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The many sides of T. S. Eliot

24 March 2016

Richard Harries on the personality and poetry of the author of The Wasteland

The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Volume I: Collected and uncollected poems

Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, editors

Faber & Faber £40


Church Times Bookshop £36


The Poems of T. S. Eliot, Volume 2: Practical cats and further verses

Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, editors

Faber & Faber £40


Church Times Bookshop £36


HERE is the definitive T. S. Eliot, providing years of happy searching and surprises for lovers of his poetry. The two volumes include the final corrected edition of his poems (collected and uncollected), a detailed commentary on each of them, and their textual history. What emerges above all are the many aspects of Eliot’s character, and so also of his work.

There is the playful side expressed in the famous cat poems, and in delightful verse letters to his godchildren, especially Tom Faber, the son of his publisher. Eliot was clear in his own mind about the difference between poetry and verse, and he relished writing the latter on a range of occasions, and in a variety of formats. As he put it in a book of verse about war: “But the abstract conception Of private experience at its greatest intensity Becoming universal, which we call ‘poetry’ May be affirmed in verse.”

Then there was his capacity to enjoy sensual pleasures, not least food. Indeed, he argues that a proper asceticism, which he also practised, heightens this side of a personality. He gives a long list of obscure cheeses that he likes, and he writes that the memory of certain meals he has enjoyed will never fade. This sensual side finds a touching expression in the poems he wrote to his wife, Valerie, which are unashamedly erotic. For them, love, adoration, and desire merged into a union that was as physical as it was spiritual and intellectual.

A less attractive side of Eliot’s personality appears in the lewd, bawdy verses, with their unpleasant stereotypes, which he wrote in letters to selected male friends. These appeared in the recently published edition of the letters, and one has to question whether we really needed them here. But Eliot always took the view that what he had written, he had written, and he never shied away from the dark side of life or himself.

For many people, the detailed commentary on the poems will be the most useful part of these books, with their references to a wide range of possible echoes in Eliot’s own poetry. For example, in The Wasteland, in the encounter with the Hyacinth girl, there are the lines “I was neither Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”

An uncollected poem, “Silence”, can now be read here, as well as the commentary on the much later lines in “Burnt Norton”: “And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, The surface glittered out of the heart of light.”

The commentaries give a range of literary allusions, especially Dante. And it is possible to ponder how far the somewhat terrifying silence he experienced in his pre-Christian period became the more positive stillness in The Four Quartets. Surprisingly, however, there seems to be no mention of two early semi-mystical experiences, written about by Lyndall Gordon, in which he was “enfolded in a great silence”. But, that said, this is a massive, invaluable work of scholarship.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.

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