Commentary Magazine

Looking Back at "The Waste Land"

In his preface to the publication of a facsimile and transcript of the original drafts of The Waste Land,1 Ezra Pound described the manuscript’s history of disappearance and secret acquisition as “pure Henry James.” To those who thought of T. S. Eliot’s poem as a sacred text, however, such an image of purloined letters and literary intrigue must have seemed inadequate to the occasion, as if the discovery of the original Decalogue tablets—with deleted Commandments and lapidary criticisms by Moses—were to be considered merely as a piece of archaeological good fortune. Certainly for the generation of which I’m a member, and which inherited The Waste Land after its new conventions had overcome almost all serious critical resistance, the poem had the quality of a holy utterance, a mystical exhalation of language meant to be divined and glossed by those who aspired to that fastidious despair which, in the early 50′s, was an indubitable mark of cultural grace. The notion that such a touchstone of modernism was ever in a rough, working stage, or that Pound had earned the epithet “il meglior fabbro” from Eliot by scarring the Ur-Manuscript with long lines of excision and waggish comments on the nature of the poem’s prosody, would have seemed incredible to those young men and women who carried everywhere their tarot packs and shorter Golden Bough.

Of course, this is not to say that the postwar Waste Landers believed good poetry was the result of rushes of high feeling, or that a poem is traduced by post-inspirational tidying. They belonged, after all, to the age of the New Criticism, the era of carefully constructed ambiguities and precise objective correlatives. The wry, sotto voce style was in vogue, and, constrained by an ironic classicism, the poetic vision abandoned its shimmerings and intimations of private worlds and became subtle and subdued expression, the goal of which occasionally seemed to be an exquisitely-crafted reticence.

The poet, it was everywhere said, was a maker, a highly conscious artificer who worked steadily and soberly to perfect the details of his art. Patient, unromantic labor rather than random creative spasms was thought the proper matrix of poetry, and such lines as Coleridge’s

Whene’er the mist, which stands
  ‘twixt God and thee
Defecates to a pure transparency

epitomized the grotesque result of trusting in the sort of revelatory moment they praised. In those years of nuance and qualified emotion, the young poet’s greatest concern was to keep from being beguiled into making a fool of himself, and whenever he felt a luminous defecation coming on, he generally restored himself with large doses of doctoral research.

And yet, underneath these modest and meticulous poetics lay assumptions about art that were curiously religious, and that fostered theories of poetry as a liturgy for the elect. Indeed, the wilful resistance to easy understanding became the modern poet’s obligation of faith, the way through which he protected his art from vulgar and sentimental exegeses—which is to say from secularization. “Wilful” and “easy” are the important words, since the first distinguishes the hermetic from the vague, the secret of poetic ritual from the haziness of private afflatus; while the second implies that appreciation of a poem demands devotional labor as well as a sympathetic imagination.

The Waste Land was, of course, the manifesto of this poetic attitude, a masterpiece of complex, designed language that transpired, so its votaries insisted, a precise image of the world for those prepared to earn initiation into its secrets. Such an achievement was hard to think of in terms of plan and accident, or as an outgrowth of personal experience and editorial afterthought. To those who knew the identity of the Fisher King and the location of the Chapel Perilous, The Waste Land was an articulated Zeitgeist whose origins must have transcended ordinary poetic principles.



My own feelings about the poem were not so strong as those I’ve been describing. Nevertheless, it is a poem that is peculiarly connected with my youth, especially with those moments of affectation and callow superiority in which a young man musters up courage to take reading and writing seriously. I certainly don’t mean that The Waste Land is a poem one outgrows, but it does give off an effluence of cultural estrangement that easily attracts the young literary sensibility. I may not have been so certain as some of my university friends that The Waste Land was civilization’s official epitaph, but if a choice had to be made between Eliot’s shored fragments and, say, the doughty affirmations of an Archibald MacLeish, then I pledged myself to fragments.

