One hundred years ago this month, TS Eliot was in the final stage of composing his masterpiece, The Waste Land, whose publication centenary we celebrate next year. The 433-line poem is one of those craggy, difficult monuments of “high modernism”, as the period was once grandly termed. However, unlike the forbidding lengths of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Ezra Pound’s Cantos, or Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Eliot’s poem can be swallowed whole in about 25 minutes. When I introduce The Waste Landto undergraduates, I soft-pedal its difficulties by suggesting they not bother looking up allusions or googling help, and I ask them simply to listen to a professional actor or poet reading the poem on YouTube. Hearing the music of the poem without at first worrying about its obscure meanings is the fastest way to get hooked on the haunting weirdness of the thing. (I was puzzled when my students glommed on to a recording by Alec Guiness. Apparently Star Wars fans, their fall into The Waste Land was precipitated by Obi-Wan Kenobi’s delivery.)
The Waste Land contains moments of tender beauty, raunchy humour and glimpses of the transcendent, but the poem is primarily known for its bleak outlook, as a document of personal and cultural crises. Circa 1919-21, the crises from which European culture was suffering are too many to list. But they include economic uncertainty and political redistricting in the aftermath of devastating war, mass slaughter and pandemic; the ascendancy of Darwinism, psychology and science, with an attendant loss of religious certainty; upheavals in gender roles and sexual identity; and increasing urbanisation and mechanisation. In the first decades of the 20th century, it was a cause of great concern that modern life had become fast, brutal and alienating. In the agonies of The Waste Land, its first readers came to recognise their own disillusion. Gertrude Stein called these postwar castaways the “lost generation”.
The peculiarly sensitive antennae that enabled Eliot to register his culture’s anxieties had been fine-tuned by his own sufferings. His personal problems are also too many to list, but they touched on the spiritual, marital, sexual, psychological and vocational. In the domestic sphere, Eliot was trapped in a loveless, co-dependent marriage to a mentally unstable woman for whom he felt responsible. At work, he laboured away at Lloyds Bank in an underground office, ruining his health with overwork and undersleep to make time for his writing. Unable to quit the bank because of his wife’s medical bills, he had to postpone his dream of being a full-time writer. In his personal life, the bohemian artists of Bloomsbury provided some cherished friendships but no models for the kind of artist or man Eliot wanted to be.
His spiritual life was inchoate. He had turned away from his family’s anaemic Unitarianism with distaste, and he had found nothing to replace it. The Boston version of Unitarianism which he had inherited possessed little sense of the spiritual, consisting mainly of principles of decorum. (After his conversion to Christianity in 1927, Eliot complained that the Unitarianism of his youth had only taught him socially what was done or not done, rather than what was good or evil.) And though he had written an excellent doctoral dissertation in philosophy, he never defended it, abandoning his graduate work at Harvard University.
His inquiries into the western philosophical tradition had offered him no lasting values or spiritual promise on which to hang a life. Likewise, his coursework in eastern religions had intrigued him, but they were ultimately intellectual exercises, consisting of books and translations but shorn of community, practice and liturgy. Nothing, it seemed, could show him a way forward. Or out. Or up. With a capacious intellect and a restless spirit, Eliot looked in all directions.
It was this state of mind from which The Waste Land sprang. The formal properties of the poem dramatised a radical uncertainty. The poem lacks a single narrator or a single narrative, and it seems to be a series of vignettes and observations, told, cried or whispered by different voices. Even more confusingly, these voices are thrown together with all the seams showing, with no attempt to smooth out transitions or to locate the reader in a recognisable context. Overheard snatches of song and fragments from other literary works float in and out of the texture.
