"The Waste Land" Revisited

Helen Vendler
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

We know that The Waste Land is canonical because it has received the homage of parody:

And when we were out on bail, staying with the Dalai Lama,
My uncle, he gave me a ride on a yak,
And I was speechless. He said, Mamie,
Mamie, grasp his ears. And off we went
Beyond Yonkers, then I felt safe.
I drink most of the year and then I have a Vichy.*

Our delighted recognition of T. S. Eliot’s cadences under the absurd lexical substitutions of the parody means that we cannot mistake his musical signature, even when it is eviscerated of his content. I want to take up both that music and that content, under the guise of looking at Eliot’s construction-by-deletion of The Waste Land. It is no very great sacrifice for a poet to delete something roughly sketched or badly written; but to delete something finished, something with good lines, something over which he has taken pains, is far harder. In preparing to write The Waste Land, Eliot had amassed over several years a heap of manuscript material, all deeply representative of parts of his own life and mentality, some of it extraordinary. With the help of Ezra Pound, he voluntarily sacrificed a good deal of what he had written (some of it material to which he would return in later lyrics, the play The Family Reunion, and Four Quartets; some of it earlier lyric composition; and some of it passages especially written for The Waste Land). The deletion of this material was—as I see it—a form of self-mutilation in the service of a modernist aesthetic of integrity.

It suited exactly my adolescent expectation of what poetry should be: rich, tragic, learned, hopeless, and musical.

That is, as an eclectic self-portrait, The Waste Land might have included the suppressed passages; as an experiment in impersonal, unified, and self-contained poetry it could not. Eliot’s voluntary sacrificing of important and finished passages (representing important and finished parts of his own consciousness) in order to accede to the poem’s own demands—articulated, rather than invented, by Pound—seems to me an act of stunning self-abnegation. Behind the poem as it is, we can see the poem as it was; and in following the successive sacrifices made to the poem’s ultimate being, we can see more clearly the kind of poet Eliot decided to be, or found himself becoming.

Since we have recently commemorated the centenary of Eliot’s birth, some of us have felt it proper to relate how he was born into our consciousness, and with what effect. In 1946, Oscar Williams published his Little Anthology of Modern Poetry, and sometime before 1950, I bought it (as the label tells me) in the Old Corner Book Shop in Boston. It was the first book that I had ever bought for myself, and for a long time it was my only book, my favorite book, read every night, kept in the top drawer of the night table next to my bed. It was in that anthology that I found The Waste Land (without its notes; only years later I saw that they were printed at the back of the book). I read this new poetic object without, as I recall, any unease, and with an almost superstitious gratitude for its existence. It suited exactly my adolescent expectation of what poetry should be: rich, tragic, learned, hopeless, and musical. Because I had been taught Latin and Spanish and French and Italian as a child, Eliot’s quotations (even the Greek and German and Sanskrit) did not frighten me, and in fact seemed as natural as comparable quotations would later seem in, say, Matthew Arnold (where they served much the same solacing function). It was many years before I knew that the Sibyl of the epigraph was saying she wanted to die, because even Eliot’s notes, when I eventually found them, were peculiarly silent on her utterance. Even without that information, the poem matched, very exactly and assuagingly, my own recurring adolescent wish to die.

The Waste Land became an invaluable fragment shored against my own young ruins; and when I learned that Eliot was coming to Cambridge I wanted to see his face and hear his voice. At seventeen, in November cold, I was part of the overflow crowd herded onto the glacial floor of Harvard’s Memorial Hall to hear Eliot’s lecture piped over from Sanders Theatre; at the end, I looked into Sanders and saw Eliot descending the stairs from the stage in a fashion that can be described only as episcopal, bowing wearily left and right to acquaintances, extending a benevolent hand to friends, with a smile so withdrawn and remote, and a physical languor and control so foreign to my experience that I recall it to this day. He was to me then, and still remains, preeminently the poet of The Waste Land, the greatest single poetic invention—contraption, installation, hallucination—in English of our century.

These sacrifices, for a young, male, traditionally educated, American Christian lyric poet with an obsessive longing for order, were momentous ones.