Having decided that The Waste Land was worth close study meant that the student, despite the efforts of critics and scholars before him, was very much on his own. The two teachers I remember who included the poem in their classes on modern poetry offer good examples of the way The Waste Land was then treated by pedagogy. The first of these official literary guides, a prim, authoritarian gentleman who presided over the Upper School English Department of a New York prep school, and who had been inveigled by me and a few other premature aesthetes into placing The Waste Land on the reading list for seniors, chose the direct, pride-saving way of meeting the problem. “Gentlemen,” he said, disdainfully sliding a copy of Eliot’s collected works beneath a pile of papers on his desk, “The Waste Land is not a poem, it is a palimpsest.” And while a student was sent to the class dictionary to look up the meaning and spelling of “palimpsest,” he and the rest of the senior English class went on to Robert Frost.

Such resolute dismissal was perhaps preferable to the method of the young university instructor who had put his trust in Eliot’s footnotes and believed the poem would turn limpid if one actually went and listened to a hermit thrush in Quebec or the ballad of Mrs. Porter in a Sydney pub. Lost in cross references, he went on happily displaying disconnected knowledge until someone would ask him just who was speaking at a particular moment in the poem, or why, as the poet maintained, the collocation of St. Augustine’s Confessions and Buddha’s Fire Sermon was no accident. Faced with having to deal with the substance of The Waste Land rather than with its direct and indirect quotations, the instructor was soon talking about the musical varieties of the poem’s language, and how it was more important that poetry be something than that it merely mean something.



Of course, there were a number of perceptive studies of the poem’s structure, yet it seemed they helped little when one confronted The Waste Land in a private reading and tried to move from line to line without losing the sense of necessary sequence by which a true poem defines itself. Finally there came the moment when it was evident that the poem must be taken on retreat, that it must become for a time the object of intense and exclusive meditation. I’m sure that others whose affection for the poem led to such spans of isolated study must remember, as I do, the circumstances of the seclusion, for one approached this time of confinement with the 444 lines of macaronic verse as though it would contain a dramatic resolution of a long lover’s quarrel.

By the time I was ready for such resolution, five years had gone by since I’d first read The Waste Land and discovered that, except for the Latin of the epigraph, I understood nothing else about the specifics of the poem. In the years since that initial reading, the acquisition of the usual prerequisites for a degree in the Humanities had provided me with the knowledge of the special lore Eliot obliquely and directly refers to in his poem. Now I could translate not only the Latin of the opening quotation, but the Sibyl’s Greek reply as well, and I knew that the speaker was Trimalchio, one of Rome’s nouveaux riches that Petronius made sport of in his Satyricon. That the ancient Sibyl should be longing for death in a cage, while Trimalchio tells like a boastful tourist of having seen the sight with his own eyes, seemed in those early days of postwar package tours through the ruins of Europe a very apposite opening image.

The work’s first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” the most elliptical and complicated of its five parts, was now like a familiar dream to me. The poem’s being stirred to life by a cruel spring; the wistful memories of an exiled aristocrat—but was it she or her companion in the Hofgarten who claimed to be a pure German from Lithuania?; the first description of a landscape gone sere, of earth protected by no rituals of fertility, abandoned by the gods and inherited by a disconsolate son of man.

So far it was a consistent and manifest bleakness. But suddenly a throb of joy, the song of a young sailor thinking of his love, followed by a young girl’s recollection of a token of love. I remember wishing as I reached this part of the poem, my mind already straining to hold, like Tiresias, all its images clearly in view, that Eliot would not return so soon to his theme of sexual failure, that a little more time could be spent in the hyacinth garden before the lover fell into post-coital silence and the sailor’s sea spread out in emptiness. At twenty-two, I was already beginning to realize that continuous despair demanded a supply of negative energy I no longer had, and that I was becoming more and more susceptible to bouts of good feeling about the world.

