• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

How Eliot Became Eliot

A Harvard classmate published a poem with verbal echoes of Eliot’s called “The Street Organ” in the Harvard Advocate in 1908. The word “garrulous” turns up twice in the complete works of Alfred Tennyson. Laforgue’s prose “Salomé” contains the words “un bulbul dégorgeait des garulements distingués.” In 1930, Eliot used the phrase “garrulous and frail” to describe Allen Tate in a letter to Paul Elmer More. Tennyson has “frail” at the end of a line in In Memoriam, in a context mentioning music, and again at the end of a line in “Margaret.” John Gray rhymes “frail” with “wail” (as Eliot does here) in “Poem” (1893). James Thomson doesn’t, but he does rhyme “frail” with “veil” in The City of Dreadful Night. A passage in Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy shares a number of isolated words, including “street” (echoing “street piano”), with Eliot’s stanza.

The next line in the poem is:

The yellow evening flung against the panes.

This requires half a page of notes. It elicits references to Paradise Lost, “Il Penseroso” (“And when the sun begins to fling/His flaring beams”), Idylls of the King (“leaves/Laid their green faces flat against the panes”), In Memoriam, and five poems by Eliot himself (including “Prufrock“‘s “When the evening is spread out against the sky”).

And on and on, line by line by line. The range of reference is staggering. The notes cite hundreds of parallels in the French poetry Eliot became fascinated by around 1909 and the English poetry he had been reading since he was a boy. They locate echoes in literary prose, particularly works by Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, and Henry Adams (though it seems unlikely, contrary to Ricks’s assumption, that Eliot read The Education of Henry Adams before its publication in 1918) and in philosophy, particularly works by Henri Bergson, whose lectures Eliot attended in Paris in 1910-1911, and F.H. Bradley, whose philosophy was the subject of Eliot’s dissertation. There are citations not only from Eliot’s own published poetry and prose, but from archival material such as student papers, correspondence, and unpublished lectures.

Not many people will feel the need (let alone the desire) to read through the entire two hundred pages of annotation, but that is the best way to use the edition. Why, after all, would a casual reader care that Tennyson used “garrulous” twice? Immersion in the notes is almost a cybernetic experience. It is as though one were leafing through the contents, or clicking along the synapses, of Eliot’s brain. Ricks has virtually recreated, in this indirect and grossly uneconomical way, the lost literary and intellectual world of Eliot’s time.

It is all terribly dazzling. On the other hand, it is not terribly clarifying. The decision to observe a scholarly decorum that prohibits critical judgment or interpretation has led to a wildly indecorous piece of scholarship. The book would not only be a lot shorter, it would be a lot more readable and useful, if Ricks had cheated on his principles and just gone ahead and interpreted. These poems are not so great that a little critical commentary wouldn’t improve our appreciation of them.

Of course, there is a sense in which Ricks has interpreted the poems. His interpretation is reflected in the editorial method he thinks is appropriate to apply to them. He regards them, as he says in the introduction, as poems whose meaning requires a knowledge of their sources, just as the meaning of many lines in The Waste Land requires a knowledge of their sources. But is this really so? How is a rhyme picked up from a poem by John Gray, or a word found in a couple of poems by Jules Laforgue, like a phrase consciously borrowed and adapted from Dante’s Inferno? These seem to be entirely different types of references, and to reflect entirely different attitudes toward the issue of poetic influence.

Influence was one of the chief preoccupations of Eliot’s literary criticism. The concept relies on a difficult distinction—the distinction between what is given (for example, all the poetry the young T.S. Eliot had read when he sat down to write “First Caprice in North Cambridge”) and what is original and unique. The distinction is difficult because at a certain level, as any reader of Ricks’s notes will eventually come to feel, nothing is original and unique. The words, the rhymes, the images—it’s all been done before. So how do we get the unambiguous sense when we read a poem of Eliot’s that this is not Tennyson or Milton or Mallarmé, or some amalgam of all of them, but Eliot? We have the sensation of authenticity, but there is nothing we can point at to explain where it comes from. The voice is Eliot’s, but the words are all someone else’s.

It’s easy to see how Eliot plays with this ambiguity in a poem like The Waste Land, with its many stylistic impersonations. But the poems in the notebook are unlike The Waste Land in precisely this respect: they are not designed to be read as a series of impersonations, or as tissues of references to other people’s poems. The notion that a poem could be constructed out of such references was the discovery Eliot made in 1917—which is the year he stopped using the notebook. The notebook isn’t continuous with the rest of Eliot’s poetry. It is what Eliot left behind in order to write the rest of his poetry.

Eliot bought the notebook in 1910, but he wrote into it poems he had written since the fall of 1909. That was the year in which, thanks to the stimulus of Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature, he encountered the poetry of Jules Laforgue. Symons devoted only a few pages of his book to Laforgue (who died, at the age of twenty-seven, in 1887, a year before Eliot was born). Eliot was probably attracted as much to the description by a contemporary of Laforgue’s appearance, which Symons quoted, as he was to the poetry: “fort correctes, de hauts gibus, des cravates sobres, des vestons anglais, des pardessus clergymans, et de par les nécessités, un parapluie immuablement placé sous le bras.” It is the future persona of the young Eliot himself—the avant-garde poet and respectable banker, the Anglicanized Frenchman, the Tory dandy.

