Magazine | June 13, 2016, Issue

Beyond the Language of the Living

The Poems of T. S. Eliot: The Annotated Text, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (Johns Hopkins; Volume 1, 1,344 pp., $44.95; Volume 2, 688 pp., $39.95)

The publication of this definitive, annotated edition of all of T. S. Eliot’s poems in December 2015 coincided with the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s death and must surely be one of the scholarly monuments of humane letters of this decade, a contention widely confirmed already by reviews in the scholarly press. Many years in preparation and over 2,000 pages in length, it is monastic in its scrupulous fidelity to the texts, including details of their publishing history and textual variants.

Its editors are Professor Sir Christopher Ricks, co-director of the Editorial Institute at Boston University, and his former Cambridge student Jim McCue, a journalist at the London Times for 15 years, the author of a book on Edmund Burke, and the editor of works of Pope, Ben Jonson, A. H. Clough, Henry James, and Housman. Ricks may be the finest living critic of English-language poetry and has edited Tennyson and Bob Dylan as well as earlier editions of Eliot’s poetry, including a 75th-anniversary edition of “The Waste Land” (1997). He also was chosen to be the editor of the most recent edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse (1999), perhaps the highest honor that can be paid to a scholar and critic of English poetry. Ricks’s outstanding books of literary criticism include one of the great ones on Eliot, T. S. Eliot and Prejudice (1988), a profound study of Eliot as a conservative thinker, vindicating in painstaking and precise detail John Henry Newman’s 1841 contention that “if we must insist on proofs for everything, we shall never come to action: to act you must assume, and that assumption is faith.”

Ricks quotes with approval Eliot’s 1916 comment that among “the fundamental beliefs of an intellectual conservatism” is a “distrust of the promises of the future” and a “conviction that the future, if there is to be any, must be built upon the wisdom of the past.” Nineteen-sixteen was the middle of World War I, the year of the Battle of the Somme, when 60,000 men were killed in three days. By the end of this “war to end all wars,” which did not, Europe had been left in waste and the Whig-liberal idea of permanent, cumulative, collective, irreversible, inevitable progress should have been interred with the 13 million dead.

One of the great paradoxes of Eliot’s life and work is that this profoundly conservative man was also the most brilliant and influential avant-garde debunker and satirist of his age, one who was accused of being a “literary Bolshevik” in his attack on Edwardian aesthetic and social preferences and self-satisfaction. The reason the vast Ricks-McCue edition of Eliot’s poems should be of great interest to the world beyond the academy is that Eliot was, more than any other modern poet in any major language, a “world-historical poet,” a writer whose forms, subjects, themes, and religious-philosophical views responded to and meditated on the tragic history of the West and the world from 1910 until his death in 1965. Unlike so many other modernists, Eliot never succumbed to the major political temptations of his tragic era — Communism, nationalism, Fascism, Nazism — or the nihilistic aestheticism of French and English writers such as Gide and Virginia Woolf. And his inter-war, international cultural journal The Criterion (1922–39) attempted to keep alive or resurrect the humane features of Western and world civilization that were so lethally denied and damaged by the depressions, ideologies, revolutions, and wars.

The great feature of the Ricks-McCue edition is not its definitive, documentary completeness — though this is a massive scholarly achievement — but the quality of its commentaries on and annotations of the poems. For Eliot’s work, like that of all the truly great writers, elicits response and enforces judgment from the individual at the highest psychological, intellectual, and moral levels. Commenting in the sixth chorus to “The Rock” (1934) on the illusions of secular, “progressive,” and Marxist views of human nature and history, Eliot writes: “They constantly try to escape / From the darkness outside and within / By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good. / But the man that is will shadow / The man that pretends to be.”

In the first chorus, he reiterates the deepest moral intuition of Western civilization since Socrates and the Pentateuch: “The world turns and the world changes, / But one thing does not change. / In all of my years, one thing does not change. / However you disguise it, this thing does not change: / The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil.” In a great passage from The Gulag Archipelago 40 years later, Solzhenitsyn would make the same point, which Martin Luther King also made in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” “To do away with the sense of sin,” Eliot wrote in 1939, “is to do away with civilization.”

The commentaries on such texts are an index of the editors’ sensibilities and judgments as well as of their knowledge. Quoting Eliot in their short introduction to this edition, Ricks and McCue want to distinguish between explanation and interpretation, and they scrupulously resist the latter in the interest of the former. Like good rationalist critics from Aristotle to C. S. Lewis to E. D. Hirsch (in his important 1967 book Validity in Interpretation), they assume that respect for and understanding of authorial intention is the necessary initial activity of the literary critic and the common reader. This puts their effort and achievement in profound contrast to our now-dominant academic critical consensus, as represented by Derrida, Paul de Man, Richard Rorty, and the recently deceased Geoffrey Hartman, who delivered himself of utterances such as this: “Formal critical commentary is not very different from fiction itself.”

Observation and description are one thing; evaluation is another. Ricks and McCue’s annotations provide a veritable course in Western literature, in which they see Eliot, for all his novelty, as profoundly embedded. In critiquing the idea of collective progress and its accompanying “Whig interpretation of history,” Eliot bore witness to the richness of past human cultural achievements — both to their ingenuity and to their provision of resources for intelligent and sensitive living.