At least the session with Madame Sosostris that followed promised a small respite of humor in its depiction of the fate to which the old symbols of faith and regeneration had come in the modern world, and I always considered Eliot’s coy footnote about how he had reshuffled the tarot pack to his own purpose and how the “crowd of people” mentioned by the clairvoyant would appear again in the poem—the reappearance occurs exactly six lines later—to be an amusing preparation for the section’s last line which snarls at the reader the insult borrowed from Baudelaire. But what was it that Stetson had buried? A poem? And who was The Dog whose fealty to man would prompt him to dig it up again? Was he a Cynic? The Domesticated Rational Mind? A literary critic? Was he me, spending a good part of a Christmas vacation paying a final homage to The Waste Land?

Although there were a few such lacunae in my understanding of the opening section, I felt I’d at last digested the imagery and language with which the poem sets forth its themes of impotence, sterility, and the despiritualization of the world. If I was not truly the poet’s semblable and frère, I was nevertheless no stranger to the motifs of his suffering, and I granted him his shifts of attitude and vocal mode, since I finally perceived that they were his necessary economy, the one way of dramatically introducing the poem’s narrative civilities. If the reader needed the comfort of logical bridges and signposts of coherence, he had more time than did a poem to construct them.



The next section, “The Game of Chess,” had always been my favorite, in part because it had proven the easiest to grasp in its entirety, but more importantly because of the evocative parodies of high and low verse through which Eliot managed to demonstrate the magnificence of language while displaying its current degradations. The rich images and sensual rhythms which set the stage for the neurasthenic lady’s desperate demands for some sort of consoling response from her husband, had seemed, before I’d learned how to imagine a queen’s barge dissolving into a rococo boudoir, to be straightforward, beautiful verse. Even when their sardonic intent was known, it was hard not to succomb to the loveliness of the mockery and to drift off for longer and longer moments among the room’s glowing candelabras, jewels, cupidons, and vials of ivory and colored glass.

But one is soon shocked out of this empty elegance by a babling lower-class voice and the famous monologue follows that reveals the working-class marriage—I always paused in the middle of the woman’s account of her sexual advice to her friend to recall the sailor’s Irisch Kind and wondered if she, like Lil, would need a new set of teeth to spice up their reunion—to be a crude calculation, a dissembling of love for the sake of safety and appearances. It was enjoyable to see the lower classes depicted as being no more capable of honest passion than their betters, or. at least it was then, for D. H. Lawrence was also in style, and many people were being beguiled by the notion that manual labor and a mind unaffected by literacy were the conditions in which sensuality became robust. Of more significance, however, was the success Eliot had here, and nowhere else in the poem, in achieving just the right pitch for a poetry of common speech. Since the first appearance of The Waste Land, this achievement has been imitated by hundreds of poets who thought they had found in it the key to a modern and original idiom. But like Eliot himself in his many other attempts at heightening imitations of ordinary speech into verse, his followers usually failed to create anything but a lifeless jargon that was an injustice to both its high and low origins.



If judged by the number of lines quoted by young men and women while courting each other’s minds and bodies in the days before sexual liberation did away with the need for such elaborate cajolery and cozenage, “The Fire Sermon” was the most popular section of The Waste Land. The reluctant, romantic girl was told by the suitor whose sophomore year had drained him of all illusions that the “nymphs are departed,” and that behind their backs at that very moment was “the rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.” After this, she sadly accepted the refuge of his bachelor bed. A solid A student of economics would arrive to spend the weekend with the girl (an English major, of course) he planned to marry if his fellowship came through, and would be inexplicably called “Sweeney” when he began his preliminary fondlings. If asked for an explanation of her coldness and the wrong name she kept addressing him by, he might receive a terrifying response of “twits,” “jugs,” and “tereus” followed by an icy refusal ever again to be “so rudely forc’d.” Those whose love dared not speak its name, much less demonstrate for equal-employment opportunities, made pointed jokes about each other’s overtures from Smyrna merchants, and a one-night stand inevitably was called a weekend at the Metropole. Indeed I felt, as I read Eliot’s sermon on the hollowness of loveless sexuality, that my years as a student had been no more than a long violet hour, and yet it seemed to me, in spite of a few squalid affairs and feelings injured by callow intrigue, on the whole to have been a pleasant time, and that Eliot was allowing more than a little melodrama to creep into his depictions of sexual dalliance. The famous cinq à sept of the typist and the house-agent’s clerk seemed tainted by a sentimentalized drabness, its details chosen as though they were meant as an illustration of a Victorian homiletic. I could now, after all, compare it with my own rendezvous in furnished rooms, and the most tepid of them always involved at least some pretense of affection and human courtesy. Here, for once, Eliot had missed the natural nuances of his setting.

