The Waste Land

David Chinitz: On "The Waste Land"

The Waste Land is a much more complex case--in part because the poem that Eliot wrote and the poem that was published differ considerably. The Waste Land would have openly established popular culture as a major intertext of modernist poetry if Pound had not edited out most of Eliot’s popular references. Though Pound, like Eliot, assailed the "very pernicious current idea that a good book must be of necessity a dull one," he did not consider contemporary popular culture seriously as a potential antidote to literary dullness. His work on The Waste Land simply made the poem more Poundian: he collapsed its levels of cultural appeal while leaving its internationalism and historicism intact, recasting the poem as the first major counteroffensive in high culture's last stand. To be sure, almost all Pound's emendations improve the poem, and Eliot acceded to the recommendations of "il miglior fabbro" in virtually every instance. Still, part of Eliot's original impulse in composing The Waste Land was lost in this collaboration precisely because Pound's relation to the cultural divide differed from Eliot's own. Had Eliot improved rather than deleted the passages condemned by Pound, he might have given literary modernism a markedly different spin.

The manuscript of The Waste Land shows Eliot drawing on popular song to a greater extent than he uses the Grail myth in the final version. For the long idiomatic passage that was to have opened the poem he considered several lyrics from popular musicals. "I'm proud of all the Irish blood that's in me / There's not a man can say a word agin me," he quotes from a George M. Cohan show; from two songs in the minstrel tradition he constructs "Meet me in the shadow of the watermelon Vine / Eva Iva Uva Emmaline"; from The Cubanola Glide he takes "Tease, Squeeze lovin & wooin / Say Kid what're y' doin.’" The characters' nocturnal spree then takes them to a bar that Eliot frequented after attending melodramas in Boston:

                            Blew into the Opera Exchange, 

Sopped up some gin, sat in to the cork game,

Mr. Fay was there, singing "The Maid of the Mill."

Pointing out that these lines are "the first examples in the draft of [Eliot's] famous techniques of quotation and juxtaposition," Michael North suggests a direct connection between the miscellaneous format of the minstrel show--or, one might add, the English music hall--and the very form of The Waste Land. But the hints of popular song that survive in the published Waste Land are eclipsed by the more erudite allusions that dominate the poem. Thanks to the deletion of the original opening section, for example, the first line places the poem squarely within the "great tradition" of English poetry. A long poem called The Waste Land that begins, "April is the cruellest month," largely shaped the course of literature and criticism for years to follow. One can only imagine the effect of a long poem called He Do the Police in Different Voices beginning, "First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom's place."

From "T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide." PMLA 110.2 (March 1995).

Jean-Michel Rabaté: On "The Waste Land"

The peculiar "obstetrics" to which the manuscript of the poem was subjected has often been discussed. It is generally agreed that Pound’s cuts transformed a chaotic mass of poetry into a precise, aggressively modern masterpiece. Koestenbaum contends that the poem was "feminine" in its original form but transformed radically by Pound s assertive masculinity. We might indeed he tempted to see in this productive coediting of a great poem the shift away from a bisexuality that left open many potentialities to masculine values mistakenly identified with the essence of high modernism. Moreover, Eliot’s prose poem "Hysteria" already points toward such a feminized pathologia. Koestenbaum writes "Eliot’s poem—semiotic, negative, riddled with absences—is ‘feminine’ not because women always sound like The Waste Land, but because, in 1922, its style might have seemed more recognizable a hysterical woman’s than a male poet’s." He adds curiously "Hysteria is a disturbance in language, and the very word ‘hysteria’ marks it as a woman’s affliction"--which seems to imply that there is no male hysteria! Such an etymological fundamentalism is strange in a critic who wishes to reread modernism from the point of view of gay discourse. Koestenbaum’s predilection for the anus starts from an understandable rehabilitation but leads him into absurdities at times (as when he sees the fatefully repressed organ in Eliot’s identification with a "broken Coriol-anus" or when he reads a double inscription of ‘anus" in the way Pound dates a letter "24 Saturnus, An 1"). Whereas I am entirely ready to see the enigma of bisexuality as one of the most intriguing subplots of the Waste Land, I think that the attempt to queer Eloit and Pound’s collaboration leads to a series of misreadings.

The most crucial case in point is Pound’s rather bawdy letter written to celebrate the "birth" of the poem. This well-known piece of male bantering had been expurgated in D. D. Paige’s edition of Pound’s letters and was only published in full in the first volume of Eliot’s Letters of T.S. Eliot. In the letter, Pound assumes the function of a midwife or rather ‘sage homme," a masculinization of the French sage-femme (midwife): "These are the Poems of Eliot / By the Uranian Muse begot, / A Man their mother was, / A Muse their Sire." The letter leaves no doubt as to the role Pound has chosen: he is only the midwife ("Ezra performed the caesarean operation") and not the impregnator of his friend. From the suppressed lines in which Pound speaks of his own masturbatory activity, Koestenbaum finds an argument for his having actually "fathered" the poem. In fact, Pound merely laments his own impotence, or the fact that his masturbatory writing has prevented him from producing really modern creations, such as Ulysses or the Waste Land:

E. P. hopeless and unhelped

Enthroned in the marmorean skies

His verse omits realities,

Angelic hands with mother of pearl

Retouch the strapping servant girl,


Balls and balls and balls again

Can not touch his fellow men.

His foaming and abundant cream

Has coated his world. The coat of a dream;

Or say that the upjut of sperm

Has rendered his sense pachyderm.

The ironic self-portrait is quite in the mode of Mauberly’s derision. What is deprecated is Pound’s too easy recourse to an ananistic "dangerous supplement"-- which apparently takes "strapping servant girls" as libidinal objects rather than, say, Eliot’s anus. This is why I cannot agree with Koestenbaum’s conclusion: "Pound, Eliot’s male muse, is the sire of The Waste Land." Koestenbaum superimposes two scenes: the scene described in the June 1921 postscript to Pound’s translation of The Natural Philosopy of Love by Remy de Gourmont, in which Pound sees himself as an overactive phallus fertilizing the passive vulva of London, and the many traces of femininity left in Eliot’s Wastle Land. But Koestenbaum forgets that one of the major consequences of Pound’s excisions was to make it much more of a London poem than it had been originally. Pound has not deleted the "femininity" of the poem: he has "framed" it, as it were, within a mythical discourse that is less "male" or "phallocratic" than neutral. Such is the effect of the famous beginning of the poem ("April is the cruelest month"), which leaves the voice anonymous, the "we" asexual and floating in the void, until we hear it modulate into Marie Larisch’s familiar confidences.

In view of these complex issues, I would emphasize instead the disjunctive nature of Eliot and Pound’s collaboration and stress that the blind spots in their joint parturition left what I again would like to call textual ghosts. It is true that Pound drastically modified the draft given to him. He reduced it by half, deleted the long opening describing a night out in Boston ( "He Do the Police in Different Voices"), suppressed the hesitations, the autobiographical tone, and some of the pastiches of classical genres, and hence changed the polyphonic texture or tessitura of the poem. Pound also tried to eliminate all the reminiscences of "Prufrock," as Koestenbaum aptly notes: "Eliot’s wobbliness was made flesh in Prufrock, echoes of which Pound sought to cut," but while he was impatient with Tiresias as a central figure (Pound originally felt the same misguided distaste for Leopold Bloom who, according to him, unduly supplanted Stephen Dedalus), going so far as to write "make up / yr mind / you Tiresias / if you know / know damn well / or / else you / dont" [sic] in the margin, he never persuaded Eliot to change anything substantially in the characterization of the blind and bisexual seer.

Strangely enough, what annoys Pound also annoys Koestenbaum, who would prefer to see Eliot "come out," as it were, rather than hide in ambiguities and ambivalences. Yet it us precisely these hesitations (as later Finnegans Wake will be written in a systematically undecidable language) that make up the irreducible force of its modernist poetry. This corresponds to the fact that modernism as such, despite Hugh Kenner’s insistence, cannot be reduced so easily and univocally to a phallocratic stance. In a way, this would lead us to admit that high modernism, too, is "softer" than we thought and also closer to Verlaine than to Rimbaud.

If Tiresias is the most important figure of the poem, as Eliot’s central note clearly states, is it not because he embodies a hysterical bisexuality of which Eliot was dreaming at the time? This fantasy cannot be reduced to the clear-cut opposites suggested by Koestenbaum: "Through Tiresias, Eliot describes (from the inside) an epoch we might call The Age of Inversion, when heterosexuality was in the process of being undermined and traduced by its eerie opposite." If indeed the Tiresias paradigm provides Eliot with another "epoch," it us less a dream of inversion than of ecstatic fusion, a dream expressed in the deleted poem, "The Death of Saint Narcissus":

First he was sure that he had been a tree

Twisting its branches among each other

And tangling its roots among each other


Then he knew that he had been a fish

With slippery white belly held tight in his own fingers

Writhing in his own clutch, his ancient beauty

Caught fast in the pink tips of his new beauty.


Then he had been a young girl

Caught in the woods by a drunken old man

Knowing at the end the taste of her own whiteness

The horror of her own smoothness,

And he felt drunken and old.

Here, Eliot rewrites Nietzsche’s praise of dancers in Thus Spake Zarathustra through a myth of metempsychosis that borrows from Empedocles’ famous distych according to which the Greek philosopher had once been "a boy and a girl, a bush, a bird and a fish ," and from Buddha‘s own transformations: these ascetic "rapes" were to lead him to the way of absolute compassion. The rape of a passive girl by an old man whose taste lingers in bitterly in the speaker’s memories, the Buddhist acquiescence to universal metamorphosis, the Keatsian rapture at selflessness – all this sums up what Pound intensly dislikes. This compendium of Eastern mysticism and Western "negative capability" has remained to this date a textual ghost (now and then added to Eliot’s collected works as a curious appendix), outside of the canon constituted by Pound. This shows a different Eliot, closer to Flaubert when he could identify utterly with Emma Bovary and the setting of her love scenes.

The joint attempt by Pound and Eliot to provide a justification for the "modern movement" by publishing at last a modernist masterpiece derives from the very high claims they had made for themselves. All this looks a little like a wholesale takeover bid, a tender offer on European culture, seen as a whole from two conflicting and half-imaginary opposites: Eastern mysticism on the one hand (Pound rewrites Eliot’s more metaphysical drift in his Chinese idiom) and the American pseudo-wilderness on the other. In a letter to his British friend, Mary Hutchinson, Eliot makes a revealing admission, just as he announces his essay on "Tradition" as forthcoming. He concludes a discussion of the different meanings of "culture" and "civilization" on a more personal note: "But remember that I am a metic—a foreigner, and that I want to understand you, and all the background and tradition of you. I shall try to be frank—because the attempt is so very much worthwhile with you — it is very difficult with me —both by inheritance and because of my suspicious and cowardly disposition. But I may simply prove to be a savage." In this wildly flirtatious tone, Eliot conflates images of barbarism and strong moral values inherited from his family, thus discovering the best word to introduce himself (in every sense): a metic, that is, an alien who has been admitted into the city (as in Athens), who has been granted certain rights and pays taxes but cannot have full citizenship or access to the most intimate mysteries.

