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Textual Fluidity, or Why We Need to Acknowledge Poetry Books in Multiple Versions

T. S. Eliot’s Ara Vos Prec: The Maker’s Pages in Order

Michelle Alexis Taylor


Il existe deux versions du second volume de poèmes de T. S. Eliot : l’édition américaine des Poems (1920) et l’édition britannique d’Ara Vos Prec (The Ovid Press). Si Ezra Pound décida de l’ordre des poèmes pour la première, c’est Eliot lui-même qui détermina celui de la seconde. Cet article se penche sur l’histoire et la forme matérielle d’Ara Vos Prec, pour éclairer la façon dont Eliot, sans l’influence de Pound, lisait sa propre poésie en 1920, et la manière dont il percevait et guidait ses différents lectorats – grand public et coterie – dans ce contexte.

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  • 1 This essay began in 2016 as a paper for a seminar with Stephanie Burt and owes its genesis to her i (...)
  • 2 In Poems (1920), published in the United States by A. A. Knopf, the poems are in the following orde (...)
  • 3 This article, like other writings about the 1920 poems and Ara Vos Prec, will use the book title to (...)

1Hannah Sullivan has memorably called The Waste Land “[Ezra] Pound’s greatest poem,” but that’s not the only work of Eliot’s in which the authority of “il miglior fabbro” competes against that of his self-professed inferior (146).1 In any of Eliot’s collected works, the poems of “1920” appear in the order arranged by Pound for Eliot’s first American volume, rather than in the order that Eliot had chosen for the English publication of the same poems in Ara Vos Prec (produced by the fledgling Ovid Press in 1920) (as Ricks and McCue point out in Eliot, 2015b 338).2 Perhaps because he tended to prefer his new work over his old work (according to Ricks and McCue in Eliot, 2015a 464), or perhaps because The Waste Land caused him to see Pound’s influence as usefully depersonalizing, Eliot chose in 1925 to use the Knopf book rather than the Ovid Press book in Faber and Gwyer’s Collected Poems 1909-1925, and in subsequent Collected Poems after that.3

  • 4 Hannah Sullivan critiques the “textual meliorism” inherent in such accounts of The Waste Land’s gen (...)
  • 5 As part of her discussion of Eliot’s own editorial practice, Sullivan characterizes the poet as a “ (...)
  • 6 Of course, Eliot’s most obvious intimate “addressee” was Emily Hale. Two excellent overviews of the (...)
  • 7 For a broader discussion of Eliot’s coterie writing, including the Bolo poems, the poems of Noctes (...)

2Heather Bryant Jordan [now Heather Corbally Bryant]—the only scholar who has written about the differences between the volumes and their arrangements in depth—reads into this choice Eliot’s preference for Pound’s sequence, finding that Eliot’s “reliance on structure as an organizing principle […] suggests both a lack of confidence in the inner content of his poetry and a strict adherence to formal concerns” (1994 353). Jordan affirms Eliot’s final editorial choice, finding that Pound’s ordering of the poems, “allows the poems to resonate and echo across the lines of verse, making for a more dynamic and playful volume than does the rigid organization of Ara Vos Prec” (354). It is interesting that Jordan’s reading of Ara Vos Prec is symptomatic of the kind of teleological readings so often practiced on Eliot’s drafts of The Waste Land, in which Ezra Pound must revise a series of stifled lyrics in order to evoke their meaning and resonance most powerfully4; indeed, Jordan appreciates that Pound’s ordering previews the effect that his editing would have on Eliot’s next great work (355). Yet it is not clear to me—as I will explain in the course of this paper—that Eliot chose Pound’s sequence because he believed it to be objectively better or more meaningful. Jordan is perhaps right, and certainly not alone, in seeing Eliot’s eventual decision to preserve the poems in Pound’s order as indicative of a “lack of confidence.”5 Yet, as I will show, attending to the history of this book, including and especially Eliot’s arrangement of his own poems, opens new avenues for critical and, crucially, uncritical reading. Ara Vos Prec provides us not only, as others have argued, with a discrete (and cohesive, ordered) picture of the poet’s mind in time, but also with a stronger picture of Eliot’s particular modernism as not one monumental modernism asserted across time and space, but as a composition of discrete and overlapping modernisms: a modernism for the masses, and a modernism for the makers. As Eliot’s recently released letters to Emily Hale have shown, the poet was not averse to embedding intimate messages into his poems.6 My work has been, and in this paper will continue to be, to show that Eliot often imagined intimate addressees reading his work, following the breadcrumbs of personality he meticulously left behind him.7

