- T.S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage edited by Michael Grant
Routledge, 408 pp, £25.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9226 1
These ‘Critical Heritage’ volumes on T. S. Eliot get off to a bad start, and persevere. The chosen items are ‘printed verbatim’, ‘apart from the silent correction of spelling errors and other minutiae’. Why then preserve ‘elegaic’ and For Launcelot Andrewes? Did F.L. Lucas really write, unremarked, that Eliot may have been indebted to something called ‘Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came’? Yes he did, actually. But the editing and printing of these books are so slovenly that, half-unjustly, one is inclined to give everybody else the benefit of the doubt. Meeting a critic called Cleanth Brook, or a title The Romantic Image, or an Eliot work called ‘Eeldrop and Applepex’, one is in danger of what would here be called apopexy. French words are usually, though not with the assurance of invariability, docked of their accents. English words mutate into such forms as ‘notive’, ‘wordly’, ‘myseries’, and ‘conrete’. Sometimes you start to wonder whether it is the original author (in the following case, Harriet Monroe) or the editor (Michael Grant) or you yourself who must be getting giddy: ‘While stating nothing, it suggests everything that is in his rapidly moving mind, in a series of shifting scenes which fade in and out of each other like the cinema. The form, with its play of many-colored lights on words that flash from everywhere in the poet’s dream, is a perfect expression of the shifting scenes which fade in and out of each other like the cinema. The form, with its play of many-colored lights on words that flash from everywhere in the poet’s dream, is a perfect expression of the shifting tortures in his soul.’ Come again? Or rather, let the middle sentence go.
The introduction will give special salience to something which is then inexplicably absent from the entry itself. There is a piece by Edgar Jepson in 1918, which – the introduction says – says: ‘Mr T. S. Eliot is United States of the United States; and his poetry is securely rooted in its native soil.’ Turn to the item itself, and you find the sentence newly running: ‘Mr T.S. Eliot is United States of the United States; and his poetry is securely as autochthonic as Theocritus.’ Nothing is to be found anywhere about roots and soil. It seems improbable that ‘rooted in its native soil’ is a misprint for ‘as autochthonic as Theocritus’. Does this matter? Well, it means that you cannot trust anything which you read in this book; and ‘autochthonic’ might be thought to have its interest when one recollects Eliot’s speaking of ‘chthonic’ powers in ‘The Dry Salvages’.
Then there is the damage done to Eliot’s very words. The ‘Note on the Text’ says that ‘poetic texts cited in reviews have been corrected where necessary as follows: citations from The Waste Land have been checked against the 1922 edition, given by Mrs Eliot; citations from Four Quartets have been checked against the first English edition (1944) as given by Helen Gardner; all other citations have been checked against CPP [The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot, 1969].’ This is pointlessly inconsistent, since it means that some of the texts have been corrected to the text they first had in volume form (not their first published text), and others to the text they finally had. Morover, if a past critic was basing his remarks on a misquotation, there is no sense in silently correcting it. Or the critic may have been attending to wording which at that date differed from the final decisions embodied in the 1969 edition (or which differed from the 1944 Four Quartets, which gathered four poems which had all previously been published). Eliot made important changes in edition after edition for his entire lifetime, even though these changes might seem minute. J.C. Squire in l926 quotes the words, ‘as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld’: fine, for that is what ‘The Boston Evening Transcript’ still said in 1926, but not fine if you say you have corrected to the 1969 text, since Eliot had revised it to ‘La Roche-foucauld’.
The proper principle would have been simply to note whenever a reviewer’s quotation differed from the then-authorised text and from the finally-authorised one. There is indeed a moment when the editor stumbles a small way towards this. He pauses, and squares his brackets: ‘He laughed like an impossible [sic] foetus.’ It would have been responsible to supply ‘irresponsible’ too, once he’d announced that ‘poetic texts have been corrected’ etc. But the trouble with handing out this one ‘sic’ (or the one ‘So in original’, pointing to a mistitling) is that a reader will then the more believe the asseveration that on all the other occasions the ‘poetic texts’ are right or have been put right. Yet this very entry, only one paragraph long, then quotes Eliot as having written: ‘The world revolves like ancient women ... ’ What, no sic? (‘The worlds revolve ... ’) Mr Weaver’s error in 1920, or Mr Grant’s in 1982? Whether or not Mr Weaver’s, Mr Grant’s – since he has told us that we can trust his texts as correct or corrected. We simply can’t. ‘On the edge of a grimpen, where there is no secure foothold’: Eliot’s genius, in not saying ‘where there is’ but ‘where is’, is dislodged, and the reader of these volumes finds himself where is no secure foothold.
It isn’t only the words, for the punctuation, capitalisation, indentation, lineation and spacing are all violated, Eliot having devoted a characteristic energy of imaginative scruple to each of them. But it is the words that would have been thought likely to strike even the most perfunctory editor as not quite right. ‘The motion of some infinitely gentle /Infinitely suffering thing’ (to which we are introduced more than once) is a notion which would have tested even the long-suffering Mr Eliot. The editor has a lot of trouble with his motions and notions. Poor Middleton Murry is made to say, ‘we have a motion,’ where what he actually had was a notion.