The metic, both inside and outside, is thus defined from within the polis, which also accounts for the thematic centrality of the city as metropolis in the Waste Land: Oedipus’s Thebes, Augustine’s Carthage, and Baudelaire’s Paris are superimposed upon a London where the city provides a fulcrum for international capitalism. Indeed, the suppressed passage beginning with "He Do the Police in Different Voices" looks back to Dickens’s London with the subtle allusion to Betty Higden’s praise of Sloppy in Our Mutual Friend: Sloppy manages to recreate different policemen’s voices when he reads to her, thanks to his wonderful mimetic abilities. Here, "police" rhymes ironically with polis, while metic leads to a "mimetic" who remains well hidden in the "world’s metropolis" (as Mr. Podsnap says). The ending of the Waste Land finally releases all the voices that had been kept more or less separate and creates a bewildering vortex of hysterical polyphony. This is also a dominant feature in Pound’s Cantos: we keep hearing individual voices whose interaction creates an epic through counterpoint. However, this similarity should not blind us to a crucial divergence—which shall oblige me to examine a last "uncoupling."

If Pound and Eliot agree that "tradition" supposes an "historical sense" that sees the presence of the past as well as its pastness (since "It is dawn at Jerusalem while midnight hovers above the Pillars of Hercules. All ages are contemporaneous," as the preface to the Spirit of Romance momentously states), then they would not translate the Greek concept of polis in exactly the same way. Though both are indeed metics in the British Empire, they opt for different strategies of assimilation and adaptation. Pound always sees the polis in its original Greek meaning, as a religious and political context determined by local polytheism and the domination of a few brilliant minds. Eliot, on the other hand, follows the conclusions of his investigation into European roots and therefore revives linguistic energies dormant in Virgil, Augustine, and Dante. He translates the polis into the "City" (of God or men), that is, into Augustine’s civitas. As Emile Benveniste has shown, polis cannot be translated into civitas without some distortion. In the Greek mind, polis is a concept that predetermines the definition of the citizen as polites. One is a citizen because one partakes of the abstract concept of the polis, a linguistic radical divided between sameness and otherness, belonging and rejection. In the Latin mentality, the adjective civis comes first, the radical is anterior to the derivation of civitas (meaning "city" in the sense of a group of people living together, and notUrbs, reserved for Rome, the "capital"). In the Latin model, actual people as citizens help derive the concept: thus, civitas refers to a community understood as a mutuality, a collection of mutual obligations.

Eliot’s choice of a quote from Our Mutual Friend to highlight the polyphonic nature of urban discourse out of which contemporary civility must emerge is hardly accidental. Nor was Pound’s erasure of the same motif random. Pound’s historical point of departure is the American Revolution, seen as the birth of the modern idea of the just state and "volitionist" politics; Eliot consistently returns to the English Revolution as the main "catastrophe" of the modern world. According to Eliot, the introduction of the new parliamentary democracy triggered all its attendant negative side effects: the loss of centralized values and the "dissociation of sensibility," which had weakened British culture since the seventeenth century. Thus, Pound is ready to acclaim the "Tovarishes" of the Soviet Revolution in his first cantos, while Eliot condemns the uprising as chaotic, atheistic and "drunken" (through a German quotation taken from Hesse) in the notes to the Waste Land.

Pound’s specific mode of hysterization leads him to play the eccentric, to leave the confines of the Empire, and to embrace Mussolini as a symbolic father, out of sheer ignorance of his regime’s true nature—all the while insisting that he was fighting against ignorance! Eliot, who knew better, and maybe knew too much, chose the opposite strategy, becoming more British than the British after 1927 and his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism and devising a new and quite personal game of hide-and-seek with high culture.

The literary "ghost" produced by such a disjunction must be found in the way Eliot’s success in British and American culture served to acclimatize modernism as a purely intellectual adventure—a "betrayal" that was deeply lamented by William Carlos Williams. The "monsters" Eliot was led to suppress indeed concerned sexuality as well as politics, as Koestenbaum suggests, but his attitude led to dissimilar enabling or disabling strategies if we compare him with Pound who, at least, never really tried to hide his peculiar monsters. These finally brought about the sublimation of modernism into academic enshrining, while at the same time Eliot himself had embraced the values of a revisited classicism. The real ghost generated by the coupling/uncoupling collaboration between Pound and Eliot was in fact just a word: the term "modernism," which could then be thrown as a sop to the academics of the entire world.

From The Ghosts of Modernity. University Press of Florida, 1996.

Wayne Koestenbaum: On "The Waste Land"

Eliot admitted that he "placed before [Pound] in Paris the manuscript of a scrawling, chaotic poem"; in his hesitation to claim those discontinuities as signs of power, he resembles Prufrock—unerect, indecisive, unable to come to the point. Pound treats the manuscript of The Waste Land as if it were an effeminate Prufrock he wishes to rouse: he cures the poem of its hysteria by suggesting that representations of the feminine be cut, and by urging Eliot to make his language less qualified. Pound, who wrote to Eliot, "May your erection never grow less," approved of neither the poem’s nor the man’s sexual neurasthenia. Within a sequence of opposites, pairs that glide into each other and, in my hands, often blur (straight / gay, man / woman, active / passive, willful / indecisive), Pound urges his friend to inhabit the primary term; however, by metaphorically impregnating Eliot, Pound places him in a passive position that they must have considered unmanly. Pound’s gestures are paradoxical, he denounces instances of linguistic effeminacy, and yet the very act of intruding commentary is homosexually charged. In the "erection" letter to Eliot, Pound writes, "I merely queeried the dialect of ‘thence’, dare say it is o.k." The act of queerying—critiquing, editing, collaborating—has suspicious overtones of queerness, inferences which Pound highlights and denies. In discussing Pound’s ambiguous "queeries," I will put aside questions of literary quality. Focusing only on whether or not Pound’s suggestions were justified blinds us to other motives for his excisions. I would like to offer a different reading of Pound’s Caesarian performance.

Because Pound sought to establish Eliot’s primacy in literary history with The Waste Land, he disapproved of beginning the poem with an epigraph from Joseph Conrad, a living writer. In the "obstetric" letter, Pound wrote to Eliot. "I doubt if Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation." I suspect that Pound objected not merely to Conrad’s lack of eminence, but to the epigraph’s content: a passage from Heart of Darkness ("The horror! the horror!"), it records a man crying out in fear of the dark (and feminine) continent. Beginning the poem with a cry of emasculated terror would not help keep Eliot erect. However, in this letter to Eliot, Pound criticizes another portion of the poem by echoing the very language of horror he disliked in the epigraph. "It also, to your horror probably, reads aloud very well. Mouthing out his OOOOOOze." Pound uses words that reflect The Waste Land’s fear of things that gape: he mentions "the body of the poem," and describes his Sage Homme verses as a "bloody impertinence" which should be placed "somewhere where they would be decently hidden and swamped by the bulk of accompanying matter." Pound describes the poem’s body in a language of mouths, horror, blood, and swamps—a vocabulary calculated to affect Eliot, who thought of his verse as a woman’s "purulent offensive discharge."

Pound separated The Waste Land from dread female discharge by criticizing Eliot’s portraits of women. Pound questioned the lines—"’You gave me hyacinths first a year ago, / ’They called me the hyacinth girl’"—with the marginal annotation, "Marianne," which, according to critic Barbara Everett, refers to the heroine of the Pierre Marivaux novel La Vie de Marianne, a work whose "Frenchness" attracted Eliot. Did Pound object to these lines because "hyacinth" signified homosexuality, and because Eliot—impersonating a hyacinth girl—was indulging in French tendencies? (Pound remembers the note as a possible reference to Tennyson’s Mariana; perhaps he disapproved of Eliot’s identification with this pining hysteric, an emblem of the kind of Victorian poetry that modernists condemned as effete. ) Pound tersely indicts these lines as mere "photography":

"My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

"Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

"What are you thinking of? What thinking? Think What?

"I never know what you are thinking. Think." (11)

Pound wrote "photo" beside the line, "Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?" (13). Pound faulted these passages for their photographic style—cheaply realistic, insufficiently wrought by artistic muscle—and for their subject: these snapshots portray Eliot as neurasthenic, silent, unable to satisfy his wife, and portray Vivien as hysterically adamant. Nothing fills the husband’s head: he is the gaping "horror" of the cancelled epigraph. Vivien, the camera’s subject, commented that these lines were "WONDERFUL," and added a further photographic line which Eliot kept "What you get married for if you dont want to have children" (15). Lil may refuse to have children, but the "nothing" husband was guilty of a truly hysterical reluctance—the refusal to speak.

The portrait of a lady that Pound most wholeheartedly blotted out was a swathe of Pope-like couplets concerning Fresca. In the typescript, Pound dismissed the whole passage with the comment, "rhyme drags it out to diffuseness" (39), but only crossed out the four lines which portrayed her as poet:

From such chaotic misch-masch potpourri

What are we to expect but poetry?

When restless nights distract her brain from sleep

She may as well write poetry, as count sheep. (41)

Eliot had described his poem as "chaotic"; Pound called it a "masterpiece." Pound, as male collaborator and editor, divides Eliot’s discourse from Fresca’s, and ensures that readers do not confuse the chaotic Waste Land with Fresca’s chaotic potpourri, Eliot’s masterpiece with Fresca’s hysteric fits, Eliot’s Uranian muse with Fresca’s forays into gay and lesbian writers: "Fresca was baptised in a soapy sea / Of Symonds—Walter Pater—Vernon Lee" (41). Pound’s revisions intend to save Eliot from seeming like soapy Symonds. By crossing out Fresca, Pound suggests that Eliot begin "The Fire Sermon" with the narrator, an "I," "Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck / And on the king my father’s death before him." Pound lets this depiction of a dead king and wrecked brother remain: male royalty, even when dismembered, seemed preferable to a woman reading lesbian literature in the bathtub.

Pound particularly objected to syntactic inversion—which suggests, in turn, sexual inversion. The word "inversion" mattered to Pound. He wrote, in a letter to Eliot, "I should leave it as it is, and NOT invert," and commented in the manuscript, "Inversions not warranted by any real exigence of metre" (45). For Pound, inverted word order, a dated poetic affectation, implied the aesthete’s "nacre" and "objets d’art." Pound wrote "1880" and "Why this Blot on Scutchen between 1922 & Lil" beside

And if it rains, the closed carriage at four.

