The Annotated Waste Land, With Eliot's Contemporary Prose
by Lawrence S. (edt) Rainey
A Breath of Dust
A review by Christopher Hitchens
Lawrence Rainey's introduction to this book opens with an anecdote about a starstruck
and tongue-tied Donald Hall, the American poet (and, like Eliot, a former editor
of the Harvard Advocate), who journeyed to meet his hero in London in 1951.
Having babbled his way through the interview, Hall rose to take his leave.
Then Eliot appeared to search for the right phrase with which to send me off.
He looked me in the eyes, and set off into a slow, meandering sentence. "Let
me see," said T. S. Eliot, "forty years ago I went from Harvard
to Oxford. Now you are going from Harvard to Oxford. What advice can I give
you?" He paused delicately, shrewdly, while I waited with greed for the
words which I would repeat for the rest of my life, the advice from elder
to younger, setting me off on the road of emulation. When he had ticked off
the comedian's exact milliseconds of pause, he said, "Have you any long
I sat for a second or two after reading that before I remembered its analogue,
in a novel that had been published seven years prior to this encounter. In Brideshead
Revisited, Charles Ryder's father gives him sage counsel about going to
Do you know in the summer before I was going up, your cousin Alfred rode
over to Boughton especially to give me a piece of advice? And do you know
what that advice was? "Ned," he said, "there's one thing I must beg of you.
Always wear a tall hat on Sundays during term."
A few pages later on Charles meets Anthony Blanche at a lunchtime feast in
Oxford, after which the louche, stammering, epicene figure "stood on the balcony
with a megaphone which had appeared surprisingly among the bric-a-brac of Sebastian's
room, and in languishing, sobbing tones recited passages from The Waste Land
to the sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to the river."
"'I, Tiresias have foresuffered
all,'" he sobbed to them
from the Venetian arches --
"Enacted on this same d-divan
I who have sat by Thebes
below the wall
And walked among the l-l-
lowest of the dead ..."
Like many of the post-Great War generation, Waugh had taken The Waste Land
as the specially resonant poem of an epoch, and indeed paid it a further compliment
by alluding to one of its more famous lines ("I will show you fear in a handful
of dust") in the title of one of his late novels, A
Handful of Dust.
George Orwell's Nineteen
Eighty-four, which was published just before Hall met Eliot at the London
offices of Faber and Faber, has the glacial O'Brien tell Winston Smith, "There
is no possibility that any perceptible change will happen within our own lifetime.
We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in
it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone." When O'Brien springs the trap
on Smith and leads him to Room 101, it might be said that "we are in rats' alley
/ Where the dead men lost their bones." (My student Michael Weiss, who pointed
this out to me, speculates that it might be a partial or subliminal revenge
on Orwell's part for Eliot's refusal to let Faber and Faber publish Animal
But these are among, and only among, the influences of The Waste Land. What
of the influences upon it? Several of them are fairly easy to determine:
Geoffrey Chaucer, Andrew Marvell, Charles Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita,
James Thomson's "The City of Dreadful Night." They are easy to determine partly
because they are obvious; partly because Eliot did not attempt to disguise the
provenance of his poem, or at least not ostensibly; and partly because he proudly
accompanied the final book with a convenient set of references and an acknowledgment
of debts. This tactic, which Peter Ackroyd in his biography says was adopted
"in order to avoid the charges of plagiarism which had been leveled at his earlier
poetry," shows Eliot to have been, like Bellow's Augie
March, a "Columbus of the near-at-hand." A hasty visit to Margate is pressed
into service as readily as a recent text from James Joyce, or a class on the
Buddha that the poet had attended not long before, and few of the London landmarks
are very far from the bank in "The City" at which Eliot toiled from nine to
Rainey's edition is best read in conjunction with Valerie Eliot's 1971 facsimile
of the successive drafts of the poem. Here we can see, as they occurred, the
alterations wrought by the editorial hand of Ezra Pound. As dedicatee of The
Waste Land, Pound is usually credited with trimming and improving the text,
and certainly deserves recognition for promoting and marketing it. Most of the
changes, however, turn out to have been for the worse. (In any case, as a reader
of the Cantos will readily see, if Pound was truly any good at pruning
and refining, he must have been literature's most salient example of the physician
who could not heal himself.) It might now seem a bit stale for Eliot to have
put the last words of Kurtz on his epigraph page, because to us "the horror,
the horror" has become a cliché. It wasn't so in 1922, and the death
wish of the Cumaean Sybil, substituted by Pound, rather robs the poem of its
main retrospective claim, which is to modernity. A spirited opening stave, very
much in debt to Joyce and depicting a night of pointless debauchery, was cast
aside. Worst of all, Pound shielded readers from Eliot's lengthy and intense
prologue to the moment "When lovely woman stoops to folly," in Part III of "The
Fire Sermon." I would have wanted to keep the Popean parody:
This ended, to the steaming bath
Her tresses fanned by little flutt'ring
Odours, confected by the cunning
Disguise the good old hearty female
The reek of disgust there -- which is horridly protracted over several more
excised lines -- is essential to an understanding of Eliot, and has a very
direct connection to the distraught marital relations that, among many other
pressures, kept his nerves on a knife edge while he was composing the poem.
