At a lunch recently for the advisory committee of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, I told Lola Szladits, curator of the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library, that I had a heresy to confess. I impenitently clung to the opinion that Ezra Pound might have done a disservice to T.S. Eliot when he excised certain passages from The Waste Land. Since Ms. Szladits had an important part in publishing these deleted sections in Valerie Eliot’s 1971 edition of her husband’s manuscripts, I had assumed that she shared the prevailing academic view that Pound’s maieutic hand had been a happy one. To my surprise I discovered that she agreed with me.
In my younger days I read everything suggested that might shed light on The Waste Land. I studied Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance; I pored through Frazer; I learned the constitution of the tarot pack; I searched libraries until I found a tattered copy of Countess Marie Larisch’s My Past, and in London I even stood under the bell tower at St. Mary Woolnoth’s to check the “dead sound on the final stroke of nine.” There wasn’t one. But diverting as these investigations proved, they did not shed much more light on the poem than Eliot’s own footnotes about ancient fertility rites and their significance in the legend of the Holy Grail.
What was I left with, then, but a dazzling succession of images? Should these be enough? If there were a basic meaning to the poem, other than what Eliot himself had given it (“a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life”), might it not be in the line: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”?
But when I read the manuscripts it seemed to me that Eliot was doing more than shoring together fragments. He appeared to be sampling lives of little people who picked their way about the ruins of older civilizations, unable, because of illiteracy, ignorance, or simple preciousness, to make profitable use of these shards.
I am not suggesting that one should do a Viollet-le-Duc restoration of the poem as Eliot might have conceived it had he never met Pound. He approved of all of Pound’s emendations, and never afterward, so far as I know, suggested any dissatisfaction with them. The Waste Land, as published in 1922, must stand as a finished work, and even I will admit that Pound helped to give it conciseness and unity of mood. But it is still an entrancing game to browse through the manuscripts and speculate on what Eliot may have initially had in mind.
As I see it, The Waste Land originally comprised three basic elements: (1) the quotations, or semiquotations, that invoke the great literature and art of the past; (2) descriptions of the aridity and cultural poverty of the post–World War I era; and (3) dramatic episodes about individuals: average, flawed souls lost in a world they cannot understand.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
Sly Signature December 20, 1984