And we shall play a game of chess:

The ivory men make company between us

Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door. (13)

These lines clashed with the nearby jazzy "O O O O that ShakespeherIan Rag" and "HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME." But Pound disliked the passage for reasons other than its dated tonality; he found fault with the scene of sexual inaction between husband and wife, and accused Eliot of a sexual and stylistic listlessness. Modernism defined itself in opposition to that "1880" of literary and sexual ennui.

[. . . .]

As hysterical discourse, The Waste Land remains as passive as Coleridge’s wedding-guest: the poem invites a reader to master it. Uniwilling to explain itself, requiring a reader-as-collaborator ("mon semblable, --mon frère!") to unravel its disguises, it remains passive toward a "frère" whose attentions it solicits by this technique of direct presentation without transitions. Modernist ideograms refuse to soften the image’s blow with commentary, and place the reader in the active though reluctant role of elucidator. Between two men, passivity and activity have sexual valences that the poem bodies forth in its thematics of violation, and the hysterical discontinuities, aphasias, and amnesias that follow from the repressed moment of surrender. Eliot’s abulia creates antitheses of itself in the "flushed and decided" young man carbuncular, or the sailor (in excised portions from "Death by Water") who aims his "concentrated will against the tempest and the tide" (63). Despite these representations of sexual will, the poem’s heart is in its passivity toward interpretation, the moments of collage, potpourri, and fragmentation which place enormous faith in the reader as analyst. In this sense, Eliot’s manuscript reads like the premonition of Pound’s arrival: the text implies a second man who might interpret its absences. Eliot’s dismissal of his work as merely chaotic, and his passivity toward revision, correspond to the poem’s own willingness to stay broken. Eliot could "connect nothing with nothing"; it remained for Pound to redefine disjunction, to convert female hysteria, through male collaboration, back into a powerful discourse. Indeed, Pound’s revisions changed The Waste Land from a series of poems into a unity which he trumpeted as "the longest poem in the English langwidge," nineteen pages "without a break." With its feigned seamlessness, the poem avoids the bodily breaks that Claude the Cabin Boy, Philomel, and Coriolanus must suffer. Though Pound himself penetrates the poem by editing it, Eliot owed him the illusion of unbroken textual hymen, and the accompanying sense of power.

By giving his text to Pound, Eliot set up the paradigm for the relationship that readers and critics have established with The Waste Land: man to man. The footnotes embody the implied male reader they invite him to enter and understand the poem. They demonstrate that the poem has absences which an external body must fill. The footnotes give value to the poem’s hysteria, and transform it from meaningless chaos into allusiveness. Readers armed with the notes have approachedThe Waste Land not as if it were a fragment of hysterical discourse, but an artifact converted, by Pound’s mediation, into something masculine. Conrad Aiken, on the poem’s publication wrote that it succeeds "by virtue of its incoherence, not of its plan"; if a woman had written a proudly incoherent text, how would its absences have been judged? The Waste Land has always been a scene of implicit collaboration between the male poet and his male reader, in which Eliot’s hysterical discourse—by the act of collusive interpretation, by the reader’s analytic listening—suffers a sea-change into masculinity.

Eliot used hysterical discourse to invoke the corrective affections of another man. Together, they performed an ambiguous act they engaged in a symbolic scene of homosexual intercourse while freeing themselves from imputations of inverted style. Collaboration was particularly popular in the fin de siècle among men who wrote together to define their distance from homosexuality sometimes this distance was not more than a few inches, though they made it seem like miles. In the next section, by reading doubly authored works of the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s (texts contemporaneous with Studies on Hysteria and Sexual Inversion), I hope to reveal the roots of Pound’s and Eliot’s Uranian experiment. By 1922, when The Waste Land emerged, its double authorship concealed, male collaboration had already earned a reputation for perversity.

From Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Louis L. Martz: On "The Waste Land"

And yet it was evident, even in 1936, that 'Burnt Norton' was adapting the five-part structure of The Waste Land, for that structure was signalled by the use of a short lyric as part IV of the sequence. But what did it mean, what does it mean, to feel the five-part structure of The Waste Land working within so different a poem? To answer this question it may help to review the process by which The Waste Land gained its peculiar structure, emerging from the hands of Ezra Pound, as Eliot says, reduced to half manuscript length.

First of all, without Pound's editorial intervention, we would not have the short lyric, 'Phlebas the Phoenician', appearing by itself as part IV of The Waste Land, and thus, presumably, we would not have the short lyrics constituting the fourth sections of all the Four Quartets -- the short movement that helps to create analogies with Beethoven's late quartets. Indeed we might not have the Phlebas lyric at all, without Pound's advice, for Eliot, upset by Pound's slashing away at the eighty-two lines preceding this lyric in the manuscript, wrote to Pound, 'Perhaps better omit Phlebas also???' Pound was horrified: Eliot seemed not to understand the central principle of the poem's operation. 'I DO advise keeping Phlebas,' Pound replied. 'In fact I more'n advise. Phlebas is an integral part of the poem; the card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen. sailor, and he is needed ABSoloootly where he is. Must stay in.'

What Pound describes in that vehement answer is the sort of organization that Eliot later called musical, in his lecture 'The Music of Poetry', delivered in 1942, just as he was completing Four Quartets: 'The use of recurrent themes is as natural to poetry as to music,' Eliot says:

There are possibilities for verse which bear some analogy to the development of a theme by different groups of instruments ['different voices', we might say]; there are possibilities of transitions in a poem comparable to the different movements of a symphony or a quartet; there are possibilities of contrapuntal arrangement of subject-matter.

So, in The Waste Land, after the embers of lust have smouldered in 'The Fire Sermon' -- 'Burning burning burning burning'-- the death of Phlebas by water provides a moment of serenity, quiet, poise, as Phlebas enters the whirlpool in whispers to a death not to be feared, but foreseen and accepted. The lyric acts as the lines about the still point act in the two poems of 'Coriolan', where, first, amid the turmoil of the crowd at the parade, the people think they find their answer in the military leader: 'O hidden under the dove's wing, hidden in the turtle's breast, / Under the palmtree at noon, under the running water / At the still point of the turning world. O hidden.' But then, ironically, it appears in the second poem that the difficulties of a statesman have led him also to seek the still point: 'O hidden under the ... Hidden under the ... Where the dove's foot rested and locked for a moment, / A still moment, repose of noon.' The lyric of Phlebas acts as such a moment of repose, a nodal moment, tying together the strands of the poem, as Pound explained. And the fourth part, the short lyric, in all the Four Quartets, performs a similar function of poise and knotting, as the poem finds a temporary rest where themes and images and voices merge for a moment.

One voice of great importance speaks at the close of the Phlebas lyric, which is not simply a translation from Eliot's poem in French, Dans le Restaurant, for the closing lines are quite different. The French poem ends in an offhand, conversational tone: 'Figurez-vous donc, c’était un sort pénible; / Cependant, ce fut jadis un bel homme, de haut taille.' (Imagine then, it was a distressing fate; / Nevertheless, he was once a handsome man, of tall stature). In The Waste LandEliot has changed the tone from conversational to prophetic by evoking the voice of St Paul addressing 'both Jew and Gentile' in his epistle to the Romans (ch. 2, 3): 'Gentile or Jew / O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.'

A similar effect is created by Pound's critical slashing away of all those weak and in part offensive Popeian couplets at the outset of part III of The Waste Land manuscript. 'Do something different,' Pound advised. So Eliot did: he pencilled on the back of the manuscript page a draft of the new opening passage, 'The river's tent is broken . . .' -- lines that stress the eternal presence of the river within the waste land, culminating in the line that echoes the voice of the psalmist in exile: 'By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept', with its attendant question, 'How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?' (Psalm 137:4).

A similar concentration upon the emergence of the prophetic voice is created by the removal of the monologue that opens The Waste Land manuscript, the monologue of the rowdy Irishman telling of a night on the town in Boston. This was excised by Eliot himself, perhaps under Pound's influence, perhaps because Eliot himself saw that the rowdy vitality of those singing, drinking men who stage a footrace in the dawn's early light does not accord with the voice that follows, the voice of one who is so reluctant to live that April becomes the cruelest month. That excision brings us quickly to the voice of a modern Ezekiel, speaking the famous lines:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow 

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images.

Then these lines of true prophecy play their contrapuntal music against the voice of the false prophet, Madame Sosostris.

But I need to explain what I mean by the prophetic voice. With William Blake, we should discard the notion that the prophet's main function is to foretell the future. If, like Blake, we think of the biblical prophets, we will recall at once that they spend a great deal of time in denouncing the evils of the present, evils that derive from the people's worship of false gods and the pursuit of wealth and worldly pleasures. Prophecies of the future appear, but these are often prophecies of the disasters that will fall upon the people if they do not mend their evil ways. Denunciation of present evil is the primary message of the Hebrew prophet: he is a reformer, his mind is upon the present. But then he also offers the consolation of future good, if the people return to worship of the truth. Thus the voice of the prophet tends to oscillate between denunciation and consolation: he relates visions of evil and good, mingling within the immense range of his voice the most virulent excoriation and the most exalted lyrics. This, I think, is exactly the sort of oscillation that we find in Pound's Cantos and The Waste Land.

From "Origins of Form in Four Quartets." In Words in Time: New Essays on Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ed. Edward Lobb. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Waste Land"

It is against this background that we must reconsider the Eliot-Pound collaboration on The Waste Land. For despite all the stylistic changes that Pound brought about in Eliot's long poem, changes that have recently been submitted to careful study--the thematic strains of the original Waste Land are not significantly altered in the final version. Indeed, one might argue that Pound's excisions and revisions made Eliot's central themes and symbols more prominent than they would otherwise have been, buried as they were under the weight of such satirical intrusions as "He Do the Police in Different Voices" (Part 1) or the Popean couplets about Fresca at her toilet at the beginning of Part II 1.37

Consider what happens to "Death by Water," which Pound reduced from ninety-two lines to ten. The first section, written in quatrains rhyming abab, introduces a parodic version of Ulysses in the person of a foolish sailor on shore leave, regaling his cronies in the public bars, who are "Staggering, or limping with a comic gonorrhea," with stories of the "much seen and much endured." In the margin of the manuscript, Pound wrote, "Bad--but cant attack until I get typescript." The second section, written in rather slack Tennysonian blank verse, is the dramatic monologue of the sailor, telling of a fishing expedition from the Dry Salvages north to the Outer Banks of Nova Scotia. Even as the sailor meditates on the significance of a mysterious Sirens' song heard one night on watch (lines 65-72), a song that makes him question the relationship of reality to dream, the ship hits an iceberg and is destroyed. After this ending ("And if Another knows, I know I know not, / Who only knows that there is no more noise now"--) comes the "Phlebas the Phoenician" lyric, which is the only part of the original that remains in the finished poem.

