I gotta use words

by Mark Ford
I gotta use words

The first person to annotate a poem by T.S. Eliot was T.S. Eliot. His notes on The Waste Land (1922) were composed partly so that his 433-line poem could be issued by his American publishers Boni & Liveright as a book, and partly, as he recalled in ‘The Frontiers of Criticism’ (1956), ‘with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism’. ‘Not only the title,’ Eliot observed in his introductory paragraph to The Waste Land’s notes,

but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.

In these seemingly sober, useful, self-deprecating sentences lurks the MacGuffin, to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s term, that reaches its epic, mind-boggling climax in the publication, nearly a century on, of Faber’s two all-comprehending new tomes, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. The editors promise to ‘elucidate the difficulties’ of Eliot’s work by tracing every possible verbal overlap between the words used in his poems and the words used by other writers, both famous and obscure, in texts that range from Dante’s Divine Comedy to an anonymous scribe’s record of the Acts and Resolutions of the 29th General Assembly of Iowa (1902).

The lines of Eliot’s that most often occurred to me as I worked my way through these thousand or so pages of commentary (set in 10-point type) are from Sweeney Agonistes. In the course of his narrative about a man who ‘did a girl in’, and then kept her body in a bath with a gallon of Lysol, Sweeney explains that the murderer would periodically visit him:

SWEENEY: He used to come and see me sometimes
I’d give him a drink and cheer him up.

DORIS: Cheer him up?

DUSTY:                      Cheer him up?

SWEENEY: Well here again that don’t apply. But I’ve gotta use words when I talk to you.

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