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On The Waste Land

Cleanth Brooks

The bundle of quotations with which the poem ends has a very definite relation to the general theme of the poem and to several of the major symbols used in the poem. Before Arnaut leaps back into the refining fire of Purgatory with joy he says: "I am Arnaut who weep and go singing; contrite I see my past folly, and joyful I see before me the day I hope for. Now I pray you by that virtue which guides you to the summit of the stair, at times be mindful of my pain." This theme is carried forward by the quotation from Pervigilium Veneris: "When shall I be like the swallow." The allusion is also connected with the Philomela symbol. (Eliot's note on the passage indicates this clearly.) The sister of Philomela was changed into a swallow as Philomela was changed into a nightingale. The protagonist is asking therefore when shall the spring, the time of love, return, but also when will he be reborn out of his sufferings, and--with the special meaning which the symbol takes on from the preceding Dante quotation and from the earlier contexts already discussed--he is asking what is asked at the end of one of the minor poems: "When will Time flow away."

The quotation from "El Desdichado," as Edmund Wilson has pointed out, indicates that the protagonist of the poem has been disinherited, robbed of his tradition. The ruined tower is perhaps also the Perilous Chapel, "only the wind's home," and it is also the whole tradition in decay. The protagonist resolves to claim his tradition and rehabilitate it.

The quotation from The Spanish Tragedy--"Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe"--is perhaps the most puzzling of all these quotations. It means, I believe, this: The protagonist's acceptance of what is in reality the deepest truth will seem to the present world mere madness. ("And still she cried . . . 'Jug jug' to dirty ears.") Hieronymo in the play, like Hamlet, was "mad" for a purpose. The protagonist is conscious of the interpretation which will be placed on the words which follow--words which will seem to many apparently meaningless babble, but which contain the oldest and most permanent truth of the race:

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Quotation of the whole context from which the line is taken confirms this interpretation. Hieronymo, asked to write a play for the court's entertainment, replies:

Why then, I'll fit you; say no more.
When I was young, I gave my mind
And plied myself to fruitless poetry;
Which though it profit the professor naught
Yet it is passing pleasing to the world.

He sees that the play will give him the opportunity he has been seeking to avenge his son's murder. Like Hieronymo, the protagonist in the poem has found his theme; what he is about to perform is not "fruitless."

After this repetition of what the thunder said comes the benediction:

Shantih Shantih Shantih

The foregoing account of The Waste Land is, of course, not to be substituted for the poem itself. Moreover, it certainly is not to be considered as representing the method by which the poem was composed. Much which the prose expositor must represent as though it had been consciously contrived obviously was arrived at unconsciously and concretely.

The account given above is a statement merely of the "prose meaning," and bears the same relation to the poem as does the "prose meaning" of any other poem. But one need not perhaps apologize for setting forth such a statement explicitly, for The Waste Land has been almost consistently misinterpreted since its first publication. Even a critic so acute as Edmund Wilson has seen the poem as essentially a statement of despair and disillusionment, and his account sums up the stock interpretation of the poem. Indeed, the phrase, "the poetry of drouth," has become a cliché of left-wing criticism. It is such a misrepresentation of The Waste Land as this which allows Eda Lou Walton to entitle an essay on contemporary poetry, "Death in the Desert"; or which causes Waldo Frank to misconceive of Eliot's whole position and personality. But more than the meaning of one poem is at stake. If The Waste Land is not a world-weary cry of despair or a sighing after the vanished glories of the past, then not only the popular interpretation of the poem will have to be altered but also the general interpretations of post-War poetry which begin with such a misinterpretation as a premise.

Such misinterpretations involve also misconceptions of Ellot's technique. Eliot's basic method may be said to have passed relatively unnoticed. The popular view of the method used in The Waste Land may be described as follows: Eliot makes use of ironic contrasts between the glorious past and the sordid present--the crashing irony of

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.