Rainey writes that The Waste Land is "preceded by its reputation," which
is hardly worth saying, since that is what "reputation" means. He adds that
it is "endowed with authority so monumental that a reader is tempted to overlook
the poem itself." Perhaps. But since we must indeed look back at the work through
the refraction of what we already "know" about Eliot, it might be worth asking
why such a pious Christian felt so impelled to exhaust himself in the invocation
of darkness and despair. Eliot had not quite become a committed Anglo-Catholic
in 1922, but he had formed an attachment to the royalist, Catholic, traditionalist
ideas of Charles Maurras and his Action Française, which later
mutated (as did Eliot) toward fascism. Most of Eliot's later work is much more
"contained," as it were, and less "wild" (a term frequently used by reviewers
of The Waste Land). He himself became more formal, more Anglicized, more
calm and devotional. Yet there was plainly a death wish at work, and none of
the subsequent attachments to order and to the organic society could quite conceal
Exegesis can go only so far. It is extremely useful to know that while Eliot
was trying to make up his mind about the twentieth century, he depended so much
on Bertrand Russell for friendship and material help. We know that he had studied
Eastern religion, but might it not have been from the famously agnostic Russell
that he drew encouragement to cite those "faiths" that preceded monotheism?
No answer in these pages. It was for me, however, astonishingly interesting
to discover that there was actually a popular song, written for the Ziegfeld
Follies in 1912, called "That Shakespearian Rag." Its authors, Gene
Buck and Herman Ruby, cannot have imagined the moan of immortalization that
Eliot was to give their ephemeral ditty. (Not content with annexing and slightly
mangling Buck and Ruby's title, Eliot even inverted their comment "Most
in-tel-li-gent, ve-ry el-e-gant" and could be accused of echoing their
view that "that old clas-si-cal drag / Has the proper stuff.")
The allegation of plagiarism is often tiresome, since it is very difficult
to establish originality or authenticity, and since poetry almost invariably
involves synthesis (which Ackroyd rightly describes as Eliot's particular gift).
Still, it is surprising to find no mention at all, in this extensively sourced
volume, of Madison Cawein's poem Waste Land. Cawein was as distant from
Eliot, in poetic terms, as it was possible to be. He was a Kentucky blues man
and a barroom versifier. However, like Eliot, he was fascinated by the Celtic
twilight and the search for the Grail. And his verses, with their haunting title,
did appear in the January 1913 edition of Poetry magazine. Since that
very issue also contained an essay by Ezra Pound on the new poets writing in
London, it seems more rather than less likely that Eliot would have read it.
I looked at the man; I saw him plain;
Like a dead weed, grey and wan,
Or a breath of dust. I looked again --
And man and dog were gone,
Like wisps of the graying dawn.
After fanatically going to buy some long underwear immediately after his meeting
with Eliot, Donald Hall shook himself, as all servile acolytes eventually must,
and decided that the great man must have been joking. But how certain can we
be that Hall was correct in this assumption? Several of Eliot's English friends
caught him overdoing things: wearing a bowler hat at odd moments, and saluting
uniformed guardsmen in the street -- trying too hard, in other words. (Auden
did a much better job of becoming an American, or at least a New Yorker, than
Tom from St. Louis did of becoming a stage Englishman.) At other times Eliot
was apparently far too dismissive and laconic.
Various critics have done me the honor 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.
He was to tell the Paris Review that in the composition of the closing
sections "I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying." There
seems no reason at all why we should not take him at his word. Defensive modesty
of this variety can often be worth noting; what critic has ever succeeded in
getting any sense or any beauty out of the final pages? And in what conceivable
universe -- even the batty, sinister one of Ezra Pound, who insisted that the
poem open in that manner -- is April the cruelest month?
It is not disputable that by publishing The Waste Land when he did,
Eliot caught something of the zeitgeist and enthralled those who needed borrowed
words and concepts to capture or re-express the desolation of Europe after 1918.
But this latest attempt at context and explication has the effect, prefigured
in earlier scrutinies, of helping to further demystify what is certainly the
most overrated poem in the Anglo-American canon.
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