20 May 2017

‘… where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others’

Patrick Comerford

For an academic, finding you are referenced to in an important, major publication is almost as exciting as having your own work published. If it is positive, it can amount to recognition from your own peers, and it is even more exciting when it comes unexpectedly and in a field that you have a passion for.

My academic role at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute is coming to an end after 15 years – an initial four years as a part-time or visiting lecturer, and the last 11 years as a full-time lecturer, with further recognition for the last six years from Trinity College Dublin as an adjunct assistant professor.

There are still three dissertations to see through at their viva voce examinations and a court of examiners to attend, and the past few days have been busy, with final marking and second marking of some dissertations and essays.

On Thursday evening, following the end-of-year Eucharist, there were presentations too from the faculty members, staff and student at CITI, which an emotional evening of recognition, thanks and some surprises.

But as I was travelling from Limerick to Dublin, I stumbled across another surprising recognition in an unexpected place.

For some time, I have delighted to work my way through the scholarly, landmark edition of TS Eliot’s poems edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, and published by Faber & Faber in two volumes in 2015. They were given as a very special present some time ago.

These are monumental, defining contributions to our understanding of the work of TS Eliot. Volume 1 contains 346 pages of poems and 965 pages of commentary; volume 2 contains 290 pages of poems and commentary and 367 pages of textual history. The Waste Land is the centrepiece of Volume 1, and the commentary on this alone this runs to hundreds of pages. As one reviewer commented, this edition reminds ‘how endlessly influential he is.’

‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins,’ Eliot writes at the end of The Waste Land.

Eliot once appeared to set his face against scholarship, saying in 1962: ‘I will not allow any academic critic … to provide notes of explanation to be published with any of my poems.’ The editors of this new collection trace how Eliot went about developing his poetic voice, but are careful to explains that their work is not critical as such.

I have been using, browsing through, dipping in and out of, and enjoying these two volumes for many months now. But earlier this week, as I turned to their commentary on A Song for Simeon – a poem I have drawn on many times for sermons and the Liturgy at Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation – I came across this note:

‘A Song for Simeon may be one for him to sing or one sung for him (Patrick Comerford, personal communication).’

It was an exchange I had forgotten about, which added to the surprise and delight of coming across this observation and acknowledgement in the commentary.

The annual Little Gidding Pilgrimage takes place today [Saturday 20 May 2017] and is being led jointly by Canon Tim Alban Jones, chaplain to the Bishop of Peterborough, and Dr Bridget Nichols, for 18 years Lay Chaplain to successive Bishops of Ely, the author of a weekly column in the Church Times on the Sunday lectionary readings, and a member of the Liturgical Commission of the Church of England.

The pilgrimage includes the Pilgrimage Eucharist at Leighton Bromswold and Evensong at Little Gidding, with addresses by the pilgrimage leaders at the two services.

In the closing section of Little Gidding (1942), Eliot’s last major poem and the last of the Four Quartets, he writes about that place

… where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together.

The acknowledgment in this book have brought particular pleasure this week. I am not sharing them as I move on as though this were a case of saying ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins,’ for I am sure that in my new roles I am going to receive many blessings and I am going to be blessed. But I am grateful for these few words, and for the presents and tributes this week too, ‘neither diffident nor ostentatious,’ ‘precise but not pedantic,’ and it was a joy to come across these acknowledgements, however unexpectedly, in a week like this.

● Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (eds), The Poems of TS Eliot, Volume I: Collected & Uncollected Poems (£40) and The Poems of TS Eliot, Volume II: Practical Cats & Further Verses (£40), London: Faber & Faber, 2015.

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