10 T. S. Eliot Poems Everyone Should Read

Interesting Literature

T. S. Eliot is widely regarded as one of the most important poets of the last hundred years. Here at Interesting Literature we’re devoted fans of his work, and this got us thinking: which ten defining poems would we recommend to people who want to read him? Although he didn’t write a huge amount of poetry (compared with, say, his contemporary Ezra Pound, whose The Cantos is nearly 800 pages), it can still be difficult for readers to pick out those works which most define him. And, of course, every Eliot fan’s choice of ten is likely to different. Here are our recommendations, in the form of a countdown, from 10 to 1 (1 being what we think is the best). As we take you through our suggestions, we’ll drop in a few interesting snippets of information – the story behind the poem, or its surprising legacy, and so on…

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Review – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I am pretty embarrassed that I got to thirty years old without ever reading this book. I’m also a little annoyed that it was so good. I thought, after university, that Dickens and I had parted ways forever – and I was pretty happy at that. I’d read David Copperfield and not got much out of it (I found David to be a bit of a sentimental sap; in my eighteen-year-old way, I was more interested in twentieth century grit and postcolonial fiction), and I’d struggled through Little Dorrit, which I still think is a ridiculous text to set as part of a university course. I read A Christmas Carol a couple of years ago, mainly because I couldn’t find my DVD of the Muppet version, but A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that you know so well, it’s impossible to judge objectively.

So, I thought I’d managed to excise a good ten books from the cannon, which was frankly a bit of a relief because that still left plenty that I hadn’t read. However, swayed by the views of Susan Hill and Nick Hornby, both of whom have written a favourite ‘book about books’ (Howard’s End is on the Landing and The Complete Polysyllabic Spree), I decided to give Dickens another go.

I started slowly. I had downloaded Great Expectations onto my Kindle, for times when I didn’t want to tote around the Penguin paperback, and it took me a good week to get to 9%. (This is unlike me.) Then, one Sunday morning, I took the paperback into the bath with me. I was very, very wrinkly by the time I could bring myself to get out. From that moment on, I was hooked.

A lot of people have said a lot of things about Dickens. I won’t talk about how well he creates characters (although he does), managing to find pathos even in caricatures, because it’s been said before. (Miss Havisham is awesome, by the way. Despite, or maybe because of, her flaws – all of which seem to come from a bottomless well of heartbreak.)

I won’t spend a lot of time on his portrait of obsessive, unselfish love, although from experience I think it’s pretty much spot on:

‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since – on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to displace with your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil.’

And I won’t talk about that ending, because I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice it to say that it was gorgeously complex, even in the revised form which Dickens was pressured into writing.

I will talk a little bit about the thing that held me and surprised me the most, which was how funny the book is. I always found people who laughed at old novels a bit pretentious; with the possible exception of Jane Austen, I never found humour to translate that well across the centuries. But the ridiculousness of Pumblechook, the high jinks of Pip and his friends, and some of the scenes with the Aged P are comedy gold. And that’s before you even get to the inherent funniness of the child narrator. Dickens pitches young Pip perfectly, an earnest reporter of exactly what is said, and leaving the hypocrisy of those around him unsaid but obvious.

Don’t get me wrong. Pretty much everything I’ve ever read about Dickens points out and apologises for his flaws – sentimentality, verbosity, a tendency to caricature – and they’re all here, although I think they’re maybe less obvious than in some of the longer novels. But overall, I loved Great Expectations, and I really wasn’t expecting to.

Which is, as I said, kind of annoying, because it puts the rest of Dickens back on the table. But I’ll forgive Pip and friends for that. Just.

*****

Review – My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

I go through phases where all I want to read are books-about-books. So when – during one of those phases – I saw this, in Waterstones in Bath, I had to have it.

Which is why, when I first cracked it open, I didn’t think that me and Ms Rakoff were going to get along very well. What I expected was a literary-cousin-once-removed type memoir; what I got, for the first chapter at least, read like a graduating-and-moving-to-New-York-City novel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for a good graduating-and-moving-to-New-York-City novel, but I don’t like being missold to. What I wanted was some gossip on JD Salinger, so when the author admitted early on that she hadn’t read any of his books, it didn’t bode too well.

