Book Interview: Christopher Ricks on “The Poems of T.S. Eliot, The Annotated Text.”

Editors Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue are not trying to teach us how to read the poems: they are trying to give us the most important information for the most complete reading, which occurs over time and which these volumes show is a lifetime process.

The Poems of T. S. Eliot, The Annotated Text, Volume I (1,344 pages, $44.95) and Volume II (688 pages, $39.95), edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.


By Anthony Wallace

Like most people, I read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in high school, and probably like most people I remember an overly-theatrical senior-year English teacher reciting the lines “I grow old… I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” like wringing a very large mop into a very small pail. Still, I experienced the world-weariness tinged with irony that young people love to experience, in reading Eliot and otherwise. It was a new kind of love song for a new kind of century. Even that hambone Jesuit couldn’t kill it.

A few years later I came upon The Waste Land in an American Studies seminar on the 1920s, and this time I also recognized something I had vaguely been experiencing but which the poem expressed in the most precise, original, and complete way: the sense that the world was not whole anymore, if it ever had been. This was a very popular way to feel about things in 1976, even if it was not always expressed in exactly those terms, and so I suppose my generation was as ready for that poem, and for Eliot, as Hemingway’s generation had been, and all the generations in between.

Reading The Waste Land, and listening to Eliot’s unforgettable recording of it (the one released by Caedmon Records in 1971, the one that got shuffled in with my Joni Mitchell and Pink Floyd records) appealed to a sensibility that had been growing in me all the while, and created that sensibility, too. Inside the book jacket of Volume II of Ricks and McCue’s symphonically illuminating work of scholarship, the editors quote William Empson: “I do not know for certain how much of my own mind he invented.” I came to the poem more than fifty years after its publication, but it felt so new to me that it was almost like something I had invented, or forgotten about and suddenly remembered, even as, looking back to that time as an undergraduate when I read The Waste Land so often I almost memorized it, I now see that reading it many times over a period of many months was fundamental to the process of inventing myself.

The Waste Land still describes to me the world I live in, and how I feel about that world, and I still read it regularly and listen to the recording on my iPod. It’s always a thrill for me when I bring that recording into the classroom and play it for my first-year students. I would not be the same person without that poem, and Eliot’s other major poems as well. Many of my students have noticed what is most attractive, and most devastating, about The Waste Land: it seems a terribly difficult poem that opens up right away and is available at the gut level, if guts we have to be leveled. We don’t need to read the footnotes and end-notes to know what the poem means. The music tells us, Eliot’s music that is the brainiest and also the most forceful to flesh and bone.

TS Eliot album cover-3

So it was with mixed feelings that I opened the package that contained the new two-volume, two-thousand-page annotated Poems of T. S. Eliot. Do we really need this? It’s a question, I’ll admit, that I ask about the scholarship on my most beloved poets, because I don’t want them smudged and soiled by commentary. Then I stop to consider the nature of criticism, that Eliot himself was an astute critic, to put it mildly, and that the best commentary is not so much a way into the best poetry as it is something that can be very useful once we get there on our own—and I do believe that we need to get there on our own—with the poet’s help, naturally.

These volumes are also much more than commentary. They are a complete record of the poems and their drafts, a record of editorial mistakes and corrections, a record of Eliot’s correspondence about them as well as a record of references contained in individual lines. Ricks and McCue are not trying to teach us how to read the poems: they are trying to give us the most important information for the most complete reading, which occurs over time and which these volumes show is a lifetime process. The new annotated Eliot is that very thing for those of us who have lived with the poems for some while, whether years or decades, and whether we are literary scholars or just good old-fashioned general readers.

This would seem to be a paradox. Shouldn’t newer readers get more out of the wealth of information contained in these annotations while the more experienced readers peck at a morsel here and there? I think it is the other way around. These volumes were created for scholars, obviously, but maybe also and more importantly for people like me. I’ve been thinking about the major poems for so long that perhaps I’m finally ready for these many hundreds of pages—there is no danger that they will overwhelm the poetry they were designed to serve.

These are volumes to keep on the nightstand (depending on the size of your nightstand), to read over the course of a lifetime or to add to a lifetime of reading, and to take into retirement. O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark—and I will go into the dark with the two-volume annotated Poems of T. S. Eliot to keep me company.

From the Johns Hopkins University Press:

This critical edition of T. S. Eliot’s Poems establishes a new text of the Collected Poems 1909–1962, rectifying accidental omissions and errors that have crept in during the century since Eliot’s astonishing debut, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As well as the masterpieces, the edition contains the poems of Eliot’s youth, which were rediscovered only decades later, others that circulated privately during his lifetime, and love poems from his final years, written for his wife Valerie Eliot.

Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue have provided a commentary that illuminates the imaginative life of each poem. Calling upon Eliot’s critical writings, as well as his drafts, letters, and other original materials, they illustrate not only the breadth of Eliot’s interests and the range of his writings, but how it was that the author of “Gerontion” came to write “Triumphal March” and then Four Quartets. Thanks to the family and friends who recognized Eliot’s genius and preserved his writings from an early age, the archival record is exceptionally complete, enabling us to follow in unique detail the progress of a mind that never ceased exploring.

