Eliot Among the Ruins

The Waste Land remains prophetic, but what did it foretell?

Langdon Hammer
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

IN 1989, JAMES MERRILL, recalling what it had been like to read Eliot at sixteen, wrote in The Yale Review, “From his work came a sense of live menace and fascination: you felt that any rash expository impulse might cause it to strike back like a rattlesnake.” Merrill was never too cowed to poke at the snake. In one poem, he cheekily rhymes “T. S. Eliot” and “So what?” But Eliot was not so easy to dismiss, and the threat that his poetry might strike back—but how exactly?—was never entirely dispelled. “Even now,” Merrill confessed at age 63, “I tremble when I open his books.”

That there is something volatile and disturbing in Eliot’s poetry, something capable of making you tremble, is hinted at in William Rose Benét’s comment on The Waste Land in The Yale Review in 1923: “I found it deeply emotional underneath all attitudinizing.” He added: “it moved me (for all its eccentricity) and . . . its oddity fascinated.” Benét reports the same feeling Merrill would mention—fascination—but to qualify it he adds “attitudinizing,” “eccentricity,” and “oddity.” Clearly, Benét felt obliged to say something about Eliot. He discusses The Waste Land first in his round-up review of eleven poets (including Edgar Arlington Robinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and other poets now as charmingly obscure as Roscoe W. Brink). But Benét is ambivalent, half-baffled, anxious to hedge his bet.

The Waste Land first appeared in the United States in The Dial in 1922, along with the announcement that Eliot had won the magazine’s prestigious and lucrative annual award. Soon after that Boni & Liveright published the poem in book form, filled-out by Eliot’s intimidatingly learned endnotes. The poem prompted plenty of debate. Was The Waste Land revolutionary or an elaborate hoax? Was it radically subjective or simply realistic, a chaotic but recognizable image of the modern world?

Eliot’s poem presented a cabinet of literary curiosities, a collection of haunting images which sophisticated readers could admire and claim for themselves.

The Waste Land looked like a monument, but no monument anyone had seen before, since it arrived in ruins. The allusions to the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, to Ovid and Shakespeare, and to the Upanishads—all this made Eliot’s poem seem of the greatest possible seriousness; in short, made it seem like an epic. But its form was compressed and fragmentary, broken and stuttering, a reflection of “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history,” as Eliot described the present day in his review of Ulysses. The world did not cohere; how could—why should—a poem be expected to? At the same time, in place of the supposedly coherent culture modernity had destroyed, Eliot’s poem presented a cabinet of literary curiosities, a collection of haunting images which sophisticated readers could admire and claim for themselves: talismans of a new literary faith.

In Nashville, Robert Penn Warren painted scenes from The Waste Land on the walls of his dorm room at Vanderbilt, and Warren’s roommate, Allen Tate, penned “The Chaste Land,” complete with mock versions of Eliot’s notes. The poem reverberated across the Anglophone world and beyond it. Indeed, as crucial as London is to the poem, Eliot’s “Unreal City” had no definite location. The author of The Waste Land was neither an American nor a British poet; he was a multilingual author of unsettled national identity gripped by a vision of crumbling towers and falling bridges. No wonder Eliot would become an influential master not only for college boys in Tennessee but for young poets across the globe who would learn to write among the ruins. Think of George Seferis, Christopher Okigbo, and Adonis.

“IT IS NOT A PERMANENT NECESSITY that poets should be interested in philosophy,” Eliot wrote in his 1921 essay “The Metaphysical Poets.” Yet he strongly recommended it for any poet professing to be “modern.” Eliot was the first intellectual poet, if we mean by “intellectual” the new class of educated persons whose nervous self-consciousness and conflicted desires Eliot indelibly captured in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem he began while still a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Harvard.

When he abandoned his studies at Harvard and relocated to bohemian London, Eliot styled himself as a free-standing poet and critic whose prestige derived from his erudition and aloof, emphatic authority. The magazine he edited was called The Criterion. He refashioned the sentimental Romantic poet as a modern professional. His poetry and criticism both provided touchstones for men like Tate and Warren who would transform Anglophone literary studies under the aegis of the New Criticism. Eliot became a powerful influence in the academy by leaving it.

As a Yale College student in 1976, I took the course Major English Poets: Chaucer to Eliot. Eliot was an apt place of arrival for this introduction to English literature because he had invented the notion of a single English poetic tradition that the course embodied. My young professor Penelope Laurans led us through The Waste Land, but then we turned to “Sunday Morning” and “The Idea of Order at Key West” before winding up with an hour on Elizabeth Bishop—the first woman and the one living poet we had encountered.

