I can’t remember how old I was when I discovered ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, though I know I had precisely that feeling – of discovery, of breathtaking encounter, of having found something that perhaps no one else had had the good fortune to find. The thing I do remember is the edition in which I read it. It was the slim Faber & Faber selection, The Waste Land and Other Poems, known to readers for many years on both sides of the Atlantic, and lately dressed – according to the bold designs of Pentagram – in a cover of oranges and cerulean blue. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, the volume from which this selection had first been compiled in 1940, Eliot’s Collected Poems (1936), had presented a subtly different Prufrock to the one I was now encountering: not different in textual detail, exactly, but different on account of the company he’d once been wont to keep. In the Collected Poems, Prufrock’s love song is the first of several smoky cameos to descend upon the reader, most of them caught in a sort of urban half-light – ‘Whispering lunar incantations’ – and troubled by a host of passing shades.1 In my starkly coloured edition, by contrast, Prufrock appeared to be a more than usually lonely figure, and his poem a rather isolated instance of lyric rumination, followed as it was by a few smelly ‘Preludes’ and nothing more to suggest the breadth of Eliot’s ‘Other Observations’. But I loved that love song, as lots of readers have, and perhaps the reason I did had something to do with its seeming to unfold in unmediated fashion. No notes, no apparatus to speak of, no trace of the tell-tale editorial hand – just a poem of 131 lines to conjure with, and an unattributed epigraph in medieval Italian. I realise now that no text is ever truly unmediated. I know that wherever editors have elected to keep their distance, it is not because they’ve chosen to lay off the scholarly procedure, but rather because they understand that some editorial actions speak louder than words, and that to choose not to do something connotes a rare kind of scholarly integrity. Light, in other words, doesn’t always mean lite. Even so, it can be instructive to return to the scenes and circumstances of early reading, to notice with slightly beadier eyes the way in which a particular book was put together – and the way one missed it first time round – and also to see whether the thrill of that first impression still pertains having learnt something, subsequently, of the business that went on behind the scenes of its initial production. In the case of The Waste Land and Other Poems, I know now that its table of contents was determined in large part by Anne Ridler (‘with the poet’s consent’) – which hasn’t done all that much to alter my relation to the volume, or to my former reading self, but does prompt me to wonder whether Eliot might have snickered to think of an editor by that name preparing a selection of his poems for a press called Sesame Books.2 To open Sesame, and to trust a Ridler – it’s just too good to be true. An abundance of this kind of information has now been made available to us in The Poems of T. S. Eliot, a two-volume edition masterfully curated by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. The first volume commences with the Collected Poems 1909–1962, thereby reproducing the sequence Eliot himself established shortly before his death, and concludes with a long string of ‘Uncollected Poems’, which includes the many drafts, ditties, squibs, and interludes that were first brought to light in Ricks’s earlier edition, Inventions of the March Hare (1996). To the casual observer, the distinction between these new volumes could not be more conspicuous. Where the first is weighty in both senses of that term – thick, heavy, filled to the brim with ‘poems’ – the second is less than half the length and makes a show of preserving Eliot’s ‘verse’, beginning naturally enough with Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and ending with a posse of ‘Improper Rhymes’. One of the great achievements of the edition, however, is that it begins to make you wonder whether any observer – faced with either volume – is likely to remain a casual one, for this is an edition that really makes you feel things. Occasionally it may be that you’re given the sense, as Anne Stillman observes, that you’ve wandered on to the set of a Beckett play, allured by the momentary drama of a word gone rogue, or by the ghost of a fugitive etymology that seems somehow destined to hover between utterance and annotation. Or perhaps you feel – this is Stillman again – that you’ve assumed the life of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, compelled by ‘bewildered curiosity’, in the sense that ‘being absorbed by these volumes is like falling down a rabbit-hole’: ‘This is an adventure, and the pleasure comes from the perils of losing your way’.3 One effect