There has always been curiosity about the early version of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land, submitted to Ezra Pound and to some extent altered by Eliot in accordance with Pound’s suggestions. One had always imagined that it must have been preserved among the papers of John Quinn, the rich New York lawyer who acted as a patron to Eliot and acquired many of his manuscripts. This suspicion has turned out to have been correct. The manuscript has been found by a niece of Mr. Quinn’s, Mrs. Thomas F. Conroy, who has sold it with other manuscripts to the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library; and it has now been published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: The Waste Land, A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, edited by Valerie Eliot.
An article on the subject had already appeared in the London Times Literary Supplement, which gave a very fragmentary preview. It was revealed that the poem was originally to be called He Do the Police in Different Voices, and this was soon identified (TLS January 1, 1969) as derived from Chapter XVI of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, in which Sloppy, a foundling, is employed by Betty Higden as a boy-of-all-work and reads aloud to her from some paper like the Police Gazette, apparently imitating the characters.
It is obvious that Eliot meant to refer to the different voices of the poem: Boston Irish, cockney, the literate English of the much read young Harvard spokesman, brooding on his dissatisfactions, which recall many echoes from literature. But the result of this new discovery was to give a new priming to the pump of the Eliot industry. It was now said that, in order to grasp The Waste Land properly, it would be necessary to study not only the books which Eliot mentions in his notes, but to reread the whole of Our Mutual Friend. Is Sloppy the same person as the Tiresias of the poem? Does not water, especially the Thames, play a recurrent part in both Our Mutual Friend and The Waste Land? Is the dust mentioned in The Waste Land not connected with the dust piles of Mr. Wegg?
These speculations were carried to the point of absurdity and, in the course of a long correspondence lasting for three months, the allusion-hunters were rebuked by a Mr. Douglas Hewitt, who says sensibly that
A great deal of criticism of Eliot assumes that a quotation from another work implies that the whole of that work is to be borne in mind while we read the whole of the poem and that a complex unity will finally emerge from this accumulation of associations…. My argument is that Eliot often uses the quotations and echoes more locally than this. I suspect the cancelled title of being down-right frivolous and I am appalled at the thought of all those forthcoming theses which will labor every parallel between the two works and misrepresent Dickens when he does…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.