But this is to take the irony of the poem at the most superficial level, and to neglect the other dimensions in which it operates. And it is to neglect what are essentially more important aspects of his method. Moreover, it is to overemphasize the difference between the method employed by Eliot in this poem and that employed by him in later poems.

The basic method used in The Waste Land may be described as the application of the principle of complexity. The poet works in terms of surface parallelisms which in reality make ironical contrasts, and in terms of surface contrasts which in reality constitute parallelisms. (The second group sets up effects which may be described as the obverse of irony.) The two aspects taken together give the effect of chaotic experience ordered into a new whole, though the realistic surface of experience is faithfully retained. The complexity of the experience is not violated by the apparent forcing upon it of a predetermined scheme.

The fortune-telling of "The Burial of the Dead" will illustrate the general method very satisfactorily. On the surface of the poem the poet reproduces the patter of the charlatan, Madame Sosostris, and there is the surface irony: the contrast between the original use of the Tarot cards and the use made by Madame Sosostris. But each of the details (justified realistically in the palaver of the fortune-teller) assumes a new meaning in the general context of the poem. There is then, in addition to the surface irony, something of a Sophoclean irony too, and the "fortune-telling," which is taken ironically by a twentieth-century audience, becomes true as the poem develops--true in a sense in which Madame Sosostris herself does not think it true. The surface irony is thus reversed and becomes an irony on a deeper level. The items of her speech have only one reference in terms of the context of her speech: the "man with three staves," the "one-eyed merchant," the "crowds of people, walking round in a ring," etc. But transferred to other contexts they become loaded with special meanings. To sum up, all the central symbols of the poem head up here; but here, in the only section in which they are explicitly bound together, the binding is slight and accidental. The deeper lines of association only emerge in terms of the total context as the poem develops--and this is, of course, exactly the effect which the poet intends.

[. . . .]

The poem would undoubtedly be "clearer" if every symbol had a single, unequivocal meaning; but the poem would be thinner, and less honest. For the poet has not been content to develop a didactic allegory in which the symbols are two-dimensional items adding up directly to the sum of the general scheme. They represent dramatized instances of the theme, embodying in their own nature the fundamental paradox of the theme.

We shall better understand why the form of the poem is right and inevitable if we compare Eliot's theme to Dante's and to Spenser's. Eliot's theme is not the statement of a faith held and agreed upon (Dante's Divine Comedy) nor is it the projection of a "new" system of beliefs (Spenser's Faerie Queene). Eliot's theme is the rehabilitation of a system of beliefs, known but now discredited. Dante did not have to "prove" his statement; he could assume it and move within it about a poet's business. Eliot does not care, like Spenser, to force the didacticism. He prefers to stick to the poet's business. But, unlike Dante, he cannot assume acceptance of the statement. A direct approach is calculated to elicit powerful "stock responses" which will prevent the poem's being read at all. Consequently, the only method is to work by indirection. The Christian material is at the center, but the poet never deals with it directly. The theme of resurrection is made on the surface in terms of the fertility rites; the words which the thunder speaks are Sanscrit words.

We have been speaking as if the poet were a strategist trying to win acceptance from a hostile audience. But of course this is true only in a sense. The poet himself is audience as well as speaker; we state the problem more exactly if we state it in terms of the poet's integrity rather than in terms of his strategy. He is so much a man of his own age that he can indicate his attitude toward the Christian tradition without falsity only in terms of the difficulties of a rehabilitation; and he is so much a poet and so little a propagandist that he can be sincere only as he presents his theme concretely and dramatically.

To put the matter in still other terms: the Christian terminology is for the poet a mass of clichés. However "true" he may feel the terms to be, he is still sensitive to the fact that they operate superficially as clichés, and his method of necessity must be a process of bringing them to life again. The method adopted in The Waste Land is thus violent and radical, but thoroughly necessary. For the renewing and vitalizing of symbols which have been crusted over with a distorting familiarity demands the type of organization which we have already commented on in discussing particular passages: the statement of surface similarities which are ironically revealed to be dissimilarities, and the association of apparently obvious dissimilarities which culminates in a later realization that the dissimilarities are only superficial--that the chains of likeness are in reality fundamental. In this way the statement of beliefs emerges through confusion and cynicism--not in spite of them.

