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Eliot was part of the ‘Bloomsbury’ circle of writers, artists and thinkers which took its name from the area of London in which it largely met. On 19 October 1918, Leonard Woolf wrote to Eliot to explain:
My wife and I have started a small private Printing Press, and we print and publish privately short works which would not otherwise find a publisher easily. We have been told by Roger Fry that you have some poems which you wish to find a publisher for. We both very much liked your book Prufrock; and I wonder whether you would care to look at the poems with a view to printing them.
The Woolfs printed 250 copies of the book in March. As the title page of the book shows, they did so at Hogarth House, Richmond. By November, 140 had sold, and Eliot received a cheque for £1.13s.10d.
It contains seven poems: ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’, ‘The Hippopotamus’, ‘Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service’, ‘Whispers of Immortality’, ‘Le Spectateur’, ‘Mélange Adultère de Tour’, and ‘Lune de Miel’.
The four French-titled poems are also written entirely in French. Later, Eliot explained that he had lived in Paris from October 1910 to July 1911 because ‘for many years, France had represented above all, to my eyes, poetry’. Yet the subject-matter is drawn from many other cultures including the English. ‘Whispers of Immortality’ draws partly on Eliot’s interest in the poetry of Elizabethan England. The Webster described as being ‘much possessed by death, / And saw the skull beneath the skin’ is the playwright John Webster (1578/80–1638?). The lectures Eliot gave on Elizabethan literature in 1918 praised ‘his skill in dealing with horror; the beauty of his verse’.
‘The Hippopotamus’, Eliot once recorded, was ‘the only poem of mine which I’ve any reason to suppose James Joyce ever read’.
Other than Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, this was the last book which Eliot published which consisted of separate new poems. The seven poems were subsequently republished as part of Ara Vos Prec (1920) and Poems (1920), which was Eliot’s first publication in America, the country of his birth.
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