Collecting Eliot

Faber have taken on a long-overdue project – the publication of the Complete Works of T.S. Eliot. Poems, plays, letters and prose will be collected, and published over the next decade. There will be nearly twice as many poems as are included in the 1963 Collected Poems, and there is a vast amount of prose, ranging from philosophical treatises to journalistic squibs, and most of it has not been reprinted within the last half-century or more. The first two huge volumes of the Collected Letters were published in Britain earlier this year, but have not, I believe, so far reached American bookshops.

There has been a series of seminars at London University this year, in which various aspects of the edition have been discussed. On Thursday three people not connected with the project were asked to give outsiders’ views of what was needed. Professor Stefan Collini gave an academic’s view of what was needed in a Collected edition, interestingly comparing alternative approaches to the problem. Alexis Kirschbaum from Penguin Classics explained how she and her team have gone about a comparable project, the new edition of Ibsen’s plays which will soon be available.

Jim McCue (co-editor of Eliot’s poems) asked me to speak as an outsider, belonging neither to the community of Eliot experts nor to the publishing industry – just a fan. He asked me to speak about what I wanted from a complete edition, and about how a reader like myself would like it organised and annotated.

My talk was therefore considerably more personal and prejudiced than the other contributions. Here, roughly, is what I said:

What do I want from this edition?

Maybe I can sum it up by saying that what I am looking for is less the collected Eliot than the uncollected Eliot.

When Jim Mc Cue asked me to consider the question, I thought back to when I first felt that an edition like this was needed – almost forty years ago, when I was an M.A. Student. I was studying the Victorians, not Eliot, but my interest in him had just been re-stimulated by the publication of the ‘Waste Land’ manuscripts, and I whiled away a pleasant afternoon in the open stacks of Leicester University library, looking through the run of the Criterion, and reading many of Eliot’s contributions. These I enjoyed, for being unexpected and various, and more accessible than much of the writing in Eliot’s Selected Essays, less formal, less monumental – I remember especially the essay ‘Why Mr Russell is a Christian’ – and I wondered then why Eliot’s journalism had never been collected and re-published.

A little later Frank Kermode produced his edition of Eliot’s Selected Prose, and I looked at it eagerly, hoping to find pieces similar to those I had read. Instead it was just a selection from Eliot’s own Selected Essays and other easily available volumes, useful for students, but disappointing to the reader curious about the unknown Eliot, the unexpected Eliot, Eliot not necessarily at his monumental best or on his best behaviour.
After that for many years, I rarely had access to university libraries, so I didn’t come across much of the unauthorised Eliot, except for hints in the never-very-satisfactory biographies that gradually appeared. Then one day in a second-hand bookshop I found a copy of The Rock, and decided it might be worth an investment of two pounds. This for me is the prime example of the kind of work that needs
to be made  fully available, even though as a unified work of art it has problems, and one can easily see why the later Eliot let it slipout of print, salvaging only  the choruses that foreshadow much of his later work.
Eliot’s plays are currently the least regarded of his works, and The Rock is the least regarded of the plays. I gather that originally the new collected edition was not intending to include the plays, but that it now will. I am glad of that, and I hope that The Rock will be given due
prominence and full commentary. For all its faults the play is, I suggest, very important in the way in which it shows Eliot dealing with difficult issues – not just in the sequence caricaturing Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts (which was tough-minded enough to worry the Lord Chamberlain’s reader), but also for what it shows about his complex attitude to the Great War, and how he dealt with problems of

Fifteen years ago, when Anthony Julius compiled the case for the prosecution against Eliot, he was able to dismiss The Rock in an off-hand half-page. I read several articles answering him, but none that made serious use of The Rock to do so. But then, the text had been out of print for fifty years, and was effectively excluded from the canon, despite its title page saying ‘Book of Words by T.S.Eliot’.
The Rock is a compelling argument for a complete edition including even work that Eliot himself did not regard highly. I can see the logic of Valerie Eliot’s decision for so many years to stand by the 1963 Collected Poems and the selection of essays that Eliot had himself chosen. These represent Eliot’s own view of his best work, and are therefore deserving of respect. Yet the Eliot that he himself presented to the world was not the complete Eliot, and was very different from his younger self. . I realised how successful his self-presentation had been  when recently reading a 1980 volume of Anthony Powell’s  autobiography. Commenting on Eliot’s flat-share with John Hayward in Carlyle Mansions after the Second World War, Powell writes:

Their companionship under one roof was looked on as an undoubted success, though one of its anomalies particularly remarked was that suggested by Hayward’s boundless relish for stories, contemporary or historical, with a strong tang of sex about them; Eliot’s notorious distaste for anything of the kind.

Even someone with Powell’s fondness for literary gossip had apparently never heard of King Bolo.

The 1963 Collected represents the choices of the seventy-year-old Eliot, not the young man who had sent Wyndham Lewis verses which even that iconoclast would not print in Blast:

But, My Lulu, “Put on your rough red drawers
And come to the Whore House Ball!