Ara Vos Prec: A Brief History

3The publication history of Ara Vos Prec points to the personal significance the book held for Eliot. In May 1919, shortly after his friend John Rodker had founded The Ovid Press, Eliot wrote to him about a project that it seems was already under way, giving Rodker permission to publish his works and enclosing three new poems. “I should like to know when you want to start on this book,” he wrote eagerly, “as I want to think over such questions as the order of the poems, dedication” (Eliot, 2011 351). Eliot’s enthusiasm carried into the next few months, and even into some Prufrockian decisions and revisions reversed in the book’s erratic table of contents. Yet, the poet was, as he wrote, “pleased” with the final copies (434), and he “congratulate[d]” Rodker on what he called “an admirable book,” adding, “I do not think that a guinea is all too much to charge for such a piece of work” (438). He was, he wrote, “not expecting to make any money out of it whatsoever” (418). He asked merely “for a certain number of copies to keep and to give to people who could not afford to buy the book in any case” (418).

4In these letters, Eliot reveals that he sees publishing Ara Vos Prec as a personal, as well as a professional, endeavor; he even writes to John Quinn that the book will be “for private circulation” (2011 374)—which in effect, if not in fact, such limited editions are. This difference between the English and American publications manifests itself even in the titles of the books themselves. Ara Vos Prec (meaning “And so I pray you”) frames the book—if obliquely and in Provençal—as an address from the first to the second person; the line is taken from the plea that Arnaut Daniel makes of Dante in the Purgatorio. The full quatrain, given here with Ricks and McCue’s translation, is as follows:

“Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
  que vos guida al som de l’escalina,
  sovegna vos a temps de mon dolor.”
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina.

“And so I pray you, by that virtue which leads you to the topmost stair—be mindful in due time of my pain.” Then he dived back into that fire which refines them. (Eliot, 2015a 464)

  • 8 Eliot famously misspelled the title of his own book, so that the title page reads “Ara Vus Prec” bu (...)

5Eliot ostensibly lifted the line because (as he told Rodker) “it is non-committal about the newness of the contents, and unintelligible to most people” (Eliot, 2011 405).8 Yet, when he signed the volume for his friend (and flirtation) Mary Hutchinson, Eliot added more from Arnaut’s speech, highlighting his own identification with the purgatorial poet—in translation: “So doth your courteous request please me that I cannot, nor will not, hide from you. I am Arnold, who weeps and goes singing” (Eliot, 2015a 465). In other words, Eliot here comes out of hiding, manifesting his pain in the partial guise of Provençal’s most famous poet, just as Dante projects into Arnaut his own feelings about lust, remorse, and purgation.

6Eliot’s title is admittedly oblique, but his epigraph—unattributed to Purgatorio, but in a terza rima Italian that clearly evokes Dante—provides enough clues for the assiduous reader to chase the allusion. In other words, Eliot’s mask of “unintelligib[ility]” covers him only partially. In fact, it suggests—perhaps even trains the reader for—some ways for reading and understanding his allusive poetry. The poems of Ara Vos Prec request, if they do not demand, the same detective work of tracing and translating as Eliot’s title and his epigraph do; indeed, Eliot annotated his own copy of the poems, noting a number, though not all, of his own sources (Jordan, 1990 438). Rather than asking the reader to work at producing cohesion among them, these references point outwards into the world and history just as Dante’s Commedia does. Ara Vos Prec asks that we read its poems as we read Purgatorio, and that we understand Eliot’s poetry—incisively satirical, compendious, polyvocal, perhaps even allegorical—as one in kind with Dante’s.

7What does this mean? Such poetry demands a kind of reading closer to medieval, scholastic or devotional models than to modern critical practice. Even the material form of the book, with its luxuriously ample margins and illuminated capitals, seems to activate more archaic ways of interacting with text (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The first page of Eliot’s Ara Vos Prec London: The Ovid Press, 1920. Accessed 25 January 2024, p. 10-11.

8These reading practices, described by James Hankins as “doctrinal” or “allegorical,” understand their object as both a lesson whose truths “might be hidden” in “symbols, allegories, and analogies” and also “a kind of armature upon which to hang moral lessons and an encyclopedic knowledge of all the arts and sciences” (Hankins 19)—a text with both intrinsic and extrinsic resonances . Indeed, Eliot understood that the Commedia was meant to be read in such a manner. In his essay on “Dantein The Sacred Wood, Eliot takes instruction from Dante’s Convivio:

In the Convivio we are seriously informed that

the principal design [of the odes] is to lead men to knowledge and virtue, as will be seen in the progress of the truth of them;

and we are also given the familiar four interpretations of an ode: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. (Eliot, 2014 229)

9If, as the title of his collection suggests, Eliot is aligning his own poems with Dante’s, or suggesting, at the very least, that they come from a similar world, then we might also assume that we can expose them to the same interpretive methods. Of course, the purpose of satire (the vein in which these poems have largely been understood) has always been corrective—has always, in a sense, been to “lead men to knowledge and virtue”—but the alignment of Eliot’s poetry first with Dante’s (rather than, for example, the caustic Ben Jonson’s) speaks to the underexplored ethical and metaphysical ambitions of Ara Vos Prec. The poems are not a series of satires uncreatively arranged but a system of them, if perhaps (as Eliot’s later disregard for his ordering might suggest) an incomplete system.

10“The poet’s reliance on structure as an organizing principle,” then, does not, as Jordan argues, suggest his lack of confidence or uncreative formal rigidity, but rather a Dantean interest in order as a means of making immanent meaning as apparent as possible. Eliot is a poet obsessed with and deeply comforted by the idea of structure; in The Sacred Wood, he returns to it again and again as a necessity for communication through language, for poetic and linguistic meaning. Three years after Ara Vos Prec appeared, he would praise James Joyce’s “mythical method” for “controlling,” “ordering,” and “giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Eliot, 2014 478-479). Still, Dante remains Eliot’s (and The Sacred Wood’s) gold standard for both structure and effective communication. Moving both his essay on Dante and his essay collection to a close, Eliot praises Dante as an “encyclopedic poet” (much, we might note, like Eliot himself) whose “talent was not for discovery, but for organization” (Eliot, 2014 237). The Commedia is noteworthy, Eliot insists, because it has “the most comprehensive, and the most ordered presentation of emotions that has ever been made, and he understands that such a “mechanical framework, in a poem of so vast an ambit, was a necessity” (231, emphasis original). Even as Eliot attempts to distinguish between framework, form, and content, he makes clear that nothing can signify outside of the framework or on its own. A character’s emotion in Dante, he explains, “is always preserved entire, but is modified by the position assigned to the person in the eternal scheme, is coloured by the atmosphere of that person’s residence in one of the three worlds” (230-231). In other words, “the artistic emotion presented by any episode […] is dependent upon the whole,” and upon the position of the emotion within the whole (231).

11While the size of Eliot’s own collection might be small, its ambit—especially if we consider the poems within their sprawling network of allusion—is certainly “vast.” Is it any wonder, then, that this book is (at least prior to Four Quartets) Eliot’s most ordered, and its poems his most formally rigid?

Ideas of/in Order

12Following Dante’s example, then, Eliot groups his poems into “blocks,” as Jordan calls them (1994 353) because he understands form—in the seven consecutive quatrain poems (from “Burbank” to “A Cooking Egg”), or in the four vers libres in French—as itself meaningful, indicating shared patterns of thought and greater potential for implicit parallel. He places the things that are most closely related together in order to define the categories (like Dante’s circles of Purgatory) to which they belong, while at the same time drawing out the distinctions (like the different sins and punishments) within each class.