Because I teach at Boston University and know people who know people, I had the good fortune to arrange an interview with co-editor and inaugurator of the annotated Poems of T. S. Eliot, the perspicacious and seemingly inexhaustible Christopher Ricks.

Arts Fuse: Nicholas Jenkins wrote in The New York Times that “The publication of Inventions of the March Hare is perhaps the most significant event in Eliot scholarship in the last 25 years.” Do you see these two volumes as the culmination of your career as an important and influential Eliot scholar? What kind of need in Eliot scholarship does this work fulfill? Have you finally set right some things that you have wanted to set right?

Christopher Ricks: At eighty-two and two-thirds, I know that I’ll undertake no Eliot enterprise on anything like the scale of the edition (though I do have in mind a more compact TSEry). Anyway – our world’s favourite segue these days – there are other commitments, not to Eliot, that I have made and must get to. Fulfilled? No such thing as a definitive anything, so we should be wary of fulfil. But a full-scale demonstration of the textual facts and of the contextual worlds, in these two volumes, that (I like to think) is not nothing. The particular Eliot consummation that I am myself most looking forward to is the collected edition of Eliot’s prose, in half a dozen volumes, that is well on its way under my friend and colleague here at the Editorial Institute, Archie Burnett, whose powers as an editor have been magnificently manifested in his editions of Housman and of Larkin.

T.S. Eliot Photo: Wiki Commons

T.S. Eliot — his influence in the 20th century was titanic, nearly monolithic. Photo: Wiki Commons.

AF: In your long career as an editor and critic you have collaborated on book-length projects with other editors and critics, but not all that often relative to the body of work you’ve produced. Who is Jim McCue, and why did you decide to collaborate with him on this project? How long did you work together on this project?

Ricks: Jim McCue was an undergraduate at St Catherine’s, Cambridge, England when I held (embraced? not exactly) a professorship at Cambridge. Has to be more than thirty years ago, for that is how long I have now been at Boston University. Jim and I became and remain friends, allies, co-operators. Then, not long after Inventions of the March Hare came out (exactly twenty years ago), it consisting of about fifty early unpublished Eliot poems that Mrs. Eliot had invited me to edit, Eliot’s London publishers grasped that to have in train a comprehensive edition of Eliot’s letters, and another of Eliot’s prose, but no such thing for his poems, did seem – surely was – a touch perverse. I was asked to undertake this, with the support again of Eliot’s widow, Valerie Eliot. Thinking of assistance that would – well, not exactly speed things up but at least help things on their way – I proposed that McCue, upon leaving his job at The Times in London, might assist. This, an informal research assistantship as it were, turned happily into the only decent thing to do: to recognize that his contribution had proceeded almost at once to nothing less than co-editing. Neither of us, the two co-editors, at that time – since there was no census of manuscripts or of pertinent Eliot materials – could make any estimate of how protracted and ample it would all turn out to be. Eventually, or in the event, ten years issued in two thousand pages, yes. With McCue supported in part by a government grant in England and by the publishers, and with me, relishing my teaching at BU particularly in the Core curriculum, managing to make time for the research without having to ask for a sabbatical during those years.

AF: Eliot’s reputation rests on a relatively small number of poems and lines of poetry, and these volumes not only provide a very full sense of context and commentary but also a sense of the scope of Eliot’s poetry and the trajectory of his imaginative life, which you began to illuminate with Inventions of the March Hare. To what extent are these volumes an extension or outgrowth of Inventions of the March Hare?

Ricks: To what extent is a question, a way of putting it, that is severely (though of course most courteously) banned at any class of mine. For it never really is an “extent” matter, as becomes clear as soon as you think of answering in any such terms. “To what extent are these volumes. . .?” Six and a half inches, actually; glad you asked. Or an acre? Or a rood? But I know what you mean. The Poems of T.S. Eliot, the two vols, undertook to apply to all of Eliot’s poems what had previously been brought to bear only on those fifty unpublished early ones. Other than this? That McCue and I were granted access to all materials of which we had known or of which we came to learn, including poems and letters as yet unpublished as well as intimate manuscripts of which nothing had ever been intimated. Particularly Valerie’s Own Book, in which the poet, late in life and newly loved and in love, copied out his poems for his loved one. Some of them altogether new.

AF: Inside the book jacket of Volume I you quote Ezra Pound: “The more we know of Eliot, the better.” Obviously some poems are better and more important than other poems. Have you worried that including minor poems and unfinished poems and even poems Eliot wrote in high school could have a negative impact on his reputation? The ongoing and serious discussion about anti-Semitism in Eliot’s poetry is one thing, but could early or weak poetry call into question the canonical works in ways you might not have intended or anticipated? As an Eliot critic who is clearly an Eliot advocate, do you feel in any way obliged to protect your poet’s reputation as one important aspect of curating the poetry upon which that reputation rests?