From Modern Poetry and the Tradition. Copyright © 1939 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Joseph Frank

In the Cantos and The Waste Land, however, it should have been clear that a radical transformation was taking place in aesthetic structure; but this transformation has been touched on only peripherally by modern critics. R. P. Blackmur comes closest to the central problem while analyzing what he calls Pound's "anecdotal" method. The special form of the Cantos, Blackmur explains, "is that of the anecdote begun in one place, taken up in one or more other places, and finished, if at all, in still another. This deliberate disconnectedness, this art of a thing continually alluding to itself, continually breaking off short, is the method by which the Cantos tie themselves together. So soon as the reader's mind is concerted with the material of the poem, Mr. Pound deliberately disconcerts it, either by introducing fresh and disjunct material or by reverting to old and, apparently, equally disjunct material."

Blackmur's remarks apply equally well to The Waste Land, where syntactical sequence is given up for a structure depending on the perception of relationships between disconnected word-groups. To be properly understood, these word-groups must be juxtaposed with one another and perceived simultaneously. Only when this is done can they be adequately grasped; for, while they follow one another in time, their meaning does not depend on this temporal relationship. The one difficulty of these poems, which no amount of textual exegesis can wholly overcome, is the internal conflict between the time-logic of language and the space-logic implicit in the modern conception of the nature of poetry.

Aesthetic form in modern poetry, then, is based on a space-logic that demands a complete reorientation in the reader's attitude toward language. Since the primary reference of any word-group is to something inside the poem itself, language in modern poetry is really reflexive. The meaning-relationship is completed only by the simultaneous perception in space of word-groups that have no comprehensible relation to each other when read consecutively in time. Instead of the instinctive and immediate reference of words and word-groups to the objects or events they symbolize and the construction of meaning from the sequence of these references, modern poetry asks its readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity.

It would not be difficult to trace this conception of poetic form back to Mallarmé’s ambition to create a language of "absence" rather than of presence—a language in which words negated their objects instead of designating them; nor should one overlook the evident formal analogies between The Waste Land and the Cantos and Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés. Mallarmé, indeed, dislocated the temporality of language far more radically than either Eliot or Pound has ever done; and his experience with Un Coup de dés showed that this ambition of modern poetry has a necessary limit. If pursued with Mallarmé’s relentlessness, it culminates in the self-negation of language and the creation of a hybrid pictographic "poem" that can only be considered a fascinating historical curiosity. Nonetheless, this conception of aesthetic form, which may be formulated as the principle of reflexive reference, has left its traces on all of modem poetry. And the principle of reflexive reference is the link connecting the aesthetic development of modern poetry with similar experiments in the modern novel.

From The Idea of Spatial Form. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Grover Smith

The Waste Land summarizes the Grail legend, not precisely in the usual order, but retaining the principal incidents and adapting them to a modern setting. Eliot's indebtedness both to Sir James Frazer and to Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance (in which book he failed to cut pages 138-39 and 142-43 of his copy) is acknowledged in his notes. Jessie L. Weston's thesis is that the Grail legend was the surviving record of an initiation ritual. Later writers have reaffirmed the psychological validity of the link between such ritual, phallic religion, and the spiritual content of the Greek Mysteries. Identification of the Grail story with the common myth of the hero assailing a devil-dragon underground or in the depths of the sea completes the unifying idea behind The Waste Land. The Grail legend corresponds to the great hero epics, it dramatizes initiation into maturity, and it bespeaks a quest for sexual, cultural, and spiritual healing. Through all these attributed functions, it influenced Eliot's symbolism.