Before confronting the self-sacrificing form of impersonal self-portraiture embodied in the poem, I must first say a word about its greatness. The virtue of The Waste Land, like that of any poetic object, lies almost wholly in the rhythms it finds for its expressiveness—rhythms of syntax, of proportion, of tone, and of prosody. All of these appear here in such elaborate nuance and variety that it is impossible to catalogue them; my ear is more ravished by the constant unpredictable musicality in this poem than by any other prosody of this century. And in returning often to The Waste Land, I have not found its unpredictability becoming stale: in each rereading, “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME” breaks in as sinisterly as before upon the anterior female malignity:

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,

Just as astonishingly do the innocently loathsome Mrs. Porter and her daughter burst in (with the pun on “horns”) upon the stately pentameter echoes of Marvell and Day:

But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water[.]

The o altitudo that follows these low ablutions zooms up unforgettably, even in the hundredth rereading:

O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!

The effect is thrilling, and is not available in English poetry before Eliot. It is thrilling even if one does not know Verlaine’s poem or its Wagnerian connections—thrilling because the suave rhythm of the French alexandrine leaps so far away from the vulgar beat of the Australian ballad. Eliot is the zoom drive, the fisheye lens, and the panning camera of verbal effect; he soars up, he scans around, he dives in. The brilliance, together, of nervousness and nerve is uniquely his. Plucking from the air the sounds and syncopations that would measure his psychic shakiness, he encoded them in the unrepeatable and unbreakable musical cryptogram we call The Waste Land. In some lines that were dropped from the final version, Eliot described himself as the watchful seismograph of the London populace:

Some minds, aberrant from the normal equipoise
Record the motions of these pavement toys
And trace the cryptogram that may be curled
Within the faint perceptions.

Eliot’s thirty-three-year-old aberrant mind is, as this quotation suggests, most original in the tremulous recording of psychic heartbeats and the subsequent tracing in words of their faint riddles. The ice-cold composing poet had learned to stand apart and observe the heated, confused, and fragile man within (this latter sometimes objectified as a female self). Eliot’s observant and ironic assumption of an androgynous viewpoint (represented by Tiresias, called in the notes “the most important personage in the poem”) helped make possible the self-possession of The Waste Land which, however great its lyric expressiveness, aspires to epic breadth and poise.

Because that final poise is so complete and miraculous, it is useful to remind ourselves of what was sacrificed on the way to the poem’s perfection. The rest of my essay will be addressed to that question: What did Eliot give up in order to give us what we have? The drafts, published in 1971, reveal some of the oddity of this impersonal, modernist self-portrait—the exemplification of Eliot’s famous remark that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

What was sacrificed first of all in Eliot’s escape from personality was America. Of all American poems, The Waste Land is deliberately the least American. Originally, it was ostentatiously American, beginning in a quarter like Boston’s Scollay Square (“First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place”) and continuing, in part IV, with a Coleridgean voyage from the Dry Salvages off Gloucester along the eastern banks, thence toward the Arctic, where the sailors, encountering a Melvillean iceberg, utter an immortal dropped line: “My god man there’s bears on it.” Even the hermit-thrush of line 357, straight (though unacknowledged) from Whitman, is displaced: it is, says Eliot’s designedly cosmopolitan note, a bird “I have heard in Quebec County.” The Europeanizing of the original manuscript was carried out by Eliot, not Pound: it was Eliot’s pencil, according to Mrs. Eliot, that scored through the opening scene in Boston; and in the New England sea passage, Pound confined himself to some deletions, not scoring out, as Eliot eventually did, the whole.

As in life Eliot de-Americanized his personal self, so in art he de-Americanized his lyric self-portrait. Both were no doubt overdetermined gestures with emotional as well as aesthetic causes, but both constituted in literary terms a défi to the self-consciously Americanizing gestures of Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Whittier, Bryant, and Longfellow. Eliot also extended the défi to Longfellow’s genteel Europeanizing of American literature through pious sonnets to European shrines, memorials uttered by a tourist rather than an inhabitant. Eliot’s poem, like from the draft, included a woman, baby faces, and a man—the whole family romance:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And bats with baby faces, in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
A man crawled downward down a blackened wall.

As if to insist on the family gestalt, the baby-faced bats and the hair-fiddling woman are replaced, in the draft, by a deformed large-skulled child, clearly a surrogate for the impotent Fisher-King speaker, since, like the speaker, the “infant hydrocephalous” sits by a dried-up bank. The fiddling of the woman and the Keatsian whistling of the bats are figures for the music of this poem, a music subsequently transferred to the

Infant hydrocephalous, who sat
At a bridge end, by a dried-up water course
And fiddled (with a knot tied in one string).