Ricks: Unignorable questions and concerns, these, yes. But I don’t myself doubt that for a reputation the right thing – and not just right as borne out by the judgment and wishes of Eliot’s widow, or by invoking the long run – is the full and open acknowledgement of just what someone (in this case) wrote. Any single one of the charges, the contested matters (Eliot as misogynist or snob or reactionary or anti-Semite or – save the mark – Christian) is worthy of, and indeed demands, profoundly well-informed and imaginative attention. Eliot has been, but should not have been, protected at certain points and at certain times by the withholding of evidence. Which is a very dangerous form of protection, indeed is the “protection” racket. No: All things considered.

AF: Did the publication of these volumes in England last year intentionally coincide with the centennial of the publication of “Prufrock”? How do you feel about Eliot scholarship one hundred years after “Prufrock”? Are junior scholars still writing about him in dissertations? Has Eliot scholarship gone in a direction you would have predicted? Has it gone in a direction you approve of? How would you describe the state of contemporary Eliot scholarship?

Ricks: Phew.
(1.) Publication date 2015; yes, it mattered to the publishers to honour not only the birth of his art, in Poetry (June 2015), “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” being his début (and what a début), but also his death, fifty years later, fifty years ago, in 1965.
(2.) Eliot scholarship is doing fine, thank you and thank God (and thank too, for instance, Ronald Schuchard who is prosecuting the on-line edition of the prose).
(3.) Dissertations: I can only say that I assume so.
(4.) Predicted: crystal balls, such predictions. Have tried not to go in for them.
(5.) Scholarship: I don’t think of myself as in a position or as having a wish to offer approval or disapproval of scholarship’s directions, provided that it be genuinely scholarship (not pseudo-scholarship in the service of pseudo-argument of the usual kind, disingenuously and silently shifting from an axiom, fine, to a hypothesis, fine but differently fine, to a finding, fine but very differently fine).

Christopher Ricks. Photo: Kalman Zabarsky

The perspicacious and seemingly inexhaustible Christopher Ricks. Photo: Kalman Zabarsky.

AF: Why these volumes now, and what impact do you think they will have on current Eliot scholarship? Do you hope they will provoke a new and perhaps different discussion of Eliot, a 21st century discussion?

Ricks: “For my part, I say nothing, nothing – but / This, I will say. . . ” (Byron). The first question mark, not for me to say or guess at; the second, I am against, or kinda against, thinking in terms of anything that would like to identify itself (darkly) as 21st century discussion. . . Before long, we’d be intoning state of the art, or cutting edge, or even the mantra digital humanities

AF: T. S. Eliot’s influence in the 20th century was titanic, nearly monolithic. Every succeeding poet was obliged to confront him. As with Joyce, you either crashed into him or found some way to go around him. How about right now? What is your sense of Eliot’s ongoing importance, and has that influence and importance changed? Do beginning poets still feel obliged to confront or in some sense consider their own poetry in relation to Eliot’s achievement? Another way of saying this: The world Eliot described in The Waste Land is still very much the world we inhabit, in my opinion, but do younger poets still feel that way about it? How about younger readers?

Ricks: Titanic, very good, especially given that Dylan’s genius has Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower. And (though this may just be that I am getting tired) I need to elude questions about what the young, and the young poets, feel and find. Not young, me, not by a long shot, and I described myself, when introducing an anthology of the poets, American and British, who read poems for me in Oxford a decade ago, as someone who does not write or publish poems…

AF: In my lead-in to this interview, I speculate a little on the readership for these volumes. What kind of reader did you have in mind first and foremost?

Ricks: There is still a general reader, a common reader. He or she reads for pleasure. Students and teachers, if they – we – are lucky, read with pleasure, it is devoutly to be wished, but that is not the same thing. The general reader should start from, and may wisely wish to stay forever with, a plain text of the poems of T.S. Eliot. The Poems of T.S. Eliot, annotated, must be for a different readership, yes, but fortunately there is a porousness that sometimes blesses us.

AF: You’ve lectured widely on many subjects. Will these volumes be the start of a new series of lectures on Eliot?

Ricks: No, or even Nope. (Discussion classes, something else; the Editorial Institute’s work is unremittingly at one with the principles and practice of the edition, but then we would be, wouldn’t we?)

AF: After the publication of the annotated Poems, what new project will you turn to that will not seem anti-climactic?

Ricks: Am returning to work as general editor, and as the editor of one volume, for the selected writings of the great Victorian historian of the law, and political philosopher, James Fitzjames Stephen (the uncle of Virginia Woolf). Not anti-climactic at all, but yes, nowhere near being something that might aspire to set a crown upon a lifetime’s effort.

Anthony Wallace‘s collection of short stories The Old Priest won the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was first reviewed by Roberta Silman in The Arts Fuse. The book went on to become a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award. More on Anthony Wallace and his collection The Old Priest. He has work forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Southern Review.

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