Parallels with yet other myths and with literary treatments of the "quest" theme reinforce Eliot's pattern of death and rebirth. Though The Tempest, one of Eliot's minor sources, scarcely depicts an initiation "mystery," Colin Still, in a book of which Eliot has since written favorably (Shakespeare's Mystery Play), had already advanced the theory in 1921 that it implies such a subject." And Tiresias is not simply the Grail knight and the Fisher King but Ferdinand and Prospero, as well as Tristan and Mark, Siegfried and Wotan. In his feminine role he is not simply the Grail-maiden and the wise Kundry but the sibyl, Dido, Miranda, Brünnhilde. Each of these represents one of the three main characters in the Grail legend and in the mystery cults--the wounded god, the sage woman (transformed in some versions of the Grail legend into a beautiful maiden), and the resurrected god, successful quester, or initiate. Counterparts to them figure elsewhere; Eliot must have been conscious that the "Ancient Mariner" and "Childe Roland" had analogues to his own symbolism.

In adopting fertility symbolism, Eliot was probably influenced by Stravinsky's ballet Le Sacre du printemps. The summer before writing The Waste Land he saw the London production, and on reviewing it in September he criticized the disparity between Massine's choreography and the music. He might almost have been sketching his own plans for a work applying a primitive idea to contemporary life:

In art there should be interpenetration and metamorphosis. Even the Golden Bough can be read in two ways: as a collection of entertaining myths, or as a revelation of that vanished mind of which our mind is a continuation. In everything in the Sacre du Printemps, except in the music, one missed the sense of the present. Whether Stravinsky's music be permanent or ephemeral I do not know; but it did seem to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music.

In The Waste Land he imposed the fertility myth upon the world about him.

Eliot's waste land suffers from a dearth of love and faith. It is impossible to demarcate precisely at every point between the physical and the spiritual symbolism of the poem; as in "Gerontion" the speaker associates the failure of love with his spiritual dejection. It is clear enough, however, that the contemporary waste land is not, like that of the romances, a realm of sexless sterility. The argument emerges that in a world that makes too much of the physical and too little of the spiritual relations between the sexes, Tiresias, for whom love and sex must form a unity, has been ruined by his inability to unify them. The action of the poem, as Tiresias recounts it, turns thus on two crucial incidents: the garden scene in Part I and the approach to the Chapel Perilous in Part V. The one is the traditional initiation in the presence of the Grail; the other is the mystical initiation, as described by Jessie L. Weston, into spiritual knowledge. The first, if successful, would constitute rebirth through love and sex; the second, rebirth without either. Since both fail, the quest fails, and the poem ends with a formula for purgatorial suffering, through which Tiresias may achieve the second alternative after patience and self-denial--perhaps after physical death. The counsel to give, sympathize, and control befits one whom direct ways to beatitude cannot release from suffering.

From T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. Copyright © 1956 by The University of Chicago Press.

Stephen Spender

Conrad's Heart of Darkness is of course one of the "influences" in TheWaste Land. It seems to me, though, much more than this. Conrad's story is of the primitive world of cannibalism and dark magic penetrated by the materialist, supposedly civilized world of exploitation and gain; and of the corruption of the mind of a man of civilized consciousness by the knowledge of the evil of the primitive (or the primitive which becomes evil through the unholy union of European trade and Congolese barbarism). The country of them as described by Conrid is a country of pure horror. Eliot is usually thought of as a sophisticated writer, an "intellectual." For this reason, the felling of primitive horror which rises from depths of his poetry is overlooked. Yet it is there in the rhythms, often crystallizing in some phrase which suggests the drums beating through the jungle darkness, the scuttling, clawing, shadowy forms of life in the depths of the sea, the spears of savages shaking across the immense width of the river, the rough-hewn images of prehistoric sculptures found in the depths of the primeval forest, the huge cactus forms in deserts, the whispering of ghosts at the edge of darkness. Probably this is the most Southern (in the American sense) characteristic of Eliot, reminding one that he was a compatriot of Edgar Allan Poe and William Faulkner. And Conrad's Heart of Darkness is a landscape with which Eliot is deeply, disquietedly, guiltily almost, familiar, and with which he contrasts effects of sunlight, lips trembling in prayer, eyes gazing into the heart of light or hauntingly into the eyes, a ship answering to the hand on a tiller as a symbol of achieved love and civilization.