But this grotesque transfer of musical power to an infant self is rejected, and in the final version the music remains adult and heterosexual.

Besides largely sacrificing its American origin and the infancy, childhood, and adolescent masochistic and autoerotic narcissism of its poet, The Waste Land sacrifices adult intellectual contempt. Pound rightly reproved a supercilious tone that creeps into Tiresias’s monologue as he observes the typist. The passage reads:

I, Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs,
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest,
Knowing the manner of these crawling bugs.

“Too easy,” Pound scribbled. The same “scientific” tone de haut en bas pervades the anti-Semitic passages (“Graves’ disease in a dead Jew’s eyes”), and contempt animates the Fresca passage (totally dropped) in which we are told that

Odours, confected by the cunning French,
Disguise the good old hearty female stench.

The Waste Land is the poem of a young man whose defenses sometimes wanted to manifest themselves as clinical superiorities. In canceling the overt contempt (while retaining social satire), Eliot allowed a sober pity to surround both the pub scene and the seduction in the typist’s flat.

Eliot was also willing to sacrifice, for the sake of the aesthetic headiness he was after, evenness and homogeneity of language. The hesitancy and diffidence, not to say dislike, so many have felt before Eliot’s aggressive “writerly” textuality attest to its difference from the smooth, “readerly” form of nineteenth-century poetry. (Even Browning at his most expostulatory believed in continuity of a sort.) And Eliot was of course perfectly conscious of his sacrifice of the “readerly.” The “readerly” bored him:

It may be [he writes in “The Use of Poetry” in 1933] that for some periods of society a more relaxed form of writing is right, and for others a more concentrated. I believe that there must be many people who feel, as I do, that the effect of some of the greater nineteenth-century poets is diminished by their bulk. … I by no means believe that the “long poem” is a thing of the past; but at least there must be more in it for the length than our grandparents seemed to demand.

Later in the same essay, refusing to define poetry, Eliot is nonetheless charmingly willing to assign it an origin: “Poetry begins, I dare say, with a savage beating a drum in the jungle, and it retains that essential of percussion and rhythm.” “Meaning,” however, is suspect:

The chief use of the ‘meaning’ of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be… to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog. This is a normal situation of which I approve. But the minds of all poets do not work that way; some of them, assuming that there are other minds like their own, become impatient of this ‘meaning’ which seems superfluous, and perceive possibilities of intensity through its elimination.

Eliot counted (reliably, as it now appears) on his poem’s satisfying “minds like [his] own.”

Nonetheless, it was a risky venture to be modern in this writerly and cryptic way, because, at the same time, The Waste Land sacrificed, by its allegiance to cultural and religious tradition, any pylon-and-airplane version of modernity. In the thirties, the young Lady Dorothy Wellesley, who considered herself a member of the avant-garde, wrote sublimely to Yeats,

But Eliot, that man isn’t modern. He wrings the past dry and pours the juice down the throats of those who are either too busy, or too creative to read as much as he does. I believe that in time to come he will be regarded as an interesting symptom of a sick and melancholy age. … The question is: does he crib?

Other readers, looking for patent modernity of reference, have also judged The Waste Land to be a reactionary poem. (In the event, it became the poem that made free verse the symbol of the modern, and hermeticism the symbol of the modernist.)

Besides thematic “modernity,” The Waste Land sacrificed for its modernist ends something that was dear to Eliot’s own heart—the centrality of the Christian religion. Given his subsequent baptism in 1928, I do not doubt that de-emphasizing Christianity was, even in 1921, some sort of sacrifice, though he was throwing down a gauntlet to his family. Western religious belief survived in the poem, of course, in allusions to Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes, John the Baptist, Christ at Emmaus, Saint Augustine, the Holy Grail, Dante, and the Wren churches; but Eliot’s ostentatious deference to anthropological universalism in his use of vegetation myth, and his even more ostentatious closure in Buddhism (“Shantih, shantih, shantih,” the three most famous words in the poem), made this work by an American not only a European poem but a world poem—one of pantheism. The example of Yeats and Joyce (not to speak of Whitman) may have exerted some influence here, but Eliot’s Sanskrit studies, and the definitive adulthood they represented for him (as a deviation from family practice, which his thesis on Bradley failed to achieve), played a larger part. As we know Eliot’s intellectual ambition to encompass world thought, Christian and non-Christian was finally put aside in favor of territorial, familial, and Anglican piety, represented by “The Dry Salvages,” “East Coker,” and “Little Gidding,” respectively. Krisna has become, in “The Dry Salvages,” a footnote: ”I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant.”

