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Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Book review: Collected Poems 1909 – 1962, T.S. Eliot (1974)

I happened to come across a tweet containing a quote from one of Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ the other day and I thought it sounded interesting so I picked up this edition of his poetry when I went to Abbey’s in the city the other day. I had never read much of Eliot before this.

Eliot of course won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, after the ‘Four Quartets’ were published, so presumably the prize was given to him in consideration of his entire career. The ‘Four Quartets’ themselves are dated between 1935 and 1942 but they are a disappointment. Techniques that he had used before such as repetition and variation on visible tropes are used to excess in these poems. They are not very good. His earlier stuff is better but it’s only in snippets that the power emerges. The whole is generally not very strong. He uses collage well to create suggestive textures in his little stories but the narrative arc is never very robust and you mainly get a set of broken bits and pieces that can have some force when taken in isolation. I think Eliot was himself aware of this failing because he seems to rely on the collage technique very heavily in all of his poems, especially he early ones.

Collage of course had been used heavily by the Cubist painters since before WWI. The Italian Futurists took it up at about the same time for use in their poetry. In Eliot you get onomatopoeia used for dramatic effect in some poems in much the same way the Futurists had done it in Italy: sounds of a tap dripping, for example. The Surrealist painters had also used collage in the 1920s to create the effects they sought, especially in order to destabilise perception and get the viewer to look at ordinary things with fresh eyes.

It’s touch and go whether Eliot deserved the Nobel. I think on the strength of this work he would not be able to win it these days, but there are insights in the early work touching on modern anxieties about decay and destruction that have force.

This collection was published by Faber & Faber, where Eliot had worked for much of his working life.

I had also ordered a copy of the Norton critical edition of Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’ which I picked up at the same time. The Wordsworth book was necessary because the Kindle edition of ‘The Prelude’ from Penguin that I had bought turned out to be a complete dud. Because the poem was written in different years – it was started in 1799 and a longer version was written by 1805, then a final version was produced by the poet just before his death in 1850 – the Kindle version intersperses different parts of the edit within the complete poem, meaning that you are constantly coming across repetitions of the same lines (with small changes). It makes no sense to do it this way. The Norton edition I had owned previously had gone missing when mum died two years ago, and I had not kept it in my library. This is the only way to read this poem: side by side 1805 and 1850 versions.

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