Pound seems to have decided that the long account of the sailor's voyage was an unnecessary digression. But when Eliot wrote from London, "Perhaps better omit Phlebas also???" Pound replied, "I DO advise keeping Phlebas. In fact I more'n advise. Phlebas is an integral part of the poem; the card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen. sailor. And he is needed ABSOLOOTLY where he is. Must stay in." Pound understood, in other words, that "Death by Water" is the essential link between the Madame Sosostris passage and the following lines near the end of Part V:

Damyata: The boat responded

Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar

The sea was calm, your heart would have responded

Gaily, when invited, beating obedient

To controlling hands


                                    I sat upon the shore 

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me 

Shall I at least set my lands in order?


Phlebas' "death by water" is the necessary prelude to the hints of rebirth contained in these lines, whereas the actual sea voyage, as described in the cancelled narrative portion, is irrelevant to the poem's life-in-death theme. Curiously, then, Pound seems to have understood Eliot's purpose better than did Eliot himself.

In discussing Pound's "operation upon The Waste Land," Eliot notes:

I have sometimes tried to perform the same sort of maieutic task; and I know that one of the temptations against which I have to be on guard, is trying to re-write somebody's poem in the way I should have written it myself if I had wanted to write that poem. Pound never did that: he tried first to understand what one was attempting to do, and then tried to help one do it in one's own way.

This is an important distinction. Pound did not try to transform The Waste Land into the sort of city poem he himself might have written. Rather, he helped Eliot to write it in his own way. "What the Thunder Said," for example, is left virtually untouched by Pound, for here Eliot discovered his quest theme and brought it to a swift and dramatic conclusion.

In assessing Pound's response to The Waste Land, critics invariably cite the famous letter to Eliot (24 December 1921) in which Pound says: "Complimenti, you bitch. I am wracked by the seven jealousies, and cogitating an excuse for always exuding my deformative secretions in my own stuff, and never getting an outline. I go into nacre and objets d'art." But the fact is that, despite these self-depreciating words, Pound knew well enough that The Waste Land, like "Gerontion," was not his sort of poem. As Eliot himself observes, after thanking Pound for "helping one to do it in one's own way," "There did come a point, of course, at which difference of outlook and belief became too wide."

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1981.

Lyndall Gordon: On "The Waste Land"

During the final stages of The Waste Land's composition Eliot put himself, for what was to be the last time, under Pound's direction. On 18 November, on his way to Switzerland, Eliot passed through Paris and left his wife with the Pounds who were then living there. It seems likely that Eliot showed Pound what he had done in Margate. Pound called Eliot's Lausanne draft 'the 19 page version' which implies that he had previously seen another. He marked certain sheets on two occasions: once in pencil, probably on 18 November, once in ink, on Eliot's return from Lausanne early in January. Pound undoubtedly improved particular passages: his excisions of the anti-Semitic portrait of Bleistein and the misogynist portrait of Fresca curtailed Eliot's excessive animus, and his feel for the right word improved odd lines throughout. Pound was proud of his hand in The Waste Land and wrote:

If you must needs enquire

Know diligent Reader

That on each Occasion

Ezra performed the caesarian Operation.

I think that Pound's influence went deeper than his comment during the winter of 1921-2, going back rather to 1918, 1919, and 1920 when he and Eliot were engaged in a common effort to improve their poetry. Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberly(1920) is a covert dialogue with Eliot, a composite biography of two great unappreciated poets whose flaws are frankly aired. Pound criticizes a Prufrock-like poet too given to hesitation, drifting, 'maudlin confession', and aerial fantasy--the phantasmal seasurge and the precipitation of 'insubstantial manna' from heaven. As though in answer, Eliot put aside his most confessional fragments, 'Saint Narcissus' and 'Elegy', and in 192l overlaid private meditation with documentary sketches of contemporary characters--a pampered literary woman, Fresca (like Pound's Lady Valentine), Venus Anadyomene (another Mauberly character), Cockneys, a typist with dirty camisoles, and a scurfy clerk. The Pound colouring in these sketches did not quite suit Eliot. Where Pound is exuberant in his disgust, Eliot becomes callow or vitriolic--and Pound himself recognized this in his comments on typist and clerk: 'too easy' and 'probably over the mark'. Eliot's characters are not as realistic as Pound's. They are projections of Eliot's haunted consciousness--they could be termed humours. Unlike the satirist, Eliot does not criticize an actual world but creates a unique 'phantasmal' world of lust, cowardice, boredom, and malice on which he gazes in fascinated horror. The Waste Land is about a psychological hell in which someone is quite alone, 'the other figures in it / Merely projections'.

From Eliot’s Early Years. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Hugh Kenner: On "The Waste Land"

So it would have been about mid-January 1922, in London, that The Waste Land received its final form, and likely its title too . The state of the manuscripts Eliot had unpacked after his return from the continent may be readily summarized. "The Burial of the Dead" had lost its Cambridge opening but was otherwise lightly annotated. "A Game of Chess" had had its opening heavily worked over by Pound, to tighten the meter, and Vivien Eliot had supplied a few suggestions for improving the pub dialogue. "The Fire Sermon" was a shambles; it needed much work. "Death by Water" had been cut back to ten lines. "What the Thunder Said" was "OK."

Pondering these materials, Eliot perceived where the poem's center of gravity now lay. Its center was no longer the urban panorama refracted through Augustan styles. That had gone with the dismemberment of Part III. Its center had become the urban apocalypse, the great City dissolved into a desert where voices sang from exhausted wells, and the Journey that had been implicit from the moment he opened the poem in Cambridge and made its course swing via Munich to London had become journev through the Waste Land. Reworking Part III, and retyping the other parts with revisions of detail, he achieved the visionary unity that has fascinated two generations of readers. He then went to bed with the flu, "excessively depressed." (Pound Letters, appendix to No. 181.)

He was anxious. He thought of deleting Phlebas, and was told that the poem needed Phlebas "ABsolootly." "The card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen. sailor." He thought of using "Gerontion" as a prelude, and was told not to. "One don't miss it at all as the thing now stands." (Pound Letters, No. 182.) What seems to have bothered him was the loss of a schema. "Gerontion" would have made up for that lack by turning the whole thing into "thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season." Later the long note about Tiresias attempted the same strategy: "What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem." The lost schema, if we have guessed about it correctly, had originated in a preoccupation with Dryden as the poem grew outward from "The Fire Sermon." If Vergil had once sponsored the protagonist's journey as Homer sponsors the wanderings of Leopold Bloom, Vergil was pertinent to a poem prompted by Vergil's major English translator, John Dryden. Ovid, who supplied Tiresias and Philomel, and told the story of the Sibyl’s terribly longevity which may underlie the line about fear in a handful of dust, was a favorite of Dryden's, and (on Mark Van Doren's showing) pertinent to Dryden's London and Eliot's. Wren's churches, notably Magnus martyr, were built after the fire Annus Mirabilis celebrates, which is one reason Eliot works Magnus Martyr into his Fire Sermon. And in disposing ornate diction across the grid of a very tame pentameter, Eliot's original draft of the opening of Part II had rewritten in the manner of French decadence a Shakespearean passage (" . . . like a burnished throne") that Dryden had rewritten before him in a diction schooled by his own time's French decorum. No classroom exercise is more ritualized than the comparison of Antony and Cleopatra and All for Love.

But the center from which such details radiate had been removed from the poem. What survived was a form with no form, and a genre with no name. Years later, on the principle that a form is anything done twice, Eliot reproduced the structural contours of The Waste Land exactly, though more briefly, in Burnt Norton, and later still three more times, to make the Quartets, the title of which points to a decision that such a form might have analogies with music. That was post facto. In 1922, deciding somewhat reluctantly that the poem called The Waste Land was finished, he was assenting to a critical judgment, Pound's and his own, concerning which parts were alive in a sheaf of pages he had written. Two years afterward, in "The Function of Criticism," he averted to "the capital importance of criticism in the work of creation itself," and suggested that "the larger part of the labour of an author in composing his work is critical labour; the labour of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing." He called it "this frightful toil," and distinguished it from obedience to the Inner Voice. "The critical activity finds its highest, its true fulfilment in a kind of union with creation in the labour of the artist." (Selected Essays, "The Function of Criticism," IV.)

For it does no discredit to The Waste Land to learn that it was not striving from the first to become the poem it became: that it was not conceived as we have it before it was written, but reconceived from the wreckage of a different conception. Eliot saw its possibilities in London, in January 1922, with the mangled drafts before him: that was a great feat of creative insight.

In Paris he and Pound had worked on the poem page by page, piecemeal, not trying to salvage a structure but to reclaim the authentic lines and passages from the contrived. Contrivance had been guided by various neoclassic formalities, which tended to dispose the verse in single lines whose sense could survive the deletion of their neighbors.

When they had finished, and Eliot had rewritten the central section, the poem ran, in Pound's words, "from 'April . . .' to 'shantih' without a break." This is true if your criterion for absence of breaks is Symbolist, not neoclassical. Working over the text as they did, shaking out ashes from amid the glowing coals, leaving the luminous bits to discover their own unexpected affinities, they nearly recapitulated the history of Symbolism, a poetic that systematized the mutual affinities of details neoclassic canons had guided.

From "The Urban Apocalypse" in Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of The Waste Land." Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1973.

Richard Ellman: On "The Waste Land"

Pound's criticism of The Waste Land was not of its meaning; he liked its despair and was indulgent of its neo-Christian hope. He dealt instead with its stylistic adequacy and freshness. For example, there was an extended, unsuccessful imitation of The Rape of the Lock at the beginning of "The Fire Sermon." It described the lady Fresca (imported to the waste land from "Gerontion" and one day to be exported to the States for the soft drink trade). Instead of making her toilet like Pope's Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce's Bloom. Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defacation, there was no point in another round. To this shrewd advice we are indebted for the disappearance of such lines as:

The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,

Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes.

Electric summons of the busy bell

Brings brisk Amanda to destroy the spell

Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,

Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,

Where the pathetic tale of Richardson

Eases her labour till the deed is done . . .

This ended, to the steaming bath she moves,

Her tresses fanned by little flutt’ring Loves;

Odours, confected by the cunning French,

Disguise the good old hearty female stench.


