T. S. Eliot. The Poems of T.S. Eliot. Eds. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. 2 vols. London: Faber & Faber, 2015.  

review by Paul Dean






Any book, any essay, any note in Notes and Queries, which produces a fact even of the lowest order about a work of art is a better piece of work than nine-tenths of the most pretentious critical journalism, in journals or in books. We assume, of course, that we are masters and not servants of facts, and that we know that the discovery of Shakespeare’s laundry bills would not be of much use to us; but we must always reserve final judgment as to the futility of the research which discovered them, in the possibility that some genius will appear who will know of a use to which to put them.

(T. S. Eliot. “The Function of Criticism” Selected Essays 33)


TSE poems


The appearance of The Poems of T. S. Eliot in two volumes, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (abbreviated hereafter simply by volume and page number) was the major publishing event of 2015.  It cannot be reviewed in any conventional sense. No-one is qualified to do so, for no-one in
the world can possibly know more about Eliot than Ricks and McCue themselves. Inevitably, in a work extending to nearly two thousand printed pages in total—some of it very small print, though always legible—there will be typos and other errors, which can be duly corrected.  But—not forgetting to pay due tribute to Valerie Eliot’s Waste Land facsimile (1971) and Helen Gardner’s The Composition of Four Quartets (1978)—the essential work of establishing a fully annotated, textually reliable Eliot has at last been done. Should his laundry bills turn up, Ricks and McCue will certainly know of a use to which to put them.

Poundians contemplating The Poems—and with them the ongoing editions of Eliot’s complete letters from Faber, the online Complete Prose from Johns Hopkins, and the new website, tseliot.com, which makes available a mass of hitherto unpublished documents and photographs—may well ask themselves how Pound has been comparably served. It is true that there is no biography of Eliot to rival David Moody’s three superb volumes on Pound, and that the commentaries on the Cantos by Carroll Terrell and William Cookson are indispensable aids. Moreover, The Cantos Project will eventually offer a full-scale multi-media annotated version of that poem. Pound’s other poems are less generously provided for (nor is there a critical edition of any of the prose works). Peter Brooker’s A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, as its title announces, doesn’t cover more than a selection of shorter poems and Cantos, and the annotations in Richard Sieburth’s admirable edition of the Poems and Translations for the Library of America (2003)—which does not include the Cantos—were restricted by the requirements of the LoA as a series. So whereas Sieburth has 186 pages of notes on twelve hundred pages of poems, Ricks and McCue have 162 pages of commentary, plus sixty-six of textual notes, on The Waste Land alone.1 Inevitably, there are even notes on Eliot’s notes, described by Pound as “purely fortuitous” additions to pad out the volume, and by Eliot, according to Arnold Bennett, as “not more of a skit than some things in the poem itself”: Eliot himself dismissed them as “bogus scholarship.” More seriously, perhaps, he remarked of authors’ notes in general that they “are no prophylactic against interpretation and dissection: they merely provide the serious researcher with more material to interpret, and dissect” (I. 569—70). Pound urged that the poem should be read without the notes in the first instance, and argued that they were irrelevant to genuine understanding or appreciation of what he called “the functioning of the poem”: “The poem is there for the reader. The notes are for some other species of fauna” (I. 570).

For those of us who belong to such species, I should mention that every conceivable piece of information about the composition, revision, publication history and reception of the poems is recorded by Ricks and McCue, but what is even more valuable is the documentation of echoes, allusions and sources elsewhere in Eliot’s work (including as yet uncollected letters and essays) and in other literature. The scale of the annotation may be exemplified by Rhapsody on a Windy Night.2 The Commentary on this seventy-eight line poem takes just under six pages (I.418—23) and cites, among other authors, Blake, Coleridge, Ford, Thomas Heywood, Henry King, Laforgue, Marvell, Charles-Louis Philippe, Whitman, Wilde and a Boston advertisement for Berry’s Patent Folding Spring Bed-Lounge. On the lines

Every street lamp that I pass         
Beats like a fatalistic drum
And through the spaces of the dark          
Midnight shakes the memory        
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

we find that Laforgue is the source for the geranium, but to be reminded of Heywood’s “madman” who “beats upon a drum” in A Woman Killed with Kindness is clearly important, and Blake’s “midnight streets” in London, or King’s “Pulse, like a soft Drum” beating his life to its close in The Exequy, are at least pertinent. 

However, such judgements about the comparative importance, or even relevance, of the works cited in the notes are left to the reader. Ricks and McCue explain that “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” (I.351, original italics). Yet, as they immediately add, “annotation is inseparable from interpretation, selection and judgement.” This was to be expected; Ricks’s earlier editio minor of Eliot, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909---1917 (1996), which The Poems supersedes, laid down principles which he repeated and elaborated as follows in Allusion to the Poets (Oxford, 2002):

…though to speak of an allusion is always to predicate a source (and you cannot call into play something of which you have never heard), a source may not be an allusion, for it may not be called into play; it may be scaffolding such as went to the building but does not constitute any part of the building. Readers always have to decide—if they accept that such and such is indeed a source for certain lines—whether it is also more than a source being part not only of the making of the poem but also of its meaning. (3-4)

Of course, there is the risk of overkill, but Eliot’s memory, like Pound’s, was exceptionally well-stocked and retentive. His letters are often quoted to the effect that he was not conscious of such and such a debt, but he admits it may have operated subconsciously. (Conversely, he sometimes states firmly that he had not read the suggested source at the time he wrote the poem in question.)