Eliot ordered Laforgue’s complete works from France. He received the books in the spring of 1909. Ten years later, in an essay in The Egoist, he spoke of the shock of recognition they produced:

When a young writer is seized with his first passion of this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks even, from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person. The imperative intimacy arouses for the first time a real, an unshakeable confidence. That you possess this secret knowledge, this intimacy, with the dead man, that after few or many years or centuries you should have appeared, with this indubitable claim to distinction; who can penetrate at once the thick and dusty circumlocutions about his reputation, can call yourself alone his friend: it is something more than encouragement to you. It is a cause of development, like personal relations in life.

Laforgue…was the first to teach me how to speak, to teach me the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech,” he wrote in an essay on Dante in 1950. And in 1961, near the end of his life, he said that he owed more to Laforgue “than to any one poet in any language.”

The transformation in Eliot’s writing amounted to a complete rupture. Here is a poem Eliot published in the Harvard Advocate in January 1909:


The moonflower opens to the moth,
The mist crawls in from sea;
A great white bird, a snowy owl,
Slips from the alder tree.

Whiter the flowers, Love, you hold,
Than the white mist on the sea;
Have you no brighter tropic flowers
With scarlet life, for me?

This is so close to Tennyson, to the songs in The Princess, that it is almost an imitation. Eliot’s next poem in the Advocate appeared in November 1909, after he began reading Laforgue:


Romeo, grand sérieux, to importune
Guitar and hat in hand, beside the gate
With Juliet, in the usual debate
Of love, beneath a bored but courteous moon;
The conversation failing, strikes some tune
Banal, and out of pity for their fate
Behind the wall I have some servant wait,
Stab, and the lady sinks into a swoon.

Blood looks effective on the moonlit ground—
The hero smiles; in my best mode oblique
Rolls toward the moon a frenzied eye profound,
(No need of “Love forever?”—“Love next week?”)
While female readers all in tears are drowned:—
“The perfect climax all true lovers seek!”

This is also nearly an imitation, but of Laforgue. Thematically, it treats the same material as “Song”—styles of love, the passionate and the chaste. Poetically, it is a complete inversion—mocking, jaded, and theatrical where the other is lyrical, earnest, and imagistic. The Punch and Judy setting, the Shakespearean characters, the pretend indifference are pure Laforgue. This is the tone Eliot struck on as his tone, and he bought the notebook to mark its birth.

Eliot responded to a number of things in Laforgue’s style, but one of them seems to have been the trick it permitted of stepping outside the frame of the poem—of writing poetically in a way that also seemed to say, “This is the kind of stuff you get when you try to put feelings into poetic language.” The cynicism of “Nocturne” is as sentimental as the earnest lyricism of “Song”; it’s just that the pathos now follows from the gesture of shrugging off the whole business as a piece of banal theatricality, a confection of stock aesthetic effects. There are two ways to read this gesture—as saying something like, “The emotion is authentic, but any effort to express it is bound to end up looking like a poem,” or, more corrosively, something like, “The poem is derivative, because the emotion is too.”

The theme is dwelt on continually in the early poems in the notebook:

And I then: “someone frames upon the keys
That exquisite nocturne with which we explain
The night and moonshine: music that we seize
To body out our own vacuity.”
She then: “Does this refer to me?”
—“Short Romance”(later “Conversation Galante”),November 1909

Bottles and broken glass,
Trampled mud and grass;
A heap of broken barrows;
And a crowd of tattered sparrows
Delve in the gutter with sordid patience.
Oh, these minor considerations!….
—“First Caprice in North Cambridge,”November 1909

We have the tragic? oh no!
Life departs with a feeble smile
Into the indifferent.
These emotional experiences
Do not hold good at all,
And I feel like the ghost of youth
At the undertakers’ ball.
—“Opera,” November 1909

I keep my countenance—
I remain self-possessed.
Except when a street-piano, mechanical and tired
Reiterates some worn-out common song
With the smell of hyacinths across the garden—
Recalling things that other people have desired—
Are these ideas right or wrong?
—“Portrait of a Lady,”November 1910

We turn the corner of the street
And again
Here is a landscape grey with rain
On black umbrellas, waterproofs,
And dashing from the slated roofs
Into a mass of mud and sand.
… … … … . .
Among such scattered thoughts as these
We turn the corner of the street;
But why are we so hard to please?
—“Fourth Caprice in Montparnasse,” December 1910

I am wrought by various fancies, curled
Around these images, which cling—
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

—Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh.
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots

—And we are moved into these strange opinions
By four-o’clock-in-the-morning thoughts.
“Abenddämmerung”(later “Preludes: IV”),November 1911

It is as though the poet, diligently seeking an image to articulate a mood, keeps finding that he has brought forth a cliché. And if the image is a cliché, then so, maybe, is the mood itself a kind of emotional plagiarism (“the smell of hyacinths across the garden/Recalling things other people have desired”). The whole matter boils down to the paradox implied in the passage on influence in Eliot’s Egoist essay: How is it that Eliot sounded most like himself by trying to sound like Laforgue?