The episode of the typist was originally much longer and more laborious:

A bright kimono wraps her as she sprawls

In nerveless torpor on the window seat;

A touch of art is given by the false

Japanese print, purchased in Oxford Street.


Pound found the décor difficult to believe: "Not in that lodging house?" The stanza was removed. When he read the later stanza,

--Bestows one final patronising kiss,

And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit;

And at the corner where the stable is,

Delays only to urinate, and spit,


he warned that the last two lines were "probably over the mark," and Eliot acquiesced by cancelling them.

Pound persuaded Eliot also to omit a number of poems that were for a time intended to be placed between the poem's sections, then at the end of it. One was a renewed thrust at poor Bleistein, drowned now but still haplessly Jewish and luxurious under water:

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies

Under the flatfish and the squids.


Graves' Disease in a dead jew's/man's eyes!

Where the crabs have eat the lids . . .


That is lace that was his nose


Roll him gently side to side,

See the lips unfold unfold


From the teeth, gold in gold....


Pound urged that this, and several other mortuary poems, did not add anything, either to The Waste Land or to Eliot's previous work. He had already written "the longest poem in the English langwidge. Don't try to bust all records by prolonging it three pages further." As a result of this resmithying by il miglior fabbro, the poem gained immensely in concentration. Yet Eliot, feeling too solemnized by it, thought of prefixing some humorous doggerel by Pound about its composition. Later, in a more resolute effort to escape the limits set by The Waste Land, he wrote Fragment of an Agon, and eventually, "somewhere the other side of despair," turned to drama.

From "The First Waste Land." In Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of The Waste Land." Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1973.

Timothy H. Smith: On "The Waste Land"

An Unwelcome Oasis: The Misguided Attempt to Remake The Waste Land for iPad Readers


Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop

But there is no water

—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Touch Press, whose digital offerings include a survey of the solar system, a catalogue of gems and jewels, and a beefed-up periodic table, has released an interactive version of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for Apple’s iPad. And so far, both critics and consumers have welcomed the company’s first literary foray. In its first week, the application was the highest grossing in the app store, becoming the “US iPad App of the week,” and reviewers have celebrated the product. Self-proclaimed “philistine” Shane Richmond of the Telegraph calls it “stylish” and “an essential for your iPad,” while more “literary” reviewers argue that it improves a Waste Land experience. One says its “various ways of approaching the text are enticements to the multiple readings that make a full appreciation of the poem possible” (Saavedra). Another maintains, “The multimedia does not detract, it enhances, and gives reading an intimidating poem the joy of exploration, of discovery” (Fussner).

Yet Touch Press’s treatment of the poem remains problematic for several reasons. The designers advertise their hope to “extend the reach of Eliot’s greatest work, bringing a depth of understanding and sensitivity to poetry in the digital space,” but the app benefits no audience significantly. Among other issues, the caterings toward new readers will not add anything to an academic’s relationship with the poem, and the esoteric annotations sometimes guide too strictly a beginner’s reading. Moreover, while The Waste Land’s interpretive challenges might have made it seem hospitable to elucidative features, the additional materials often cheapen the fundamentally elusive text. Touch Press’s app may be charming in some ways, but it certainly is not the “absolute delight” (Beale) most have deemed it. My hope here is to show that ultimately the app instantiates Huckleberry Finn’s claim that “overreaching don’t pay.”

At its core, The Waste Land for iPad reads like any other e-book. It preserves what Touch Press calls “the typography and integrity of the original,” as published in 1922. But the application distinguishes itself from other digital versions through its “wealth of interactive features,” most of which offer interpretive assistance or address the poem’s historical significance. The application’s interactive notes, its copy of The Waste Land manuscript, and the video commentaries provided by Paul Keegan, Craig Raine, and Jeanette Winterson constitute the features I consider “elucidative.” Touch Press asserts that its notes, which are silently appropriated from B. C. Southam’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, address Eliot’s allusions comprehensively, and one would be hard-pressed to disagree. For the title page alone, Touch Press provides three annotations, variously addressing the title, epigraph, and dedication. The notes attached to the poem’s five sections then appear just as regularly, with almost one annotation per line. A copy of the poem’s manuscript next allows users to see, through Ezra Pound’s edits, what the final draft accomplishes poetically.

The more “reflective” features explore the poem’s cultural impact. Video commentaries from Seamus Heaney (poet), Fiona Shaw (actress), and Frank Turner (musician) discuss Eliot’s influence on music and literature. A gallery of images provides, among other things, a cultural backdrop, displaying Eliot’s hometown (St. Louis) and eventual workplace (London), as well as some key figures in Eliot’s life (Pound and Valerie Eliot). Fiona Shaw’s filmed performance of the poem and audio readings from T. S. Eliot, Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, and Viggo Mortensen—all synchronized to the text—then round out the suite of features. For those initially reading The Waste Land or returning to it after a long absence, some of these additions might prove valuable. Touch Press’s references to other works of art, for example, may give users unfamiliar with Eliot’s style or with modernism generally some avenues into the difficult poem. Allusions to Eliot’s influence on Bob Dylan, as well as suggested analogies between his abstract lyrics and Eliot’s poetry, could increase Dylan’s fans’ patience for the text. Similarly, the inclusion of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon might clarify the poem’s basic form and function for those more experienced with the visual arts. This is a conclusion one must draw independently, however, for the caption simply reads, “Picasso was a contemporary of T. S. Eliot’s, active as a painter during the same period that Eliot was writing.”

The application’s presentation of the major debates surrounding The Waste Land could also improve a beginner’s experience. While Touch Press may not satisfactorily address the poem’s structure, the commentaries from Fiona Shaw, Paul Keegan, Craig Raine, and Jeanette Winterson together offer a solid critical introduction, demonstrating how Eliot’s poem both necessitates and benefits from different points of view. The discourses addressed, contested since 1922, concern the poem’s tone, as well as its relationship to the cultural temperament of the 1920s.

Touch Press first presents the question whether The Waste Land is, as Calvin Bedient explains, “a poem, as many have thought, of despair? Or a poem, as others have believed, of heroically attained salvation? Or, as still others have suggested, of something in-between, something baulked?” (ix). Shaw claims in one of the app’s briefest videos that the poem ends on a positive, calm, and uplifting note, and elsewhere her tranquil performance of the concluding section corresponds with her commentary. Yet Jeanette Winterson argues otherwise in her video, saying “it’s very bleak,” and Ted Hughes’s restless reading matches her take. Then Eliot himself, reading in 1947, suggests another possibility, indicating a sort of tonal ambiguity through a neutral affect.

Now a quick look at the poem’s critical history illustrates that such divergences regarding the tone have been common. One quiet voice in the Times Literary Supplement suggested that The Waste Land might concern “heroically attained salvation” in the first review ever published: “Life is neither hellish nor heavenly; it has a purgatorial quality” (Brooker 77). But as Lois Cuddy and David Hirsch note, this reading fell mostly on deaf ears until Cleanth Brooks shifted the critical consensus with his 1939 essay, “Critique of the Myth,” which argues that Eliot’s poem is optimistic, depicting presently hellish conditions while suggesting how redemption might be gained later. Before then, most saw the poem “as an expression of negation, futility, and despair over the emptiness of life after World War I” (Cuddy 1). J. C. Squire called it a continuous “state of erudite depression,” and Edmund Wilson highlighted that “nothing ever grows during the action of the poem and no rain ever falls. The thunder of the final vision is ‘dry sterile thunder without rain’” (Brooker 115, 85). And, as evidenced by Winterson’s comment, pessimistic interpretations persist today, even if most critics now gravitate toward optimism. One of the app’s key advantages, then, is that it introduces beginners to a historically significant line of debate.

The application’s video commentaries also address the poem’s relationship with World War I. Paul Keegan suggests that a widespread post-war distress, which Eliot also experienced personally, manifested itself in Eliot’s writing. He claims that The Waste Land includes “forms of tepidity or unfeelingness that suggested some malaise that might be collective but was also specific to Eliot.” Winterson agrees, adding that Eliot purposefully tried to create a work reflecting his contemporaries’ anxieties. She says Eliot “was not in any way an unconscious thinker”; rather, he was so attuned to the contemporary culture and reader reception that he “could hear the grass grow, he was so keen.” According to her, Eliot understood precisely both the sentiment he was communicating and the atmosphere in which he was publishing. 

However, Craige Raine’s commentary suggests Eliot’s style actually had little to do with any post-war malaise. Pointing to Pablo Picasso’s early twentieth-century art, he explains that the ‘“modernist aesthetic” developed before World War I even began. Regarding Eliot specifically, Raine alludes to Pound’s saying of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that “Eliot has modernized himself” back in 1914. And given that The Waste Land has been called a “gradual progression” of “Prufrock,” featuring “more of the ‘overwhelming question’” (Bedient 4-5), one could easily argue Eliot was not primarily addressing wartime atrocities. Perhaps he was actually exploring contemporary issues separate from war, such as failing human relationships in an increasingly materialistic society. Historically Eliot’s critics have addressed all these possibilities, so, again, users gain quick access to a major critical debate. I. A. Richards argues that the poem expresses the “plight of a whole generation” (278), while Alan Marshall points out the following:

Eliot rejected this kind of acclamation in the most withering terms: “When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the ‘disillusionment of a generation,’ which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention.”…[The public] identified with the poem too readily. (95)

John Soldo adds that Eliot could have been responding to any number of influences, including “an unhappy marriage,” “a congenital hernia,” “literary aspirations [that] were yet to be fulfilled,” or a teaching job that was “exasperating” (21). Although the app may not provide this much detail, it does give readers a basic rundown of the discourse.

Unfortunately, other features, such as the annotations, could cheapen a beginner’s experience. Perhaps users could avoid the paratextual notes, but it seems unlikely that an inexperienced reader struggling through oblique references and multiple languages could resist the temptation of efficient “elucidation.” And the problem with any seemingly innocent glance at the notes is the following: in addition to suggesting a “correct” way to read the poem, “comprehensive notes” can also disrupt the flow of the reading experience.  

The note explaining the dedication illustrates perfectly how annotations can detract from the The Waste Land: it briefly outlines Ezra Pound’s role in the modernist movement, his personal relationship with T. S. Eliot, and his editing of The Waste Land, as well as the fact that the epigraph is not actually taken from Dante’s Commedia but from Pound’s reworking of a Dantean phrase. Undoubtedly the explanation there of Eliot’s allusion to an allusion (dedicated to the writer of the first allusion, no less) could overwhelm or distract a reader who has not yet even reached “April is the cruelest month.” Even the less weighty annotations could hamper the reading experience, such as a literal description of where Margate is, for then users wonder why Eliot was ever there anyway. Almost invariably, simple questions blossom into larger ones, and the questions provoked by the app’s notes are not often conducive to an improved Waste Land experience. The fact that a note exists to explain that “Mrs. Equitone” is not an allusion and needs no further explanation should suggest how overboard Touch Press has gone.

