Eliot Uncovered

T.S. Eliot Inventions of the March Hare
T.S. Eliot Inventions of the March Hare

In September, 1922–a few weeks before the publication of The Waste Land would make him the most famous Modernist poet in the world–T. S. Eliot agreed to sell a small notebook containing his early poems to his American patron, John Quinn. Priced at $140, the notebook not only contained early versions of poems that eventually went into Eliot’s first four collections. It also included dozens of unpublished poems. Eliot’s instructions to Quinn were unambiguous: “I beg you fervently to keep them to yourself and see that they never are printed.”The contents of this notebook, which now rests in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, have at last been published in Inventions of the March Hare, skillfully edited and abundantly annotated by Christopher Ricks. The most surprising thing about this fascinating and informative volume is not that it has finally been published. These days every surviving scrap by a major writer eventually sees the light of print–no matter what the author’s instructions. The surprise is that it took seventy-five years.Inventions of the March Hare is a singularly strange volume–really three books in one. The first collects forty hitherto unpublished poems (or substantially completed drafts) by the young Eliot. It is hard to overstate the literary and scholarly importance of this new work. Eliot published very little poetry. Inventions of the March Hare nearly doubles the number of his early poems available to readers. The new poems, however, could easily have been published in less than fifty pages.The second “book” is even shorter. It consists of early versions of nineteen poems that eventually appeared in Eliot’s first four volumes from Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) to Poems (1920). These variant drafts are of mostly scholarly interest. The one notable exception is the early versions of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which include a lengthy section titled “Prufrock’s Pervigilium” (“Prufrock’s Vigil”)–lines mostly cut from the published version of Eliot’s early masterpiece.

The bulk of Inventions of the March Hare‘s 428 pages, however, consist of the editor’s copious annotations. No work of modern literature has ever premiered with such voluminous scholarly apparatus. The ratio of verse to prose commentary is positively Nabokovian–pure Pale Fire. In over one thousand individual notes and glosses, Ricks provides the reader with a judicious, informed, but utterly disproportionate commentary.

Although he devotes several hundred pages to annotating Eliot’s new poems, he never explains, interprets, or judges them. Ricks’s notes are so unusual that they require comment. Although he devotes several hundred pages to annotating Eliot’s new poems, he never explains, interprets, or judges them. He does not even paraphrase them except for elucidating an occasional phrase in isolation. Instead, Ricks limits his annotations mainly to three areas. First, he dates the poems wherever possible. Second, he defines particular words and phrases as they might have been understood at the time of composition. Third, Ricks exhaustively identifies all literary sources that possibly influenced Eliot’s composition. The editor carefully notes that there is no evidence that Eliot actually used most of these sources. Rather, Ricks tries only to present the literary possibilities that existed in young Eliot’s milieu.

This editorial procedure creates many odd moments. Consider, for example, the notes on Eliot’s thirty-four line poem “Entretien dans un parc.” Ricks provides six packed pages of annotation in tiny type. He spends a page and half discussing the title alone–listing possible parallels in both painting and literature–but he never bothers to translate the title. (Ricks never translates any of the book’s hundreds of French passages–not even the poems Eliot himself wrote in French.) Before Ricks moves on to the next poem, he has quoted possible parallels in Verlaine, Sheridan, Browning, Pater, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Milton, Symons, Ecclesiastes, Henry James, Laforgue, St. Augustine, de Nerval, Isaiah, Shelley, Marston, Thackeray, Blake, Proverbs, John Webster, de Gourmont, Meredith, and, most frequently, Eliot himself.

Ricks’s scholarship is brilliant, but it does not always prove particularly illuminating to the passages in question. Ultimately, his annotations seem less effective as a textual commentary than as a vastly detailed speculative essay on poetic influence. While I fear that the notes will sometimes confuse unsophisticated readers, I must also report that Ricks’s annotations eventually add up into one of the most interesting studies of Eliot’s poetry. It is not altogether inappropriate that this superb study assumes the distinctively Modernist form of the collage.