The Ricks/McCue edition stands at the farthest extreme from the purist position in what we might call annotation theory, that annotations should be strictly textual, although it provides those too, again with astonishing minuteness, in its second volume; among a host of other matters, this tidies up inconsistencies in punctuation, lineation, layout and spacing, which crept in as the poems went through successive English and American printings in magazines or book form. Some mistakes were corrected (again, inconsistently) by Eliot, some not. The textual notes also give variants and lines which were cut from the drafts. They enable us to follow the development of the poems at every stage, and are a major achievement of the edition. At the other extreme of annotation theory is the intention to equip the reader to understand the work as its original readers would have done, by providing background information. As a glance at any recent paperback edition of a classic literary work will show, readers are nowadays assumed to know almost nothing (about the Bible or classical mythology, for instance) compared to those of forty years ago. If even such basic knowledge is lacking, editors faced with such complex works as those of Eliot and Pound must err on the side of generosity.

All this prompts reflection on the different ways in which Eliot and Pound used sources and allusions. There are no real parallels in Eliot to the Adams Cantos (62 to 71), which were produced, as David Moody says in Volume 2 of his biography, by

skim-reading the ten volumes of The Works of John Adams, jotting down phrases and fragments, a half-line from there and a line or two from further on, and the typing up these bits and pieces into cantos, taking the fragments just as they came with little or no rearrangements and with no respect for their original contexts.

When Eliot does transcribe more than the odd word or short phrase, as in the passage from Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Governor in section I of East Coker, he still makes tiny alterations to improve rhythm, and in this case, he retains the Tudor spelling for authenticity, not to give the appearance of archaism in what he somewhat disparagingly describes as “an Ezra touch” (see the note on lines 28–33 in Ricks and McCue, I. 933–34). He does not take over the original wholesale. But nor did Pound in his earlier days.  The Adams cantos are examples of Pound’s later practice; his method in Cantos VIII to XI (the Malatesta sequence) is closer to Eliot’s --- the sequence was published in The Criterion in 1923, and Canto VIII famously begins with an allusion to The Waste Land, “These fragments you have shelved (shored).” An editorial note on that would be plain sailing! But how helpful to the understanding or enjoyment of Homage to Sextus Propertius would it be to annotate every allusion to Propertius’ poetry? Sieburth gives a list of the poems Pound used, but “used” is the operative word. What if a more formal translation were in question? Ricks and McCue print St-John Perse’s Anabasis en face with Eliot’s translation, as Eliot wished; they annotate recollections and anticipations of Eliot’s other writings, not leave his renderings of the French text without comment. An edition of Pound which included his translations of Guido Cavalcanti (1912) would present a similar decision to an editor since Pound included the Italian text.  Sieburth, of course, can’t do this, although he prints Pound’s introduction and his notes, keyed to the original.

More remotely, when Pound described Mauberley as “an attempt to condense the James novel,” he seems to have been thinking particularly of The Ambassadors, from which he adapted a phrase in Part II of 1920 (Mauberley), “He had moved amid her phantasmagoria, /Amid her galaxies.” This borrowing (which isn’t noted in Sieburth’s edition and was identified by Hugh Kenner) is a fact about Pound’s poem, although you would need a very close knowledge of The Ambassadors to track down the original phrase. Is any more needed for “the functioning of the poem”? John J. Espey argued in his book on Mauberley (49–61) that Pound is invoking the theme of James’s novel, the want of courage to make a leap for freedom (Strether’s rejection of the chance to escape America for Europe) and associating it with some sexual incapacity in Mauberley, Strether—and perhaps James himself. How helpful, or relevant, might that idea be? When Eliot turns to James, in Portrait of a Lady—a poem which Pound was instrumental in getting into print, despite feeling it was “a bit archaic” and “strange” (I.400–01)—he is thinking less of The Portrait of a Lady (a frequent title for paintings, after all), according to Ricks and McCue, than of Mrs Luna in The Bostonians, although he also had a real person in mind (I.401). Virginia Woolf recorded in her diary that Eliot had an “inclination—to develop in the manner of Henry James” (I.463), but whether this is her interpretation, or a reporting of Eliot’s actual words is unclear. Given the situation in Eliot’s poem, may it not be that he too had The Ambassadors somewhere at the back of his mind? Yet, even if he did, doesn’t that lead us too far away from the poem?TSE poems 2

