A few weeks ago I watched a documentary on BBC, Return to TS Eliotland, presented by the eccentric but brilliant AN Wilson. I would say that Wilson cultivates this image of mild eccentricity; he is like Jacob Rees Mogg with a brain, and his dress sense is so bizarre he could be mistaken for the offspring of Dame Edith Sitwell.
But watching his skillful presentation, in which he neatly encapsulated the life and work of Eliot, made me aware that I knew little if anything about the poet; I had a passing notion about ‘The Waste Land’ and ‘Prufrock’, but little beyond that. A few months ago I was given some book tokens in Maynooth University in thanks for delivering a couple of lectures on theatre there, so when I was next in town, after having my appetite for Eliot whetted by Wilson, I went to one of the few remaining bookshops in Dublin, a city that had once been a city of bookshops. I treated myself to ‘Young Eliot’ by Robert Crawford, and Faber and Faber’s Collected Poems 1909-1962.
I finished a project a few weeks ago, a project that took nine months to complete, and a lot of hard work every day, six days a week; I translated the autobiographies of Ernest Blythe from Irish to English. He had been an organizer for The Gaelic League, the IRB, and The Irish Volunteers, and post-independence served as Minister for Finance and in other departments. Later on he was Managing Director of the Abbey Theatre for thirty years. My modus operandi was to translate for three hours in the morning, and then spend another couple of hours in the afternoon preparing for the following day’s work; finding the English version of remote Irish placenames and surnames, and investigating and translating as best I could the many uncommon words and phrases employed by the self-taught author in his wonderful account of a decade and more of loyal service to the idea of an Irish Republic. He was renowned for his use of unusual and little-known words in his writings.
But as a result of finishing these three great books I am now free to read other material, and Eliot is going to be a fascinating and rewarding subject.
So on we go into ‘The Waste Land’ and the world of the man who wrote the immortal words ‘I grow old, I grow old, I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’ when he was only in his early twenties.