Yet some critics have argued that elucidative materials such as these are integral to understanding the poem. Elizabeth Drew argues the following: The ugliness, the emptiness, and the aimlessness of the contemporary world…cannot be clarified without the study of external sources….Before [The Waste Land’s] intensity can be fully appreciated as an experience of poetry, the intellectual background has to be absorbed and the logical links explained. (59-60)  Drew feels that annotations such as those in the app are necessary because Eliot’s “range of reference is so wide, and to most readers so unfamiliar” (59).  However, her argument that Eliot’s poetry must “tell us something” or it will not establish “a coherent whole of feeling and attitude” (60) fails to acknowledge that incoherence and bewilderment can constitute a feeling and attitude. Similarly misguided is her belief that “it is a justifiable ambition to want to know what the poet is feeling and what he is holding an attitude towards” (60). It is obviously difficult to discuss anything done purposefully in any work of art, but one can reasonably conclude that the multilingual passages and esoteric allusions in the poem serve a function that immediate translation and explication mitigate. One critic even suggests that the poem is ultimately “about” the “fantasy of interpretation” (Ross 134).

William Pritchard offers a more reasonable stance on how elucidative materials affect readings of The Waste Land, drawing an important distinction between the notes Eliot added to the poem and the “scaffolding” critics have added: “Eliot’s notes, if not taken too seriously, are harmless and sometimes amusing. But other sorts of notes or glosses adhering to the poem…can be more insidious, more inhibiting to responsive, creative reading” (333). Annotations only exist, he adds, due to “an editorial anxiety to fill in the blanks which the poem so carefully does not fill in” (333). Ultimately paratextual notes are not actually integral parts of the piece or even useful to beginning readers. Pritchard points out that Wyndham Lewis once said of Ulysses, a work that greatly influenced The Waste Land, that “no one who looks at it will ever want to look behind it” (334), and the same applies to Eliot’s poem, where forays into the poem’s depths distract readers from the surface’s wonderful subtleties.

A clever argument might be made that an awareness of allusions further fragments the poem in a way that coheres with its disjointedness, but such a stance too heavily deemphasizes the poem’s unique effects. Certainly The Waste Land loses something when focus moves from the text to the paratext, for miniscule explications interrupt the poem’s progression and divert readers’ attentions from Eliot’s measured musical sense. As Pritchard explains, “What we need to work at instead is keeping the poem moving, paying attention to the sequence [of voices]”; annotations that readers “store untroubled in the mind and then read on” do not add much to a reading, only disrupting “the voices in motion that make up the poem’s substance” (335, 333). 

And though Pritchard was writing decades after Drew, their differences in opinion cannot simply be attributed to critical shifts over time, for F. O. Mathiessen argued similarly in The Achievement of T. S. Eliot in 1935. Therein he maintains Eliot was right in believing “that ‘poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ That is to say, it can work upon the ear the depth of its incantation; it can begin to stir us by its movement before our minds say what it is that we feel” (84). Mathiessen points to the sensuous opening passage of “A Game of Chess” and explains that, while the allusion to Shakespeare undoubtedly helps “heap up an impression of Renaissance splendor and luxuriance” (85), the passage operates successfully without knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra. He argues that a “sensation of magnificence” arises simply through this passage’s “beauty of sound” and “richness of connotation” (84), so a “proper” experience with the poem requires no knowledge of Eliot’s intellectual background. He implies there a shared belief that notes only water down The Waste Land, diluting the experience for beginning readers. 

A little ironically, commentaries in the app reiterate this point. Seamus Heaney remembers in college having to read The Waste Land as if it were a textbook, learning and regurgitating the interpretations of his professors before teaching those same ideas himself a few years later. He recalls, “I never had the experience of being alone and a little bewildered and then coming back to and being excited by and getting to know on one’s own the poetry.” Then he concludes that one should not read it “under the eye of the instructor” before “sufficiently attending to the strangeness of the thing itself.” Meanwhile, Winterson claims that any attempts to make The Waste Land approachable necessarily lessen the poem’s effect, as “the only thing Eliot is interested in is the whole experience.” She explains, “You read it out loud. You read it six times. And it means what it means. There are no shortcuts.”

The other major problem for Eliot beginners using The Waste Land for iPadis its lack of a basic biography. Many new volumes of poetry include chronological outlines of poets’ lives and works, oftentimes with added historical context, but all Touch Press includes are sparse details in captions throughout the app’s image gallery.

For those a little more experienced with the poem, a couple commentaries might merit inclusion. Jim McCue’s video explores The Waste Land’s publication history, as he highlights some differences between its publication in Criterion and The Dial, saying they reveal that another version of the poem was floating around in the early 1920s. McCue also discusses how Virginia Woolf made errors in The Waste Land’s first English publication in book form, writing, “A crowd flowed under London Bridge,” rather than over. His brief but insightful commentary shows how the seemingly simple process of publication can prove quite colorful—a useful fact for budding critics to remember.

Intermediate readers should also appreciate a perspective regarding the poem’s obscenities. One of Craig Raine’s commentaries draws attention to the fact that people tend to overlook the eroticism of Eliot’s poem because its sex scenes are so desolate. He compares D. H. Lawrence’s and Joyce’s struggles to get published in the ’20s to the public’s easy acceptance of Eliot’s poem. Raine believes Eliot shows a darker side of love than either Lawrence or Joyce and suggests that prudish audiences are more willing to stomach unpleasant depictions of sexuality. His commentary thereby inspires reflections on what constitutes “appropriate literature” and why.

The readings and the performance included in the app could also enhance an intermediate reader’s appreciation of the poem, although some people who feel that readings necessarily involve interpretations might argue that they restrict an audience’s understanding. Many critics maintain that “the lurking possibilities of mistaking [a passage’s] direction” (Pritchard 336) constitute one of The Waste Land’s key features, so users might be better off without any of the readings. Finding the central voice of the poem to be “universal and dislocated,” these critics want to focus on “the volatile surface intensities of language” (Pritchard 336), rather than force interpretation in any particular direction. Even individual voices, Harriet Davidson suggests, may resist categorization:

[The voices range] from vivid characters such as Marie, the hyacinth girl, Stetson’s friend, Madame Sosostris, the nervous woman, the pub woman, Tiresias, and the Thames daughters, to the non-human voices of the nightingale, the cock, and the thunder, and the voices from literature in the many allusions in the poem. The many abrupt changes and mutations in the voices of the poem often blur the proper boundaries between identities, further increasing the reader’s confusion about who is speaking. (126)

But any solely dismissive stance on readings or performances certainly seems misguided. A more reasonable view might hold that they bring new insights to the application’s users, revealing “lurking possibilities” readers might not consider on their own.

One might even argue that the various readings in the app actually delimit interpretive possibilities more than they constrain them. As Davidson points out, a “reader’s interpretation, like any desire for order, is really just another proliferation of possibility, not at all a stabilizing of the poem” (126). When Eliot does not “feign congestion” in the Madame Sosostris passage and Fiona Shaw “does an admirable stuffy nose” (Fussner), users see that the speaker could be either involved directly in the action or merely overseeing it. And other divergent readings function similarly. As Pritchard might conclude, the application’s readings together illustrate that “a variety of responses, most of them cogent and relevant, will prove The Waste Land to be a work eminently hospitable to divergent ways of reading it” (336). Eliot’s offering two largely different readings himself should be support enough for a claim concerning multiple readings’ utility.

Sadly the application also has two huge flaws for intermediate readers. First, Touch Press includes no list of significant publications suggesting where readers could pursue further inquiries, and the video commentaries feature no citations at all. The relatively shallow analyses among most of the commentaries are also problematic. The application ignores what Colleen Lamos calls “a curious twist of literary history,” where “recent critics of The Waste Land have returned to the questions that concerned its initial readers, before its elevation to the status of a classic” (109). While one of the app’s commentaries does briefly allude to the disapproving early criticism of John Crowe Ransom and others, nowhere does Touch Press suggest that any negative views persist today. Ignoring the more controversial problems regarding Eliot’s sexism, anti-Semitism, and classism, the app glosses over many critics’ seeing the poem as a “rather tarnished literary icon…now primarily of interest for precisely the errant tendencies that were previously corrected, explained away, or ignored” (Lamos 108). Further, no discussions of his religious sense appear, and no commentaries examine The Waste Land’s effects on philosophy, literary criticism, or social studies. The app will greatly dissatisfy anyone hoping to begin exploring Eliot’s work more seriously.

For serious Eliot scholars, the application’s benefits are clearly the fewest. With the app, there may be “no more need for multiple paperweights and broken book spines while you prep for your teaching or draft an article on The Waste Land” (Gray), but this is probably worth less than the $13.99 price tag. The shallow commentaries certainly will not teach experts anything new, so the app could only benefit them as a potential source of commentary. Somebody might like to examine, for example, how the app features such a variety of functions, perspectives, and foci that it ultimately retains and expands the elusiveness and nuance of The Waste Land itself.

Obviously, like intermediate readers, serious scholars are also disadvantaged by the lack of citations, but the app’s facsimile might pose an even bigger problem. The inclusion of only a partial scan of the manuscript must bewilder anyone who has encountered the manuscript in its fully published form. For The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts represents far more than a poet’s initial scribblings and a few of his contemporary’s suggestions. It is a poem largely distinct from the one published in 1922. The draft is twice the length of the final text, and its order is entirely undecided and random, aside from the portions labeled “He Do the Police in Different Voices Part I and II” (later sections I and II). The conclusive “What the Thunder Said” originally appears in the middle of the poem, followed by several largely autobiographical pieces that disappear entirely in the final draft, excepting a few transplanted lines. Pound tells Eliot in a letter that “the thing runs now from April…to shantih without a break,” so portions titled “The Death of Saint Narcissus,” “Song,” “Exequy,” “The Death of the Duchess,” “Elegy,” and “Dirge” get the axe.

But regrettably, Touch Press presents almost none of this information. The narrative section placed before “April is the cruelest month” does not appear in the app, and the formerly disorganized pile of fragmented poems is reorganized into its recognizable order. Each of the sections removed by Pound is excluded entirely, which is unfortunate because Touch Press explains that Pound wielded great editorial powers but then fails to demonstrate his greatest triumphs. Without a typed version next to it, which the book form provides, the facsimile pages included in the app are also essentially illegible. Of course one can discern what Eliot has written, as an ordered Waste Land now exists as a published poem, but Pound and Vivienne Eliot’s scribbles are almost impossible to make out. As this addition clearly cannot be for the poem’s serious scholars, the fact that new users cannot read the collaborators’ comments makes its inclusion seem a poorly executed afterthought—and probably the interactive poem’s weakest feature.