It’s because of this that I’m interested by, and a little doubtful about, the decision of those editing the poems for the new edition  to respect Eliot’s own definition of his canon – printing, I gather, poems included in the 1963 Collected in one volume, and everything else, as an apocrypha, in  a second, with notes in a third. The 1963 Collected is easily available, and because of its authority is, I am sure, likely to stay in print for a long while. So might it not have been more interesting, and perhaps more revealing, to present all of Eliot’s verse, both light and profound, and including King Bolo, the Practical Cats and the works of Gus Krutsch, all in one chronological sequence?

What kind of annotation do the poems need? I’d argue for the factual rather than the speculative. Christopher Ricks’s notes to The Inventions of the March Hare are wonderful in their suggestion of literary echoes that might just have influenced Eliot, but they do not always meet the needs of
an average modern reader. In Paysage Triste, for example, there occurs the phrase ‘an almost denizen of Leicester Square’; the notes refer to uses of the word ‘denizen’ by Keats and Pope, and some squares that appear elsewhere in Eliot’s verse – but don’t reveal that ‘denizen of Leicester Square’ is a rather coy euphemism for the kind of lady who made herself available on the promenade of the Empire Theatre. Probably Christopher Ricks thought that his readers would understand this without being told; I suspect that many modern younger and foreign readers would need this kind of background information.
There is much to be said for Lawrence Rainey’s notes in The Annotated Waste Land, which explain to American readers that a chemist is what they call a pharmacist, and that gammon is smoked ham. But annotating what the English take for granted can in itself take things for
granted. Rainey’s note to HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME calls the phrase ‘a time-honoured expression used by bartenders to announce the imminent closing of a pub, or public house, in Britain.’
‘Time-honoured’ here obscures the fact that Eliot is surely making a topical reference to the fixed 9.30 closing-time enforced nationally during the Great War, and which continued into peacetime.
The Inventions of the March Hare gives fascinating lists of literary echoes, but I’d suggest that there is a problem with these, in that they can never be definitive or complete. In the notes on the fragment ‘In silent corridors of death’, the word ‘corridors’ is glossed with a reference to Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ – but not with a mention of a more recent poem that Eliot pretty certainly
knew – T.E. Hulme’s ‘Trenches: St Eloi’:

My mind is a corridor. The minds about me are corridors.

Are Eliot’s ‘corridors of death’ the trenches of the Great War? I’d argue that this interpretation
makes sense of the rather obscure fragment, but the edition’s notes don’t encourage me to look in this direction, and to that extent this kind of note potentially limits the reader’s response to the text.

When I first saw the huge second volume of Collected Letters, my first reaction was delight at its size. What a bumper feast of Eliot. And despite the repetitions and the business detail, I was drawn into the narrative of this second volume, and not just because of the very few letters that gave often tragic insights into Eliot’s private life. The record of the founding of The Criterion is well worth having. Such is the editors’ passion for completeness, however, that I definitely felt grateful that the archive of Lloyd’s Bank Colonial and Foreign department was apparently unavailable to the completist editors, so we did not get all Eliot’s business letters about currency transfers.
I was left wondering whether the volumes of the thirties, which will presumably include a great deal of consideration of Church affairs, will be as absorbing. How long is this vast collection of letters going to be? Can it really include every polite note from the fifties declining speaking engagements? Will anyone except the editors ever read through the complete collection?
There is a good case for culling the letters and printing only a selection – and yet… If selection had been more rigorous, one of the letters that might well have been omitted is a routine note to the anthropologist Jane Harrison, asking her to contribute to the Criterion, which she never did, probably because by then she was very old. I’m interested in Harrison, and so it was good to know that Eliot considered her worth publishing. This is maybe a case where the fact of the letter’s existence is more interesting than its content. Perhaps such letters should simply be listed rather than being printed in full, or – a suggestion that I
gather has been made – there should be some kind of online supplement.

As for the Collected Prose, can I put in a word for the example of the Princeton Collected Auden? Personally, I’d like the print just a little larger, but the volumes are portable enough to carry on a train journey. The text is left clean on the page, with only Auden’s own footnotes to distract the eye. Notes at the end of the volume explain the context of publication, indicate major textual variants and explain what might be unfamiliar to an average educated reader. Annotation is light, but these are volumes that will meet the needs of scholarly readers, yet they can also be taken from the shelf for pleasant browsing.
So – to sum up -for me the value of a complete edition, apart from the provision of reliable texts, will be in its ability to make texts available to those who might otherwise never find them, in its inclusion of unfamiliar material, and in the placing of the familiar within a context that illuminates it.



  1. Roger
    Posted May 29, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t know The Rock- the whole of The Rock- had been published, so I’m off to look for it. In addition, there’s also the question of unpublished writings: I used to have an L.P. of a memorial celebration done soon after Eliot’s death with an additional unpublished fragment of Sweeney Agonistes-is there more of that, for example?

  2. Posted May 30, 2010 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    I’ve written a fuller description of ‘The Rock’ at

    I’m not sure what other fragments of Sweeney Agonistes survive, but since Eliot was working at it for well over a year (and had several meetings with Arnold Bennett about its progress) it seems very likely that more was written. A scenario titled ‘The Superior Landlord’ indicates what might have happened in the rest of the play.

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