After Prufrock and Other Observations came out in 1917, Eliot became blocked. He couldn’t write at all at first, then began writing poems in French. This seemed to work, as did his decision next to collaborate with Ezra Pound on the experiments in form and diction that produced the quatrain poems—“Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” “A Cooking Egg,” and so on. These were the poems that were not recorded in the notebook but were inserted later on, presumably when the package was being prepared for Quinn.

The quatrain poems were undertaken, Eliot confided to Pound, in a deliberate effort to escape the influence of Laforgue. But escaping the influence of Laforgue was not the same thing as escaping influence. From influence there is no escape. Or rather, there is only one escape. The breakthrough was the realization that the way to overcome the problem of involuntary imitation was to make imitation voluntary. It was not to hide the filaments to other poems, but to advertise them. In terms Eliot used himself in one of his essays, it was to stop borrowing and start stealing. If there is no way to get outside the literary echo chamber—if experience is unique, but poems always seem to be made from other poems—the echo chamber must become part of the poem. So that “Burbank with a Baedeker,” a poem of thirty-two lines, lifts or borrows phrases from more than a dozen other writers, from Shakespeare to Ruskin. Eliot was now controlling what had seemed to be controlling him. Echo was replaced by allusion. The phase represented by the notebook was finished and a new phase had begun.

Allusion is a complicated device. Students of Eliot’s poetry are generally taught to regard it either as a way of evoking moods and themes from other poems—for example, the echo of Dante’s Inferno in the line “sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled” in Part I of The Waste Land—or as marking a point of contrast between past and present—for example, the echo of Spenser’s “Prothalamion” in Part III (“Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song./The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers…,” and other detritus of modern life).

But this misses the boldness—the scandalousness, really—of what Eliot was doing. The allusions to Dante and Spenser are straightforward: we are meant to recognize them, and we miss part of the meaning if we don’t (and, of course, they are identified in the “Notes” to the poem). But are we also expected to recognize that “Marie,/ Marie, hold on tight” in Part I of The Waste Land are the words of the Countess Marie Larisch, whose memoir, My Past, was published in 1913? Or that “Here I am, an old man in a dry month,/Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain,” the opening lines of “Gerontion,” are adapted from A.C. Benson’s 1905 biography of Edward FitzGerald? These are not allusions; they are more like objets trouvés, or appropriations—devices that flirt with plagiarism. For straightforward allusion, like the references to Dante and Spenser, is only one figure on a whole palette of similar devices, from parody and pastiche to homage and citation (in the creative use of epigraphs), that Eliot drew from in the poems he began writing after 1917.

The Waste Land is the culmination of this phase of Eliot’s poetry, and it is also the end of the experiment. The “75th Anniversary Edition” features a brief afterword by Ricks, in which he surveys the poem’s reception on its first appearance. On the whole, he points out, the American reviewers—Edmund Wilson, Elinor Wylie, Conrad Aiken, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate—were appreciative, responsive, and intelligent, while apart from the Times Literary Supplement (where Eliot was a frequent contributor) the English reviewers, including Clive Bell, the brother-in-law of the poem’s publisher, were generally grudging, obtuse, or dismissive. Ricks doesn’t mention it, but none of these reviews were reviews of the first Waste Land. They were reviews of the second Waste Land, the book edition. The first Waste Land, the poem that appeared in The Dial and The Criterion in the fall of 1922, was a very different poem. For it had no notes.

Eliot apparently wrote some of the notes in response to worries about charges of plagiarism, and then expanded what he had written when it appeared that the poem was still too short to make a book. In one sense, the notes are an unfortunate addition—as even Eliot, who once referred to them as a “remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship,” came to feel. They were not part of the initial inspiration, and their donnish tone of fussy acknowledgment (“Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do”) drastically domesticates the experience of the poem. It is no longer possible to imagine what that experience was like before the notes were added, but the poem must have radiated an extraordinary mysteriousness—to have seemed a vast sensorium of word music, a pure modernist abstraction, oscillating between clarity and utter obscurity.

On the other hand, the notes might be thought of as performing the same function as the frame-breaking gestures of the earliest poems in the notebook. For they are not annotation in the usual sense at all. They are not neutral editorial commentaries on the poem; they are not even biased editorial commentaries on the poem. They are part of the poem. After 1922, Eliot never reprinted The Waste Land without them. The notes come inextricably attached, an explanation of the performance that is itself a performance that needs to be explained. They don’t elucidate the poem; they complicate it, by adding onto the poetic text a Kinbote-ish “interpretation.” And they raise again the question of whose voice we are hearing when we read a poem. Who is this pompous person who condescendingly informs us that a translation of the Brihadaranyaka can be found in Deussen’s Sechzig Upanishads des Veda, p. 489, and that the hermit-thrush referred to in Part V is Turdus aonalaschkae pallasii, whose “‘water-dripping song’ is justly celebrated”? This is not the person who wrote

On Margate sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.

Except, of course, it is.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print