So the app can neither offer much to Eliot veterans nor give those just starting the poem an ideal introduction, while intermediate scholars are better off exploring libraries and journal collections. Max Whitby, co-founder and CEO of Touch Press, expressed a hope in a February 15, 2011, press release that the app would “bring a profoundly important subject to the attention of a new digital audience and make it come alive in their hands,” but he failed to recognize that The Waste Land never died and needs no infusion of vitality. Interested readers have sought and will continue to seek out the poem in its original form, and while The Waste Land for iPadcan boast of some innovative features, it cannot ultimately claim to be a reinvigorated or livelier version of the poem. Readers interested in either beginning The Waste Land or supplementing their present understanding should seek an alternative path through the wastes.

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984. Print.

Beale, Rachael. “Review: The Waste Land iPad App.” Bookseller, 13 June 2011. Web.

Bedient, Calvin. He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its Protagonist. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. Print.

Brooker, Jewel Spears. T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Cuddy, Lois A., and David H. Hirsch. Critical Essays on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Print.

Davidson, Harriet. “Improper Desire: Reading The Waste Land.” The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Ed. Anthony David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 121-31. Print.

Drew, Elizabeth A. T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950. Print.

Fussner, Nora. “Those Are Pearls that Were His iPad.” Electric Literature, 29 June, 2011. Web.

Gray, Will. “Review: The Waste Land iPad App.” T. S. Eliot Society, 8 August, 2011. Web

Lamos, Colleen. Deviant Modernism: Sexual and Textual Errancy in T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

Marshall, Alan. “England and Nowhere.” The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Ed. Anthony David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 94-107. Print.

Matthiessen, F. O. The Achievement of T. S. Eliot. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1935. Print.

Pritchard, William H. “T. S. Eliot.” The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. 319-42. Print.

Richmond, Shane. “The Waste Land iPad App Review.” The Telegraph, 15 June 2011. Web.

Richards, I. A. Principles of Literary Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1961. Print.

Ross, Andrew. “The Waste Land and the Fantasy of Interpretation.” Representations 8.1 (1984): 134-58. Print.

Saavedra, John, Jr. “An eBook for Young and Old.” Steam Punk Publishing, 29 June 2011. Web.

Soldo, John J. The Tempering of T. S. Eliot. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Research, 1983. Print.

Debojoy Chanda: On "The Waste Land"

Classicism in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Ever since T. S. Eliot described himself as “[c]lassicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” in his 1928 preface to “For Lancelot Andrewes” (qtd. in Deane 31), a great deal of scholarship began to be expended in interpreting his magnum opus “The Waste Land” (1922) in light of his concept of ‘classicism.’ Most scholars adopted one of two approaches: they either asserted that Eliot’s classicism was associated in some way with Augustan neoclassicism, or misread Eliot’s essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” to subsequently view his classicism as consisting in an advocacy of classical myths used a la James Joyce’s Ulysses to represent the “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Eliot, “Ulysses” 270).

Eliot did indeed base his version of classicism on Augustan neoclassical influences. Nevertheless I would argue that in the final reckoning his classicism did not have much to do with them. Consequently, attempts to view “The Waste Land” as a work that is ‘classical’ by virtue of the presence of neoclassical features in it are riddled with problems. As for the approach centering on Eliot’s interpretation of Joyce’s “mythical method” (Eliot, “Ulysses” 271), while myths do indeed feature very prominently in “The Waste Land,” the implications of myth for Eliot are not as straightforward as proponents of this approach would have us believe. I will attempt to reassess Eliot’s concept of classicism in order to reveal what I believe it connotes. In light of this reassessment, I will also posit a reconsideration of “The Waste Land”’s classicism.

Eliot adopted his concept of classicism from Charles Maurras and the long tradition of French reactionary thought. After the French Revolution, Classicism as an aesthetic principle in France was defined in opposition to Romanticism which, as a literary and philosophical movement, was believed to have been responsible for spawning the Revolution and its excesses (Vaughan 320). In light of this opposition to Romanticism and the Revolution, classicism was constructed as an aesthetic involving allegiance towards the Latin tradition in literature, as well as towards royalism, Catholicism, and a rigidly hierarchical social structure. Maurras’ twentieth-century version of classicism was largely an adaptation of this aesthetic (Asher 8).

Eliot had been considerably influenced by Maurras’ thought. He saw Maurras’ version of French classicism as the outcome of a general propensity towards the ideals of seventeenth-century French neoclassicism that had characterized the early part of the twentieth century. This propensity, according to Eliot, was accompanied by a corresponding allegiance to the monarchical form of government, and to the Catholic Church, these having been the mainstays of sociopolitical life in seventeenth-century France (Asher 38; Kimmel 40).

Irving Babbitt, who had also wielded influence upon Eliot’s intellectual development, framed his own version of classicism drawing upon Maurras’ French neoclassical predilections. Babbitt, who had been a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Harvard, had taught Eliot, and had facilitated his first encounter with Maurras’ thought. Babbitt’s classicism viewed the Romantic tradition of Rousseau as the “glorification of impulse,” and asserted that this preponderance of impulse could be checked by a thorough grounding in the ancients. Babbitt believed that a classical education would make true virtue one’s second nature.

While absorbing influences from Maurras’ and Babbitt’s conceptions of classicism, Eliot almost completely reconfigured them to formulate his own version. He retained Maurras’ and Babbitt’s thought only insofar as he defined his classicism against Romanticism, stating in his essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923) that classicism is “complete,” “adult,” and “orderly” as opposed to the “fragmentary,” “immature,” and “chaotic” character of Romanticism. Eliot opposed Maurras’ classicism because he considered its alliance with royalism and Catholicism problematic—he felt that to generalize about a “classicist in art and literature” being likely to adhere to a monarchical form of government and to the Catholic Church would be to gloss over the “many cross-currents” (qtd. in Asher 38). Given this multiplicity of “cross-currents,” Eliot decides in “The Function of Criticism” to view his classicism as a concept with merely literary and not sociopolitical associations (Eliot, “Function” 34-36).

Eliot’s decision to prune his classicism of sociopolitical ramifications is also explained by his belief that the term classicism has certain bearings when applied to literature, and completely different ones when applied to “the whole complex of interests and modes of behavior and society” (Eliot, “Ulysses” 269-70). His pruning of sociopolitical ramifications was also governed by his opinion that one’s choice of classicism or Romanticism should not be dictated by national and consequently sociopolitical biases, but by an inquiry into “which, of the two antithetical views [as literary concepts] is right [i.e. better for purposes of literary expression].” Eliot casts his ballot in favor of classicism because he links it with a “more mature” literary form that Romanticism lacks (Eliot, “Function” 36; emphasis in the original).

Eliot thus links his version of classicism specifically with literary form—a link he also highlights in the second lecture from his Syllabus of a Course of Six Lectures in Modern French Literature (1916) (Asher 38). However, he first spells out the implications of this association of classicism with form only in his essay of homage to T. E. Hulme published in the Criterion of April 1924. In it, Eliot speaks of the “classical moment in literature” as being one involving the evolution of an ideal literary form “which satisfies the best intellect of the time” (qtd. in Ellis 56). Eliot views this ideal form as the marker of the age of classicism (Ellis 56). Being the distinguishing feature of the classicist age, this form is evidently what constitutes classicism. For Eliot, therefore, classicism is not merely associated with literary form, but in fact refers to an ideal literary form.

In this context, one should note that like Eliot, Hulme views classicism as a literary form—specifically a verse form. He defines Romanticism and classicism as two verse forms embodying two contrasting attitudes to life. According to Hulme, while the Romanticist verse form is characterized by an attempt to epitomize the infinite, the classicist form is distinguished by a contrarious “holding back” through a surrender to tradition (qtd. in Rae 45). Eliot consciously aligns his classicism with Hulme’s in his essay of homage to him. Consequently, given Hulme’s yoking of classicism with tradition, it is not surprising that tradition also becomes one of the central components in Eliot’s version of classicism as delineated by him in “The Function of Criticism” (Eliot, “Function” 31-33).

Eliot speaks of “tradition” in “The Function of Criticism” with direct reference to his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In this latter essay, he describes tradition in terms of literature, speaking of it as a view perceiving all the works of the European literary canon from Homer to the present day as “ha[ving] a simultaneous existence” and composing an “ideal order” amongst themselves. According to Eliot, whenever a “really new” literary work is produced in the present day, that work is introduced into this ideal order, thereby causing an ‘alteration’ of the already-existing works in the order. Such a view of the tradition of European literature therefore requires that “the past should be altered by the present as much as [that] the present [should be] directed by the past” (Eliot, “Tradition” 4).

The most obvious question that rears up at this point is: if classicism, for Eliot, is a reference to a literary form, what sort of form could incorporate within itself the presence of the European literary tradition while simultaneously effecting its alteration? Eliot answers this question in his essay on Andrew Marvell published in 1921. In it, he describes Marvell’s poetry as “a classic: classic in a sense in which [English Romantic poetry] is not” (Eliot, “Marvell” 156). The first use of “classic” in this description, as per Frank Kermode, refers to the more common employment of the word as a noun ascribing a certain cultural status to literary works (Kermode 24). Its use in the second instance, on the other hand, is clearly in accord with Eliot’s utilization of the word in his essay of homage to Hulme as the adjectival form of “classicism” (Ellis 56; Eliot, “Romanticism” 293). Eliot emphasizes this implication by speaking of Marvell’s poetry in the context of the latter instance as being opposed to English Romantic poetry, in keeping with his own definition of classicism against Romanticism. Through this latter usage, Eliot brings Marvell’s poetry within the purview of his version of classicism.