From T.S. Eliot (New York: Viking Press, 1975): 120-21.

Eloise Knapp Hay

The Waste Land, Eliot's first long philosophical poem, can now be read simply as it was written, as a poem of radical doubt and negation, urging that every human desire be stilled except the desire for self-surrender, for restraint, and for peace. Compared with the longing expressed in later poems for the "eyes" and the "birth," the "coming" and "the Lady" (in "The Hollow Men," the Ariel poems, and "Ash-Wednesday"), the hope held out in The Waste Land is a negative one. Following Hugh Kenner's recommendation, we should lay to rest the persistent error of reading The Waste Land as a poem in which five motifs predominate: the nightmare journey, the Chapel, the Quester, the Grail Legend, and the Fisher King. The motifs are indeed introduced, as Eliot's preliminary note to his text informs us, but if (as this note says) "the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston's book on the Grail legend," the plan can only have been to question, and even to propose a life without hope for, a quest, or Chapel, or Grail in the modern waste land. The themes of interior prison and nightmare city--or the "urban apocalypse" elucidated by Kenner and Eleanor Cook--make much better sense when seen as furnishing the centripetal "plan" and "symbolism," especially when one follows Cook's discussion of the disintegration of all European cities after the First World War and the poem's culminating vision of a new Carthaginian collapse, imagined from the vantage point of India's holy men. A passage canceled in the manuscript momentarily suggested that the ideal city, forever unrealizable on earth, might be found (as Plato thought) "in another world," but the reference was purely sardonic. Nowhere in the poem can one find convincing allusions to any existence in another world, much less to St. Augustine's vision of interpenetration between the City of God and the City of Man in this world. How, then, can one take seriously attempts to find in the poem any such quest for eternal life as the Grail legend would have to provide if it were a continuous motif--even a sardonic one?

It seems that only since Eliot's death is it possible to read his life forward--understanding The Waste Land as it was written, without being deflected by our knowledge of the writer's later years. Before Eliot's death the tendency was to read the poem proleptically--as if reflecting the poems of the later period. This is how Cleanth Brooks, writing the first fully elucidative essay on The Waste Land, read it, stressing the Grail legends, the longing for new life, rather than the purely negative aspects of the theme. Thus Brooks interpreted the Sibyl's appeal for death at the beginning of the poem as exactly parallel to the Magus's appetite for death in the Ariel poems (the Magus's, of course, filled with the pain of knowing that Christ had subjected himself to weak mortality and not knowing yet the Resurrection). To make the Sibyl and the Magus parallel was to read Eliot's development backward--perhaps an irresistible temptation when the pattern in his life was so little known and when (as then in 1939) Brooks was acquainted with the man at work on Four Quartets, who had recently produced the celebrated Murder in the Cathedral. It was also irresistible, in a culture still nominally Christian, to hope that The Waste Land was about a world in which God was not dead. But the poem was not about such a world.

Within ten years after finishing The Waste Land, Eliot recognized that the poem had made him into the leader of a new "way." His own words of 1931, however, require us to read the poem as having pushed this roadway through to its end--for him. It was no Grail quest. Those who followed him into it, and stayed on it, he said in "Thoughts After Lambeth," "are now pious pilgrims, cheerfully plodding the road from nowhere to nowhere." There could be no more decisive reference to the negative way he had followed till 1922, and also to the impasse where it ended.

A good reading of The Waste Land must begin, then, with recognition that while it expressed Eliot's own "way" at the time, it was not intended to lay down a way for others to follow. He did not expect that his prisonhouse would have corridors connecting with everyone else's. "I dislike the word 'generation' [he said in "Thoughts After Lambeth"), which has been a talisman for the last ten years; when I wrote a poem called The Waste Land some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the 'disillusionment of a generation,' which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention." Dismay at finding his personal, interior journey (which he later called "rhythmic grumbling") converted into a superhighway seems to have been one of the main impulses toward his discovery of a new way after 1922.

