The Waste Land

Michael H. Levenson: On "The Waste Land"

[Levenson quotes the opening four lines]

Who speaks these lines? – presumably whoever speaks these next lines:

[. . . .]

since the subject-matter (the life of the seasons) persists, as does the distinctive syntactic pattern (the series of present participles) and the almost obsessive noun-adjective pairings ("dead land," "spring rain," "little life," "dried tubers"). The second sentence, of course, introduces a new element, a narrating personal consciousness. But surely this need not signal a new speaker; it suggests rather that there is and has been a speaker, the unspecified "us," who will receive greater specification in the next several lines.

[. . . .]

Certainly we want to identify the "us" that winter kept warm with the "us" that summer surprised, and with the "we" who stop, go on, drink coffee and talk. That is how we expect pronouns to behave: same referents unless new antecedents. But if the pronouns suggest a stable identity for the speaker, much else has already become unstable. Landscape has given way to cityscape. General speculation (April as the "cruellest month") resolves into a particular memory: the day in the Hofgarten. And the stylistic pattern shifts. The series of participles disappears, replaced by a series of verbs in conjunction: "And went ... And drank ... And talked." The adjective-noun pattern is broken.

What can we conclude so far? -- that a strain exists between the presumed identity of the poem's speaker and the instability of the speaker's world. If this is the speech of one person, it has the range of many personalities and many voices -- a point that will gain clarity if we consider the remaining lines of the sequence:

[. . . .]

The line of German aggravates the strain, challenging the fragile continuity that has been established. Here is a new voice with a new subject-matter, speaking in another language, resisting assimilation. Is the line spoken, overheard, remembered? Among the poem's readers no consensus has emerged. Nor is consensus to be expected. In the absence of contextual clues, and Eliot suppresses such clues, the line exists as a stark, unassimilable poetic datum.

And yet, after that line a certain continuity is restored. The first-person plural returns; the pattern of conjunction reappears: "And when . . . And I . . . And down." Even that startling line of German, let us notice, had been anticipated in the "Hofgarten" and "Starnbergersee" of the previous lines. Discontinuity, in other words, is no more firmly established than continuity. The opening lines of the poem offer an elaborate system of similarities and oppositions, which might be represented in the following manner:


The diagram should indicate the difficulty. Lines 1-6 are linked by the use of present participles, lines 5-18 by personal pronouns, lines 8-12 by the use of German, lines 10-16 by the reiteration of the conjunction "and." The consequence is that in any given line we may find a stylistic feature which will bind it to a subsequent or previous line, in this way suggesting a continuous speaker, or at least making such a speaker plausible. But we have no single common feature connecting all the lines: one principle of continuity gives way to the next. And these overlapping principles of similarity undermine the attempt to draw boundaries around distinct speaking subjects. The poetic voice is changing; that we all hear. Certainly we hear it when we compare one of the opening lines to those at the end of the passage. But the changes are incremental, frustrating the attempt to make strict demarcations. How many speak in these opening lines? "One," "two" and "three" have been answers, but my point is that any attempt to resolve that issue provokes a collision of interpretive conventions. On the one hand, the sequence of first-person pronouns -- an "us " that becomes a "we," a "me" an "I," and then "Marie" -- would encourage us to read these lines as marking the steady emergence of an individual human subject. But if the march of pronouns would imply that Marie has been the speaker throughout, that suggestion is threatened in the several ways we have considered: the shift from general reflection to personal reminiscence, from landscape to cityscape, from participial connectives to conjunctions, the disappearance of the noun-adjective pattern, the use of German. Attitudes, moreover, have undergone a delicate, though steady, evolution. Can the person who was "kept . . . warm . . . in forgetful snow . . . " be that Marie, who prefers to "go south in winter?" Can the voice which solemnly intones the opening and explosive paradox: April is cruel, utter such conversational banalities as: "In the mountains, there you feel free"?

Perhaps -- but if we insist on Marie as the consistent speaker, if we ask her to lay hold of this complexity, we can expect only an unsteady grasp. The heterogeneity of attitude, the variety of tone, do not resolve into the attitudes and tones of an individual personality. In short, the boundaries of the self begin to waver: if we can no longer trust our pronouns, what can we trust? Furthermore, though we find it difficult to posit one speaker, it is scarcely easier to posit many, since we can say with no certainty where one concludes and another begins. Though the poem's opening lines do not hang together, neither do they fall cleanly apart. Here, as elsewhere, the poem plays between bridges and chasms, repetitions and aggressive novelties, echoes and new voices.

In the opening movement of The Waste Land, the individual subject possesses none of the formal dominance it once enjoyed in Conrad and James. No single consciousness presides; no single voice dominates. A character appears, looming suddenly into prominence, breaks into speech, and then recedes, having bestowed momentary conscious perception on the fragmentary scene. Marie will provide neither coherence nor continuity for the poem: having been named, she will disappear; her part is brief. Our part is larger, for the question we now face is the problem of boundaries in The Waste Land.

[. . . .]

Eliot, as we have already seen, rejects the need for any such integrating Absolute as a way of guaranteeing order. His theory of points of view means to obviate that need. Points of view, though distinct, can be combined. Order can emerge from beneath; it need not descend from above. And thus in the Monist he says of Leibniz' theory of the dominant monad: "I contend that if one recognizes two points of view which are quite irreconcilable and yet melt into each other, this theory is quite superfluous." And in the dissertation he writes that "the pre-established harmony is unnecessary if we recognize that the monads are not wholly distinct."