In the midst of writing the poem – struggling to find a form to express instability – Eliot’s beloved mother, brother and sister came from America for their first visit to London in the summer of 1921. Six years previously, on a Sheldon Travelling Fellowship at Oxford, Eliot had eloped with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he had just met, enabling him to burn his bridges in America. His parents had disapproved of his sudden marriage to Vivienne, whom they had never met: a wide ocean and a long war had separated son from family. Meanwhile, Eliot’s father had died in 1919, further delaying his family’s visit to London. And so, in the summer of 1921, finally able to host his family, Eliot spent three months of their visit desperately trying to hide his wife’s illnesses and instability from them. As might be imagined, Vivienne did not make a good impression. Less adept at emotional restraint than the New England Eliots, she lost control in spectacular fashion as they said goodbyes at the ship. (Vivienne wrote to Eliot’s brother Henry, in a mixture of shame and apology: “Now I want you to tell me something truly. You are not to lie to me. Did your mother and sister show, think, say or intimate that I behaved like ‘no lady,’ and just like a wild animal when [we] saw you off? I was perfectly stunned on that occasion.”) After his family left, Eliot suffered a serious breakdown. Lloyds granted him leave, and Eliot decamped to Margate for a few weeks (“Margate Sands” show up in the poem). By the end of 1921, he was seeking treatment from a specialist in a Swiss sanitarium, where he finished the final section of the poem. On his way to and from Lausanne, Eliot stopped in Paris to meet with Ezra Pound, who took the sprawling manuscript in hand and slashed it into publishable form, earning Eliot’s dedicatory epigraph to the poem: “For Ezra Pound / il miglior fabbro” (the better maker).
It may seem remarkable that anyone could compose a major work in the midst of such external chaos and internal pain. But poetry spoke to something deep and mysterious in Eliot. The rhythmic, incantatory aspect of poetry – rather than the sober clarity of prose – was no doubt the only way he could have expressed the depths of his anguish. What is more remarkable is that while the poem expressed breakdown, uncertainty and despair, its author kept his head for business and his ambition to conquer the literary marketplace.
By January of 1922, the poem was close to the form it would take upon publication, and Eliot had settled on its final title, The Waste Land. If the poem had appeared shortly thereafter in print, it might not have become so famous. Ezra Pound had wanted the poem to appear in the American journal The Dial, where Pound, as foreign adviser, was collecting other authors who represented the modernist movement. Although the terms of the original offer ($150) were slightly more generous than the normal fee scale, Eliot mistakenly thought he was being cheated. Pound kept reiterating that The Waste Land was the next Ulysses, and Eliot was firmly convinced of the market worth of his poem. By holding out for more, Eliot was signalling not only the monetary value of the poem but its status as a literary monument. He was in a tight place, however, because he was beholden to Pound’s preference for placing it in The Dial. By shopping the poem around in the interim to such magazines as Vanity Fair, Pound and Eliot were not honestly seeking a different venue but putting pressure on The Dial. For several months, there followed complex and rancorous negotiations, the outcome of which was that the editors of The Dial agreed to award its substantial December prize of $2,000 for The Waste Land as a way of getting around the original offer tied to a fee scale, which Eliot would not accept. (The critic Lawrence Rainey has told this story in close detail, and he notes the astonishing fact that the editors of The Dial were so worried about missing out on the Next Big Thing that they offered the prize before they had even read the poem.) The chatter about these negotiations and the prestige of the award meant that The Waste Land was primed for a splashy premiere.
It came out in the UK in October 1922 in the inaugural issue of The Criterion, Eliot’s new literary quarterly. (That this journal was conceived, funded and launched in this same time period is yet another measure of Eliot’s ferocious ambition.) In America, the poem appeared in the November issue of The Dial, along with the announcement of its award. Soon, even the popular press took notice, with a number of publications denouncing the bewildering poem as a hoax. But there’s no such thing as bad press… The Waste Land – an avant-garde poem written for a coterie audience – had escaped its tiny bubble, making international headlines and turning Eliot into a household name. Readers clamoured for copies, bumping the sales of the journals in which it appeared and of its later book form to which some notes were appended, to make the book seem less like a pamphlet. It was a welcome, if not entirely surprising development for its author, who understood the volatile winds of the literary marketplace and who trimmed his sails to capture its energies. The Waste Land itself, a bleak and haunting lament, reflects aspects of Eliot’s terrible doubts and sufferings. But its publication history tells a different story of its author’s canny business sense and vaunting literary ambition.
Jayme Stayer, SJ, is an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund