The Waste Land – A Biography of a Poem
Matthew Hollis, Faber & Faber, 2022, 524pps., £20
LIAM GUILAR is disappointed by a would-be biography of the landmark poem
If any twentieth century poem deserves a biography, it is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. First published in 1922, it was, and is, an extraordinary poem. Stripped of all the accumulated analysis, commentary, criticism and fashionable condemnation of its poet, it remains as new and startling today as it was a hundred years ago.
Its significance for many of the century’s literary developments cannot be underestimated. It has also been a fertile source and target for successive fashions of criticism and a starting place for an astonishing number of academic performances.
Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land – a Biography of a Poem promises to be just that. It isn’t. Instead of telling the story of the poem’s life after it was published, he narrates the lives of the Eliots and Pound up to its publication, reducing the poem to an incident in their lives.
The story of the poem’s creation has been known for fifty years. In 1914, T. S. Eliot had come from America to Europe to study. Instead of working diligently in the philosophy department at Oxford, he had married in haste and abandoned his Harvard PhD. He was determined to become the leading literary critic and poet in London, at a time when London was the centre of the English literary world.
By 1920 he had a secure, well-paid job at Lloyds Bank, a growing reputation as a reviewer amongst the people who mattered, and a circle of the necessary acquaintances. He was also struggling with the knowledge that he had written nothing outstanding since ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in 1911. He was keen to write a long poem. Great poets wrote long poems and he wanted to be a great poet.
Lurching from one illness to another, unhappily married, and ‘overworked’, his doctors had recommended he take time off and the bank had obliged by giving him three months paid leave. He went first to Margate, and then Switzerland. Soon after returning, having discussed his poem with Ezra Pound, The Waste Land was published to critical acclaim, scorn and baffled incomprehension. It divided the readership then and continues to do so now.[i]
The story was qualified when the manuscript resurfaced and was published in facsimile in 1971. It was then possible to see that the poem was initially twice as long. An assemblage of parts called ‘He Do The Police In Different Voices’, it began, not with ‘April is the cruellest month’, but ‘First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place’. There was a long section in rhyming couplets describing a woman, Fresca, getting out of bed, which reads like Swift doing Pope with all the disgust but none of the rage or energy. What would become the shortest section of the poem, ‘Death by Water’ was originally a long narrative about a sea voyage. It became obvious from the facsimile that Ezra Pound and Vivien Eliot had played a significant part in shaping the final poem. Pound had cut the draft by half.
By the late 1970s, one source put the total of published books and articles about Eliot, his poetry and criticism, at 4,319. A bibliography for the years 1987-2013 adds another 1,624 items. Neither figure includes unpublished dissertations, theses, book reviews and conference papers or lectures. Hollis’s own bibliography runs for over twenty pages. There are at least two biographies of Vivien Eliot and a recent three volume biography of Ezra Pound. T. S. Eliot has been the subject of several, the most recent biography being Robert Crawford’s justly acclaimed two volume life. With all this information available, what hasn’t already been said?
Hollis tells the story of the poem by tracking Pound and the Eliots through the years leading up to its composition, starting in 1918 but moving chronologically backwards and forwards. He writes eloquently, keeping his story moving, bolstering it with details and anecdotes to bring it alive, as when Eliot’s car breaks down and he must walk home “passed only by a wagon of Boy Scouts and pursued by a line of three ducks” (p.87).
Here, in one place, is a very readable version of many well-known stories. Hollis can make typing sound exciting.
“Eliot’s typewriter had seen better days. […] as he sat before it in the winter of 1921, he centred the carriage and depressed the shift lock. The strikers swung up from the type basket, prompting the escapement forward, letter by letter: a title, concluded as were all titles, with a terminal point.
THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD.
He rolled the platen twice for a two-line drop, and began to type the poem’s opening. But it was not ‘April is the cruellest month’ the line that would become synonymous with the poem, but something altogether different.”pps.227-8
The dating and sequence of the manuscript’s composition are revealed – which typewriter was used, where, and when. One can only admire the patience that went into the study of typewriter ribbons and paper to excavate this information, while wondering what it adds to an understanding or appreciation of the poem. Hollis also tracks Pound’s editing, Eliot’s dithering over the final shape of the work and the negotiations leading up to publication.