My italics are tendentious, dramatizing the repetitions in phrase. But the repetition is more than a chance echo; it identifies a problem which both the philosophy and the poetry address. How can one finite experience be related to any other? Put otherwise, how can difference be compatible with unity? Moreover, the poetic solution is continuous with the philosophic solution: individual experiences, individual personalities are not impenetrable. They are distinct, but not wholly so. Like the points of view described in the dissertation, the fragments in The Waste Land merge with one another, pass into one another.

Madame Sosostris, for instance, identifies the protagonist with the drowned sailor ("Here, said she/Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor"). But the sailor, Phlebas, is also identified with Mr Eugenides: recall Eliot's phrase, "the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor." But, as Langbaum has shown, if the protagonist is identified with Phlebas and Phlebas with Eugenides, then it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the protagonist and the Smyrna merchant are, themselves, "not wholly distinct." What, then, do we make of these lines?

[Levenson quotes lines from "Under the brown fog of a winter noon" to "Followed by a weekend at the Metropole."

The protagonist, as Langbaum points out, "stands on both sides of the proposition," and such a conclusion will unnerve us only if we hold fast to traditional concepts of self, personal identity, personal continuity and the barriers between selves.

But in The Waste Land no consistent identity persists; the "shifting references" alter our notions of the self. The characters are little more than aspects of selves or, in the jargon of Eliot's dissertation, "finite centres," "points of view."

Here are the concluding lines of "The Fire Sermon":

[. . . .]

Lines from Augustine alternate with lines from the Buddha, and, as Eliot tells us in the footnote: "the collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident." Of course it is not. It is the way the poem works: it collocates in order to culminate. It offers us fragments of consciousness, "various presentations to various viewpoints," which overlap, interlock, "melting into" one another to form emergent wholes. The poems is not, as it is common to say, built upon the juxtaposition of fragments: it is built out of their interpenetration. Fragments of the Buddha and Augustine combine to make a new literary reality which is neither the Buddha nor Augustine but which includes them both.

But at my back from time to time I hear The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.

The echo from Marvell passes into an echo from Day: the poetic effect depends on amalgamating these distinct sources, on recognizing them as not wholly distinct. For we know, argues Eliot, "that we are able to pass from one point of view to another, that we are compelled to do so, and that the different aspects more or less hang together." The movement of The Waste Land is just such a movement among points of view: Marvell and Day, the Buddha and St Augustine, Ovid and Virgil.

We find ourselves in a position to confront a problem, which, though distant, is not forgotten: the problem of the poem's unity, or what comes to the same thing, the problem of Tiresias. We may begin to see how Tiresias can serve the function of "uniting all the rest," without that obliging us to conclude that all speech and all consciousness are the speech and consciousness of Tiresias. For, if we rush too quickly to Tiresias as a presiding consciousness, along the lines established by Conrad or James, then we lose what the text clearly asks us to retain: the plurality of voices that sound in no easy harmony. What Eliot says of the Absolute can be said of Tiresias, who, also, "dissolves at a touch into ... constituents." But this does not leave us with a heap of broken fragments; we have seen how the fragments are constructed into new wholes. If Tiresias dissolves into constituents, let us remember the moments when those constituents resolve into Tiresias. Tiresias is, in this sense, an intermittent phenomenon in the poem, a subsequent phenomenon, emerging out of other characters, other aspects. The two sexes may, as Eliot suggests, meet in Tiresias, but they do not begin there.

"The life of a soul," writes Eliot in the dissertation, "does not consist in the contemplation of one consistent world but in the painful task of unifying (to a greater and less extent) jarring and incompatible ones, and passing, when possible, from two or more discordant viewpoints to a higher which shall somehow include and transmute them." Tiresias functions in the poem in just this way: not as a consistent harmonizing consciousness but as the struggled-for emergence of a more encompassing point of view. The world, Eliot argues, only sporadically accessible to the knowing mind; it is a "felt whole in which there are moments of knowledge." And so, indeed, is The Waste Land such a felt whole with moments of knowledge. Tiresias provides not permanent wisdom but instants of lucidity during which the poem's angle of vision is temporarily raised, the expanse of knowledge temporarily widened.

The poem concludes with a rapid series of allusive literary fragments: seven of the last eight lines are quotations. But in the midst of these quotations is a line to which we must attach great importance: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." In the space of that line the poem becomes conscious of itself. What had been a series of fragments of consciousness has become a consciousness of fragmentation: that may not be salvation, but it is a difference, for as Eliot writes, "To realize that a point of view is a point of view is already to have transcended it." And to recognize fragments as fragments, to name them as fragments, is already to have transcended them not to an harmonious or final unity but to a somewhat higher, somewhat more inclusive, somewhat more conscious point of view. Considered in this way, the poem does not achieve a resolved coherence, but neither does it remain in a chaos of fragmentation. Rather it displays a series of more or less stable patterns, regions of coherence, temporary principles of order the poem not as a stable unity but engaged in what Eliot calls the "painful task of unifying."

Within this perspective any unity will be provisional; we may always expect new poetic elements, demanding new assimilation. Thus the voice of Tiresias, having provided a moment of authoritative consciousness at the centre of the poem, falls silent, letting events speak for themselves. And the voice in the last several lines, having become conscious of fragmentation, suddenly gives way to more fragments. The polyphony of The Waste Land allows for intermittent harmonies, but these harmonies are not sustained; the consistencies are not permanent. Eliot's method must be carefully distinguished from the methods of his modernist predecessors. If we attempt to make The Waste Land conform to Imagism or Impressionism, we miss its strategy and miss its accomplishment. Eliot wrenched his poetry from the self-sufficiency of the single image and the single narrating consciousness. The principle of order in The Waste Land depends on a plurality of consciousnesses, an ever-increasing series of points of view, which struggle towards an emergent unity and then continue to struggle past that unity.


From A Genealogy of Modernism: A study of English literary doctrine 1908-1922. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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.