28th November 2015
The life of TS Eliot and the history of publisher Faber & Faber are inextricably intertwined, with the poet serving on the board from its founding in 1929. As poetry editor, he brought poets such as WH Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice to the list.
Faber have now published his Complete Poems, in two volumes, with editors Jim McCue and Christopher Ricks, who have scrupulously restored accidental omissions and removed textual errors that have crept in over a century of reprints.
Here , we interview Jim McCue about the work involved in producing the definitive edition of one of the 20th century's greatest poets.
Can you tell us about what this major literary project involved in terms of the research and editorial process?
There are hundreds of manuscripts in England and America, in libraries and in private collections, but there was no list of them all, so we had to track down those that gave us new poetry, as well as comparing all the others with the poems in their published form. (Handling the drafts was a great thrill and privilege, of course.) TSE’s letters and prose are full of information, from which we selected what is most relevant to the poems, to go into our Commentary, along with a great many facts and sources discovered by scholars over several decades.
How long did the project take to complete?
There are a number of unpublished poems in the book - what do these add to our understanding of Eliot?
They show him to have ranged even wider than we knew before, from versions of Lewis Carroll poems written as a child in the 19th century to what appears to be an attempt to imagine the Trenches during the Great War, then a parody of surrealism in the 1930s, verse letters to friends, and love poems for his second wife, Valerie, at the end of his life.
What were the most illuminating discoveries you made in the process of working on the book?
We were delighted to keep finding links between poems of very different kinds, sometimes written many years apart, suggesting that through all the changes and in all the moods of a lifetime, he had an exceptional coherence and power of mind. There are hundreds of new stitches, but it is the whole tapestry that matters. We were both surprised, for instance, to discover how many poems are preoccupied with war, even when ostensibly about something else. Memories of the Great War re-appear during the Second World War, in the writing of Four Quartets.
Could you tell us a little about the restored line in The Waste Land?
In the section called 'A Game of Chess', the published poem has the lines:
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess,
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.
But between the second and third of these lines, the typescript had another: 'The ivory men make company between us'. It turns out that this was omitted at the insistence of Vivien Eliot, Eliot's first wife. He never printed it, but on three occasions after publication, he added it to the text, so we have reintroduced it and numbered it line 137a, which recognizes its spectral presence – and doesn’t interfere with the traditional line numbering.
This year is the 100th anniversary of 'The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock'. Why does this poem continue to strike such a chord with readers?
Because of its siren voices and because it’s a poem that understands what it is to be misunderstood, which we all feel from time to time.
What is the story behind that poem and, in particular, its memorable name?
Well, we have 25 pages of Commentary on it, so it’s a long story. We were pleased to be able to document for the first time what Eliot said later when asked what the 'J' stood for in 'J Alfred Prufrock'...
Can you tell us about the origins of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats?
Ezra Pound came up with the nickname Possum, referring to Eliot's habit of 'possuming' – avoiding being pinned down by playing dead. Eliot liked the name, and even suggested The Possum as a title for his magazine (but on second thoughts called it The Criterion). He hated to be pinned down to a particular kind of poetry – he had no interest in repeating himself – so after he had written a few poems for his godchildren about cats, the idea of a book of children’s poems must have appealed to him. It certainly wasn’t what the public expected, but when some of the poems were broadcast at Christmas 1937, before publication, they proved very popular.
That work was noted by WH Auden as showing the 'practical joker' in Eliot, can you explain how Eliot uses humour in this work?
Slyly; on tiptoe.
2015 marked the 50th anniversary of Eliot's death; what are the enduring qualities of his work and why is his poetry still relevant today?
We worry nowadays about having ever more distractions and ever shorter attention spans. Nearly a century ago, Eliot wrote The Waste Land, which is the ultimate poem of fragmentation. Yet twenty years after that, despite the chaos of war and the Blitz, he summoned the concentration for a quite different poem, Little Gidding, in which he achieves a final integration, as though answering himself:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well [note: thing is correctly singular] When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
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