Thursday, August 11, 2016

Some literary rabbit-holes are bottomless, it seems

Above: Allen Ginsberg's copy of The Waste-Land

The recent fuss between the Trumps and the media and the Trumps and the Obamas, over who used what phrase first, echoes a literary debate that goes back to at least T.S. Eliot. He began annotating his own work after he was accused of plagiarism in The Waste-Land (1922), and a century later, his work may be sinking under the weight of other scholars' use of computers to grind him up like so much big data:
To begin at the very beginning: is there a meaningful relationship between ‘Let us go then …’ (the opening words of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’), and the phrase ‘Let us go now …’ which occurs in Chapter 40 of Daniel Deronda (with ‘street’ and ‘sky’ later in the paragraph); between ‘When the evening is spread out against the sky’ (line 2 of ‘Prufrock’) and Thomas Hardy’s ‘forms there flung/Against the sky’ (‘The Abbey Mason’); between ‘certain half-deserted streets’ (line 4 of ‘Prufrock’) and ‘he sought out a certain street and number’ in Chapter 20 of Little Dorrit; or, moving beyond literature, between that phrase and the recording of a payment made to ‘R.D. Bennett, for sprinkling a certain street’ in the aforementioned Acts and Resolutions of the 29th General Assembly of Iowa; between Prufrock’s ‘overwhelming question’ (line 10) and the observation in Chapter 23 of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers that ‘The whole company were a good deal astounded with this overwhelming question’? 
Certainly Eliot’s mind was a vast, labyrinthine echo chamber, and perhaps more than any other canonical poet of the English language, with the possible exception of his great antagonist John Milton, he was conscious of the previous uses by other writers of the words he deployed in his poems. But what exactly is the difference, one can’t help wondering while reading such notes, between an interesting allusion or echo and a mere verbal coincidence? And where should limits be set for the recording of these echoes or coincidences in the age of the internet, when it’s possible to pursue any phrase ad infinitum? Should notes in a scholarly edition aspire to the condition of an entry in the OED? Anyone with an interest in Eliot will be grateful for, and marvel at, the truly extraordinary knowledge of all things Eliotic that underpins these volumes, but – to get my quibble out of the way early, so that I can praise the numerous virtues of this edition with a clear conscience – it is not always easy to discern the value of the links the editors posit between Eliot’s words and the analogous phrases, drawn from a bewildering array of writers, presented for comparison in the commentary. 
Those first ten lines of ‘Prufrock’, for instance, elicit, as well as the citations I’ve already mentioned, quotations from Jules Laforgue, W.E. Henley, Théophile Gautier, Russell S. Fowler (author of The Operating Room and the Patient, a 1906 book which includes a reference to ‘anaesthetic tables’), William James, James Thomson, William Acton, Charles-Louis Philippe, W.R. Burnett (a crime novelist in whose High Sierra – published in 1940 – the phrase ‘She was … a one-night-stand type’ occurs), Edward Winslow Martin (author of The Secrets of the Great City, 1868, which mentions ‘cheap hotels’), the London Baedeker, Cooper’s The Prairie and Hamlet’s ‘overwhelming question’ – ‘“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Perhaps also OED 6: “to pop the question (slang or colloq.), to propose marriage” (1725)’. In addition, the notes on these ten lines draw our attention to eight other Eliot poems, as well as including quotations from The Cocktail Party and a number of his essays and letters. It’s worth remarking at the very least that the parameters established for this edition constitute a new frontier in the use of notes to record verbal echoes and overlaps, as well as to include tangential facts. The quote from The Prairie, for instance, is adduced because Eliot always sounds the final ‘t’ in ‘restaurants’ in his various recorded readings of ‘Prufrock’; ‘OED,’ the editors add, ‘gives a pronunciation in which it is not sounded, and the spelling of its first citation, from Fenimore Cooper, 1827, points to the French derivation: “At the most renowned of the Parisian restaurans”.’ This is a good instance of the sort of knowledge you will pick up from Ricks and McCue’s commentary as an unexpected bonus. It illustrates their generous wish to impart as much information as possible, and while their method throws up all manner of fascinating trouvailles, surely even the most devoted Eliot scholars will occasionally find themselves scratching their heads when ordinary words such as ‘toast’ (‘the taking of a toast and tea’) are glossed by an OED definition – ‘Bread so browned by fire, electric heat etc.’ The editors’ kitchen-sink approach to annotation makes even Longman editions, such as Ricks’s own wonderful three-volume edition of Tennyson – who published an awful lot more poetry than Eliot – seem modest by comparison...
The Poems of T.S. Eliot: Volume I: Collected & Uncollected Poems edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, Faber, 1311 pp, £40.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 23870 5

The Poems of T.S. Eliot: Volume II: Practical Cats & Further Verses edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue
Faber, 667 pp, £40.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 23371 7

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