According to Eliot, Marvell’s poetry is “classic” in this latter sense because of his poetic form’s ability to “unite.” Given the relevance of the word “classic” in this epithetical sense to his notion of classicism as an ideal literary form, Eliot is here evidently indicating that the constituents of this ideal form are to be found in this ability to “unite” that Marvell’s poetic form possesses. What Eliot means by this capacity to “unite” is the capability that a poetic form has to incorporate the presence of past works of the European literary canon within itself by alluding to them, while simultaneously using the literary resources at its disposal to alter their content (Eliot, “Marvell” 149). He makes these indications clear by explaining this power to “unite” via the instance of Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress,” quoting the following lines from it:

But at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near, And yonder before us lie Deserts of vast eternity. (qtd. in Eliot, “Marvell” 149)

Eliot says that in these lines Marvell alludes to Horace’s first and fourth odes, and to Catullus’ poem “Viuamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus” (“Let us live and love, my Lesbia”). Eliot states that in alluding to these works, Marvell uses his poetic voice to alter their content, making it “more comprehensive by penetrating greater depths” than Horace or Catullus had accomplished (Eliot, “Marvell” 149). By extension Eliot indicates that Horace’s odes have similarly alluded to and altered the content of “Viuamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,” Catullus’ poem having been the work that had ostensibly started the carpe diem tradition encompassed in Horace’s odes and in Marvell’s lines (Rainey 219). Marvell’s allusion to and alteration of Horace therefore involves a simultaneous allusion to and alteration of the fountainhead of the carpe diem trope in the European literary tradition. What Eliot consequently signifies is that the quoted lines from “To His Coy Mistress” cannot be viewed in isolation. By citing and modifying the source of the carpe diem theme in European literature, the lines should be seen as in effect altering the entire European literary tradition that deals with this theme, thereby helping perceive and alter the whole of European literature as a “simultaneous order” in keeping with Eliot’s tenets in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (Eliot, “Tradition” 3).


Consequently, Eliot signifies that what constitutes classicism as a literary form is the allusion to and alteration of content from a past work of European literature—a process which automatically encompasses and alters the entire European literary canon down to its sources through that past work’s own literary allusions. One should note in this context that the passage Eliot quotes from “To His Coy Mistress” to demonstrate this process of allusion and alteration is exactly the one he himself alludes to and modifies twice in the third section of “The Waste Land.” In fact, the poetic form of “The Waste Land” depends on Eliot’s citation and modification of the content of past English, French, German, Italian, Greek, and Latin literary works, and of the Bible. In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), Eliot refers to the European literary tradition as being made up specifically of these bodies of literature (Eliot, Culture 189-90). Therefore, if the alteration of material from past works of the European literary canon is what classicism as a literary form is about, it is executed through the full length of “The Waste Land” via Eliot’s procedure of citing and altering the content of works from those very bodies of literature which, for him, together constitute this canon.

It can consequently be concluded that “The Waste Land” sees Eliot putting into exercise the literary form he refers to through his use of the term “classicism.” Given the fact that he was working on “The Waste Land” even as he was writing “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and his essay on Marvell, it is not surprising that “The Waste Land” puts into practice this literary form whose possibilities Eliot lauds in these essays. By using “The Waste Land” to cite and modify those very lines by Marvell that themselves do the same for Horace who in turn alters Catullus, Eliot demonstrates in practice what he speaks of in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—that this ‘alteration of the past’ so intrinsic to the European literary tradition is a continuous process (Eliot, “Tradition” 4).

Very often when citing a quote from a literary work in “The Waste Land,” Eliot modifies it to some degree. This is what he does when quoting “To His Coy Mistress.” But through the example of Marvell’s modification of Horace and by extension the latter’s modification of Catullus, Eliot makes it obvious that by the ‘alteration’ of a literary allusion, he refers to the modification of that allusion’s substance and not of a quote as such. This alteration of the substance of literary allusions may not always be very overt in “The Waste Land.” Nevertheless, I would assert that every allusion made in “The Waste Land” has its substance altered merely by the presence of the allusion. This is because these allusions, whether in the form of quotation or paraphrase are singly or otherwise collapsed with Eliot’s own lines. This changes the context and the implications of the allusions’ content by forcing the reader to consider Eliot’s lines and the allusions simultaneously (Brooker & Bentley 24).

To demonstrate this process of alteration, let us take the instance of the first literary text alluded to in the body of “The Waste Land”—Countess Marie Larisch’s autobiography. The passage in “The Waste Land” paraphrasing portions from the autobiography is preceded by and fused with Eliot’s own lines discussing the aridity of the waste land of the poem’s title. The substance of the alluded content from the Countess’ autobiography is, as I have stated, altered by its mere citation, thanks to this fusion with Eliot’s lines—it changes the context and the implications of the Countess’ talk of her aristocratic lifestyle, making it symptomatic of the moral and spiritual aridity of modern civilization. This same process of modification through the collapse of lines applies to Eliot’s use of quotations as literary allusions. For example, in the two instances when he alludes to “To His Coy Mistress,” he partially quotes the poem’s line “But at my back I always hear” and melds it with his own input. This alters the connotations of the line in the context of “The Waste Land,” making it signify a sense of physical decay in keeping with the moral decay of modern civilization that the poem portrays.

Even when the allusion to the literary text is too short and/or obtuse to be either a quote or a paraphrase, its content is altered by this same process. When, for example, Eliot claims that he is citing Baudelaire’s poem “The Seven Old Men,” his reference is limited to the words “Unreal City” (Eliot, “Waste Land” 60; “Notes” 71) which neither constitute a quotation from nor a paraphrase of any part the poem. The words only bear a rough resemblance to the poem’s opening line which speaks of the illusory character of a city “crowded with dreams” (qtd. in Rainey 83). At any rate, the reference melds with Eliot’s own lines to make the city of London illustrative of the illusoriness and emptiness that, for Eliot, characterizes materialistic modern life.

This ‘classicist’ framework within which “The Waste Land” functions is, however, fractured in three parts of the poem where Eliot applies this process of allusion to Asian and not European literature. According to the notes appended to “The Waste Land,” Eliot refers to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon in the poem’s third section, and to the Sanskrit Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in its fifth section. This allusion to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad being the more extensive of the two, it would be fruitful to closely examine it.

“What the Thunder Said,” the title of the fifth section of “The Waste Land,” alludes to a fable narrated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The fable is about the three classes of beings in Hindu mythology i.e. the gods, the demons, and the humans going to Brahma, the creator of the universe, to ask him what they should ideally do. In response to their query, Brahma utters a single syllable—“da.” While the humans take it to mean “datta” i.e. “give,” the demons think it means “dayadhvam” i.e. “be compassionate,” and the gods feel it means “damyata” i.e. “control yourselves” (Rainey 119-20). What ensues as a result of Brahma’s instruction is thus a crisis of meaning. In the final verses of “What the Thunder Said,” Eliot alludes to this fable by thrice quoting the syllable “da,” besides citing the words “datta,” “dayadhvam,” and “damyata” (Eliot, “Waste Land” 400-11).

By the quotation of the syllable “da” which pertains to a crisis of meaning, I would suggest that the allusion to and alteration of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad’s content gets reduced to a process bearing no meaning. The repetition of the syllable “da” in “What the Thunder Said,” after all, recalls another instance to which such a repetition is central—Dadaism, which derives its name from the syllable “da” that constitutes an integral part of French baby-talk (Shell 162). Eliot, while writing “The Waste Land” was greatly concerned with the element of meaninglessness in Dadaism, as his essay “The Lesson of Baudelaire” (1921) proves (Eliot, “Baudelaire” 144). The syllable “da” that Brahma utters in the aforementioned fable from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is used in “The Waste Land” to onomatopoeically represent the sound of thunder (Rainey 120). Be it as a literary allusion to onomatopoeia or as a reference to baby-talk, the syllable connotes the absence of meaning. It collapses in “What the Thunder Said” with Eliot’s lines to also draw them within its ambit of meaninglessness instead of having its content coherently modified by them.

One observes this same failure to make meaning in the allusions to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, and to the closing benediction of the Upanishads. The line from the third section of “The Waste Land” that alludes to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon runs “Burning burning burning burning;” it ultimately gets reduced to the single word “burning” with which the section closes. The word remains isolated, with no punctuation marks or other formal features with which to make sense of it. This isolation of the word leaves it without a sense of closure although it is itself used to close the third section of “The Waste Land.” Lacking Eliot’s lines to collapse itself with, it also lacks closure within the poem’s classicist framework in that its content thereby remains unmodified in contrast to the European literary allusions in the poem (Eliot, “Waste Land” 308-11). Without this element of closure, the word and by extension its meaning remain open-ended, encompassing any possible number of meanings only to indicate the absence of any specific meaning assignable to it. These very features are to be found yet again in another allusion in “The Waste Land”—the Upanishadic “Shantih shantih shantih” with which Eliot ends the poem (Eliot, “Waste Land” 433). Isolated, and without any punctuation to make sense of it or any of Eliot’s lines to modify it, the citation lacks closure and consequently meaning.

Through these three citations, Eliot indicates that the allusion to and alteration of the content of the Asian work within the classicist literary form opens itself to the possibility of an absence of meaning. This can be traced to a belief Eliot expresses about Asian culture in his essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. He states in it that Asian culture is cut off from the comprehension of Europe because all culture makes sense to the European insofar as he perceives it through the prism of Christianity. He says, “[i]t is in Christianity that our [European] arts have developed…It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance…The [European] World has its unity in this heritage, in Christianity and in the ancient civilisations [sic] of Greece, Rome, and Israel, from which, owing to two thousand years of Christianity, we trace our descent” (Eliot, Culture 200). In short, the European literary tradition encompassed by Eliot’s classicism gains meaning in the European situation by being perceived through the lens of Christianity because “[i]t [i]s only in relation to his own religion that the insights of any…m[a]n ha[s] its significance to him” (qtd. in Izzo 104).

For Eliot, European culture is synonymous with Christian culture in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. He brings even pre-Christian Greek and Latin literature within the purview of Christianity because he views Virgil as having “led Europe towards the Christian culture which he could never know”—a conception that Eliot formulated largely because of Virgil’s role in Dante’s The Divine Comedy(Kermode 23). Thus, the European literary tradition whose subjection to the process of alteration Eliot describes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is bound by and comprehended through the Christian religion.

Eliot’s classicist literary form in “The Waste Land” is, as I have indicated before, a formal exposition of the European literary tradition as represented in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Eliot’s own lines in the classicist form of “The Waste Land” are, in the context of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” significatory of the “really new” work of art in the “ideal order” of the European literary canon, altering the past works of the canon by modifying their content. Therefore, what Eliot’s classicist form demonstrates in “The Waste Land” through its citation of Asian literature is in effect an attempt to fit a non-European work within this ideal order. But this intrusion of the non-European work into the European literary canon is, as I have shown, marked by a failure to make meaning. Eliot’s conception of the European literary tradition as described in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture evidently attributes this failure to the fact that the non-European work lacks the “background of Christianity” so intrinsic to enabling the European reader’s comprehension of the European work. Therefore, in keeping with Eliot’s representation of the European literary canon vis-à-vis his classicism in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “The Waste Land” shows how intrinsic the European literary work and the alteration of the European literary canon are to the poem’s classicist form; it does so not only through its profusion of European literary allusions, but also by its fracture of the classicist form to introduce the non-European work only to highlight how such a work is alien to the form.

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Original Contribution