Fortunately, things got significantly better once the man himself showed up. I ended up really enjoying this. There are some brilliantly concise pen portraits of characters at the agency, and some glorious moments of social awkwardness with the ill-suited socialist boyfriend which would have had the early-twenties version of me cringing in recognition. It continued, throughout, to read like a novel – but I don’t mean that as an insult; instead it meant that I raced through it in a single evening, which can only be a good sign.

It also made me want to re-read ‘Catcher in the Rye’, and read (for the first time) some of Salinger’s other work, so those go firmly onto the TBR list.

You can tell that the author is a poet by some of the turns of phrase, beautiful and rich without being overwritten. And if there were parts of it where the plot seemed a little unbelievable for a ‘non-fiction’ volume, well, I think it’s a fair trade for it being such an entertaining read.

****

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Literary pilgrimage – City Lights bookstore, San Francisco

I’ll start with a confession; I don’t know that much about the Beats. I can throw around enough references to Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg to bluff my way through, but my school report here would be a resounding could-do-better.

I have, however, wanted to go to City Lights for years, ever since I first read Lewis Busbee’s awesome The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. Even though this was the third time I was lucky enough to go to San Francisco, it was the first time I’d managed to carve out enough time to visit. It was an inauspicious beginning. It was Sunday afternoon. I was tired and hungover. I had to pick up my boss from the airport in a little over two hours. And, as I started walking through Chinatown from Union Square, it started raining. Being from the UK and assuming (despite all evidence to the contrary) that it’s always sunny in California, I was cold and getting colder.

And then I stepped into the welcoming embrace of City Lights, and all was forgotten. Everything, from the shelves, to the staff picks, to the wide and eclectic stock selection, screamed ‘home’. I turned every corner expecting to see Joan Didion or Tom Wolfe (I know, wrong coast, but it was that kind of place). I left again too-short-a-time later, clutching my paper bag of books, with a big grin on my face and feeling much cooler than I have any right to.

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Classics Club – starter post

It’s raining outside. The arhythmic patter on the window serves as a constant reminder that November has, at last, come to our damp little island in the North Atlantic. I’m on the sofa, under a blanket, recovering from a bad bout of flu – the worst in years, or maybe I’m just getting older – and trying to summon up the energy for lunch. I’ve been drifting, intellectually, for a while, and the autumn always makes me think of university and of learning. All of these things conspire to make this the perfect time to join the Classics Club.

I, or an earlier version of me, graduated with a degree in English Literature, so it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with the cannon. But so much of what I learnt has disappeared, and 18 was too young for so many of the books in the first place. Despite a (highly targeted) History A-level, I had no real idea of social, political or historical context; now, with a relatively recent appreciation for non-fiction, I think I can do a little better. So, there are some re-reads on here, as well as some that never appeared on a reading list, some I was supposed to read but didn’t, some that I’ve pretended to have read but actually haven’t, and some that – honestly – I’d never heard of until recently.

My list, in no particular order:

1. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. Dickens and I didn’t really get on at university (I had to read David Copperfield, which I think I was too young to appreciate, and Little Dorrit, which I hated) – but honestly, how can I not have read this?

2. Bleak House, Charles Dickens. I know, I know, but I figured I might as well take the plunge. And I definitely need to read it before I watch the BBC adaptation, the box set of which is on my shelf.

3. Vanity Fair, WM Thackeray. Yes, I am hammering the Victorians (more to come). I’m not sure why I’ve neglected these so much. I overdosed on Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontes as a teenager, but for some reason skipped a lot of the men.

4. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. Another epic – perfect for winter. I read Anna Karenina earlier this year and loved it. The most surprising thing to me was how modern it felt; I’ll be interested to see whether this has the same effect.

5. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway. Never read any Hemingway – surprisingly. Both he and his work seem to inspire devotion on a grand scale, so it’s probably about time I found out why.

6. The Quiet American, Graham Greene. Read ‘The End of the Affair’ about ten years ago; loved it. Saw the movie of this book; loved it. Now, finally, enough time has elapsed that I think I can read the original without comparing it or knowing (in detail) what’s coming next.

7. Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. This is one of those books that I feel like I’ve read, without ever actually having read it. Time to change that I think.

8. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene. This one comes highly, highly recommended. (By Susan Hill, in her excellent ‘Howard’s End is on the Landing’)

9. Tender is the Night, F Scott Fitzgerald. Because who doesn’t love Gatsby?

10. Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser. A very good friend of mine read this at university and raved about it; I’ve been meaning to read it ever since.

11. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier. Owned it for years, taken it on holiday a couple of times, never quite made it to the top of the pile. Raved about by people whose opinions I respect, so I really must get to this one soon.

12. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis. I’ve recently been reading a lot of post-WWII British history, and this novel comes up time and time again.

13. Money, Martin Amis. This is another one which has been on my bookshelves for ages (you can probably guess the state of my TBR pile), and it seems rude to include a novel of his father’s and not one of his. Plus he’s mates with Salman Rushdie, whose writing I flat-out adore.

14. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates. Another one which falls into the ‘recommended by a friend’ category. Although it did come with the caveat that I should ‘only read it when you’re miserable’. Hmm.

15. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. How is it possible, given my love of all things Modernist, how is it possible that I have never read any Virginia Woolf? Can I even profess a love of ‘all things Modernist’ without having done so? (See also: Ulysses, although I have at least read A Portrait of the Artist)

16. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf. Woolf is another one of those writers, like Hemingway, who seems to inspire frankly irrational levels of devotion, so I figure that’s good enough to justify at least two entries on this list.

17. The Iliad, Homer. Bit of a departure, but while we’re being aspirational, I’d like to go back to where it all began and read this. I had a Classics student for a flatmate for three years, so frankly I’m not sure how I got away with it for this long, but there you go.

18. The Odyssey, Homer. See (17). Also this has inspired an awful lot of geniuses since, from TS Eliot to Margaret Atwood. I’ll have what they’re having, please.

19. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro. Is this old enough to count as a classic? I think it probably is. Another one which falls into the category of ‘read it when I was too young to understand it’. Subtlety was lost on me at 19; let’s see whether I’ve grown up at all.

20. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury. It is weird to me that I haven’t read this yet.

21. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte. A re-read, but I haven’t read it for years. I will, of course, need to re-read – again – Jasper Fforde’s ‘The Eyre Affair’ immediately afterwards.

22. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer. I’ve read most of these at various times, but not for years and never the whole way through. Also, I’m looking for an excuse to buy the beautiful Penguin clothbound edition that I keep salivating over (not literally, that would be gross) at my local Waterstones.

23. Middlemarch, George Eliot. I’ve read this twice, a long time ago, but can’t wait to read it again. Is that the sign of a great book?

24. The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot. Despite loving Middlemarch, I’ve never read this. Maybe because I didn’t love Daniel Deronda so much, and in my head they evened out? Still, a bit of a shocking gap in my classical education, this one.

25. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert. Another Victorian (sort of – can the French be Victorians, do you think?). I don’t want to read this too close to Anna Karenina, as the two are inextricably linked in my head, but I would like to read it.

26. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo. I have seen the West End production of this three or four times, but always steered clear of the novel. Not sure why.

27. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I read this when I was eighteen, in a truly appalling translation (I won’t name and shame, but let’s just say it’s a great reason to spend more than £1 on a translated classic), and it put me off Dostoyevsky for years. Other people rave about it, though, so I’ll do a little research on who the best translators are, and give it another go.

28. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This one’s supposed to be good too. Plus I think the Russians, like Dickens, are perfect for winter.

29. Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett. I debated for a while whether to include plays on this list; in the end, there are just two. Beckett feels so influential that I couldn’t really leave him out.

30. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams. I, er, don’t want to brag, but I read ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ on a paddle steamer on the Mississippi, back in September. True story. It was an afternoon trip from New Orleans to a battlefield and back; I was enjoying the play so much that I made my travel companions go on the battlefield tour without me. I still think it was the right decision.

31. The Magus, John Fowles. Another favourite, and probably in my list of top ten books of all time. Really, this is just an excuse for another re-read. I’m not even sorry. It’s just that good.

32. Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell. The only major Elizabeth Gaskell I haven’t read; I loved North and South and (to a lesser extent) Mary Barton when I was a teenager. I’d like to re-read them both, too.

33. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Again, I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t read this already. Also I’m a sucker for early American history, so not sure how this one slipped through the net.

34. The Trial, Franz Kafka. This is one of those books that has weaved its way into our collective conscious, and comes up all the time (or maybe it’s just my workplace, where Management frequently give us cause to bemoan things as ‘Kafkaesque’?), but I feel like a little bit of a fraud every time I say it. Reading it won’t make me sound less pretentious, but at least it will make me feel better.

35. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck. A confession: I am actually about a third of the way through this one already. A weird thing happens to me with Steinbeck, and I think it’s a sign of his strength, not weakness: I can’t read the longer novels straight through. The same thing happened to me last year with East of Eden. I read about half, maybe slightly more, and then I had to put it down for about three months before picking it up again. I had forgotten none (well – little) of what I’d read; I got back into it straight away; and it continued to – frankly – blow me away. But it’s sort of like a big piece of chocolate cheesecake; it’s delicious, but so rich you just need a little break in the middle.

36. The Winter of our Discontent, John Steinbeck. Don’t get me wrong, I would fill this whole list with Steinbeck if I could. But I’ll restrain myself. This one looks good.

37. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck. Hated this at GCSE. Fifteen is definitely too young; in the UK, schools make the mistake of teaching this because it’s short, I think. I haven’t re-read it since, and want to; it’s impossible, I think, that I would hate it now.

38. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. One of my favourite people has ‘never read any of the classics, except for the complete works of Solzhenitsyn’. That kind of commitment to eccentricity deserves a reward, I think. Also, I whinge a lot about first world problems, and I’m hoping this might get me to stop.

39. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger. I’m a bit apprehensive about reading this again, after I liked it as a teenager, but I’m curious to see whether it stands the test of growing up. Deep down, I suspect I might still be a little bit Holden Caulfield.

40. Franny and Zooey, JD Salinger. I’ve heard really good things about this recently; I’m hoping that, if I have outgrown Catcher, this might redeem me.

41. Burmese Days, George Orwell. Somehow, somehow, George Orwell completely passed me by until I was in my mid, if not late, twenties. I read Nineteen Eighty-Four and have rarely been so terrified by a novel; the scene where the voice – well, if you haven’t read it, go and read it, and then we’ll talk. I got on almost as well with Animal Farm, then not so well with some of his published Diaries, but I would like to read the rest of the fiction.

42. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell. See (41). I’m going to start with these two on the list, purely because I own them. I make no promises not to abandon the list and go on an Orwell-binge, though. It’s the kind of thing I’d do.

43. Metamorphoses, Ovid. Yeah, I know. I have my reasons. No idea what they are. Mild insanity, I expect.

44. Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor. I went on a bit of a Southern Fiction jag earlier in the year, in preparation for a road trip through the Deep South, but one of my regrets is not making it to Flannery O’Connor. I’d like to rectify that.

45. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers. See (44); change names as appropriate.

46. Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville. OK I’ll confess; originally I had Moby Dick on the list, but chickened out. I figured I’d read this mini-book by Melville first, to see whether I can at least get along with his writing style before plunging (metaphorically) into whale guts.

47. On the Road, Jack Kerouac. Given my twin loves of reading and travel, this is another ‘I can’t believe I haven’t read this yet’.

48. Catch-22, Joseph Heller. Described by a friend of mine as his all-time favourite book.

49. The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Another one that’s so firmly part of British culture, that I really feel I should read it. Also, then I can finally watch the Benedict Cumberbatch in action.

50. Hard Times, Charles Dickens. Thought we might as well end, for now, where we began. Supposed to be one of his best, if a bit ‘angry’.

So there are my first fifty. Due to my mind being affected by years of ‘best of’ lists and the thousand novels you have to read before the inevitable, I could probably name my next fifty, and maybe even the fifty after that. But I like other books too, non-fiction and new stuff. So, for now, let’s just say that I’ll read these, by…what’s five years from now? 1 November 2019? Can that really be right? It feels like a sci-fi date. But, OK, 1 November 2019 it is.