The Essential T.S. Eliot
Ecco, 2020, 208 pp., $25.99
In a typically cranky letter to his best friend, the poet Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis had to get something off of his chest: “Do you know who I hate? T.S. Eliot. That’s who I hate.” This may seem like a random grudge on the surface, but there is an aesthetic philosophy backing up the snark. For Amis, the comic novelist and poet who lived to mock pretentiousness and pomposity, Eliot represented everything wrong with modern literature. The Modernists worked to “make it new,” in Ezra Pound’s phrase, by blending ancient characters and narratives with modern life, often using obscure quotations and intricate symbolic patterns to do so.
It’s true that people like Eliot, Pound, and Joyce weren’t always concerned with being accessible to the average reader. But that only means that sometimes it takes a little bit of guidance to be able to appreciate the complex vision they offered. Ecco Press has recently released a new collection of Eliot’s poems, The Essential T.S. Eliot, which includes some of his biggest hits but makes the unfortunate mistake of not providing a single footnote or a skeleton key of any kind to help unlock Eliot’s vast echoing labyrinth of allusions, references, and quotations.
In some ways, Eliot’s intentional obscurity is a case study in why poetry gets a bad rap. It’s often dismissed (usually by those who don’t read it) as airy abstraction or pretentious claptrap written by overeducated snobs. In some cases, these criticisms can be fair. Yet what gets casually written off is what poetry has to offer that’s unlike any other literary form—its uniquely evocative quality, its origami-like precision of language, and how much wisdom and insight can be contained within a single line. Reading poetry is not always about discerning some Big Important Statement. Rather, it offers us something sacred that often gets squandered amid the daily bustle, carving out a quiet space for reflection within a hyperactive, switched-on world. Sometimes you need a guide to help you to imaginatively enter that luminous space, especially when reading a poet as culturally omnivorous as Eliot.
Ironically enough, Eliot managed to have it both ways in terms of popularity and obscurity. Poems like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Hollow Men” have remained popular over the years. The long-running musical Cats is based on Eliot’s frisky collection of children’s verse Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. But there are large parts of Eliot’s work, such as his verse plays and his essays, that aren’t widely read and will probably remain so. This edition doesn’t do much to change that, nor does it add anything much to our understanding of the poems that are already well known.
At his best, Eliot said a lot by saying relatively little. The fussy, neurotic, plaintive Prufrock keeps being rediscovered because he’s open about being a certain kind of anti-hero. When he rhetorically asks, “do I dare to eat a peach?” or frets that “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons” or worries about his balding hair—openly admitting that he’s not a dashing hero like Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be—we feel for the poor guy. We are all Prufrocks now in one way or another; these days modern life has lost its luster, and it’s much harder to take seriously the grand old myths and godlike figures that were once considered cultural lodestars. Eliot knew those myths inside out, and he could always draw from his vast learning to choose which ancient voices he wanted to speak to us today.
Which points to the biggest problem with this edition—there isn’t any effort made on the reader’s behalf to help explain the sources of Eliot’s dense collage of quotations, or a suggestion of what to make of them. It would be unbelievably pretentious, for example, to assume that the average reader would be able to single-handedly translate random excerpts from German, French, Sanskrit, and Greek, all of which appear at various points in “The Waste Land,” not to mention the unidentified quotations from giants like Dante and Shakespeare appearing alongside random 1920s pop songs. There’s a rich symphonic resonance that comes from Eliot’s conducting of all of these different voices, culled from both the living and the dead, that will needlessly fall on deaf ears if there’s no attempt to meet the curious reader halfway.
One poem entitled “Dans le Restaurant” appears in entirely untranslated French. It boggles the mind why including it might have seemed like a good idea. For my money, I think “Four Quartets” is some of Eliot’s greatest writing, containing elegant meditations on the complex, reciprocal nature of time and memory: “What might have been and what has been/ Point to one end, which is always present./ Footfalls echo in the memory/ Down the passage which we did not take/ Towards the door we never opened/ Into the rose-garden. My words echo/ Thus, in your mind.” The Beethoven-inspired interweaving of sound and sense is very gracefully done; this edition inexplicably cuts it off right in the middle.
Instead, for some reason we get all 19 pages of the largely pointless and kind of bonkers quasi-verse play “Sweeny Agonistes.” Here’s an excerpt: “When you’re alone in the middle of the bed and you/ wake like someone hit you in the head/ You’ve had a cream of a nightmare dream and you’ve/ got the hoo-ha’s coming to you./ Hoo hoo hoo.” Sorry, what? A little-known poem called “Whispers of Immortality” uses the memorably odd phrase “pneumatic bliss” to refer to a well-endowed woman, but whenever the deeply repressed Eliot tries to sound whimsical, he usually ends up coming off as kind of creepy instead.
Editor Vijay Seshadri’s introductory essay is mostly serviceable but makes far too much out of a semi-random comparison with Whitman, audaciously referred to as “the” other great American poet, whose themes and preoccupations don’t really relate to Eliot’s in any significant way. Seshadri’s comparison with Henry James, another erudite cosmopolitan expat who grew up in America but felt more at home in London, who also became a British citizen, and whose writing had a density and subtlety comparable to Eliot’s, is much more apt.
Ralph Ellison once said that “The Waste Land” helped inspire him to write as a young music student in Oklahoma because it deeply moved him even though he couldn’t explain what it all meant. It’s a lovely sentiment, and an encouragingly poetic one. That kind of instinctual response is one way to recognize quality writing when you see it. Unfortunately, without any editorial gloss it’s hard to assume that Eliot’s poetry will have a similar effect on contemporary readers, who might understandably have less patience with its difficulty and obscurity. Considering how easily poetry gets brushed aside by the general public, especially for reasons that pertain to the difficulties inherent in Eliot’s style, it would be a real loss if his poetry ends up getting left behind, going out not with a bang but a whimper.