But this was the only serious objection I remember raising during the time of secluded reading. The next two sections, “Death by Water” and “What the Thunder Said,” with their explicit symbols of death and tenuous implications of resurrection, brought the poem finally to a unity of such power that it allowed me to end my scanning with the knowledge that I could never really experience the poem again. I might read it many times, but such occasions would be little more than curious revisitings of former feelings. The presentment of The Waste Land as a total clarity, I realized, should happen only once in a person’s life.



In the years since this last close listening to the voices of The Waste Land, the poem and the cultural attitude it fostered have fallen out of fashion. The past civilization Eliot taught my generation to mourn would hardly be missed by the majority of today’s students who believe firmly in the present and themselves as the tests of relevance and meaning; sexual enigmas are studied and solved in clinics where every effort is made to keep human copulation from being inhibited by old mythologies of fertility and regeneration; “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender” must seem a quaint line to those who have been copulating since puberty; Coriolanus is the last Shakespearean character anyone wants to revive: Detta, Dayadhvam, Damyata would find meaning only in becoming a Third World revolutionary slogan.

The Waste Land is a poem for those who entertain at least the possibility of spiritual action, of a world formed by sin and redemption that is beyond political sentiment and social law. It is a poem for those who would fret and speculate even in the best of times, and who confirm their prisons with each thought, preferring such confinement to the freedom that comes when life is made a matter of rational progress and harmless pleasure. Perhaps after all it is best that the Waste Landers should at no time be regnant, and that there should always be something cultic and comic about those who insist on remembering moments of excellent joy that the majority of mankind has learned long ago to forget.

I, at any rate, by the time the original manuscript of The Waste Land was published, had traveled a long way since those days when all one sought was a personal lacrimae rerum note. I was glad no one talked about, or quoted from The Waste Land any more, for the poem had taken on the aspects of a cultural commonplace to those who had grown up with it, and like many other themes of young adventurous conversations, The Waste Land was best left a matter of private memory.



Then came the publication of the original manuscript and the discovery of plans, scaffolding, and rough adumbrations that promised once and for all to solve the puzzles of The Waste Land. For a long time I put off buying a copy out of respect for the decision I’d made never to enter the poem deeply again. But I, too, had moved with the times, and I had to admit that such a vow now seemed excessive, hysterical even, the sort of romantic reaction which as a literary professional I’d often ridiculed. Still, it was some time before I purchased the annotated transcript and retired for one more long communion with the poem.

I spent days reading and collating various versions of the manuscript. It was a compelling experience in lucidity, a lesson in practical poetics that fully compensated for any feeling of spiritual loss which that part of me still mired in the 50′s might have felt. The energy of the intellects that carved, pared down, and shaped the poem infused even the blurred photographs of the original man-script pages, and far from making one embarrassed by old enthusiasms and reverential feelings for the finished poem, these signs of argument and rough labor proved them justified. The sacrifice of hundreds of almost perfect lines Eliot made to his own and Pound’s judgment confirmed his status as a poet almost as much as did the poem that remained.