13Such groupings are illuminating. Placing Sweeney’s three appearances (in “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” “Sweeney Erect,” and “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”) one after another suggests more of a narrative (the story of Sweeney’s night and morning at the brothel) than is apparent when the poems are kept apart, and allows for Sweeney to gather strength as a character across the two lyrics and into his final appearance in “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service.” Ironically, that strength amounts to an understanding of his fundamental passivity; like the character of Dante in the Commedia, Sweeney moves through a world in which things—horrible things, horrifying things—happen around him. The women around Sweeney, too, distinguish themselves from the other women of the volume (Princess Volupine, Grishkin, Pipit, and the nameless women and girls of the French poems) as forces of violent disorder, driven by hysteria to violence: in “Sweeney among the Nightingales,” a woman “[t]ears at the grapes with murderous paws” (Eliot, 1920 16), while in “Sweeney Erect” another “[j]acknifes upward” and “claw[s]” in a spastic fit (18). Sweeney and these women belong to a specific ecosystem of disaffection (Sweeney’s) and chaos (the women’s), an ecosystem contiguous with but also distinct from the ecosystems of the other poems—especially the French poems, which, written partly in the sardonic first person, seem closer to our world and to Eliot’s life than the grotesque caricature of Sweeney’s life.

14Eliot’s pairing of certain poems across a page spread intensifies this narrative effect, drawing attention not only to such poems’ sequential relationship, but to their aesthetic relationship as well. For example, encountering “Lune de Miel” and “Dans le Restaurant” side by side encourages us to imagine that the “inexpensive restaurant” mentioned in “Lune de Miel” is also “le restaurant” (the setting) of “Dans le Restaurant” (Eliot, 1920 26-27) (Figure 2).

Figure 2. ELIOT, T. S. Ara Vus [Vos] Prec. London: The Ovid Press, 1920. Accessed 25 January 2024, p. 26-27.

15Likewise, the order suggests that the honeymooning man in the first poem, who “pense aux pourboires, et rédige son bilan” (“thinks about tips, and calculates his bill”) also narrates the second poem, in which he imagines throwing money at his “garcon délabré” (“ravaged-looking waiter”) (translations from Ricks and McCue 2015 520, 526). The speaker’s (unspoken) explosion of rage at sexual identification—“De quel droit payes-tu des expériences comme moi?” (“How dare you presume to have had experiences like mine”)—ties the waiter’s story of failed erotic conquest to the failure of the newlyweds to enjoy their honeymoon. This connection is underscored by the way that the waiter, scratching at his fingers (“se gratter les doigts”), recalls the couple, scratching at their bedbug bites (“On relève le drap pour mieux égratigner”); no doubt the waiter’s evocation of the couples’ unpleasant night together is part of what prompts the speaker’s rage of recognition. These symbols of sexual failure are thereby emphasized, along with the husband’s and narrator’s own impotence, as objects of poetic frustration and scorn, and themes for this block of poems.

  • 9 In Poems (1920) and subsequent editions, “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” follows “Whispers of (...)

16The most arresting example of such coupling, however, is “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” with “Whispers of Immortality” (Eliot, 1920 20-21).9 The facing pages each consist of two sets of four quatrains separated by a row of asterisks (Figure 3).

Figure 3. ELIOT, T. S. Ara Vus [Vos] Prec. London: The Ovid Press, 1920. Accessed 25 January 2024, p. 20-21.

17This fearful symmetry, highlighted by the asterisks, encourages the reader to think in almost geometric terms of correspondence, suggesting something of the set of oppositions that plays out within and across them. This arrangement also highlights the opposition of the poems’ titles—“Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” and “Whispers of Immortality”—in their allusion to antithetical speech genres. Suggesting on the one side the public, the formal, and the mundane, and on the other side the private, the intimate, and the numinous, the titles gesture to the strange status of the finely printed, small press edition: a public gesture of, quite literally, low volume—only 265 copies were printed (Cloud 69).

