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Kevin Saving on

The Waste Land -

A Biography of a Poem

by Mathew Hollis

Faber & Faber, 2022

pp 524

Waste Land.jpg
Waste Land.jpg
Waste Land.jpg

Literary Modernism, it could be argued, is now one hundred years old. The Waste Land and its predecessor—by a short (Caslon) typeface—Ulysses, were both first published in 1922. The former, a hotchpotch of esoteric imagery, exotic quotations and mythological allusions, was originally lumbered with the working-title He Do The Police in Different Voices—a 'lift' from Dickens' Our Mutual Friend—by its author, a reserved and snobbish bank clerk known to his friends and family as 'Tom' and towards whom his 'co-revolutionary' James Joyce never really warmed. If the dam to this chimaera was T.S. Eliot, then its veterinary midwife was the proto-fascist, Ezra Loomis Pound—two displaced Americans finding common cause in the much-heralded arrival of a 'new' form of poetry and, by extension, the advancement of their own artistic careers.


This 'biography of a poem' (and act of homage) has been compiled by one of Eliot's editorial successors at the publishing house of Faber & Faber, Mathew Hollis, and it represents a remarkable feat of scholarship. 390 pages of exceedingly sympathetic exposition, historical narration and critical appreciation PLUS another 136 of Acknowledgements, Notes on sources, Notes, Permissions, Index, Text of the First Edition and Notes on the text of the First Edition. A genuine labour of love, then. For a long time, the recognised authority in this heavily-dunged field was Grover Smith, author of such classics as T.S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays: a study in Sources and Meaning (1956) and his own The Waste Land (1983). Hollis' tome looks certain to supplant them as the standard textbook of its generation. It declares its allegiance early with an undisguised admiration: 'There was not a thing that was incoherent or banal about the craft that Eliot applied' (which is, to say the least, a matter of opinion).


Hollis' latest book provides us with a whole raft of new Waste Land trivia. That it was mostly composed on a Corona typewriter, a 'wretched old one' carried over by suitcase from Harvard in 1914 and with its mechanism, by 1921, worn desperately thin. That it was written between various locations: the Eliot's London flat, the Albemarle hotel, Margate, and the Pension Sainte-Luce, Lausanne—where the poet was undergoing psychotherapy from his Swiss doctor, Roger Vittoz. That at the time of its composition both writer and editor were learning musical instruments: Eliot, the mandolin; Pound, the bassoon. That the 'Albert and Lil' sequence (from 'A Game of Chess') was 'pure Ellen Kellond' - reference to the Eliot's long-term maid who, according to Hollis, 'accepted low wages and large responsibilities -including nursing the both of them- that no one else would'.


Another factor that this reviewer had previously been unaware of was Eliot's indebtedness to his friend and Harvard contemporary, Conrad Aiken's The House of Dust, which had appeared two years prior to his own Magnum Opus. The two books share much of the same tone and, indeed, there are parallels in some of the phrasing. After The Waste Land's critical success, Aiken would continue to nurse a sense of grievance:


       eliot is the cruellest poet, breeding

        lyrics under the driest dustpan, mixing

        memory and desire {...}

        aiken kept him safe, covering

        dearth with forgetful verbiage...


Eliot's rate of alcoholic consumption is something which has received very little scholastic or biographical attention (and neither does it here). He confided to his second wife, Valerie, that his 'Journey of the Magi' had been completed (in 1927) 'after Matins', with the aid of 'a half-bottle of Booth's gin'. In January 1921 (around the period of his commencement of The Waste Land) he boasted in a letter to an American friend that he found life in England more comfortable than that of (Prohibition) America: 'I can get a drink of very bad liquor of any sort when I want it, which is important to me'. Virginia Woolf would tell a story of him being drunk and incapable. The opening sequence of 'The Burial of the Dead' was originally conceived as a re-telling of an alcoholic evening in Boston—with depictions of louche revelry and an ejection from a bordello. The writer's American roots continued to tether him ('St Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has done' -T.S.E., 1930).


The Waste Land has long been regarded as an alienated reaction to the horrors of the first world war. Yet neither of its begetters felt any especial engagement with that conflict nor served—though both of military age—in a branch of any of the armed forces. Post-Bellum, Eliot was placed in charge of 'settling all the pre-war debts between Germany and Lloyds' bank. This despite his having written (to his partially-estranged mother) against 'that appalling document the Peace Treaty' (with its punitive array of reparations conducive of so much suffering in inter-war Germany and contributary, in time, towards a renewal of hostilities).


It is difficult at times not to enjoy the irony of the quietly-prejudiced, buttoned-up 'Old Possum' (Pound's nickname for him) Eliot and his openly anti-Semitic collaborator finding themselves at the mercy of successive publishers—Leonard Woolf at Hogarth, Horace Liveright and Albert Boni at Boni & Liveright, New York—linked by a common Jewish ancestry. Or to be unappreciative of the hypocrisy of two men with decidedly misogynistic views (Pound craved for what he called a 'male review' and Eliot 'distrusted the Feminine in literature') labouring under the (female) editorship of magazines such as Poetry, Little Review, The Egoist and, eventually, The Dial.  The critic Ian Hamilton commented wryly that 'No one in The Waste Land—though the poem is obsessed with sexual behaviour ('A Game of Chess' and 'The Fire Sermon' are concerned with little else)—actually enjoys sex'. He had a point.