The poem is returned to the human context which produced it: the sometimes spiteful, claustrophobic world of literary London in the years immediately after the First World War. Hollis quotes William Gardner Hale’s famous critique of Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ which ends: “If Mr. Pound were a professor of Latin, there would be nothing left for him but suicide”. It stands as a good example of period criticism that could border on libel and be viciously personal. Such treatment humanises the production of literature, as does Hollis’s suggestion that Eliot cut the first page of the manuscript, not because it was tedious, but because it described a visit to a brothel, and he didn’t want to offend his mother.
However, the claim that Eliot was ‘the greatest poet of the twentieth century’ rests to a considerable degree on the fact he wrote The Waste Land. The story of the writing of the poem, as told here, is not the story of an artist in control of his material.
Neither Pound nor Eliot seemed to know what they had created. As late as March 1922, Pound was describing ‘The Waste Land’ as “a series of poems”. Having allowed Pound to hack the original in half, Eliot was worried the poem, as it then stood, was not long enough for stand alone publication. In January 1922 he was thinking of padding out the final poem and giving it this form: “(1) Sage Homme by E.P.-(2) Gerontion-(3) The Burial of the Dead-(4) A Game of Chess-(5) The Fire Sermon-(6) What the Thunder Said- (7-9 in order unknown) Song-Exequy-Dirge.” (p.361)
Eliot may have gone on to dominate the critical and literary landscape, but in the early 1920s he seems to have had difficulty evaluating his own work. He had tried to convince Wyndham Lewis to publish ‘The Triumph of Bullshit’, a rhyming obscenity which would not have been out of place sung in the communal bath of a 1970s Rugby Union club.
Robert Crawford records that in Margate, Eliot had been “practising scales on the mandolin”.[ii] Not picking out tunes, or singing songs and accompanying himself, but practising scales. It’s a telling image for Eliot the poet: a master of technique who at that time was struggling to find a use for it. The picture that emerges is of someone eager for fame and publication, but with no real idea of what he was doing other than trying to become famous and published.
For all Hollis’s entertaining eloquence, the book feels unbalanced and becomes frustrating as it progresses. The problem lies with the title. A biography which did not tell the life of the subject would not warrant the name. This is not the biography of a poem, which would have been an original contribution to celebrate the centenary.
The book ends triumphantly, with Pound vindicated, and Eliot beaming. The last chapter, a coda of sorts, ‘London 1960’, focusses on Eliot’s attempts to challenge Pound’s growing sense of failure. In the rush to the end and the desire to reconcile the characters, the poem goes missing. Eliot’s public ambivalence about it is brushed aside, and the mixture of astonishment and derision which greeted its publication is reduced to two pages of decontextualised quotations. There’s very little discussion of the notes Eliot used to pad out the page count. He helped fuel an academic industry by claiming:
Not only the title but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss. Jesse L. Weston’s book on the Grail Legend: From Ritual to Romance (Macmillan). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes do; and I recommend it (apart from the greater interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.
Whether he’d read From Ritual to Romance is a moot question Hollis skips over.[iii] Given the obvious lack of ‘plan’ in the poem’s writing and the late addition of the title, the statement is at the very least an impressive piece of misdirection.
To tie the poem to the poet is to divert attention from the poem and go ferreting in the dusty scandals of our grandparents’ lives. Instead of asking what the printed poem does, or why it is was so successful or so useful to a fledging critical industry, one can speculate pointlessly about who was the “Man from Cologne” (p.352) or how often, when and where Vivien Eliot “slept” with Bertrand Russell.