In making its claim to universal extension—comparing the Buddha’s Fire Sermon “in importance” to the Sermon on the Mount—The Waste Land may make its one aesthetic error; the ethical ending (“give,” “sympathize,” “control”) has never seemed to me so powerfully voiced as the rest of the poem. I suspect that this ending owes less to the Buddha than to the psychological prescriptions in Lausanne of Dr. Roger Vittoz (whose regime, according to his own writings, emphasized the willed control of the conscious mind over the unconscious). The ethical cure seems feeble as a literary weapon against the representation in the poem of. that “emotional derangement which has been a lifelong affliction,” as Eliot described it in a 1921 letter to Richard Aldington.

In addition to the thematic sacrifices of Americanness, autobiographical self-portraiture, conventional “modernity” of reference, and a closure in Christianity, The Waste Land notoriously exhibits the sacrifice, formally speaking, of the single point of view. Eliot, like Sloppy, decided here to “do the police in different voices.” Had The Waste Land been written as a lyric, it might have resembled certain speeches in The Family Reunion (1939), such as the exchange in which Harry, who thinks he has murdered his wife, asks,

Is the spring not an evil time, that excites us with lying voices?

to which Mary responds with a group of sexually suggestive and masochistic figures:

The cold spring now is the time
For the ache in the moving root
The agony in the dark
The slow flow throbbing the trunk
The pain of the breaking bud.

Harry in turn identifies spring with ritual sacrifice and the return of the ghosts· of the drowned:

Spring is an issue of blood
A season of sacrifice
And the wail of the new full tide
Returning the ghosts of the dead
Those whom the winter drowned
Do not the ghosts of the drowned
Return to land in the spring?

A good deal of The Family Reunion reads like a dramatic gloss on the sexual disturbance and elegiac commemoration of The Waste Land. The original epigraph that Eliot had proposed for the poem was Conrad’s “The horror! the horror!” and a more precise knowledge of that inner horror and disgust may perhaps be seen in Harry’s speech in the play:

                      It’s not being alone
That is the horror, to be alone with the horror,
What matters is the filthiness. I can clean my skin,
Purify my life, void my mind,
But always the filthiness, that lies a little deeper. …

Such lyric expressions of a single continued “character” are precisely what The Waste Land, in my view, decides to sacrifice. The sacrifice is not, however, made in favor of a Bakhtinian dialogism, since none of the voices in The Waste Land can count on speaking directly to, and being answered by, another. Lil and Stetson make no, or next to no, response when addressed, and the hostile married couple are locked in silence. Nor, in place of consistent character or dialogue, will The Waste Land postulate (not even in the ruined mind of its intermittent chief protagonist) a continuous social “tradition” of the orderly sort that Eliot had described two years before in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919): “The whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of [one’s] own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” The solacing intellectual wholes invoked in the prose become, in a sacrifice demanded by a poem of exclusion and brokenness, the “fragments” serving as a bulwark to interior ruins.

Let me recapitulate, in closing, Eliot’s sacrifices. In writing The Waste Land, he sacrificed his Americanness, his biological maleness, and any developed representation of his infancy, childhood, and adolescence, in order to present a disseminated and androgynous version of self:

Not quite an adult, and still less a child,
By fate misbred.

This self is full of “unreal emotions, and real appetite.” In spite of that strong inclination to contempt that I have mentioned, Eliot reined in, to a great extent, his “lyric” or personal aesthetic and sexual disgust, and wrote instead an impersonal satire tinged with pity. He renounced evenness, homogeneity, and continuity of language, even abandoning “meaning” (as it is commonly understood) and appealed to a set of Western and Buddhist traditions that were as off-putting to his readers as they were genuine to himself. He sacrificed the exclusivity of Christianity, and a coherent tradition seamlessly composed into an order, in favor of an anthropological and archaeological fragmentation. And he sacrificed a lyric center or continuous protagonist. These sacrifices, for a young, male, traditionally educated, American Christian lyric poet with an obsessive longing for order, were momentous ones.

