Eliot’s Pitiless Brilliance

‘The Waste Land’
T. S. Eliot works at his desk, 1960 (Keystone Press/Alamy Stock Photo).

When The Waste Land showed up on the college syllabus, I’m sure I wasn’t the only student who approached it with nervous unease. Other poets offered challenges that could be met with hard work: Donne’s syntactical contortions and extravagant metaphors; Wordsworth’s steady blank-verse voice in The Prelude; Yeats’s dramatic speaker taking on very large issues indeed (“That is no country for old men / The young in one another’s arms”). But how to deal with The Waste Land, a poem entrusted to disparate, often hard-to-identify figures with distinctive styles? Did those styles and voices go together in five parts of 400-plus lines from “April” to “shantih”? The uncertain answer was that it went together as a portrait in pitiless brilliance of modern life as it was displayed in the twentieth century. If so, then the student’s task was to point out and describe how the different parts combined to make up a large meaning, a “life” that was more powerful in its cumulative force than any individual effort, even one by Donne, Wordsworth, or Yeats.

To be sure, there were guidebooks to the poem, showing us how the individual passages and portraits were integrated, so that there was no doubt about what Tiresias or Stetson or Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant (“with a pocketful of currants”), contributed to the poem overall. The unfortunate result of such deciphering was to substitute presumably stable meanings for the unstable activity of moving from line to line, section to section. Rather than attempting to listen to the effects produced by the verse, the reader could repose in the comforting notes from the guidebook, which indicated what meaning should be assigned to each passage and character. Instead of reading The Waste Land, we could figure it out afterwards, all the way from small instances to a large cultural meaning (something to do with drought and chaos).

Now there is an extraordinary study that puts the emphasis exactly where it should be put. A Biography of a Poem is Matthew Hollis’s subtitle for his substantial—nearly five-hundred-page—effort to bring out the many-sided story of how Eliot’s poem was born and grew in its formative years (1919–1922). No aspect of its developing life has been neglected, from the political situation in post–World War I Europe to the mechanics of the typewriter Eliot used. It would, however, be a mistake to think of Hollis’s task as surrounding the poem with elements attempting to explain it. His focus throughout is on the verse—he is himself a poet and poetry editor at Faber—and he keeps his eyes and ears on what most matters to the life of this poem. Every external matter having to do with The Waste Land, whether the condition of Eliot’s tortured marriage to his wife Vivien or the complicated relationship between various editors and publishers in assisting the poem to its birth, is given ample room in a leisurely yet intense narrative. First among the other players in this drama is Ezra Pound, whose own biography during those years informs Hollis’s account of the difference Pound made to the final version of The Waste Land. Pound’s copious marginal notes, first made available in 1971, show just how radically he altered the poem’s original drafts.

Examples of Hollis’s method may serve to suggest the strong and precise focus he trains on Eliot’s work. The book’s second chapter addresses Eliot’s career after he published Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) when, aided by Pound, he wrote some poems in the “French” style (as practiced by Gautier), a style in which form was supposed to give impetus to content. Hollis illustrates what this means: “The form was battened down. Gone was the melodious expanse of the Prufrock poems, and in their place a tightened lyric tetrameter, in nimbly stitched quatrains with end rhyme clasping shut every second and fourth line.” One of the poems in the new style, “Sweeney Erect,” opens as follows:

Paint me a cavernous waste shore
Cast in the unstilled Cyclades,
Paint me the bold anfractuous rocks
Faced by the snarled and yelping sea.

Hollis comments: “Opening on a cavernous waste shore, ‘Sweeney Erect’…was anything but cavernous. Like its predecessors in form, it emphasized technical precision above linear expanse, objective observation above personal declaration, and was delivered in a style that was a reaction to the perceived excess of Romanticism.” Hollis then adduces the typewriter Eliot was now using, which “had the effect of shaking off all his sentences he used to dote upon, and leaving him with a style that was ‘short, staccato, like modern French prose.’” Hollis never writes a lazy sentence; like Eliot’s nimbly stretched quatrains, his own style is always on the lookout for the right word to help bring the poem alive.

