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.

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Title Wayne Koestenbaum: On "The Waste Land" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Wayne Koestenbaum Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 06 Nov 2015
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