The settings are mostly urban and unsettling. The narrators are sophisticated, anxious, and neurotically self-conscious.But what about the poems? No new masterpieces emerge in Inventions of the March Hare–nothing, that is, on the level of “Prufrock” or “La Figlia che Piange.” Eliot’s critical acuity was not lost on his own verse. He published the best. And yet, in strictly literary terms, the new work is not negligible. Eliot’s poetic skill is everywhere apparent. Although some of the “new” poems are nearly a century old, their tone and imagery seem strangely fresh and immediate.

One reason the poems remain so effective is that they seem so characteristically Eliotic. A chief pleasure of reading Inventions of the March Hare is watching the author explore the same landscapes, images, and attitudes that he presented in Prufrock, and The Waste Land. The settings are mostly urban and unsettling. The narrators are sophisticated, anxious, and neurotically self-conscious. Several of the earliest poems describing Boston read like dress rehearsals for the “Preludes.” Here is the opening of “Second Caprice in North Cambridge”:

This charm of vacant lots!
The helpless fields that lie
Sinister, sterile, and blind–
Entreat the eye and rack the mind,
Demand your pity.
With ashes and tins in piles,
Shattered bricks and tiles
And the débris of a city.

Begun in 1909, when the twenty-one-year-old poet was still a senior at Harvard, the notebooks continue until 1917 when Eliot, now in London, caught in a difficult marriage and working in Lloyd’s Bank, prepared to publish his first book. During those nine years Eliot’s poems grew from interesting juvenilia into the classics of Anglo-American Modernism. Until now the exact course of his poetic growth has been difficult to track. Inventions of the March Hare finally allows us to watch the steady evolution of artistic genius.

From the beginning Eliot’s language displayed authority far beyond his years. How many twenty-three-year-old graduate students write with such dark and mature sonority?

I saw their lives curl upward like a wave
And break. And after all it had not broken–
It might have broken even across the grave
Of tendencies unknown and questions never spoken.

The volume’s most curious contents are surely a small group of obscene poems that Eliot excised from the notebook he sold Quinn. Found years later among Ezra Pound’s papers at Yale, these grotesquely graphic verses give a glimpse at a side of young Eliot rarely seen elsewhere. Long suppressed, they appear now due to a decision by Eliot’s widow to conceal nothing from her husband’s work.

The longest of the scatological poems are the “Columbo and Bolo verses”–a pornographic sea-chanty whose fragments run for five pages. These verses recount the priapic exploits of Columbus and his crew, who rape, plunder, and defecate their way through both the New and Old Worlds. Since a Jewish doctor appears briefly in one stanza, the poem has been declared anti-Semitic in recent attacks on Eliot’s character. It does not seem to matter to the poet’s detractors that the doctor is the only moral character in a poem otherwise full of scatology, murder, and violent sex of every description. May I, as a writer of Italian and Hispanic heritage, point out that Columbus, for example, is a syphilitic, exhibitionistic, pederast and rapist who exhibits little control over either his temper and his bowels?

No, the truth of Eliot’s dark side is to be explained by nothing so focused and common as anti-Semitism. The Columbo and Bolo poems are more explicitly anti-Italian, anti-Spanish, anti-Monarchist, anti-imperialist, anti-woman, anti-Caribbean, anti-black, and anti-sex than anti-Semitic. Reeking with repugnance at sex and the body, these poems reveal the bitterly misanthropic side of the young Eliot’s imagination, the contemptus mundi against which so much of his later work struggles.

Inventions of the March Hare expands, deepens, and qualifies our knowledge of the central figure in English-language Modernism. For readers of Eliot, it is an indispensable book.

Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917, by T. S. Eliot. Edited by Christopher Ricks. Harcourt Brace. 428 pp.

First published in The Washington Times (March 16, 1997)