Narrating the lives leading up to the publication of the poem creates a problem of relevance the book ignores. The text runs for 386 pages. 217 pages detail Eliot and Pound’s movements before the poem is begun. When Eliot begins his rest cure in Margate, Hollis has discovered how many days he spent there, whether he had a hot bath, what he spent his daylight hours doing, who he phoned and how much the call cost. We get a potted history of Margate as a tourist resort. The other stories are well known and entertaining but why, for example, does the story of Eliot, Lewis, Joyce and the second-hand shoes have to be repeated? What did the floor plan of the Pounds’ apartment in Paris, or the fact Pound enjoyed boxing with Hemingway contribute to the poem?
The same seems true for the historical excursions. Because they exist at the level of generalised context, Hollis could have picked any distressing incident from 1900-1920.
The first chapter, ‘Armistice’, begins with the story of the death in combat of the last allied serviceman in the First World War. Like the excursions to the Irish wars in 1920, the burial of the Unknown Soldier, and to various international calamities, the link to the poem is never made explicit. Hollis’s Eliot is far too self-obsessed to be affected by what the Black and Tans were doing in Ireland, and there’s no attempt to prove that he knew about them, let alone that their behaviour affected his thinking or writing. A Poundian editor would have cut the first two hundred and sixteen pages: ‘Interesting/ enjoyable/ been done before/ irrelevant.’
Or perhaps there is a sly Eliotic irony at work, and Hollis is undercutting the usual ‘Poor Tom’ narrative. How depressing to have a steady job in the 1920s, earning 500 pounds a year, with an employer willing to give him three months paid leave. How oppressive to have to leave the rural weekend cottage to go to work to earn a living. Robert Graves was more blunt: “Who forced him, during the Battle of the Somme, to attend London tea-parties presided over by boring hostesses?”[iv]
There’s also an inconsistency in the treatment of the material. It is now compulsory for any writer on Eliot to excoriate him for his antisemitism. Hollis does so at every opportunity, but while Eliot deserves the criticism, it’s a modern, retrospective interpretation of the views of a man who was the product of his class and place and time. It draws attention to the things Hollis doesn’t criticise from a similar perspective.
Much of the narrative moves smoothly over the surface presenting the official version which tends to minimise the strangeness of the story. He quotes admiringly from Eliot’s early criticism, but a century has passed in which that criticism has been picked apart. While Hollis sees the relationship between the criticism and poetry as unproblematic, the much more interesting symbiotic relationship between The Sacred Wood (1920) and The Waste Land goes unexamined. In a book about the poem this wouldn’t matter; in a book focussed on the poet it seems like a major flaw.
Far from being objective statements of scientific truth, as some readers were willing to accept, Eliot’s early criticism is a brilliant game of smoke and mirrors, in which T.S. Eliot, Harvard-trained philosopher, wielding an intimidating erudition, justified the kind of poetry T.S. Eliot wrote or wanted to write, and rationalised his inability to produce poetry with the facility of a W.B. Yeats. Hollis quotes approvingly from a letter Eliot wrote in 1927; “The only criticism of poetry worth noting is that of poets” (p.211). The phrase is representative of so much of Eliot’s early writing about literature. It cannot be accurate without the absent qualification: ’Often’, ‘Sometimes’, ‘For my purposes’, ‘In terms of…’. Once the qualifications are added, the statement is revealed as little more than a personal preference.
Ezra Pound is the real hero of this book. Here too the retrospective critique is absent. It is obvious from all the available contemporary accounts that Pound was a tempestuous character, a tireless and passionate advocate for writers he admired. But his criticism and poetry from this period have not aged well.
Pound’s antisemitism is appropriately chastised, but otherwise Hollis takes him at his own evaluation. The reader is positioned to see criticism of Pound’s poetry as misguided, if not driven by malice and envy. To read Hollis you’d think poor Ezra was driven out of London by a conspiracy of jealous mediocrities who simply didn’t understand his genius. The fact that he was a self-appointed expert on a range of topics he knew little about is passed over, as is the fact that much of his criticism from this period consists of aggressive statements of personal preference masquerading as objective truths. The myth of Pound the brilliant editor is based on the idea that he was able to see The Waste Land in the draft and, in his own phrase, perform the caesarean operation to bring to light the poem Eliot wanted to write.
Joyce’s comment about Pound’s attempts to edit Ulysses is telling on two counts.