18The titles also introduce the antithetical logic that governs the poems both individually and as a pair, juxtaposing vitality and sterility, disgust and transcendence, obscurity and mere appearance, and so on; the contrasts within each poem are deepened and developed by their reflection in the poem opposite. So the poet compares the sterility of “Origen” and the “epicene,” apian “presbyters” with the repulsing sexuality of the filthy Grishkin (Eliot, 1920 20-21), who abounds in a vitality that is merely animal; likewise the obscurity of his religious language—itself unproductive—contrasts with the obvious, sensual language he uses to describe the Russian ballerina and the unsubtle sensual signals (both visual and olfactory) that she deploys. In “Sunday Morning Service,” the simple and simply described Sweeney—here as desexualized as he’ll ever be, with only the merest hint of his potency in his suggestive movement “from ham to ham”—stands for the real and the apparent, a modern but meaningless manifestation of the baptismal scene designed by “A painter of the Umbrian School” (20). The disparity between the meaningful but lifeless painting—where “through the water pale and thin / Still shine the unoffending feet”—and the vital but meaningless bathing of Sweeney and his “hams” is brought into focus by Eliot’s treatment of Webster and Donne in the facing poem (20-21). The transcendent “thought” of these poets “clings round dead limbs,” full of meaning but, again, fundamentally lifeless; like the “cracked and browned” wilderness in the Umbrian painting, these poets’ bright sterility contrasts with the Grishkin’s dark animal sexuality, figured by the jaguar in its lush “arboreal gloom” (20-21).

  • 10 Jewel Spears Brooker traces the dialectical patterns of thought throughout Eliot’s work in T. S. El (...)

19In this way, the poems symbolically and formally dramatize the movement of dialectical thinking.10 Eliot also explores ideas about structure through the disorder introduced into the poem by Grishkin. Grishkin, perhaps associated with Sweeney by proximity, has some of the chaos of Sweeney’s other female companions, as well as the threat, though not the manifestation, of violence (through her association with the “sleek Brazilian jaguar,” whose smell frightens the “scampering marmoset”). Here, Grishkin’s chaos—figured most expressively by her “[u]ncorseted […] friendly bust”—contrasts with the structure of the skeleton’s spare ribs, whose “lusts and luxuries” have been “[t]ighten[ed]” by death (20). In this way the skeleton becomes an emblem not only of death and sterility but also of poetic structure, for patterning on the level of the line all the way up to the arrangement of a series. In this poem and perhaps in this book, poets and their metaphysics find refuge in the economies of form.

20The heart of a skeleton is hollow—empty, save for what “crawls between” its bones (21). Into a space made hollow by the inevitability of death, the poet projects his meaning, nurtures his philosophy. The center of a semiotic quadrilateral, such as the one that seems to undergird this poem, is also empty save for what the reader might project into it, since meaning (as Eliot understood well) is merely a system of signifiers surrounding an incomprehensible void. At the heart of this pair of poems—and, indeed, at the heart of this whole section of new poems, since this page spread is framed on either side by nine pages—we find the same aporia. Confronted by emptiness, however, or faced with the sight of nothing, both poems depict impossible, paradoxical vision: in the first, Seraphim “star[e]” at the “souls” in purgatory, despite their being “invisible and dim”; in the second, a skull without eyeballs “[s]tare[s]” out of the flower bulbs in its sockets (20-21). These images answer each other in chiasmus, crossing from the bottom half of the first page to the top half of the second, suggesting together the impossibility of true knowledge. This is the “evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), a faith based on paradox, made possible by the abnegation of the sight and the sight of the invisible.

21Here we appear to have reached a dead end, the limits of interpretation: on the one hand, we have endless dialectic, on the other, ignorance and faith. Indeed, Nigel Alderman suggests that the quatrain poems themselves problematize interpretation; they are “resistant to the possibility of […] satisfying, closed hermeneutical reading” (131-132). Instead, they “foreground the questions of what one is reading, of how one reads” (132). In Modernist Poetics of History, Longenbach also sees Eliot working through the problems of interpretation, albeit with less nihilism (Longenbach, 1987 177-199). Yet, presented in such order and so luxuriously, the poems’ capaciousness, while certainly functioning in the ways that Longenbach and Alderman describe, also functions to encourage alternatives to formal and critical exegesis. This is where the strategy of outward movement, which uses the text to index and organize knowledge, comes into play.

