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Posts Tagged ‘T. S. Eliot’

24 DECEMBER, 2013

T. S. Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”: A Rare Vintage Gem, Illustrated by Enrico Arno

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“There are several attitudes towards Christmas, some of which we may disregard: The social, the torpid, the patently commercial…”

In 1927, an enterprising and creatively minded British man by the name of Richard de la Mare, production director at London’s Faber & Gwyer, which would become the legendary publishing house Faber and Faber two years later, came up with an unusual idea: He would ask famous writers and illustrators to contribute holiday-themed verses and drawings for a poetry pamphlet series to be sent to clients instead of Christmas cards and sold to the general public for a shilling each, or about five pennies. Thanks to the company’s relationships and stable of authors, he was able to secure work from such literary greats as Edith Sitwell, W. B. Yeats, and Vita Sackville-West (yes, as in Virginia Woolf’s lover). Among the most notable contributors to the series — titled Ariel, after Shakespeare’s spirit from “The Tempest” — was celebrated poet and notorious cat-lover T. S. Eliot, who wrote six poems for the project, beginning at its inception in 1927 and ending in 1954, when he was in his late sixties.

I was fortunate enough to track down a surviving first American edition of Eliot’s final poem-pamphlet for the Ariel series, The Cultivation of Christmas Trees (public library) — a long-out-of-print gem, typeset, bound, and illustrated by Enrico Arno, who had fled Nazi Germany due to his Jewish descent, spent some time in Italy, and eventually settled in the United States to become an acclaimed book designer and album cover artist.

What makes Eliot’s verses especially memorable is that while they deal with a religious holiday, they speak to a very secular concern: our struggle to hold on to our inborn capacity for wonder, that same essential faculty that fuels both science and spirituality. Please enjoy.

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

Used copies of The Cultivation of Christmas Trees can still be found and are very much worth the hunt — or the trip to the library.

HT Casey N. Cep / The Paris Review

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2013

T.S. Eliot Reads “The Naming of Cats,” 1947

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“A cat must have three different names.”

Unlike other famous authors who, unbeknownst to many, also wrote for kids — including Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, James Joyce, Sylvia Plath, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Anne Sexton, Toni Morrison, and John Updike — the children’s verses T.S. Eliot (September 26, 1888–January 4, 1965) penned in the early 1930s in a series of letters to his godchildren went on to become a cultural classic. Published in 1939 as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the collection inspired the Broadway musical Cats in 1981 and was famously illustrated by the great Edward Gorey the following year.

In this recording from 1947, remastered in 1992 and found in T.S. Eliot reads T.S. Eliot, the author himself reads the utterly delightful first poem of the collection, “The Naming of Cats,” which brings to mind its modern-day prose counterpart, Lost Cat.

THE NAMING OF CATS

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey –
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter –
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover –
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

This particular cat is named Lucy. But she herself knows, though would never confess, that it's short for Lucifer.

T.S. Eliot reads T.S. Eliot is an absolute treat in its entirety. Complement it with Edward Gorey’s fantastic illustrations of Eliot’s beloved verses and Eliot on idea-incubation.

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04 JUNE, 2013

T.S. Eliot Reads T.S. Eliot: “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” 1947

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“A Dog is, on the whole, what you would call a simple soul.”

In the early 1930s, T.S. Eliot — beloved poet and man of ideas — penned some whimsical verses about cats in a series of letters to his godchildren. In 1939, they were published as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which went on to inspire the famed Broadway musical Cats in 1981 and which was famously illustrated by the great Edward Gorey in 1982. In this wonderful recording from 1947, remastered in 1992 and found in T.S. Eliot reads T.S. Eliot, Eliot reads “The Ad-dressing of Cats” — one of the most delightful poems from the book, also included in the beautifully illustrated 1953 anthology Best Cat Stories:

THE AD-DRESSING OF CATS

You’ve read of several kinds of Cat,
And my opinion now is that
You should need no interpreter
To understand their character.
You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse –
But all may be described in verse.
You’ve seen them both at work and games,
And learnt about their proper names,
Their habits and their habitat:
But

How would you ad-dress a Cat?

So first, your memory I’ll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.

Now Dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
Of course I’m not including Pekes,
And such fantastic canine freaks.
The usual Dog about the Town
Is much inclined to play the clown,
And far from showing too much pride
Is frequently undignified.
He’s very easily taken in –
Just chuck him underneath the chin
Or slap his back or shake his paw,
And he will gambol and guffaw.
He’s such an easy-going lout,
He’ll answer any hail or shout.

Again I must remind you that
A Dog’s a Dog — A CAT’S A CAT.

With Cats, some say, one rule is true:
Don’t speak till you are spoken to.
Myself, I do not hold with that -
I say, you should ad-dress a Cat.
But always keep in mind that he
Resents familiarity.
I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!
But if he is the Cat next door,
Whom I have often met before
(He comes to see me in my flat)
I greet him with an OOPSA CAT!
I’ve heard them call him James Buz-James –
But we’ve not got so far as names.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviare, or Strassburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste –
He’s sure to have his personal taste.
(I know a Cat, who makes a habit
Of eating nothing else but rabbit,
And when he’s finished, licks his paws
So’s not to waste the onion sauce.)
A Cat’s entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME.

So this is this, and that is that:
And there’s how you AD-DRESS A CAT.

Complement with the soul-warming Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology and Eliot on idea-incubation and the mystical quality of creativity.

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