And now, what was gained?
A surface so angular and refractive it made other poetic surfaces seem dull; a cast of characters so sinister and oblique they made other poems seem undramatic; a vers libre so teasingly allied to the pentameter that its music seemed both new and familiar; a polyphony of conversation and quotation that put Dante into the vernacular and made pub quarrels literary. For American letters, The Waste Land established a bold claim to international participation; it authoritatively dismissed those previous American stances—of poetic isolationism, poetic nationalism, and a touristic reverence for the European—that had marked our poetry. To Christian poetry, it proffered a rebuke for its neglect of Asian thought. To the modern world, it asserted that modernity was necessarily a variant on the buried past, and that the truest modernity lay in becoming aware of the historical construction of one’s own self. Finally, for lyric expression, it manifested a new consciousness that the lyric self was not only born but made. Pound’s line from Canto VIII says it all: “These fragments you have shored (shelved).” The self is a library, and the past is what we not only know, but are.

The quotations set into The Waste Land concern, among other things, sex, love, madness, and death; they suggest, very powerfully, that we interpret such conditions in ourselves through the mediation of anterior ancestral voices. Through Ovid, Shakespeare, Wagner, Nerval, and the author of the Pervigilium veneris** we find out what human sexual encounter can be; through the Buddha and Saint Augustine we are constituted as ethical beings; through Dante and Baudelaire we are inducted into a social tribe. The fact that we know the implied author of The Waste Land so well, when we have scarcely a clue to his autobiographical self in propria persona, means that an anthropologically constructed self is as recognizable in literature as a more conventionally imagined psychological self- prompting us, through the poem, to see the two as perhaps one.

Wallace Stevens entitled one of his poems “Men Made Out of Words,” and The Waste Land shows us one such man made out of words. Stevens asks what we would be without anterior literary creation:

What should we be without the sexual myth,
The human revery or poem of death?

And he answers his own question. We would be “castratos of moon-mash,” paltry emasculated imaginations. Stevens adds, “Life consists of propositions about life,” and by “propositions,” he means those enunciations from Homer onward by which we are inscribed and into which we inscribe ourselves:

The whole race is a poet that writes down
The eccentric propositions of its fate.

It was perhaps The Waste Land that made such a statement possible, together with the change of consciousness that such a statement implies.

In celebrating The Waste Land, I should add, we must not forget the farcical moments of its gestation: that in the Boston scene, Eliot wanted to include the 1920 song, “Cubanola Glide” (“Tease, Squeeze, lovin & wooin / Say Kid what’re y’ doin”); that in the Dry Salvages scene, falling into Boston phonetics, he wanted to rhyme “reappear” with “gonorrhea”; that his cautious use of “perhaps” and “may” drove Pound to write with asperity, “Make up yr. mind / you Tiresias / if you know / know damn well / or I else / you / don’t.” The birth pangs of art have rarely been so nakedly revealed as they are in the collaboration of Pound and Eliot in creating a wholly new kind of poem. The farce in the process is a measure of the risks taken.

The deliberate self-mutilation and self-vacating visible in the drafts—what I have called Eliot’s sacrifices—were, apparently, a necessary prelude to the arousing, on paper, of the loud lament of that disconsolate chimera whom literary history calls the author of The Waste Land. He is the crying shadow of that suicidal funeral dance, and around him we see and hear, as in a phantasmagoria, the discontinuous masque of his creatures—the couple frozen in antagonistic marriage, the crowd in the pub, the drowned Phoenician sailor, the Margate girl in the canoe, the hooded third wanderer, Mr. Eugenides, the typist and the young man carbuncular, Stetson, Madame Sosostris, the hyacinth girl. They appear and disappear in a swoon of language—now realist eyes and now symbolist pearls; now ecstatic French, now inscrutable Sanskrit; now demotic and drunken, now hierophantic and haunting—all moving to the steps of the elegant and intelligent Eliotic rag. Even in its modernist austerity, hiding its jarring American past, The Waste Land nonetheless becomes the successful prototype of the homeless postmodernist assemblage.

* “Sweeny in Articulo,” by the pseudonymous Myra Buttle, may be found in Dwight Macdonald’s collection, An Anthology from Chaucr to Beerbohm—and After.

**Correction, Dec. 16, 2022: Due to a transcription error, an earlier digital version of this piece misspelled the name of the Latin poem. It is Pervigilium veneris, not Pervigilium ventris.

Helen Vendler is Porter University Professor Emerita at Harvard University.
Originally published:
December 1, 1990


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