22Outward, then, to allusion, and to extensive, rather than intensive reading. Starting in the middle, and working our way out, we stumble upon Sweeney. “Stirring the water in his bath” (Eliot, 1920 20), Sweeney recalls another morning service to mind: Lancelot Andrewes’ Christmas Sermon of 1610, in which Andrewes declares that “[i]n a troubled water no face will well be seen, nor by a troubled mind no message received, till it be settled” (68). Even without Andrewes, Sweeney’s troubled water obviously contrasts with the “water pale and thin” in the Umbrian painting, through which the “unoffending feet” (Eliot, 1920 20)—not only the Word, but apparently also prosody made flesh—shine. What is more surprising is why Andrewes expresses this poetic sentiment at all. He takes it upon himself to explain why an Angel, announcing the news of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, must tell them not to be afraid:

Here comes an Angel with news from Heaven; what news he brings we know not, and therefore we fear because we know not. Which shews all is not well between Heaven and us, that upon every coming of an Angel we promise ourselves no better news from thence, but still are afraid of the messages and messenger that come from that place. That the message then may proceed, this fear must be removed. In a troubled water no face will well be seen, nor by a troubled mind no message received, till it be settled. (67-68)

Here Andrewes connects fear to misprision, and in so doing, allays it.

23Like the Angel standing in the shepherds’ tracks, the activity of tracing Eliot’s allusion halts the incessant dialectical process of pursuing knowledge, the methodical working through of modernist composition. In the bit of verse explicated by Andrewes (Luke II. 10, 11), understanding and knowledge are not available but must be revealed, and, revealed, become apprehensible. Of course, Andrewes offers us yet another interpretive aid for the poem, but reading him is an end in itself; we have the option of merely sitting with this intertextuality, of not troubling the water by shifting like Sweeney.

“I should have lost a gesture and a pose”

24James Longenbach has also posited—albeit in passing—that the “arrangement” of Ara Vos Prec as a whole, “beginning in the depths of ‘Gerontion’ and ending on the stair of ‘La Figlia Che Piange,’ suggests a kind of purgatorial progression in itself” (1991 43). While the “depths” of “Gerontion” are mostly metaphorical (there’s no sense in the poem of movement either upward or downward, no sense, as in “Whispers of Immortality,” of a concern with the subterranean and of things that lie below), Eliot’s only rearrangement of the poems from Prufrock and Other Observations (aside from removing “Hysteria”) suggests that the poet was attentive to the symbolic resonances Longenbach observes. By swapping “Conversation Galante,” which had been Prufrock’s penultimate poem, with “The Boston Evening Transcript,” the poet both underscores the final imagery of the ascendant staircase and establishes one last telling juxtaposition between poems: the speaker of the “The Boston Evening Transcript” ends the poem by “mount[ing] the stairs” and “turning/ [w]earily” back towards the street, “as one would turn to nod good-bye” (Eliot, 1920 53). “La Figlia Che Piange” presents this gesture inverted: a female figure, who begins “at the highest pavement of the stair,” “turn[s]” away from the speaker resentfully (54). We therefore have a (presumably male) subject, mounting the stairs but turning to look below and behind him, and a female object, at the top of the stairs, turning to look above and beyond the speaker.

25In wondering “how [the pair] should have been together,” the speaker of “La Figlia Che Piange” also wonders what would happen if these opposites were resolved (54). The answer is that there would be no structure: no staircase, no juxtaposition, no occasion for “cogitation” (54). The poem, and we, “should have lost a gesture and a pose” (54). Here the poet offers—aside from the obvious commentary on the problematic relationship between suffering and poetry—a defense of the pose itself, which is able to signify not only itself (the moment recollected) but also its opposite or alternatives (“how we should have been together,” 54). The communicative power of the “gesture” and the “pose,” its clarity and intellectual portability, in no way hinder its ability to “amaze” (54); indeed they might be what arouse amazement.

26In The Difficulties of Modernism, Leonard Diepeveen argues that difficulty is essential to modernism as a literary movement in part because it was essential to modernism’s canonization; we have learned to prize difficulty, Diepeveen shows, because that is how we have been able to secure places in our literary pantheon for writers like Pound, Joyce, and Eliot. In Jordan’s response to the order of the poems in Ara Vos Prec (Jordan 1994), I find a privileging of some kinds of difficulty—kinds perhaps more Poundian than Eliotic—over others. To be sure, one might argue that Pound’s sequence is simply more difficult than Eliot’s because it entails all of the allusive difficulty of Eliot’s, and adds to that difficulty the difficulty of its disorder (or, put another way, it deprives the reader of the help that Eliot’s narrative sequencing might provide).