I never listened to his objections to Ulysses as it was being sent him once I had made up my mind but dodged them as tactfully as I could. He understood certain aspects of the book very quickly and that was more than enough then. He makes brilliant discoveries and howling blunders[v]
Firstly, if critics have seen method and intention in the manuscript, Pound either didn’t understand them or didn’t care. With The Waste Land manuscript he slashed away at the level of word, line, and passage, regardless of the effect his deletions had on the whole. It was the action of a man with a cast iron sense of his own infallibility and a complete disregard for the writer whose work he was cutting. He noted his reasons in the margins: “Georgian”; “verse not interesting as verse to warrant so much of it”. He either had no interest in, nor understanding of, Eliot’s intentions, which allowed him to hack away knowing that nothing essential would be removed, because as far as he was concerned nothing was essential.
Critics tend to assume that Pound’s editing was entirely disinterested and for the greater good of ‘Poetry’ because that was Pound’s version. However, as Hollis writes, the cutting of the original ‘Death By Water’ is more difficult to justify as “powerful passages had been sacrificed” (p.64). Hollis takes the time to note the similarities between the sea voyages in the original ‘Death by Water’ and the Canto Pound was working on at the same time. He avoids describing this as plagiarism while providing enough evidence to support the accusation. He’s too kind to suggest Pound may have demolished ‘Death by Water’ so his sea voyage Canto had no competitor. Hollis also records that Pound didn’t show the Canto to Eliot when he wanted someone to help him to edit it. Hollis prefers to believe “Perhaps it was Pound’s sense of selflessness that left him unwilling to disturb Eliot” (p.352) rather than an unwillingness to offer up a poem for criticism to someone who might return the recent favour and demolish it on the same grounds – or who might be so crass as to point out the similarities.
Pound’s motives are lost. The truth about the writing of a poem, especially a hundred years after the event, is unknowable, and was perhaps only vaguely understood by the people involved. Hollis’ approach raises so many questions that it cannot answer, at the same time softening the strangeness of this poem’s creation.
Many writers solicit comments on their drafts, but Eliot was eagerly soliciting comments on fragments of an unfinished long poem. This is strange, but the real curiosity, obscured in retrospect, is why he was so willing to put himself under Pound’s direction.
Hollis claims of Eliot’s 1919 Hogarth Press selection of poems that “more than any gathering they would bear the fruits of his [Pound’s] management of Eliot’s work” (p.79). ‘Management’ is aptly chosen. Pound liked to manage his discoveries. But as Hollis also explains, these poems are unimpressive compared to Eliot’s best work: “caricatures wearily reappear; predatory males, wanton females, unscrupulous outsiders, untrustworthy Jews”. The poems exhibit a “claustrophobic formality buttoned up in iambic tetrameter” (p.82). The reviewer for The Times wrote that Eliot was “laboriously writing nothing” and “in danger of becoming silly”. Except for The Waste Land, little that Eliot wrote under ‘Pound’s Management’ advanced his reputation as a poet.
Hollis ends one section of the book with a summary of Eliot’s debt to Pound before the latter left London in 1920. The mystery is not why Eliot felt indebted to Pound for his genuine assistance in getting his work published, but why he was so willing to submit his poetry to Pound’s literary judgement. Was it really so infallible, or merely human as the Joyce comment suggests?
Were the Fresca couplets such a bad imitation of Pope? Pound told him “You cannot parody Pope unless you can write better verse than Pope-and you can’t.”[vi] Why did Eliot timidly accept this verdict? If he were following Joyce and using a range of historical styles, why didn’t he just shrug and follow Joyce in ignoring Pound’s dismissive comment?
The answer lies in the psychology of T. S. Eliot, and in his specific state of mind while he was writing the poem. Both are unknowable. What we do know is that he did not repeat the process and seems to have felt uncomfortable about the end product for the rest of his life.
