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T.S. Eliot in 1950: “I have never succeeded in getting a first edition of one of my own books printed without some errors in it” (©Al Gretz/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

For my generation — that is, those born in the late Fifties and early Sixties — T. S. Eliot provided their first encounter with “difficult” poetry. Nursery anthologies largely made up of 19th-century narrative and nature poetry — Southey, Longfellow, the apparently easier bits of Tennyson and Browning and Keats and Wordsworth — had done little to prepare us for what lay in store. Of course, the poetry we had read as children was not really simple. But its difficulties were concealed, and as a child it was easy to fall into the error that you had understood a poem when in fact all you had done was to take from it some kind of prosaic paraphrase of its meaning. In fact “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” is a much more truly difficult poem than, say, “Sordello”.

So we entered a completely different poetic universe when, on our first day in the sixth form, we came into class, opened the fresh copy of Eliot’s Collected Poems laid out on the desk, and read:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table; . . .

Clearly, we had a lot to learn. We weren’t much helped by the Collected Poems. As well as printing in some respects an inaccurate or maimed text (of which more below), it contained no notes, apart from Eliot’s own Delphic notes to The Waste Land (one of the many facts I learned with gratitude from this edition was that Eliot himself in 1957 expressed a wish to “abolish” these notes).  The more dutiful among us went off and read The Golden Bough (or at least the abridgement of that almost endless book) and Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance. No doubt this was in a general way good for us. But on coming back to Eliot’s poems one felt no further forward. For the principal difficulty here was not one of explanatory context for the ideas behind the poems. It was rather, as we slowly realised, the difficulty posed by an unfamiliar poetic language and unfamiliar ideas about what a poem was and how it possessed meaning. 

The various student guides to Eliot’s poetry that were passed between us like contraband were useless. The shortcomings of poor teachers were also pitilessly exposed. I remember a supply teacher trying to take us through the complexities of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, and pausing over the extended metaphor comparing the evening fog to a cat:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

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