27Yet in this collection, Eliot makes structure itself signify—signify not chaos and happenstance, but dialectical progress or at least process, the existence if not the acquisition of knowledge. At the same time, the arrangement of the poems, combined with the book’s paratextual and bibliographic coding, also suggests an alternative kind of reading that poses difficulty merely of a different kind from the difficulty created by Pound’s arrangement—not of a different degree. It asks for just as much thought, discipline, and erudition; it only applies these to other ends.

28Why, then, did Eliot choose Poems (1920) as the volume to be preserved for history? Eliot’s attitude towards Ara Vos Prec suggests he viewed it as a coterie volume, different in its publication status from the Poems brought out by Alfred A. Knopf in the United States and even Prufrock and Other Observations when it was published by the Egoist Press. The presentation copies he gave away—in his letters he names Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and the patron John Quinn as necessary recipients—point to the elision of his personal life and his professional life as a poet. For our purposes, then, we might think of a coterie volume as one intended not only for a specific interpretive community, but also for a specific kind of interpretive community. In such a community, interpretation foregrounds and perhaps mediates interpersonal relationships, since those overlap with relationships of collaboration, influence, and patronage; the reader working through a coterie volume negotiates not only an understanding of the text but also a relationship to it that is in varying degrees both personal and professional, in which indeed the personal and professional inflect each other. In such a case, whether the reader was gifted the book, as Pound was, or whether she purchased it, as was likely the case for Mary Hutchinson, the increase in interpretive aid provided by the poet indicates an increase in interpretive trust, since more is at stake, both in terms of the poet’s career and his personal life.

29The modernism that Eliot imagines here, therefore, is not a modernism for the masses but modernism for the makers, and this distinction suggests that Eliot’s coterie vision of modernism was different from his public representation of modernism. The differences between these modernisms need not be, and don’t seem to have been, particularly numerous; as we would expect, they appear to be similar, if not identical, objects. For my part, I’ve come to believe that that coterie as a concept can also help us understand how modernists grappled with interpretive challenges posed by a rapidly changing media ecology, which required them to renegotiate their relationships to both their audiences and the institutions that shaped the production and reception of their works. My own work thinks about how books such as Ara Vos Prec, being neither privately circulated nor very publicly available, both relied upon and established the mediation of coterie as an essential aspect of literary production, circulation, and even influence. But that these different modernisms—public, private, personal, and coterie—existed at all makes them worthy of study, both for our understanding of Eliot and other coterie writers and for our understanding of modernism as a cultural phenomenon. As both Eliot and Dante knew, there’s more than one way to read a book.

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ELIOT, T. S. Letter to Donald Gallup, 21 February 1936. Accessed 16 April 2024.

ELIOT, T. S. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, vol. 1, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

ELIOT, T. S. The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition: The Perfect Critic, 1919–1926. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd., 2014.

ELIOT, T. S. The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Eds. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, vol. 1, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

ELIOT, T. S. The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Eds. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, vol. 2, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

GORDON, Lyndall. The Hyacinth Girl: T. S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse. London: Little, Brown, 2022.

HANKINS, James. Plato in the Italian Renaissance. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990.

JORDAN, Heather Bryant. “Annotating the Lines: Ara Vos Prec.” Notes and Queries, vol. 37, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 438-439.

JORDAN, Heather Bryant. “Ara Vos Prec: A Rescued Volume.” Text: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Textual Studies, vol. 7, Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 349-364.

LONGENBACH, James. “Ara Vos Prec: Eliot’s Negotiation of Satire and Suffering.” T. S. Eliot: The Modernist in History. Ed. Ronald Bush. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 41-66.

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TAYLOR, Michelle. “(In)discreet Modernism: T. S. Eliot’s Coterie Poetics.” College Literature, vol. 47, no. 1, 2020, p. 34-64.

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1 This essay began in 2016 as a paper for a seminar with Stephanie Burt and owes its genesis to her incisive feedback. My enormous thanks are also owed to Juliette Utard, for putting together the panel “Poetry Books in Multiple Versions” at the MLA at which I first presented these ideas and for inviting me to contribute to this special issue. I’m grateful for the feedback and questions of the other panelists and the audience at our MLA panel, including and especially those offered by David Hobbs, and for advice and feedback offered by Elyse Graham. Finally, I thank my two anonymous peer reviewers, as well as Monica Manolescu, for guiding this article through to publication.