of this adventure, then – some will call it a pleasure, others a peril – has to do with glossing over the implied differences between the edition’s volumes. For if you allow yourself to fall through the edition as Stillman suggests, or to fall for it, then you soon begin to spy threads of continuity, of tone and technique, and so to doubt the efficacy of drawing too firm a distinction between poems and verses. In feeling for those threads, you may find yourself speculating as to whether Eliot’s writings do indeed amount to ‘one poem’; but even if you don’t, it’s not hard to spot along the way certain knots and clumpings of style, which only go to show that sometimes Eliot himself struggled to work out what sort of thing he was writing, a send-up or a sonnet, invective or invention. In this respect, I think, it is no accident that Ricks and McCue have chosen to include the ‘Uncollected Poems’ in Volume I. That motley group of lyrics might easily have found a home after all the cats and clerihews of Volume II, but here they seem to occupy a grey area that is both heartland and hinterland – the middle of the edition, and a space in which this oh-so-central poet is inclined to seem edgy all over again. Among the questions one could ask, by way of a corollary, is whether Ricks and McCue might have collected the whole oeuvre in one volume (‘Improper Rhymes’ and all), and thus avoided entirely this question of seeming to endorse the myth of a split personality. It was not practical to do so, it transpires, because the pages of Volume I that might otherwise have showcased the poems of Volume II are devoted instead to an extensive ‘Commentary’. The importance of this superb work of criticism can hardly be exaggerated, distilling as it does over the course of some 800 pages many years of careful, searching scholarship, and the rich accretions of two minds. It is difficult to imagine how or when such an edition is likely to be surpassed; but, for me, the lasting fascination of this edition, and of the first volume in particular, resides in the fact of collaboration, in the ways this meeting of minds has found articulation, and in the light of the sort of things one learns from the resulting editorial voice. What kind of reading, in the end, does this new ‘annotated text’ make possible? The answer to that question has its roots in the rationale and imagined ‘scope’ of the edition’s ‘Commentary’. Ricks and McCue put it like this: An effort has been made not to use the Commentary for critical elucidation. The frontiers are uncertain, but the principle has been to provide only notes which constitute or proceed from a point of information. Parallels with other writers will sometimes not only suggest a source but amount to an allusion. Conversely, it may not be a source but an analogue that brings back what was in the air. Notes of this kind try to put down only the parallels themselves (though in the awareness that annotation is inseparable from interpretation, selection and judgement), leaving the reader to decide what to make of what the poet may have made of this.4 Commentary, in short, is a tricky business. Yes, there is an element of science about it, if you’re willing to admit that identifying ‘a point of information’ involves, at some stage, a form of positivistic enquiry whose intention must be to verify the relative truth value of a fact. But commentary is very evidently an art form, too, which depends on various conflicting acts and states of being – determination, whimsy, instinct, divine intervention (call it what you will) – and which promises to make a difference quite as substantive as scientific enquiry, but only if the method and material of commentary remain open to comment. This is what Ricks and McCue mean to suggest when they admit that annotation is an inescapably interpretative pursuit, but that an annotation need not (should not) inhibit a reader’s own decision-making process. Ricks has worked over similar questions before, most memorably in Allusion to the Poets (2002), in which he attends at length to the implications of assuming one term rather than another – allusion or borrowing, parallel or source – as well as to the idea that any such assuming must take into account the burden of ‘authorial intention’.5 Of particular note on this occasion is the proposition that commentary involves a sort of ethereal sensitivity, whereby an editor may aim to ‘bring … back what was in the air’ at a specific time in a poem’s conception or composition. It’s a suggestive phrase, not least because Eliot himself liked to think about the ways things have a way of circulating, drifting, and evaporating, only to return at the sound of a cadence or the slightest smidgeon of an echo. In Volume I we are reminded that a return of this sort had a part to play in the design of his early poetry: ‘I once wrote a poem called The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Eliot