Taking the Poet at His Word

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When T. S. Eliot summed up his life’s work in 1963, two years before he died, it was in a Collected Poems of fewer than 250 pages. But when Christopher Ricks and I published The Poems of T. S. Eliot in 2015, the two volumes ran to some two thousand. Where did the other 1,750 pages come from? What is this new edition, and what does it mean to ‘edit’ poetry anyway?

When we began, eight or nine years ago, our first task was to gather the verse not in the Collected Poems. We did not know how much we would find (no one had ever compiled an inventory), but in the end our contents pages listed a couple of hundred additional items. Eliot had published many poems he didn’t consider part of his serious work, such as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (which has perhaps made him more famous than ever before, thanks to the musical adaptation, Cats), and there are some he suppressed, as well as others from school and Harvard.

Those were known to specialists, but there were new finds too, such as a parody of surrealism, verses on gardening, and love poems written in his seventies for his second wife, Valerie – including my favourite, in which he rearranged the lines of William Blake’s poem ‘The Clod & the Pebble’ so as to reverse its meaning. The respective first verses begin:

Blake:

“Love seeketh not Itself to please,
“Nor for itself hath any care,
“But for another gives its ease,
“And builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.”

Eliot:

“Love seeketh not Itself to please,
But feareth it give no delight
Dreadeth another’s loss of ease
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

Eliot wrote poems for friends – on his fear of cows, for instance – or to celebrate events at the publishers Faber & Faber, where he worked for forty years, such as Walter

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About the contributor

Jim McCue is a freelance editor and speaker.

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