his dictum that "If the notes are indispensable then the poem is not quite written." It establishes all available texts, including new ones; it elucidates their textual, historical, bibliographical, literary, cultural aspects and motivations; it clarifies references, allusions, echoes, overt and hidden quotations, which are a constituent part of Eliot's way of writing. The lack of exegetic or critical views by other writers prevents it from being a variorum edition, as those we have of Shakespeare. Even so, there are roughly four hundred pages of poems, including drafts and revisions, and sixteen hundred of smallprint commentary and textual apparatus-a proportion that exceeds that of annotated editions of Dante or Shakespeare, two writers of greater production. This is neither a stricture nor a grudge, but the relation between these numbers must give us (it gives me) pause: poetry must be very strong to sustain such weight.

Halfway through the last century, Eliot was the recipient of a welldeserved Nobel Prize. His poetry and criticism were a "must" for every college student or reader of contemporary poetry; he was il miglior fabbro-as he had addressed Ezra Pound in the dedication of The Waste Land-who had inspired and shaped modern poetry (he disliked the term "modernist"), the perfect embodiment of that fragmented, detached, syncopated, staccato and "impersonal" way of composition and diction which was typical of an avant-garde, that in his case had become establishment. Contrary to Pound and other poets of the period, Eliot had superseded it in the formal unity and shapeliness of the Four Quartets. In both long poems, war was a determining factor, but the "fragments shored against [his] ruins" of the former had been constrained into unity in the latter, after his conversion to monarchy, Anglo-Catholicism, and classicism in 1927. This alienated a good number of readers, and the acceleration imposed on poetry by the Beat, confessional, and postmodern poets left him to this day, I suspect, the Master whom few still read.

This edition is like a monument that enshrines him in a grandiose mausoleum, to the full benefit of his admirers. But will it win back or capture new readers? Does it establish a new way of reading him? I feel inclined to answer yes, and no, for reasons that I shall try to explain.

The texts are impeccably edited, with a thoroughness which is even too precise (in Shakespeare's or Robert Herrick's sense of the word): they acquire richness and exhibit a greater variety of modes. All the components of Eliot's way of writing stand out: his fastidiousness of choice and expression, his addiction to trobarclus, relying on jumpy and staccato movements, sudden leaps and starts, daring juxtapositions, learned allusions. The mood of despondency (Prufrock), so far from the dejection cherished by the Romantics (see S. T. Coleridge's Ode of that name) and objectified by the use of personae; the sense of loss and sterility verging on despair, yet saved by an underlying trust in transcendent values (already in The Waste Land)-, depictions of aging, Hollow Men and uninspiring women-all these and similar factors lead to a recurring question in every poem: Where shall we go from here? Luckily, these modes are played against the sense of a former consistence from which we have fallen into decline and degradation: masterpieces and the great tradition of the past provide not only a background or a backdrop, but a bulwark against failure and loss, a defense against total collapse. This was thanks to the adoption of the "mythical method" that he had recognized in Joyce's Ulysses in his 1923 review ("Ulysses, Order and Myth"): working on a "continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity" was "a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.