recalled in 1959: ‘I am convinced that it would never have been called Love Song but for a title of Kipling’s that stuck obstinately in my head, The Love Song of Har Dyal’.6 Getting something stuck in one’s head is not a new sensation, and one aspect of this sticky condition has for some time been likened to a jingle-effect, long loved by poetasters, and much theorised in recent years, though usually as a musical phenomenon, by psychologists and neurotologists.7 Despite its semantic stability, and a history that stretches back at least as far as the 1660s, the word ‘jingle’ assumed a new double life between the wars when it came to stand for the kind of soundbite you hear on the radio. As early as 1930, Abraham Flexner was charging market psychologists to find out ‘what takes place when a jingle like “not a cough in a carload” persuades a nation to buy a new brand of cigarette’.8 The rest, you might say, is addiction. Among those to recognise the potential of this dubious double life was T. S. Eliot, whose first recorded use of the term dates back to March 1932, when he thought to characterise himself as a composer of ‘verses and jingles’, not in print, but for all the nation to hear on the BBC.9 He did so with an odd mixture of pride and shame – ‘jingles’, he claimed on air, had earned him something like ‘notoriety’ – and the word seems to have vanished for a time from his vocabulary, only to pop up again, some ten years later, in the margins of a poem called Little Gidding: If you came this way, Taking the route you would be likely to take From the place you would be likely to start from, If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness. It would be the same at the end of the journey, If you came at night like a broken king, If you came by day not knowing what you came for,10 These lines constitute the opening of the second verse paragraph as it appeared in October 1942. Eliot’s ambling passage betrays a sort of achieved effortlessness, but the gait of this voice had required some correction: If you came this way, Taking the route you would be likely to take From the place you would be likely to start from, If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness. In the may time, the play time of the wakened senses, It would be the same at the end of the journey. If you came at night like a broken king, If you came by day not knowing what you came for,11 This first draft, sent to John Hayward in July 1941, reveals a line long-lost to Eliot’s readers – ‘In the may time, the play time of the wakened senses’ – but now happily preserved in a section entitled ‘Textual History’ at the end of Volume II.12 It is a flippant, fanciful line, in its way; yet it is challenging, too, in the sense that it might prompt us to speculate about Eliot’s desired effect. Are all these mays, plays, days, and ways the stuff of ‘cumulative insistence’ – a layering of internal prosodic colour – or are this poem’s recursive melodics intended to make a mockery of the ever-thickening modern ear?13 Either way, Hayward didn’t like it one bit: ‘in the may time, the play time’: this is a rather dangerous conjunction, maytime and playtime (cf. Baby & Maybe) being a favourite stand-by in Tin Pan Alley. I should feel happier if this jingle were omitted.14 Eliot appears to have assented – ‘I agree about the playtime jingle’, he replied – though not without a heavy heart, for this was a line that had taken root in the very first draft of the poem, and had evidently provided some kind of centre of gravity for the poetic thought that spirals through the paragraph. Eliot’s cast-offs are rarely cast off for good, and the editors of the new Poems have exercised their usual diligence in footnoting the line with the following annotation: I 24^25 variantIn the may time, the play time: … As You Like It V iii, Song: ‘In the spring-time, the only pretty ring-time’.15 One would be foolish to quibble with Ricks and McCue – the Shakespearian echo seems a reasonable supposition – but it would be strange indeed for Eliot to have erased his line if this were its first or only source. Which leads one to wonder whether in fact Eliot’s reason for cutting the line was because he could see Hayward was on to something in August 1941, not in the sense that Hayward was right to want to banish the jingle out of hand, but perhaps because he’d correctly anticipated the way a modern ear would latch on to it. And who knows where that could lead? Gangway, we’ll begin When our ship comes in, You’ll sit on my lap All over the map. To London in May time To Venice in play time To Paris in time for a frock To Boston in bean time Darling, meantime Let’s take a walk around the block.16 ‘In the may time, the play time’. Whatever its possible Shakespearian overtones, Eliot’s line sounds oddly legible in relation to this popular show-tune, made famous in 1934 by the tenor Joey Nash. The young Eliot, we know, had developed a penchant