The Poems of T. S. Eliot,
edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.
Hardcover, 2 volumes, 1344 + 688 pages, $45/$40.

When T. S. Eliot died in 1965, his writings were left in the care of his young widow, Valerie Eliot. She proved a capable editor of the manuscripts of The Waste Land and the first volume of his letters. However, Mrs. Eliot had a healthy distrust of the legions of scholars who wanted to pick over her husband’s works (and I say a “healthy distrust” because we academics are generally no less self-serving than people in other professions). Consequently, Mrs. Eliot guarded the many unpublished and out-of-print works of Mr. Eliot more zealously than both scholars and ordinary readers would have wished. After publishing the facsimile edition of The Waste Land in 1971, she allowed no annotated editions of his major poetry to appear—though she gave Christopher Ricks permission to edit some of the early poems in a volume entitled Inventions of the March Hare. And after editing the first volume of Mr. Eliot’s letters (in 1988) Valerie Eliot did not publish any further volumes for many a year. Towards the end of her life, though, Mrs. Eliot began to release new material to the public. With John Haffenden, she edited three more volumes of the letters (and he has continued this work since her passing in 2012). She invited Ronald Schuchard to edit the complete prose, and four of the projected seven volumes have now been completed (published in online format only). She also gave her blessing to the first scholarly edition of the complete poems, edited by Christopher Ricks. The present two-volume edition of The Poems of T. S. Eliot is the long-awaited and happy result.

As everyone who has struggled to read Eliot’s poetry knows, his style is allusive, filled with quotations from, and arcane references to, a wide variety of works. The power of his poetic voice and much of his meaning comes through without research into his sources, but his work invites and rewards research and close study. This is true of all the great writers, really, and scholarly editions of Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Coleridge, or Arnold are heavily annotated, the extensive footnotes greatly aiding our understanding. Even in this company, however, Eliot’s poetry is unusually dense in its allusions to past works—so much so that an early edition of The Waste Land was published with notes written by the author himself. It has indeed been frustrating to his readers that no scholarly edition of his poems existed, and now this lack has finally been remedied.

The editors have spared no effort in tracking down possible sources and influences, making this edition a treasure trove for students of Eliot’s poems. On the other hand, the two volumes will appear daunting to readers who want to experience the poetry directly, without long hours spent studying the notes. The editors wisely chose to put their annotations after all the poems, rather than on the same page, so this edition does offer a clean reading text. But the commentary outweighs the text by a wide margin. In the first volume, which contains the Collected Poems chosen by the author in 1962 (as well as poems he never included in published collections), the poems end on page 346, but the commentaries, bibliographies, and indexes add nearly a thousand pages more!

This makes us scholars happy, but it is bound to be off-putting to many readers. To them I would say, this is still a very good version of Eliot’s poetry to have for two reasons: there are corrections made to errors that lingered through many reprintings of the volumes that have been available up to now; and, more importantly, many poems are included that were not in the so-called Complete Poems and Plays. The poems are set handsomely, in a readable font. Do not be intimidated by all the scholarly rigmarole that follows or feel you must read a word of it. I predict, nevertheless, that if you are one of the millions of people who love Eliot’s poetry, finding it beautiful and moving and wise, you may eventually look up the notes on some of your favorite lines—or the lines you find most puzzling.

Allow me to give one example. In “The Dry Salvages,” the third part of Eliot’s greatest poem, Four Quartets, we find these lines:

It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes in the popular mind a means of disowning the past.

I am particularly interested in this passage and have written an essay focused on these lines. Eliot is not here denying biological evolution, but he is critical of certain “superficial notions” of it that affect people’s ideas about the past. In my essay, I suggest that Eliot had in mind the evolutionary view of history put forth by H. G. Wells in his immensely popular Outline of History. In extrapolating evolutionary science into the realm of human history, Wells gives a progressive interpretation of history in which everything gets better and better, especially once humanity begins to reject the authority of religion. The commentary on these lines does not mention Wells and does not offer an interpretation (an admirable reticence), but it does give a number of relevant quotations from Eliot and those who influenced him, putting the lines in an intellectual context. The most pertinent one, I think, is from a 1942 piece by Eliot: “Darwin’s Origin of Species … was to start more speculation on the origin and destiny of man—speculation both wise and foolish, scientific and unscientific, relevant and irrelevant—than any book of the century … a doctrine of the almost automatic progress of the human race no longer seems credible.” If this volume had been published when I was writing my essay, I certainly would have looked up the quoted essay and included this passage. Is this scholarly nit-picking? I don’t think so. It is an attempt to place some evocative lines in their proper context. In this case, the result is a better understanding of Eliot’s critique of the progressive doctrine.

Volume II is smaller and consists of less canonical poems, featuring his charming cat poems, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (on which the musical Cats is based). This second volume also has the naughty bits, poems he included in letters to some of his closest friends in which he indulged in low ribaldry. You will find, for instance, The Columbiad, his mock-epic about Columbo (Christopher Columbus). Here is one of the less bawdy verses: “Columbo and his mariners / They were a merry chorus / One Sunday evening after tea / They went to storm a whore house.” Eliot was so long seen by many people as a stuffy pedantic writer that it is good to know he wrote such things. Though a writer of high seriousness, he also enjoyed many popular entertainments. Witness a piece of doggerel he wrote to Groucho Marx, requesting a signed photo: “Dearest Mr. Groucho Marx, / I’m sending a request / I’d like a signed picture / You’ll know which one is best.” It goes on in much the same deliberately and deliciously bad rhyming.

T. S. Eliot was an avant-garde poet, but at the same time a deeply conservative Anglo-Catholic traditionalist. Those of us who share his view of life can profit greatly from reading his brilliant poems and contemplating them. This edition at long last presents all his poetry in an accessible format, with helpful commentaries for those who wish to dig deeper.  

Benjamin G. Lockerd is Professor of English at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he has received the Alumni Association’s Outstanding Educator Award. He is the author of books on Edmund Spenser and T. S. Eliot, as well as articles on Eliot and on Renaissance literature. He also wrote the introduction to Russell Kirk’s book Eliot and His Age and has served as president of the T. S. Eliot Society.