2 In Poems (1920), published in the United States by A. A. Knopf, the poems are in the following order: “Gerontion”; “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”; “Sweeney Erect”; “A Cooking Egg”; “Le Directeur”; “Mélange adultère de tout”; “Lune de Miel”; “The Hippopotamus”; “Dans le Restaurant”; “Whispers of Immortality”; “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”; and, finally, “Sweeney Among the Nightingales.” (Then come the poems from Prufrock and Other Observations, which are not separated from the collection of new poems). The ordering of the poems in Ara Vos Prec has nothing in common with the ordering of Poems (1920) except for the pair that open the volume: “Gerontion”; “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar”; “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”: “Sweeney erect”; “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”; “Whispers of Immortality”; “The Hippopotamus”; “A Cooking Egg”; “Lune de Miel”; “Dans le Restaurant”; “Le Spectateur” [“Le Directeur” in Poems (1920)]; “Mélange Adultère de Tout”; “Ode” (which was excluded from the American volume because Eliot did not want his mother to see it).

3 This article, like other writings about the 1920 poems and Ara Vos Prec, will use the book title to indicate the collection of new poems first collected in this book. It is worth noting, however, that both Ara Vos Prec and Poems (1920) also republished the poems from Prufrock and Other Observations. In Ara Vos Prec, these poems are separated by a title page reading “PRUFROCK.”

4 Hannah Sullivan critiques the “textual meliorism” inherent in such accounts of The Waste Land’s genesis (123). Rather than seeing the final poem as contained in Eliot’s drafts, waiting to be freed via Pound’s excision, Sullivan suggests that we understand the poem imagined by Eliot and the poem produced by Pound as different objects.

5 As part of her discussion of Eliot’s own editorial practice, Sullivan characterizes the poet as a “substitutive” rather than “structural” reviser, noting in support of Jordan that as both a poet and “a playwright, Eliot […] lacked confidence in his ability to make structural revisions” (126).

6 Of course, Eliot’s most obvious intimate “addressee” was Emily Hale. Two excellent overviews of the scholarly and biographical implications of the Hale letters are in Dickey and Gordon.

7 For a broader discussion of Eliot’s coterie writing, including the Bolo poems, the poems of Noctes Binanianae (1939), and some of the coterie allusions in Four Quartets, see Taylor.

8 Eliot famously misspelled the title of his own book, so that the title page reads “Ara Vus Prec” but the spine has the correct title, “Ara Vos Prec.” He admitted to his mistake in a letter to Donald Gallup: “It only happened to be Vus on the title page because I don’t know Provençal, and I was quoting from an Italian edition of Dante the editor of which apparently did not know Provençal either” (Eliot 1936). Some libraries and repositories therefore list the title with the misspelled word.

9 In Poems (1920) and subsequent editions, “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service” follows “Whispers of Immortality,” but each poem is broken unevenly across a recto and verso (each poem’s recto has four stanzas, the break, and a fifth stanza on one page; the three remaining stanzas follow on the verso). Their symmetry is therefore less apparent and also, since the poems do not fall in the middle of the collection of new verse, less functional and significant.

10 Jewel Spears Brooker traces the dialectical patterns of thought throughout Eliot’s work in T. S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination.

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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1. The first page of Eliot’s Ara Vos Prec London: The Ovid Press, 1920. Accessed 25 January 2024, p. 10-11.
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Légende Figure 2. ELIOT, T. S. Ara Vus [Vos] Prec. London: The Ovid Press, 1920. Accessed 25 January 2024, p. 26-27.
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Légende Figure 3. ELIOT, T. S. Ara Vus [Vos] Prec. London: The Ovid Press, 1920. Accessed 25 January 2024, p. 20-21.
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Michelle Alexis Taylor, « T. S. Eliot’s Ara Vos Prec: The Maker’s Pages in Order »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2024, consulté le 13 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michelle Alexis Taylor

Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry, Emory University

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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