If this really were the biography of the poem, then its life in the twentieth century should have been its focus[vii]. Eliot was born a year after the attempt to introduce an Honours school of English Literature at Oxford University was voted down. It was not until 1894 that resistance was overcome. If scholarship were replaced by criticism, how could the study of English Literature be more than “mere chatter about Shelley”?[viii]
The question haunted literary studies until they self-destructed in just over a hundred years. Poetry like Pound and Eliot’s, baffling to a contemporary reader bought up on Kipling, Yeats and the majority of poetry in the bookshops, supported the rise of the professional explainer and with it the cult of the ‘difficult poem’. If T.S. Eliot and The Waste Land did not exist, university English departments would have had to invent them to justify their existence.
The Waste Land became an almost inexhaustible resource that could be quarried for allusions and biographical connections. It challenged established ideas about originality and plagiarism. Critics could announce that they had finally unearthed the poem’s meaning only to have their findings challenged by other critics. The notes provided starting points for careers. To be ‘The Greatest Living Eliot Scholar’ became a desirable title. With the inevitable reaction against Eliot’s perceived ideologies, the poem could be a target for every new fashion of criticism that could prove its own virtue by finding faults with the poem and the poet.
Yet despite all the critical attention, paradoxically, after The Waste Land, a single history of poetry in English becomes impossible to write. Despite Pound and Eliot’s insistence that their version was the only correct one, there are now many competing, sometimes mutually exclusive, assumptions about what a poem is and should be. The Renaissance or the Romantic Period mark definite shifts in the writing of poetry but the same cannot be said for the ‘Modernists’.[ix] Today, highly regarded poetry is being written which reads as though The Waste Land or the Cantos were never written. The temptation to naturalise all this could be resisted and a biography of the poem would have been a good place to start.
Despite all this chatter about Pound and the Eliots, despite the proof that the final version was an accident, The Waste Land remains: 433 brilliantly memorable lines. Whether Eliot knew what he was doing and whether Pound hacked away indiscriminately are questions that ultimately can’t be answered, and might not be worth asking.
Eliot’s undeniable ability to turn a memorable phrase and pack it with meaning – “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – to create resonant images – “A woman drew her long black hair out tight/and fiddled whisper music on those strings” – and his superlative ability to manipulate sound and syntax (read the poem aloud for yourself) transformed what one admiring critic called “a cultural scrap heap” into a unique, never to be repeated or successfully imitated piece of writing. A hundred years after it was published, it still feels strange and new, still divides readers, and still rewards repeated re-reading. And its biography is yet to be written.
[i] On 29 December 2022 the New York Times published an article by a Mathew Walther entitled, ‘Poetry died 100 years ago this month’ with the line ‘I’m convinced. Eliot finished poetry off.’ https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/29/opinion/eliot-waste-land-poetry.html
[ii] P.389. Crawford, Young Eliot. From St. Louis to the Wasteland. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
[iii] “Eliot’s first edition of Jesse Weston’s book is in the Houghton Library in Harvard with his inscription ‘This is the copy I had before writing The Waste Land’. It is virtually unannotated. Pages 137-40 and 141-4 remained uncut.”, Crawford, Young Eliot, p.352
[iv] ‘These be your Gods Oh Israel’ in Collected Writing on Poetry, Paul O’Prey (ed.), Carcanet, 1995
[v] Letters of James Joyce Vol. 1 ed Stuart Gilbert, New York, Viking Press 1957 p.249
[vi] Qtd p.127 in T. S.Eliot. The Waste Land. A Facsimile And Transcript Of The Original Drafts Including The Annotations Of Ezra Pound, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., New York, 1971
[vii] There’s a good summary up to 1995 in John Harwood’s, excellent, iconoclastic, Eliot to Derrida. The Poverty of Interpretation, St. Martin’s Press, 1995
[viii] The remark is attributed to Edward Augustus Freeman, then Regius Professor of Modern History
[ix] It’s obviously possible to argue about when the Renaissance or the Romantic period began and ended, but it would be wilfully obtuse to argue that the majority of poetry written after 1650 is not markedly different to the poetry written before 1550. And the same would apply to 1750 and 1850
LIAM GUILAR is Poetry Editor of the Brazen Head