A repeated misprint? Then let the editor have it out with the publisher; someone must be responsible for ‘To fing expression’, and for ‘the figured lead’, turning over the old leaf.
Has Mr Grant no ear, that he lets stand, announced as correct, the line ‘I have heard mermaids singing, each to each’? Or ‘And bats with baby faces in violet light’? Or ‘For the pattern is new every moment’? Or ‘the loud voice of the disconsolate chimera’? Presumably even this editor had not thought that Eliot wrote: ‘I did not know death had undone so many.’ These are not, after all, recherché lines of Eliot. But then even ‘When lovely woman stoops to folly and /Paces about her room again, alone’ stands misquoted. Eliot did not write, ‘Those matters that with myself I too much discuss’ (or, come to that, ‘that I with myself too much discuss’), or ‘From the window towards the granite shore’. Those errors happen not to be original to Mr Grant, but he has said that his quotations are corrected, and he must take the rap.
Then there is the annotation. It is lamentably inadequate and inconsistent. A French quotation is translated in a footnote; Latin ones are not. Nine lines from ‘another great poet’ (quoted by someone called Brown and Browne) stand without attribution or reference. Cross-reference within Eliot’s work, which is one way in which an editor could be truly helpful (especially as to the uncollected or stray prose), is disdained: so that Allen Tate’s remark that ‘Poems: 1909-1925 by Mr. T. S. Eliot is a spiritual epilogue to The Education of Henry Adams’ is supplied with no reminder, or minder, that Eliot had reviewed The Education of Henry Adamsin 1919. Even when the editor resigns himself to being informative, he manages to withhold something of interest. There is a piece by Reginald Snell in 1944 which mentions two tiny changes to the text of the republished Quartets, plus the ‘significant’ and ‘risky change’ from ‘reconciles’ to ‘Appeasing’: ‘Appeasing long forgotten wars’. The headnote to this piece says, and says only: ‘A few weeks later a letter from Eliot appeared in the New English Weekly (25 January 1945), xxvi, 112, drawing attention to an error in the text of “The Dry Salvages”.’ Why so secretive? It is miserly not to say what the error was (it wasn’t anything mentioned by Snell): ‘hermit crab’ should have been ‘horse-shoe crab’, which is what we now read. It is grudging not to record Eliot’s brief remark in that letter on the reconciles/Appeasing variant: that Snell was ‘correct ... in suggesting that one of the changes was of doubtful value.’
In any case, the editor’s larger decisions are very vulnerable. The decision to ‘confine the area of interest to the poetry and plays’ sounds as if it might be convenient, but it isn’t, as is made clear by, for instance, Conrad Aiken ’s piece on ‘Ash-Wednesday’ and After Strange Gods, or by the editor’s praise of Desmond MacCarthy for ‘making the effort to establish connections between the prose and the poetry in order to see Eliot’s work as a whole’. The decision to ‘concentrate on the immediate reviews’ again looks for a moment as if it might be one way of reducing both the immensity of Eliot criticism and the overlap with all the other such Eliot books. But in practice it means that a lot of vacant reviewing gets let in, and a lot of full and deliberated criticism gets left out. It means, too, that some very good critics are represented not by their matured and revised accounts or inquiries but by their trial runs. It entails stretching of what is an ‘immediate review’, not least because the gathering together of the four Quartets, and the publication by Eliot of volumes of collected poems, inevitably precipitate a different sense of immediate reviewing. Needless to say, some very interesting work (seldom newly seen to be interesting, though) gains admission: the thoughts of Pound, Aiken, Leavis, D. W. Harding, Helen Gardner, John Crowe Ransom, Hugh Kenner and Davie shine again. But there is a lot of dross, and there are too many ill-judged omissions. If Stevie Smith’s piece on Murder in the Cathedral fails to be a review, it succeeds in being admirably inaugurative. Even the immediate reviews, strictly defined, have not been discriminatingly chosen. William Empson’s review of ‘Marina’ in the Nation and Athenaeum in 1931 (21 February) is so inimitably good that there would be something disingenuous in suggesting that the piece is characteristic of what has failed to be noticed by Mr Grant, yet it is characteristic of Mr Grant that he failed to see the need even to mention, let alone to include, such a review as this:
‘Marina’ seems to me one of Mr Eliot’s very good poems; better than anything in ‘Ash-Wednesday’. The dramatic power of his symbolism is here in full strength, and the ideas involved have almost the range of interest, the full orchestra, of the Waste Land. One main reason for this is the balance maintained between otherworldliness and humanism; the essence of the poem is the vision of an order, a spiritual state, which he can conceive and cannot enter, but it is not made clear whether he conceives an order in this world to be known by a later generation (like Moses on Pisgah) or the life in heaven which is to be obtained after death (like Dante). One might at first think the second only was meant, but Marina, after all, was a real daughter; is now at sea, like himself, rather than already in the Promised Land; and is to live ‘in a world of time beyond me’, which can scarcely be a description of Heaven. At any rate, the humanist meaning is used at every point as a symbol of the otherworldly one; this seems the main point to insist on in a brief notice because it is the main cause of the richness of the total effect. In either case the theme is the peril and brevity of such vision.