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 …