For another example, consider Pound’s and Eliot’s dealings with Gautier. Espey has a very good chapter on Pound’s use of Emaux et Camées, while Erik Svarny’s “The Men of 1914”: T. S. Eliot and Early Modernism (1988) is unusual in devoting a chapter to Eliot and Gautier as well as one on Mauberley and Gautier. Eliot made clear that his interest in Gautier was a technical matter, one of finding a possible form, first and foremost, and then wondering what could be said using it. His attitude is much more detached than in relation to Corbière or Laforgue, and his aim is to explore alternatives to vers libre, with its risk of inchoateness. As Svarny points out, this parallels Gautier’s own motives for adopting such a “sculptural” form, as a reaction against his own earlier romantic rhetoric (85). Explicit verbal debts to Gautier are confined to The Hippopotamus and Whispers of Immortality. Svarny shows that Eliot uses Gautier’s quatrain form to subvert and satirise Gautier’s major ideas, producing a complex, elusive statement, whereas the difficulties of Mauberley “tend to evaporate once we have acquired a knowledge of Pound’s sources” (102). If that is true, is it a weakness in the poem?  Eliot’s view was that “There is all the difference … between notes which may be helpful to the reader, and notes which are indispensable to him. If the notes are indispensable then the poem is not quite written” (I.570–71). When I. A. Richards spotted an echo of A Cooking Egg in Triumphal March, Eliot agreed that he had deliberately included the allusions so that a reader should pick them up, but “As for the question why I made the allusions at all, that seems to me definitely a matter which should not concern the reader” (I.818). The intention behind such allusions, he felt, should always be to some degree enigmatic.

Pound’s appearances in the notes are somewhat fugitive. In Ash-Wednesday, Pound’s own poetry is less significant than his versions of Cavalcanti. “Time has seen this, and will not turn again,” from Silet (Ripostes) is adduced in the note on “Because I do not hope to turn again,” but this seems less important than the biblical uses of the phrase also cited (I.734; Sieburth 231).  The “snow-white leopard” belonging to “the milk-white girls” in Heather in Lustra (Sieburth 287) seems to have more to do with the three white leopards which sat under a juniper tree, until we read Eliot’s claim (about a line which he famously refused to explain except by repeating it) that they represent the World, the Flesh and the Devil (I.741). It was not to be expected that Pound would exercise any significant influence once Eliot had become a convert to Christianity, and he fades out of the picture in the later work. In fact, Eliot was inclined to play down his creative, as distinct from his critical, influence: reading Personae and Exultations in 1910, he informed the readers of Purpose in 1938, “The poems did not then excite me […] I considered them, however, the only interesting poems by a contemporary that I had found. […] as for the poetry of “the early Pound,” there are only three or four original pieces that have made any deep impression upon me; and the Pound whom I find congenial is the author of Mauberley, Propertius, and the Cantos” (I.579—80). He also denied that there was any similarity in terms of form between The Waste Land and The Cantos (I.580).  The notes in Ricks and McCue, as they range back and forth over the whole of Eliot’s reading and writing, convey the impression of a mind of extraordinary lucidity and assimilative power: I am not sure that notes to any critical edition of Pound’s poetry would do the same, although they might reveal a different kind of mind from Eliot’s.

I have not attempted a full-dress discussion of the editorial challenges of Pound, but would point to the Ricks/McCue collaboration for evidence of what could be done.  Of course, it will take decades, a great deal of money, the backing of powerful academic institutions, the willingness of a publisher (if a print edition is in question) to invest in the future, and, above all, editors of exceptional calibre, who would be prepared to accept both Pound’s verdict on his life-work, “I could not make it cohere,” and his confidence that, nonetheless, “it coheres all right, even if my notes do not cohere.”




1. While Valerie Eliot’s facsimile edition remains the most arresting and exciting way to study the drafts of that poem, the new edition includes an “editorial composite,” 678 lines long, offering “the earliest available drafts of the various parts and passages of the poem” which, however, does not claim to “represent the poem at any particular moment” since there are problems of dating, sequencing and variable availability of different versions (I.321).

2. The editors explain (I. xi—xii) their reasons for printing all titles, whether of short poems or books, in italics, a practice I have followed here for poems by Pound as well as Eliot.




Brooker, Peter. A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of Ezra Pound. London: Faber, 1979.

Eliot, T. S. “The Function of Criticism.” Selected Essays. 3rd. ed. London: Faber, 1951.

Eliot, Valerie, ed. The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. London: Faber, 1971.

Espey, John. Ezra Pound’s Mauberley: A Study in Composition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955.

Gardner, Helen. The Composition of Four Quartets. London: Faber, 1978.

Moody, A. David. Ezra Pound, Poet: A Portrait of the Man and his Work.  Volume I: The Young Genius 1885---1920. Volume II: The Epic Years 1921—1939.  Volume III:  The Tragic Years 1939---1972.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007, 2014, 2015).

Ricks, Christopher, ed. Inventions of the March Hare: T. S. Eliot Poems, 1909-1917. New York: Harvest, 1996.

—. Allusion to the Poets. Oxford: Oxford UP,  2002.

Schuchard, Ronald, gen. ed. The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP. In progress. Projected in eight volumes.  Available online by subscription at muse.jhu.edu).

Sieburth, Richard, ed. Ezra Pound: Poems and Translations. New York: The Library of America, 2003.

Svarny, Erik. “The Men of 1914”: T. S. Eliot and Early Modernism. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1988.