The syllabus Professor Laurans was teaching from (after fifty years of evolution for this venerable first-year course) had assumed its seemingly inevitable and permanent form under the influence of senior professors such as Cleanth Brooks and W. K. Wimsatt, echt New Critics. By the mid-1970s, however, the New Criticism had had its day, and so had Eliot, insofar as he would never again be the obvious and only conclusion to such a course. Eliot and his great poem were undergoing demotion and displacement in literature departments everywhere. What had been seen as the provocative, arch avant-garde text was now viewed as patently reactionary: a symptom of white male modernist panic. Eliot was turning into a specialist pursuit.

After Eliot’s estate (meaning the poet’s second wife, Valerie Fletcher) published “The Waste Land”: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, in 1971, the poem was no longer simply the 1922 text that Benét had reviewed. It was now the absorbing record of its making, centrally involving Ezra Pound and poignantly Vivien Haigh-Wood, Eliot’s first wife. In 1996, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909–1917, edited by Christopher Ricks, exposed the dense undergrowth of unpublished drafts and poems out of which Eliot’s early poetry had emerged. The book assigned to an appendix (“Poems excised from the Notebook”) texts like “The Triumph of Bullshit” and the obscene racist squibs Eliot shared with Pound and other intimates, known as the Bolo verses. In 1995, in T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, Eliot was arraigned for his pervasive and deep-seated anti-Semitism by Anthony Julius.

There is every reason to tremble opening The Waste Land, with its droughts, fires, and death by water, its automatons marching to the office, hyperlinked quotations and mechanical voices.

By this time, I was a Yale English professor giving a lecture course on Modern Poetry. When I took students to Beinecke Library, I showed them the clean, unconfiding, post-Pound typescript of The Waste Land from which The Dial had set its text. I showed them the Bolo verses: hateful schoolboy rhymes copied in a careful, delicate hand. My favorite item in the library’s holdings was a black waistcoat. Here was the costume of the man who wrote The Waste Land: the rattlesnake’s shed skin.

THIS SEMESTER, so far as I know, no one is teaching Eliot at Yale. But Eliot is in the news. Definitive, doorstop editions of his poems, prose, and letters keep appearing. In this centenary year, Liveright has reprinted the 1922 edition of The Waste Land with an introduction by Paul Muldoon. This year saw the publication of the second and final volume of Robert Crawford’s biography, Eliot After “The Waste Land”; Matthew Hollis’s “The Waste Land”: A Biography of a Poem; Jed Rasula’s What the Thunder Said: How “The Waste Land” Made Poetry Modern; and Lyndall Gordon’s The Hyacinth Girl: T. S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse, her fourth book about Eliot.

That “hidden muse” was Emily Hale. Eliot fell in love with her when he was a graduate student at Harvard. They corresponded regularly from 1930 to 1956, while Eliot’s wife Vivien was confined in an insane asylum. He insisted that his Anglican religion prevented him from marrying Emily while Vivien was alive; when at last Vivien died, he chose to marry Valerie, his secretary at Faber and Faber. Eliot destroyed Hale’s letters and asked her to do the same with his.

Instead, out of reverence or revenge or some combination of both, Hale deposited Eliot’s 1,131 letters at Princeton with the understanding that they were not to be opened until fifty years after the death of the surviving correspondent, which turned out to be Hale. The prohibition inspired fervent and protracted anticipation (as well as a fine novel, The Archivist by Martha Cooley). When the seal was broken in 2020, the news of the day rapidly circulating on social media was a statement Eliot had written in 1960 and directed to be opened at the same time as his letters to Hale. The statement discusses in surprising detail Eliot’s relationships not only with Hale but with his first and second wives. As if in an imaginary press conference, Eliot specifies, “I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.” You can almost hear the cameras clicking, the flash bulbs popping.

These days, as bloggers and reviewers express their opinions on the ethics of Eliot’s treatment of Emily and Vivien, modernism’s high priest of impersonality has become that very tawdry thing: a public personality. What could be more dull, more ordinary? What did James Merrill ever have to be afraid of?

The answer lies in a prophetic poem whose vision of life at the end of the world speaks uncannily to the futility and anarchy of our own historical moment. Even one hundred years on, there is every reason to tremble opening The Waste Land, with its droughts, fires, and death by water, its automatons marching to the office, hyperlinked quotations and mechanical voices, and scene after scene of sexual violation. Someday, The Waste Land may belong to the literary past it pillaged and changed. For the time being, the poem is still somewhere out ahead of us.

Langdon Hammer is the Niel Gray, Jr. Professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of James Merrill: Life and Art and, with Stephen Yenser, co-editor of A Whole World: Letters from James Merrill.
Originally published:
December 12, 2022

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