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.
Of the dramatic episodes, five in number initially, Pound deleted three. “The Burial of the Dead” was intended to open with a group of drunks loose on the town—London with overtones of Boston—who go to a music hall, flounder into a brothel, collide with the police, boast of their political connections, and end up having a running race on the side-walk. Behind their noisy, fretful efforts to create an atmosphere of cheer and bravado lies the disapproving gloom of a city that has no use for them. Their feeble bleats will soon be extinguished in the engulfing night of nothingness.
The second eliminated episode concerns a day in the life of Fresca, a fashionable London bluestocking. It is conceived in the style of The Rape of the Lock, and its removal deprives us of an era in the literary scope that the poem embraces. Fresca, who has been nurtured on the lacquered prose of Symonds, Pater, and Vernon Lee, and who reads Samuel Richardson on the john, is the last word in literary affectation. She is also something of a tramp who dreams of “pleasant rapes.” But she counterbalances the typist at the end of “The Fire Sermon” who is drearily seduced by the “young man carbuncular.”
The third cut episode, whose excision is the one that most disturbs me, is that of the long fishing voyage and shipwreck in the North Atlantic that was taken from “Death by Water,” leaving only the brief but beautiful passage about Phlebas the Phoenician. There is a pathetic passage in the notes to the manuscript edition where Eliot asks Pound if Phlebas must “go” too. But Pound spared him.
The action in the voyage is seen through the eyes of one of the fishermen not otherwise described, for here we are not concerned, as in the other episodes, with personalities (average weaklings in a crumbling society) but with human beings in group, a bewildered, terrified herd. It is the joint experience of being lost in a strange sea with nothing but horror ahead that Eliot imbues with some of the mystery and awe of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The manuscript ends with a series of poems, stanzas, fragments, and individual lines which were evidently rejected by Pound before Eliot had even decided where to place them in the whole. One of these, “The Death of a Saint Narcissus,” a perfect little entity in itself, concerns a holy man’s obliteration of his virulent ego that makes him identify himself with his beautiful victims, actual or imagined: the shining fish he has caught or the girl he has mentally raped. Eliot may have intended to include it in “What the Thunder Said,” but it could go into any of the sections. This is also true of “Exequy,” which brings a note of Keats and Shelley to the work, “Elegy,” which invokes the “always inconvenient” dead, and the horrifying “Dirge,” where the drowned Bleistein is consumed by lobsters (“scratch, scratch, scratch”). The presence of these virtually independent poems, one of which was submitted as such to a periodical, may be evidence that Eliot originally conceived The Waste Land as an even looser medley than it ultimately became.
There is, however, little question where he intended to place the longest of these additional pieces: “The Death of the Duchess.” It would have come after the opening description of the lady’s bed-chamber in “A Game of Chess.” One of the lady’s identities is with Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, who loved and married her faithful steward and was murdered by her jealous and perhaps incestuous brother. This powerful, romantic story, set in the hard golden glare of the Italian Renaissance, is contrasted with an unconsummated affair between a nervous, fretful society woman of our time and a timorous epicene character who might be a clone of Prufrock. The reader would have been introduced to the splendor of the duchess’s chamber, then switched to the dullness and banality of modern Hampstead with its birdlike people with dog eyes drinking tea, and then to the steward watching his querulous friend brushing her fiery hair, until finally the glory of Jacobean passion is eaten away by modern do’s and don’ts, whys and why-nots, and the episode can end in a closed car and a game of chess.
It seems to me that an expanded Waste Land would be more coherent. I suppose my basic difference with Pound boils down to the fact that, liking the poem so much, I simply want more of it. And now it may be time, in all humility, to recall that Eliot, who was almost as fine a critic as he was a poet, dedicated the work to the friend and collaborator whom he described as “il miglior fabbro.”
October 11, 1984