Soundings and Echoes: “The Waste Land” at 100
By Stuart Mitchner
His poetry is about the difficulty of conceiving anything.
—Richard Poirier (1925-2009)
I’ve just revisited my favorite page in Valerie Eliot’s edition of her late husband T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound (Faber and Faber 1972). I don’t mean my favorite passage. I mean the first page of the facsimile that shows Pound’s first “annotation” in the form of a bold line striking straight through the heart of the typescript. That slashing of Eliot’s original is the essence of revision writ large. It’s also amusing to imagine how differently we’d have approached The Waste Land had Eliot stayed with the title He Do The Police In Different Voices, or had the two opening lines remained “First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place, / There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind.”
Eliot would surely have figured out on his own the downside of beginning a difficult, fabulously allusive work of art by, in effect, putting the reader on a first-name basis with the poet, old Tom Eliot. Instead of “April is the cruellest month,” we’re walking into a swirl of voices with the poet’s blind-drunk namesake leading the way. You can almost hear Ezra telling Tom it’s an opening that would make the hip readers of the day think the voices he was “doing” had already been “done” by Joyce in Ulysses. On top of that, there’s Tom’s pal Joe singing “I’m proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me,” which has been circled for special attention, with a note in the margin that could be read as a suggested replacement or a nudge from Ezra: “Tease, Squeeze lovin & wooin, Say Kid what’re y’ doing.”
It makes sense that Pound is given the first word, a preface all his own: “The more we know of Eliot, the better. I am thankful the lost leaves have been unearthed…. The mystery of the missing manuscript is now solved.”
Pound’s five-sentence statement is dated Venice, September 30, 1969. He died 50 years ago this month, November 1, 1972, the year the facsimile edition was published; Eliot died on January 4, 1965.
Grousing from the Grave
Probably it’s thanks to Valerie Eliot that the shade of her husband puts a prefatory word in, perhaps to add a touch of neurotic modesty: “Various critics of my work have done me the honour to interpret the poem in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism.
To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”
The disclaimer is signed T.S.E. even though the quote comes third-hand, from “the late Theodore Spencer” during an undated lecture at Harvard University “recorded by Henry Ware Eliot, Jr., the poet’s brother.” In fact, Eliot was one of the great critics of his time, as can be seen in Lawrence Rainey’s The Annotated Waste Land, with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose (Yale 2005).
A Fluid Phenomenon
The facsimile edition (which has been redesigned and colorfully repackaged for the centenary by Liveright) makes it possible to imagine the poem as a fluid phenomenon comparable to an act of nature, words and voices buffeted by rethinking, fragments caught in the wind, echoes blown this way and that, connecting, dispersing, kept in play by the poetics of association. For example, the cancellation of Eliot’s original epigraph, from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. You can almost hear Pound and Eliot talking it over in the editorial notes to the 1972 printing, where Pound says, “I doubt Conrad is weighty enough to stand the citation,” leading Eliot to argue, feebly, “It is much the most appropriate I can find, and somewhat elucidative.” To which Pound offers a patronizing shrug: “Do as you like about Conrad: who am I to grudge him his laurel crown?”
The result is that Conrad’s “The horror! the horror!” is replaced by an epigraph in Latin and Greek from Petronius that requires a translation and a page and a half of elucidation in Rainey’s Annotated Waste Land. Eliot’s own note merely directs readers to Jessie L. Weston’s book From Ritual to Romance.
Playlist Nov. 7-14
I began the year with James Joyce’s Ulysses, born, like its author, on February 2, 1922. The Waste Land first appeared stateside in the November 1922 issue of The Dial. With election day looming, the “cruellest month” looks to be November, not April, particularly the second week. After checking my copy of A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984) for what happened between November 7 and 14 in the world before Twitter, TikTok, and Trump, I developed a playlist of literary births, deaths, and curious events for the Week That Was lined up with a homemade YouTube sidebar of arguably relevant lines in The Wasteland (WL), my way of “doing the week in different voices.”
Take November 7, which brings together Robert Frost and Albert Camus. According to the Book of Days, on that date in 1894, “Spurned by his girlfriend, 20-year-old Robert Frost wanders through the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia, where he has gone to think black thoughts.”
The first echo from The Waste Land that comes to mind says “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago,” but after coming back late from the Hyacinth garden, “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”
Born on November 7, 1913, in Mondoni, Algeria, Camus says “Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth.” From WL I hear: “O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter / And on her daughter / They wash their feet in soda water.”
Reading that John Milton died at 65 in London on November 8, 1674, I find in Eliot: “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.” In Eliot’s sampling of Paradise Lost, Satan gazes “as though a window gave upon the sylvan scene.”
November 9, 1953: Dylan Thomas dies at 39 in St. Vincent’s Hospital after a six-day coma brought on by drinking 18 shots of whiskey at the White Horse Tavern. From “Death By Water” in the WL: “As he rose and fell / He passed the stages of his age and youth / Entering the whirlpool.”
On November 10, 1879, Vachel Lindsay is born in Springfield, Illinois, and will take his own life on December 5, 1931 by drinking a bottle of lye. Although he was Eliot’s 18th cousin three times removed in a line descending from King Edward I and Eleanor of Castile, Lindsay’s performative style did not go over well with his cousin, who found his poetry “impossible.”
November 11, 1821: Feodor Dostoevsky is born in a hospital for the poor in Moscow. From Eliot’s “A London Letter”: “All novelists are dangerous models for other novelists, but Dostoevsky — a Russian known only through one translation — is especially dangerous…. Dostoevsky’s appeal to the British mind is that he appears to satisfy the usual definition of genius; that is, an infinite capacity for taking no pains.”
November 12, 1935: The poet Theodore Roethke is “hospitalized after spending the night in the Michigan woods, where he shares a mystical experience with a tree and learns the secret of Nijinsky.”
A voice from The Waste Land: “What is that noise?” The wind under the door. “What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?” Nothing again nothing.
November 13, 1797: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is begun as a collaborative effort between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth while they walk through the Valley of Stones near Lynmouth.
From WL: “The boat responded Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar / The sea was calm, your heart would have responded / Gaily, when invited, beating obedient / To controlling hands.”
Finally, November 14, 1851: Moby Dick — based on the exploits of Mocha Dick, who reportedly wrecked seven ships and 20 boats and killed at least 30 men — is published by Harper & Brothers in New York.
Melville: “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”
From the closing stanza of The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” From Eliot’s note on the poem’s last word: “Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is a feeble translation of the content of this word.”
“Intelligence and Spirit”
I began to learn how much more there was to T.S. Eliot when taking Richard Poirier’s Introduction to Graduate Study course at Rutgers. In his essay, “The Literature of Waste: Eliot, Joyce and Others,” Poirier concludes that Eliot “exists for understanding at an impossible remove, perhaps, from the kind of mind, the liberal orthodox, for whom thinking and even suffering consists in the abrasions of one abstraction on another. But anyone of genuinely radical sentiment can find in him an exercise of intelligence and spirit for which to be humanly proud and grateful.”