The Ricks-McCue annotations show us that the deepest and most long-lasting influence on Eliot — from youth to age — was Dante, an “obsession” of which the otherwise-admiring critic F. R. Leavis disapproved. Shakespeare and Dickens were certainly the central figures in Eliot’s experience of English literature, so authoritative and pervasive that he rarely wrote about them; his widow tells us that “he would often quote passages of Dickens to me from memory, especially when he was happy.” But Eliot spent his time and critical attention instead on neglected 17th-century English dramatists, poets, and prose writers and late-19th-century French poets, critics, and philosophers. Ricks and McCue show how suffused Eliot’s mind, memory, and ear were with the poetry of Tennyson and Kipling (an anthology of whose work he edited) and the prose of Poe, Hawthorne, and Henry James. As against our influential, voluble, Freudian-Gnostic critic Harold Bloom, they document little influence from Walt Whitman, whom Eliot disliked. In 1928, he wrote: “I did not read Whitman until much later in life, and had to conquer an aversion to his form, as well as to much of his matter, in order to do so.” (Eliot’s teacher George Santayana had made devastating objections to Whitman’s barbaric primitivism.)

Eliot wrote in 1945 that the early work of the great French Catholic neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain had made a deep impression on him, and the comment helpfully points up two important capacities that helped create his great cultural authority: his unusual command of the French language and French literature (he spent a year studying in Paris) and his intimate grasp of the frighteningly complex condition of philosophy in the modern world (he completed all of the coursework for his doctorate in philosophy at Harvard and many years later published his dissertation). These two interests were crucially stimulated by Eliot’s momentous encounter at Harvard with the conservative, neoclassical humanist teacher Irving Babbitt (1865–1933), who taught French literature but also had profound philosophical-religious interests in Buddhist and Hindu thought and their possible usefulness for a conservative “New Humanism.”

It is a strength of the Ricks-McCue editorial material that they quote frequently from Babbitt’s critical writings, which gave Eliot a deeply meditated and lucidly written introduction to the conservative French intellectual tradition in its critique of “Rousseau and Romanticism” (a subject on which Babbitt wrote, in 1919, a book that is still valuable today) and their progeny down to Eliot’s own time in Paris, where Babbitt had studied and taught as a guest professor. Though Eliot was enormously influenced by the French decadents, symbolists, and aesthetes in poetry — particularly Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Laforgue — for his approach to the tawdry, banal life of the great modern city, his philosophical bearings were taken by reference to the classical, anti-Romantic, anti-revolutionary French critics to whom Babbitt introduced him.

Babbitt wrote, of one of these critics, that he believed French literature had “been invaded by that instinct for posing and stage effect to which, in its lower forms, the French give the name cabotinage.” Babbitt commented: “It would not be easy to exaggerate this element in French character, especially since Rousseau and the romanticists.” It was this sense of what C. S. Lewis later called “a world of incessant autobiography” that led to Eliot’s revulsion from arbitrary, self-indulgent, histrionic subjectivism — Whitman on the American scene — and to his praise of aesthetic impersonality and the trans-personal character of religious orthodoxy.

Though himself no Christian, Babbitt prepared the way for Eliot to appreciate and join the anti-Romantic, anti-subjectivist, neo-Thomist Catholic revival in France and England whose greatest names in France were Jacques Maritain, whom he met in 1926, and Etienne Gilson. Eliot withstood and critiqued the temptation to Fascism to which figures he knew and admired, such as Charles Maurras and Ezra Pound, tragically succumbed. This fascinating and noble chapter in Eliot’s life has been well discussed in his friend Russell Kirk’s learned book Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1971), in Roger Kojecky’s T. S. Eliot’s Social Criticism (1971), and in Ricks’s T. S. Eliot and Prejudice, which provide powerful arguments against that left-wing critique of Eliot that would discredit him by associating him with Fascism.

Against the numerous extremist heresies of the period from 1914 to 1965, Eliot’s persistent, concentric “moral imagination” drew ever more deeply on Dante and the central classical-Christian tradition of which Dante is the greatest poet: For Eliot, no French writer approached Dante in sanity, wisdom, or visionary eloquence. The austere, judicious moralist-critic Irving Babbitt had served for Eliot a role similar to the one Virgil served for Dante.

The commentaries and annotations of Ricks and McCue thus provide what amounts to an aesthetic, cultural, and ethical history of the 75 years, between 1890 and 1965, that encompassed so much tragedy and destruction and during which Eliot became the world-historical poet. From Eliot’s earliest efforts as a schoolboy, we can observe his growth in a uniquely revealing way: The fastidious upper-class aesthete, hunting the Philistines and mocking them, grows into the orthodox Christian moralist and visionary poet, illuminating loving solicitude for his fellow human beings. It is an edifying spectacle, now permanently documented in these two volumes.

Mr. Aeschliman is a professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, a professor emeritus of education at Boston University, and the author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism.

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