There is no way of discussing all the ways in which Pound’s proposals and Eliot’s disposition to listen forged a hard, compressed work out of a diffuse mixture of materials. The following is only a random and meager sampling of the revisions I found personally interesting.

First, concerning the epigraph: somewhere long ago I had read that instead of Trimalchio’s eyewitness account of the Sybil’s degradation, Eliot had originally intended using a quote from The Heart of Darkness, so I was only surprised by the tone of the chosen passage. It is the description of Kurtz’s death which ends with his last words, “The horror! The horror!,” and it struck me as far too specific to introduce the many entwining themes that followed. Pound felt so too, and told Eliot that Conrad wasn’t “weighty enough to stand the citation.” Eliot argued a bit, calling the quote, with customary understatement, “somewhat elucidative.”

Next, as an epigraph elucidative of the poem’s manner, there was on the original manuscript above the title of the poem’s first section the sentence he do the police in different voices. It is from Our Mutual Friend, and is spoken by Betty Higden in praise of the way Sloppy, the “love-child” she’d adopted, added creation of character to his readings to her from the newspaper. No reason is given for Eliot’s removal of this hint about the structure of The Waste Land, but I think if he was prepared to shout, “The horror!” at us, he might have eased our bafflement about the variety of vocal modes the poem employs.

Next one finds that the famous lines on April did not originally begin the poem. Instead, there are fifty lines of a monologue spoken in the vernacular of a Sweeney, in which a man describes a night of sexual prowling about town. It is the sort of attempt to make poetry out of ordinary speech which I spoke of earlier, and it is hard to say if the poem could have survived such a prominent inclusion of language which Pound derided as photography. Eliot, even when not particularly prodded by this judgment, seems to have removed all such efforts from the poem except that of the successful pub scene—which, it should be noted, Pound kept from a clumsy start by furnishing the word “demobbed” when Eliot was floundering in question marks between “discharge out of the army” and “coming out of the Transport Corps.”

Pound also provided “demotic” to describe Mr. Eugenides’ French; and in dozens of other places throughout the poem, he aids Eliot in finding the right word and the palpable image. My favorites among his marginalia are the “dam per’apsez” and “Perhaps be damned” he left next to those lines which Eliot had weakened with this cautious adverb. There is no better example that I know of constructive criticism than the final outburst Pound makes against the line in which Eliot has said of the seduced typist that “across her brain one half-formed thought may pass”; Pound’s comment is: “Make up yr mind—you Tiresis—if you know know damn well—or else don’t!”



If Eliot had a weakness as a poet that endangered the substance of the poem, it was letting his depiction of the lower forms of emptiness become bathetic. I had thought this flaw was most evident in the scene just mentioned and I found that again I agreed with Pound. The relevant page of the manuscript is covered with comments that on all levels criticize the facile poeticizing of squalor and the unearned and strained lyrical heightenings with which Eliot tried to give to the low social moments of The Waste Land a poetic tone consistent with the rest of the work. In the days when an excessive image or a lurid simile inspired a fear unto silence in a young poet, how much comfort it would have been to have known that Eliot himself was capable of lines like

—Bestows one final patronizing
and gropes his way, finding the
  stairs unlit;
And at the corner where the

  stable is,
Delays only to urinate, and spit.

which stunned Pound into uncharacteristic litotes in his comment that the last two lines were “probably over the mark.”

And so The Waste Land slowly revealed itself as a work of human effort, after all. There were even comic stumblings in its making, and many of those lines that seemed inviolable to us who memorized and quoted them, had been hacked and chopped into being by two poets who shared an enjoyment of rough and often rude labor. I can’t honestly say that this last reading of The Waste Land rekindled in me a desire to live again for a time in its emotional landscape, but it did give me another justification for holding the poem in steady if distant affection.



1 Edited by Valerie Eliot, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 184 pp., $22.50 (hardcover), $7.50 (paper).


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