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The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, Vols. 1–4
edited by ronald schuchard et al.
johns hopkins, 3,728 pages

With four of a projected eight volumes of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot now available in an online edition, alongside a two-volume edition of Eliot’s poems finally published (including uncollected poems), the future will remember 2015 as the annus mirabilis of Eliot scholarship. We can now read the complete works of the pre-eminent Anglo-American poet and critic of the twentieth century. That it has taken fifty years to collect Eliot’s work should be a scandal, but deference has always been paid to Valerie Eliot, the poet’s wife, who restricted access to letters, archives, and everything else during her life (she passed away in 2012). It always seemed clear that something was being hidden, less clear exactly what that was.

Among other things, what was obscured for the last half century was the sheer scale of Eliot’s achievement as a critic. Though sixteen volumes of prose were published in his lifetime, he left behind more than 700 essays uncollected in books, while another 150 pieces of prose had never been published at all. When one includes lectures, broadcasts, editorials, addresses to literary societies . . . well, the man was always writing.

Eliot was simply a prodigy, though we seldom use that term to refer to critics. We find him moved to review books by Rudyard Kipling, Van Wyck Brooks, and James Huneker while an undergraduate at Harvard, aged twenty. He studies with George Santayana and Irving Babbitt and Josiah Royce, attends Henri Bergson’s lectures in Paris, serves as president of the Harvard Philosophical Club, and meets Bertrand Russell, all by age twenty-six. And yet, he was no disciple of any of his celebrated teachers and their “lyric philosophies”:

James’s philosophical writings constitute an emotional attitude more than a body of dogma . . . and we observe Mr. Bertrand Russell directing with passionate enthusiasm his unearthly ballet of bloodless alphabets. Professor Bosanquet is the prophet who has put off his shoes and talks with the Absolute in a burning bush; to Professor Royce we owe the resuscitation of Christianity by the method of last aid to the dead. And the landscape is decorated with Bergsonians in various degrees of recovery from intellect.

That passage (from “The Relationship between Politics and Metaphysics”) makes clear that in the spring of 1914 Eliot was already in possession of a mature prose voice—which appears for the first time, of all places, in his second address to the Harvard Philosophical Club, when he declares that philosophy is an inadequate substitute for religion. This is no coincidence. At the time Eliot was struggling to believe. He saw that he couldn’t approach God merely through the mind—and he quickly lost interest in philosophy because of that. (Later in life, he concluded that “it is not science that has destroyed religion but our preference for unbelief.”) What was he going to dedicate his life to instead?

The moment Eliot turned his mind to literature, he experienced an immediate success that bears no relation to any other poet’s career, with the possible exception of Byron. The literary world welcomed him, though he was just an unpublished graduate student. Eliot seems to have simply relocated from Oxford to Bertrand Russell’s apartment in London, where he stayed with his new wife, rent-free. Russell introduced his young guest to the editors of London’s intellectual journals, and also took it upon himself to assure Eliot’s worried mother of her son’s brilliance. (Mrs. Eliot’s reply to Russell is immortal: “I have absolute faith in his Philosophy but not in his vers libres.”) Meanwhile, his Harvard friend Conrad Aiken introduced him to another American poet in London, Ezra Pound, who sent his work to H. L. Mencken with the note “I think him worth watching.” This sort of thing happened to Eliot again and again throughout his life. No man was ever graced with better literary connections, and at an early age.

However smooth his ascent in literary circles, Eliot remained tortured in his private life. As he himself noted, “Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.” We owe this torrential critical outpouring to his need to earn small sums very quickly; supporting his invalid wife did not result in hack writing (as with so many others), but somehow stoked his genius. His progress from the pages of The International Journal of Ethics to The Egoist to the Times Literary Supplement (where he would reign as editor Bruce Richmond’s favorite lead contributor) takes five years by my count. He pens twenty-seven pieces of prose in 1916; thirty-four pieces in 1917; thirty-two in 1918; thirty in 1919—not even the Great War slowed down what is perhaps the most enduring critical labor any writer has ever produced.

By 1920, writing thirty reviews in fifteen months, Eliot had become “known to the world at large through the columns of the Athenaeum,” the editors here say. One of the English faculty at Cambridge University, E. M. W. Tillyard, summed up Eliot’s influence by writing that his ideas “irritated or delighted in the right way. They were fresh and stirred people up and some of the people who were stirred up looked a bit more closely.” These provocations included his description of mature experience while analyzing the “peculiar mind” displayed in The Education of Henry Adams:

It is probable that men ripen best through experiences which are at once sensuous and intellectual; certainly many men will admit that their keenest ideas have come to them with the quality of a sense-perception; and that their keenest sensuous experience has been “as if the body thought.”

Or his insight into the superiority of Stendhal’s best work when compared to Balzac’s:

Stendhal’s scenes, some of them, and some of his phrases, read like cutting one’s own throat; they are a terrible humiliation to read, in the understanding of human feelings and human illusions of feeling that they force upon the reader.

Such delights come again and again in these volumes. The isolated phrases that have become critical touchstones (“objective correlative” and the like) are found herein to be not isolated or even unusual. Wherever we turn in these pages, we find unknown gems to equal their famous cousins. “The greater the verse, the less it seems to belong to the individual man who wrote it,” Eliot says in “The Problems of the Shakespeare Sonnets.” That’s a fine phrase. Here’s a longer insight on the playwright John Webster:

Webster’s mind was of the reservoir type. He needed to accumulate for a long time before he could transmute into original poetry. To the last Shakespeare is inexhaustible. Whatever he did was new. But Webster was not inexhaustible. His mind had to acquire a great deal before it could give out a little.

Many more provocative judgments await the scholars and lovers of literature—a staggering abundance that must be weighed in the coming years. The scattered essays on general tendencies in modern poetry should be gathered into a valuable book of their own. Eliot’s thorough work on the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, on Donne and Dryden and Baudelaire, is well known, but his attention to contemporaries (Henry James, Marianne Moore, Harry Crosby, Charles Péguy, Julien Benda, and Sarah Bernhardt among others) is forgotten. The full range of his catholic mind has yet to be encountered. There does not appear to be a writer in the canon of English literature that he did not comment upon, at least briefly. (The only writer he seems to have underestimated, for personal reasons, is W. B. Yeats.) Ultimately, a printed digest or chrestomathy will be needed of these eight volumes, with their nearly 7,000 pages. Otherwise, the approach to this vast online archive will seem too daunting for general readers.

Ronald Schuchard and his international team of scholars have produced every individual essay as a PDF on a website, and the annotations are stylish and superb. Did you know that Eliot’s studies were scattered enough to land him on academic probation at Harvard? Or that he wrote of Yeats: “there is no one else living whom one would endure on the subject of gnomes, hobgoblins, and astral bodies . . .”? The introductions to these four volumes themselves form a satisfying treatise on the poet. There are also piercing quotations from Eliot’s letters and writings that reveal the many miseries of his life. One particularly haunting note has the forty-five-year-old lion of English letters warning his successors, “The compensations for being a poet are grossly exaggerated; and they dwindle as one becomes older, and the shadows lengthen, and the solitude becomes harder to endure.”

In any case, Eliot has left us a critical oeuvre that, in sheer depth and breadth, compares to the labors of John Dryden and Samuel Johnson among English poets, and Ezra Pound among the Americans. Future literary scholars will have to begin here, when it is time to evaluate the lasting achievements of twentieth-century critical prose. Here are the Alps—to vary a line by Basil Bunting—there is nothing to do but climb them.

Garrick Davis is the editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review.