The Waste Land Annotations of Ezra Pound
Lloyd’s most famous bank clerk revalued the poetic currency forty-nine years ago. As Joyce said, The Waste Land ended the idea of poetry for ladies. Whether admired or detested, it became, like Lyrical Ballads in 1798, a traffic signal. Hart Crane’s letters, for instance, testify to his prompt recognition that from that time forward his work must be to outflank Eliot’s poem. Today footnotes do their worst to transform innovations into inevitabilities. After a thousand explanations, The Waste Land is no longer a puzzle poem, except for the puzzle of choosing among the various solutions. To be penetrable is not, however, to be predictable. The sweep and strangeness with which Eliot delineated despair resist temptations to patronize Old Possum as old hat. Particular discontinuities continue to surprise even if the idea of discontinuous form—which Eliot himself was to forsake—is now almost as familiar as its sober counterpart. The compound of regular verse and vers libre still wears some of the effrontery with which in 1922 it flouted both schools. The poem retains the air of a splendid feat.
Eliot himself was inclined to pooh-pooh its grandeur. His chiseled comment, which F. O. Matthiessen quotes, disclaimed any intention of expressing “the disillusionment of a generation,” and said that he did not like the word “generation” or have a plan to endorse anyone’s “illusion of disillusion.” To Theodore Spencer he remarked in humbler mood, “Various critics have done me the honor to interpret the poem in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism. To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life. It is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”
This statement is prominently displayed by Mrs. Valerie Eliot in her superb decipherment and elucidation of The Waste Land manuscript. If it is more than an expression of her husband’s genuine modesty, it appears to imply that he considered his own poem, as he considered Hamlet, an inadequate projection of its author’s tangled emotions, a Potemkin village rather than a proper objective correlative. Yet no one will wish away the entire civilizations and cities, wars, hordes of people, religions of East and West, and exhibits from many literatures in many languages which lined the Thames in Eliot’s ode to dejection. And even if London was only his state of mind at the time, the picture he paints of it is convincing.
His remark to Spencer, made after a lapse of years, perhaps catches up another regret, that the poem emphasized his disgust at the expense of much else in his nature. It identified him with a sustained severity of tone, with pulpited (though brief) citations of Biblical and Sophoclean anguish, so that he became an Ezekiel or at least a Tiresias. (In the original version John the Divine made a Christian third among the prophets.) While Eliot did not wish to be considered merely a satirist in his earlier verse, he did not welcome either the public assumption that his poetic mantle had become a hair shirt.
In its early version The Waste Land was woven out of more kinds of material and was therefore less grave and less organized. The first two sections had an over-all title (each had its own title as well), “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” a quotation from Our Mutual Friend. Dickens has the widow Higden say of her adopted child, “Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.” Among the many voices in the first version, Eliot placed at the very beginning a long, conversational passage describing an evening on the town, starting at “Tom’s place” (a rather arch use of his own name), moving on to a brothel, and concluding with a bathetic sunrise:
First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place,
There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind….
—(“I turned up an hour later down at Myrtle’s place.
What d’y’ mean, she says, at two o’clock in the morning,
I’m not in business here for guys like you;
We’ve only had a raid last week, I’ve been warned twice….
So I got out to see the sunrise, and walked home.
This vapid prologue Eliot decided, apparently on his own, to expunge, and went straight into the now familiar beginning of the poem.
Other voices were expunged by Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound, who called himself the “sage homme” (male midwife) of the poem. 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 defecation, 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 Rich- ardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done…
This ended, to the steaming bath she moves,
Her tresses fanned by little flut- t’ring Loves;
Odours, confected by the cunning French,
Disguise the good old hearty fe- male 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 Ox- ford Street.
Pound found the decor 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 canceling them.
Pound persuaded Eliot also to omit a number of poems which 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 Agon,” and eventually, “somewhere the other side of despair,” turned to drama.
Eliot’s remark to Spencer calls The Waste Land a personal poem. His critical theory was that the artist should seek impersonality, but this was probably intended as not so much a nostrum as an antidote, a means to direct emotion rather than let it spill. His letters indicate that he regarded his poems as consequent upon his experiences. When a woman in Dublin remarked that Yeats had never really felt anything, Eliot asked in consternation, “How can you say that?” The Waste Land compiled many of the nightmarish feelings he had suffered during the seven years from 1914 to 1921, that is, from his coming to England until his temporary collapse.
