Writhing and Crawling and Leaping and Darting and Flattening and Stretching

Helen Vendler

  • Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-17 by T.S. Eliot, edited by Christopher Ricks
    Faber, 428 pp, £30.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 571 17895 2

When Emerson wrote to Whitman that there must have been ‘a long foreground’ preceding the composition of Leaves of Grass, he expressed the curiosity every reader feels when coming upon a fully accomplished poem. ‘How did this art develop?’ – this question accounts for the fascination exerted on us by juvenilia and by manuscript drafts such as the 1971 facsimile of the manuscript of The Waste Land, edited by Valerie Eliot. Though some of Eliot’s verses not included in the 1963 Collected Poems were published in 1967 under the title Poems of Early Youth, it has long been known that a notebook containing other early poems, written between 1910 and 1917, languished in the Berg Collection of the New York Library, and that in the notebook there had once been some ‘obscene’ comic verses (these, excised from the notebook and given by Eliot to Ezra Pound, were later discovered among the Pound papers). Valerie Eliot has now allowed the entire notebook to be published, superbly edited by Christopher Ricks, whose T.S. Eliot and Prejudice is still the most acute and fine-grained investigation of the vexed question of the place of prejudice in Eliot’s writing.

It is impossible to over-praise Ricks’s work in this edition. His annotations draw on both published and manuscript sources for Eliot’s writing, including many that would be unknown except for Ricks’s commandingly wide reading in and around Eliot’s literary and philosophical contexts. In the notes for the single 16-line poem ‘Silence’, for instance, Ricks refers, with entire relevance, to the following authors and titles: Pascal’s Pensées; an unpublished paper on ethics by Eliot in the Houghton Library; Tennyson’s In Memoriam; Lyndall Gordon’s Eliot’s Early Years; John Mayer’s T.S. Eliot’s Silent Voices; Laforgue’s Hamlet, Mélanges posthumes, Le Concile féerique, and ‘Esthét-iquc’; Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature; Maeterlinck’s essay ‘Silence’; Boswell’s Johnson; the OED; Paradise Lost; ‘Saint Barnabas: A Missionary Hymn’, a poem by Eliot’s mother, in the Hayward Bequest; Bergson’s L’Evolution créatrice and Introduction à la Métaphysique; Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound; Donne’s Biathanatos and ‘Satire III’; the ‘Hail Mary’; Psalm 143; Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy; Eliot’s Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley and The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism; Swinburne’s ‘A Leave-Taking’; Pater’s The Renaissance. Perhaps any editor might have noticed some of these affinities; but who except Ricks would remember that Swinburne’s poem ‘A Leave-Taking’ had rhymed ‘and steep’ with ‘and deep’, as Eliot’s poem does? Who would remember, reading Eliot’s closing line, ‘There is nothing else beside,’ that Laforgue had ended a speech in Le Concile féerique with ‘Vrai, il n’y a pas autre chose’? Reading even slight poems in the cloud of Ricksian annotation, one feels closer to Eliot’s youthful mind than ever before.

And this is why I have mentioned the annotations before coming to the lyrics themselves: the ordinary reader (and there are many of us interested in Eliot who are not Eliot scholars) cannot really come to understand the orientations and intentions of these poems without Ricks’s widely informative notes. Eliot’s extraordinary capacity for literary saturation – a capacity that both stimulated and deadened him – can be compared only to Milton’s; and though the younger Eliot allowed his allusions to become overt in the Notes to The Waste Land, elsewhere he was content to let them remain covert. The Eliot industry has lifted many of Eliot’s sources to recognition; but for my part, I wish Ricks would annotate the Complete Poems, so that we could know them as well as we now know the unpublished verse. After all, as Eliot says in one of the poems collected here,

... I am put together with a pot and scissors
Out of old clippings
No one took the trouble to make an article.

In case after case, Ricks’s learning makes an article out of an invisibly allusive and often disjointed poem; and, in addition to his excellent Introduction which takes up the question of allusion and annotation, he has printed, in an Appendix, selections from Eliot’s prose in which the nature of poetic indebtedness – always a central subject for Eliot – is discussed.

Ricks has given his edition the Carrollian name – ‘Inventions of the March Hare’ – that Eliot himself had scrawled, and then crossed out, on the cover of his manuscript notebook. Eliot’s self-satirising title is comparable to his first, Dickensian, title for The Waste Land – ‘He do the police in different voices.’ Such mocking inscriptions exemplify the way in which he invoked his satiric self against his ‘serious’ self; a corrosive self-irony was the principal cause of those ‘decisions and revisions that a minute can reverse’, the perpetual vacillation between the two sides of a question that constituted his fundamental philosophic scepticism.

The more than forty poems assembled here are, for the most part, deeply pained ones. The chief aesthetic difficulty they encounter, tonally and conceptually, is caused by their irony, as (in a Laforgucan move), the young poet perceives the sentimentality which begins to lurk as soon as one takes oneself as a tragic object. The poem ‘Opera’, for instance, speaks first (via Tristan und Isolde) of ‘love torturing itself / To emotion for all there is in it’; but then turns on its own premise:

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