Poets Haunted by Poets

There has been no shortage of speculation about what the rise of the Internet will do to change our habits of reading and research. If every book ever published will be at our virtual fingertips, thanks to Google and more specialized search tools, will it become unnecessary to maintain libraries, or to own books at all? Will human memory itself change, as we delegate the storage of information to our machines?

One rather specialized, but not insignificant, aspect of these changes has so far been less discussed. This is the effect that the Internet will have, or is already having, on the way writers make use of allusion. For if Google means that no book, however rare or obscure, will actually be hard to find, so it means that no quotation, however recondite, will be difficult to recognize. Enter any phrase into the search engine and you will instantly discover who, if anyone, has used it before, and when and how. You can even have the novel and strangely reassuring experience of beginning to type in a quotation, only to have it automatically completed for you by Google—a sign that it has been searched for by others already, that you and some anonymous fellow reader are on the same track.

Try asking Google, for example, about the phrase “Datta, dayadhvam, damyata.” Any reader of English poetry will immediately recognize those Sanskrit words: they appear in the fifth section of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said,” as three possible interpretations of the thunder’s monosyllabic utterance, “Da.” The words are not defined in the poem itself, except indirectly, by the sense of the passages they introduce:

Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract….

Only by turning to T.S. Eliot’s notes, which have become almost as famous as the poem itself, does the reader learn that words mean “Give, sympathize, control,” and their source: “The fable of the meaning of the Thunder is found in the Brihadaranyaka—Upanishad, 5, 1.” At the time Eliot wrote these notes, in 1922, this Sanskrit text had not been translated into English, and the best he could do was point the reader to a German version (“Deussen’s Sechzig Upanishads des Veda, p. 489”), which is presumably where the poet himself read it.

Ever since The Waste Land, “Datta, dayadhvam, damyata” has had something like the status of a trademark: for us, the words belong to Eliot much more than to their original source. Eliot established his right to the phrase, one might say, by finding something so remote from the experience of the English reader—even the best educated and most widely read—that the only way for such a reader to encounter it was through Eliot. Even the growth of Western knowledge of the Upanishads, in the subsequent decades, has not diminished the phrase’s association with Eliot. On the …

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