Thanks to the letters quoted in Mrs. Valerie Eliot’s Introduction, and to various biographical leaks,* the incidents of these years begin to take shape. In 1914 Eliot, then on a traveling fellowship from Harvard, went to study for the summer at Marburg. The outbreak of war forced him to Oxford. There he worked at his doctoral dissertation on F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality. The year 1914-15 proved to be pivotal. He came to three interrelated decisions. The first was to give up the appearance of the philosopher for the reality of the poet, the second was to marry, and the third to settle in England.
He obtained much encouragement in all three from Ezra Pound, whom he met in September, 1914. Pound read the poems which no one had been willing to publish and pronounced his verdict, that Eliot “has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.” Harriet Monroe, the editor of Poetry, must publish them, beginning with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It took Pound some time to bring her to the same view, and it was not until June, 1915, that Eliot’s first publication took place. This was also the month of his first marriage, on June 26. His wife was Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and Eliot remained, like Merlin with another Vivian, under her spell, beset and possessed by her intricacies for fifteen years and more.
What the newlyweds were like is recorded by Bertrand Russell, whom Eliot had known at Harvard. In a letter of July, 1915, Russell wrote of dining with them:
I expected her to be terrible, from his mysteriousness; but she was not so bad. She is light, a little vulgar, adventurous, full of life—an artist I think he said, but I should have thought her an actress. He is exquisite and listless; she says she married him to stimulate him, but finds she can’t do it. Obviously he married in order to be stimulated. I think she will soon be tired of him. He is ashamed of his marriage, and very grateful if one is kind to her.
Eliot’s parents did not take well to their son’s doings, though they did not, as has been said by Sencourt, cut him off. His father, president of the Hydraulic Press Brick Company of St. Louis, had expected his son to remain a philosopher, and his mother, though a poet herself, did not like the vers libre of “Prufrock” any better than the free and easy marriage. To both parents it seemed that bright hopes were being put aside for a vague profession in the company of a vague woman in a country only too distinctly at war. They asked to see the young couple, but Vivienne Eliot was frightened by the perils of the crossing, perhaps also by those of the arrival. So Eliot, already feeling “a broken Coriolanus,” as Prufrock felt a Hamlet manqué, took ship alone in August for the momentous interview.
Among them is the new book by the late Robert Sencourt, T.S. Eliot: A Memoir, edited by Donald Adamson (Dodd, Mead, 1971), which is the first biography: Sencourt is undependable in fact and in interpretation. The animating theme, though whispered only in the book's corners, is that Eliot was homosexual. This and other distortions are self-discrediting. The book has, however, some excellent photographs.
More reliable information about Eliot can be obtained from Herbert Howarth, Notes on Some Figures Behind T.S. Eliot (Houghton Mifflin, 1964), B.L. Reid, The Man From New York: John Quinn and His Friends (Oxford, 1968), and the several volumes of Bertrand Russell's Autobiography.
Biographical statements in this review are based mainly on Valerie Eliot's excerpts from her husband's letters in her Introduction, and on letters quoted by Russell. The reference to "a woman in Dublin" is to Mrs. Josephine MacNeill, who told me of her conversation with Eliot about Yeats.↩
Among them is the new book by the late Robert Sencourt, T.S. Eliot: A Memoir, edited by Donald Adamson (Dodd, Mead, 1971), which is the first biography: Sencourt is undependable in fact and in interpretation. The animating theme, though whispered only in the book’s corners, is that Eliot was homosexual. This and other distortions are self-discrediting. The book has, however, some excellent photographs.
More reliable information about Eliot can be obtained from Herbert Howarth, Notes on Some Figures Behind T.S. Eliot (Houghton Mifflin, 1964), B.L. Reid, The Man From New York: John Quinn and His Friends (Oxford, 1968), and the several volumes of Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography.
Biographical statements in this review are based mainly on Valerie Eliot’s excerpts from her husband’s letters in her Introduction, and on letters quoted by Russell. The reference to “a woman in Dublin” is to Mrs. Josephine MacNeill, who told me of her conversation with Eliot about Yeats.↩