for numbers of this sort, and particularly for their light patterns of distraction: think of those early lyrics of his, ‘Suite Clownesque’, or the much-neglected number, ‘There’s No One Left to Press my Pants’, which begins: ‘As I was walking down the street | upon a winter’s day | I saw a man outside a bar, | his aspect was distrait’.17 So we’ve known for some time that reading Eliot closely also means listening to him closely, listening in to all the things he might have been tuning in or out. But the question to arise from this soundbite in Little Gidding is new and more than usually complex, for it should prompt us, in the case of such a profoundly allusive poet, to speculate about all those bits of rhyme and rhythm that cannot properly be termed quotations or borrowings, but which rather seem to have stuck by accident, worming their way into the poet’s melodic repertoire. Hayward, for his part, was alive to this possibility of involuntary storage and relay, and remarked of Little Gidding’s early drafts that it was ‘as if the needle of [Eliot’s] mind had got stuck in a groove and was faltering’.18 I do not doubt that Eliot should have known by heart that song from As You Like It, and that the voices of Touchstone’s obedient minstrels may have inveigled their way into the texture of Little Gidding. But how nice it would be to think that something else was playing on Eliot’s mind – playing, even, in the same room – as he set about drafting the poem. We shall never know, and the fact of not knowing is not a bad place to begin or end a reading of Eliot. In the meantime, there’s no harm in guessing what was in the air. Footnotes 1 ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’, in Collected Poems: 1909–1935 (London 1936) pp. 24–6: 24. 2 See ‘Textual History’, in The Poems of T. S. Eliot, vol. ii: Practical Cats and Further Verses (London 2015) p. 296. 3 Anne Stillman, ‘T. S. Eliot’s One Poem’, Cambridge Humanities Review, 11 (2016) pp. 2–5; <http://www.cambridgereview.net/anne-stillman—ts-eliots-one-poem.html > (accessed 4 Sept. 2017). 4 The Poems of T. S. Eliot, vol. i: Collected & Uncollected Poems, p. 351. 5 Christopher Ricks, Allusion to the Poets (Oxford 2002) pp. 3–4. 6 ‘Commentary’, in Poems, i. 374. 7 See, for instance, Victoria J. Williamson and Daniel Müllensiefen, ‘Earworms from Three Angles: Situational Antecedents, Personality Predisposition and the Quest for a Musical Formula’, Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition and the 8th Triennial Conference of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music (2012) pp. 1124–32. 8 Abraham Flexner, Universities: American English German (Oxford 1930) p. 165. The OED records this as the first application of the term (3b). 9 T. S. Eliot, ‘Christianity and Communism’, The Listener, 7 (16 Mar. 1932) pp. 382–3, repr. in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition. English Lion, 1930–1933, ed. Jason Harding and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore 2015) pp. 422–31: 422. This was the first in a series of talks at the BBC entitled ‘The Modern Dilemma’; it was broadcast at 5 p.m. on 6 March 1932. 10 ‘Little Gidding’, New English Weekly (15 Oct. 1942), repr. in Poems, i. 201 (ll. 20–7). 11 ‘Little Gidding’, described by John Hayward as ‘First Complete Draft’, in the Hayward Bequest [D1], King’s College, Cambridge (7 July 1941), repr. in Helen Gardner, ‘Appendix A: 1’, in The Composition of ‘Four Quartets’ (London 1978) pp. 225–6. 12 Poems, ii. 518. 13 T. S. Eliot, ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’, The New Statesman, 8 (3 Mar. 1917) pp. 518–19, repr. in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition. Apprentice Years, 1905–1918, ed. Jewel Spears Brooker and Ronald Schuchard (Baltimore and London 2014) pp. 511–18: 516. 14 Hayward to Eliot (1 Aug. 1941), repr. in ‘Textual History’ (Poems, ii. 518). 15 ‘Commentary’, in Poems, i. 1000. 16 ‘Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block’, in Life Begins at 8:40 (1934), music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and E. Y. Harburg. The song was recorded in New York by Joey Nash with Richard Himber’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel Orchestra in July 1934: Victor Matrix BS-83379 – ‘Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block’, Discography of American Historical Recordings (UC Santa Barbara Library, 2017); <http://adp.library.ucsb.edu/index.php/matrix/detail/200017340/BS-83379-Lets_take_a_walk_around_the_block> (accessed 6 Sept. 2017). 17 Poems, i. 249–52 and ii. 153–5. Both lyrics are thought to have been penned in 1910. 18 Hayward to Eliot (1 Aug. 1941), repr. in Gardner, ‘Appendix A: 2’, in The Composition of ‘Four Quartets’, pp. 234–6: 235. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Cambridge Quarterly – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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