Hollis is concerned to read “across” the space between Eliot and his closest contemporaries, especially to the other members of the group Wyndham Lewis called “the Men of 1914”: himself, Pound, and James Joyce—in addition to Eliot. One of the most interesting affiliations, new to me, is the one between Eliot’s attempt to begin the poem with a seventy-odd-line scene at a bar (“Tom’s place”), which he eventually scrapped, and Joyce’s lengthy depiction, in the “Circe” section of Ulysses, of dream and nightmare. The longest chapter in Ulysses, it took Joyce eight drafts to get it right, and when he sent it to Eliot the latter responded with “I wish for my sake I had not read it.” Why did he say this? Hollis decides shrewdly that, after reading “Circe,” Eliot “had confirmed for himself what two passes at fiddly revision to his typescript had already caused him to suspect: that his own scene in Boston was simply not good enough…when set against writing as ‘stupendous’ as Joyce’s, not good enough to lead off his long poem if he had any aspirations at all to produce a work of equal standing to Ulysses.”

When The Waste Land showed up on the college syllabus, I’m sure I wasn’t the only student who approached it with nervous unease.


What turned out to be more than good enough for the poem’s opening was a line that became among the most well known in literature: “April is the cruellest month”—but, as Hollis points out, the full line is actually “April is the cruellest month, breeding”:

It was a verb to make the difference…. Its startling place at the line ending served as a supercharger, and would fuel the early engine of the poem through a chain of reacting echoes, Breeding, mixing, stirring, covering, feeding: so ended five of the first six lines, propelling the poem forward. It was a sequence of nouns with guardian adjectives: cruellest month, dead land, dull roots, dried tubers; only the spring rain countered the withered tone, like a memory of the once sweet downpour of Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote.”

Another example of the inventive force Hollis brings to bear on lines from the poem concerns the latter part of “The Fire Sermon,” book three of the poem, where an anonymous speaker hears “Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street” the “pleasant whining of a mandoline / And a clatter and a chatter from within. Where fishmen lounge at noon.” Then two further lines, a couplet—“Where the walls of Magnus Martyr hold / Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.” I have always read those lines with a sort of satisfaction at the “closure” they effect, though with no further thought than is provoked by Eliot’s footnote about how St. Magnus Martyr is one of Wren’s finest interiors. Hollis quotes a couple of Eliot’s failed attempts at that final line—the last of which was “Their joyful splendour of Corinthian white and gold”—then follows with this paragraph of commentary:

And not Their joyful splendour either: Inviolable splendour? No, he had that already in ‘A Game of Chess.’ Inexplicable? Yes? And splendour? music? Splendour was right. Inexplicable splendour of Corinthian white + gold. Nor were these lines quite in the right order. The fishmen should come before the clatter; no, the clatter should come before the public bar. Round and round went the carousel of the draft, but at least he was back in the activity of the poem.

You are there, feels the dizzied animated reader, and wonders whether he can keep up with the commentary if it remains at this pace of intensity.

One might think that after absorbing all that can be absorbed from Hollis’s book, the enlightened reader will be put on a new track, on his or her way to becoming an active reader of The Waste Land rather than merely a dutiful student of its varied episodes and characters. But my experience suggests that this is not the case, despite all of Hollis’s meticulous criticism and his provocative readings. The Waste Land has a way of shucking off new anatomies, even very good ones. By that I mean that it is so seductive in the rhythms and sequences it imprints in us (in me) over decades that we reflexively revert to our familiar responses. We always know what is coming next (the neurasthenic lady or Mr. Eugenides), so that the poem sings out its lines and we are unable to stop them long enough to apply some new corrective analysis that would make them deeper, more lucid and understandable. This is not the case when we reread a lyric by Yeats or Frost and are “schooled” in some revisory way. It may be that no long poem offers itself to such schooling. Still, it will be some time before anyone else engages the poem with as much intensity and humorous good sense as Matthew Hollis has done.

The Waste Land
A Biography of a Poem

Matthew Hollis,
W.W. Norton, $40, 544 pp.

Published in the March 2023 issue: 

William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, emeritus, at Amherst College.

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