This is a manuscript draft of 'The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd’ by Vernon Watkins (1906–1967), with annotations by T S Eliot. It shows Eliot at work as editor and board member at the publishing house Faber: this had been his ‘day job’ since 1925. Eliot explained in his 1959 Paris Review interview that:
I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me … I think also that the difficulty of not having as much time as I would like has given me a greater pressure of concentration.
The Ballad of the Mari Lwyd
The Welsh poet Vernon Watkins also had a day job, at a branch of Lloyd’s Bank in Swansea. He had gone to the same school as the poet Dylan Thomas, and knew him later in life.
On 31 December 1938 Watkins listened to a radio programme, broadcast from Gwaelod-y-Garth, a village just north of Cardiff. The programme discussed a Welsh Christmas-time folk tradition called the Mari Lwyd, in which a horse's skull was decorated and carried on a stick by a reveller hidden under a sheet. As it was carried from house to house in the village, there were battles of wits and rhyming insults, followed by eating and drinking. It became the subject of Watkins’ first poem, a book-length piece which Faber published in 1941.
What do Eliot’s comments say?
On [f. 1r], Eliot shows his more business-minded, publisher's instinct by noting that he regards the title as a mistake – he thinks it too ‘forbiddingly Welsh’ for a broader English-language audience. Nevertheless, Eliot’s overall verdict is positive:
But this is, surely, good stuff – even very good, if better in promise than actual performance. He has a remarkable command of metre + language; + [there’s?] a [throb?] of genuine passion in almost all [these?] poems.
Perhaps, as well as these aspects of the poem, Eliot’s interest was piqued by the subject-matter. His own The Waste Land (1922) looks at the modern world through the lens of the older customs described in books such as Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) or J G Frazer’s The White Goddess (1890–1937).