In 1922 Pound—whose comments and deletions undoubtedly improved Eliot's drafts—was still recovering from the critical mauling he had sustained for his 'flippant', 'absurd' and 'incredibly ignorant' translations from the Latin poet, Propertius. Eliot had himself been attacked for his 'cleverness' and was viewed in many quarters as little more than an ironist. They both, certainly by then, knew how to game the system. Eliot effectively demanded The Dial Award ($2,000 and created the previous year to honour 'a service to letters') before he would countenance publication in that American journal. Neither was he above playing several periodicals against each other in order to raise (additional) publishing fees and stimulate advance publicity. He would sneak in a (world premiere/British) appearance of The Waste Land in the newly-founded Criterion—of which he, co-incidentally, was the recently-appointed editor. The 'Old Possum' knew how to exercise commercial legerdemain. 


At the eleventh hour—just before publication—Pound composed three 'squibs' (as he called them) which almost made it into the first edition. The opening lines from 'Sage Homme' are:


    These are the poems of Eliot

     By the Uranian Muse begot;

     A Man their Mother was,

     A Muse their Sire. 


Hollis doesn't expatiate on these: he either does not know (or has chosen to gloss over) that the term 'Uranian' was late-Victorian code for 'homosexual'.


Eliot seems, from the vantage point of his aged eminence, to have become ambivalent about the work which 'made' him. 'The Notes to The Waste Land should not be taken at their face value'. They were, he considered, 'a remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship'. Certainly, they appear to have been adopted at the last moment both as 'padding' (when the MSS was queried as 'inconveniently short') and as a sort-of pre-emptive strike for 'spiking the guns of the critics'—as he put it. If so, there can be little doubt as to their effectiveness. It is fascinating to find (and yet again Hollis does not provide us with this information) that Eliot's own personal copy of Miss Jesse L. Weston's volume of the Grail legend, From Ritual to Romance (1920)—to which he referred in those same notes as being 'indebted'—has a number of uncut pages. The Notes continue: 'Miss Weston's book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem {...} and I recommend it'. Perhaps he either had it by heart (unlikely!) or had kept two copies of it? He would confide to Ford Madox Ford (in 1923) that there were only approximately thirty good lines in the poem and 'The rest is ephemeral'.


It seems almost churlish to suggest faults in what is in so many ways a splendidly modern production. Hollis can occasionally appear slightly gushing and might conceivably be a little too prepared to accept The Waste Land as an accomplished, integrated Masterpiece -rather than the disparate, near-chaotic mess that it so often demonstrably is. And this despite his own, highly-capable, disassembly of it. Although she is given some attention, he undervalues the contribution—for good and ill—of Vivien Eliot (subject, herself, of a revealing biography: Seymour-Jones' Painted Shadow). Co-editor, with Pound—who heartily disliked and subverted her—'inspiration' and encourager to, and cuckolder (with the philandering philosopher, Bertrand Russell) of, Eliot—she has been treated harshly, both maritally and historically, ever since her committal to an asylum by Eliot in 1938. In parting from her brother-in-law, Henry, in 1921 she used words which might, perhaps, have been better-employed to his brother, her husband: 'Goodbye {...} And be personal, you must be personal, or else it's no good. Nothing's any good'.


By definition, a 'biography' should cover a whole life and not just its conception and protracted gestation. Quite how a 433 line 'poem with notes' attained its present pre-eminence is another story -and one not really told here. Once we have ascertained that Pound and Eliot were not 'Nice, rounded people' ,


     'I think it might be a good thing to hang Roosevelt and a few hundred yids IF you can do it by due legal process'

      (E.L. Pound, Rome, April 1943)


     'Having only contempt for every existing political party, and profound hatred for democracy, I feel the blackest gloom'

     (T.S. Eliot, London, April 1921)


then we might just have to re-think, make real decisions about, the value of their contributions. Or perhaps April really was the 'cruellest' month! There can be little disagreement that in their (slightly limited) sphere of twentieth century English literary history, Eliot and Pound were Titans. But what their credentials are for founding a continuingly influential approach to Creative Writing's ongoing methodology ought, surely, to give us pause... 


     'Complimenti, you bitch'. Pound to Eliot, 1922.

     'il miglior fabbro' (The Better Craftsman). Inscription for Pound by Eliot, 1923.


      Ez Po and Possum

      Have picked all the blossom,

      Let all the others

      Run back to their Mothers.

      —Pound, 1935.


This symbiotic mutual admiration society would continue with Eliot finessing a redemptive Bollengen Prize in 1948 for his erstwhile editor—who was languishing in an institution for the criminally insane and undergoing assessment as to his mental capacity to face an indictment of 'Treason'. A few months later Eliot would win his own prize, the Nobel. His first wife, Vivien, had died the previous year (of a suspected drug overdose). Inexorably, the iron had entered his soul: Emily Hale (his Muse, confidante and, he said, the 'Hyacinth Girl' of the poem); John Hayward (his long-term flatmate, permanently confined to a wheelchair—unmentioned here); Vivien herself—he would abandon them all, swiftly, efficiently, heartlessly. None of which makes him a bad poet: a rather pathetic human being, perhaps. No one without a genuine poetic sensibility could have written The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but, by 1922, Pretension, Entitlement, Aridity, Despair and Aversion had fully taken hold. The Waste Land is still, truly, a poem for our times.


Kevin Saving © 2022

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