If we listen attentively to the negations of The Waste Land, they tell us much about the poem that was missed when it was read from the affirmative point of view brought to it by its early defenders and admirers. Ironically, it was only its detractors--among them Eliot's friend Conrad Aiken--who acknowledged its deliberate vacuity and incoherence and the life-questioning theme of this first venture into "philosophical" poetry on Eliot's part. Aiken considered its incoherence a virtue because its subject was incoherence, but this was cool comfort either to himself or to Eliot, who was outraged by Aiken's opinion that the poem was "melancholy." It was far from being a sad poem--like the nineteenth-century poems that Eliot had criticized precisely because of their wan melancholias, based as he said on their excesses of desire over the possibilities that life can afford. Neither Aiken, who found the poem disappointing, nor I. A. Richards, who was exhilarated by its rejection of all "belief, " spotted the poem's focus on negation as a philosophically meditated position.

From T.S. Eliot’s Negative Way. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982.

Michael H. Levenson

[Levenson quotes the opening four lines]

Who speaks these lines? – presumably whoever speaks these next lines:

[. . . .]

since the subject-matter (the life of the seasons) persists, as does the distinctive syntactic pattern (the series of present participles) and the almost obsessive noun-adjective pairings ("dead land," "spring rain," "little life," "dried tubers"). The second sentence, of course, introduces a new element, a narrating personal consciousness. But surely this need not signal a new speaker; it suggests rather that there is and has been a speaker, the unspecified "us," who will receive greater specification in the next several lines.

[. . . .]

Certainly we want to identify the "us" that winter kept warm with the "us" that summer surprised, and with the "we" who stop, go on, drink coffee and talk. That is how we expect pronouns to behave: same referents unless new antecedents. But if the pronouns suggest a stable identity for the speaker, much else has already become unstable. Landscape has given way to cityscape. General speculation (April as the "cruellest month") resolves into a particular memory: the day in the Hofgarten. And the stylistic pattern shifts. The series of participles disappears, replaced by a series of verbs in conjunction: "And went ... And drank ... And talked." The adjective-noun pattern is broken.

What can we conclude so far? -- that a strain exists between the presumed identity of the poem's speaker and the instability of the speaker's world. If this is the speech of one person, it has the range of many personalities and many voices -- a point that will gain clarity if we consider the remaining lines of the sequence:

[. . . .]

The line of German aggravates the strain, challenging the fragile continuity that has been established. Here is a new voice with a new subject-matter, speaking in another language, resisting assimilation. Is the line spoken, overheard, remembered? Among the poem's readers no consensus has emerged. Nor is consensus to be expected. In the absence of contextual clues, and Eliot suppresses such clues, the line exists as a stark, unassimilable poetic datum.

And yet, after that line a certain continuity is restored. The first-person plural returns; the pattern of conjunction reappears: "And when . . . And I . . . And down." Even that startling line of German, let us notice, had been anticipated in the "Hofgarten" and "Starnbergersee" of the previous lines. Discontinuity, in other words, is no more firmly established than continuity. The opening lines of the poem offer an elaborate system of similarities and oppositions, which might be represented in the following manner:

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The diagram should indicate the difficulty. Lines 1-6 are linked by the use of present participles, lines 5-18 by personal pronouns, lines 8-12 by the use of German, lines 10-16 by the reiteration of the conjunction "and." The consequence is that in any given line we may find a stylistic feature which will bind it to a subsequent or previous line, in this way suggesting a continuous speaker, or at least making such a speaker plausible. But we have no single common feature connecting all the lines: one principle of continuity gives way to the next. And these overlapping principles of similarity undermine the attempt to draw boundaries around distinct speaking subjects. The poetic voice is changing; that we all hear. Certainly we hear it when we compare one of the opening lines to those at the end of the passage. But the changes are incremental, frustrating the attempt to make strict demarcations. How many speak in these opening lines? "One," "two" and "three" have been answers, but my point is that any attempt to resolve that issue provokes a collision of interpretive conventions. On the one hand, the sequence of first-person pronouns -- an "us " that becomes a "we," a "me" an "I," and then "Marie" -- would encourage us to read these lines as marking the steady emergence of an individual human subject. But if the march of pronouns would imply that Marie has been the speaker throughout, that suggestion is threatened in the several ways we have considered: the shift from general reflection to personal reminiscence, from landscape to cityscape, from participial connectives to conjunctions, the disappearance of the noun-adjective pattern, the use of German. Attitudes, moreover, have undergone a delicate, though steady, evolution. Can the person who was "kept . . . warm . . . in forgetful snow . . . " be that Marie, who prefers to "go south in winter?" Can the voice which solemnly intones the opening and explosive paradox: April is cruel, utter such conversational banalities as: "In the mountains, there you feel free"?

Perhaps -- but if we insist on Marie as the consistent speaker, if we ask her to lay hold of this complexity, we can expect only an unsteady grasp. The heterogeneity of attitude, the variety of tone, do not resolve into the attitudes and tones of an individual personality. In short, the boundaries of the self begin to waver: if we can no longer trust our pronouns, what can we trust? Furthermore, though we find it difficult to posit one speaker, it is scarcely easier to posit many, since we can say with no certainty where one concludes and another begins. Though the poem's opening lines do not hang together, neither do they fall cleanly apart. Here, as elsewhere, the poem plays between bridges and chasms, repetitions and aggressive novelties, echoes and new voices.

In the opening movement of The Waste Land, the individual subject possesses none of the formal dominance it once enjoyed in Conrad and James. No single consciousness presides; no single voice dominates. A character appears, looming suddenly into prominence, breaks into speech, and then recedes, having bestowed momentary conscious perception on the fragmentary scene. Marie will provide neither coherence nor continuity for the poem: having been named, she will disappear; her part is brief. Our part is larger, for the question we now face is the problem of boundaries in The Waste Land.

[. . . .]

Eliot, as we have already seen, rejects the need for any such integrating Absolute as a way of guaranteeing order. His theory of points of view means to obviate that need. Points of view, though distinct, can be combined. Order can emerge from beneath; it need not descend from above. And thus in the Monist he says of Leibniz' theory of the dominant monad: "I contend that if one recognizes two points of view which are quite irreconcilable and yet melt into each other, this theory is quite superfluous." And in the dissertation he writes that "the pre-established harmony is unnecessary if we recognize that the monads are not wholly distinct."

My italics are tendentious, dramatizing the repetitions in phrase. But the repetition is more than a chance echo; it identifies a problem which both the philosophy and the poetry address. How can one finite experience be related to any other? Put otherwise, how can difference be compatible with unity? Moreover, the poetic solution is continuous with the philosophic solution: individual experiences, individual personalities are not impenetrable. They are distinct, but not wholly so. Like the points of view described in the dissertation, the fragments in The Waste Land merge with one another, pass into one another.

Madame Sosostris, for instance, identifies the protagonist with the drowned sailor ("Here, said she/Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor"). But the sailor, Phlebas, is also identified with Mr Eugenides: recall Eliot's phrase, "the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor." But, as Langbaum has shown, if the protagonist is identified with Phlebas and Phlebas with Eugenides, then it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the protagonist and the Smyrna merchant are, themselves, "not wholly distinct." What, then, do we make of these lines?

[Levenson quotes lines from "Under the brown fog of a winter noon" to "Followed by a weekend at the Metropole."

The protagonist, as Langbaum points out, "stands on both sides of the proposition," and such a conclusion will unnerve us only if we hold fast to traditional concepts of self, personal identity, personal continuity and the barriers between selves.

But in The Waste Land no consistent identity persists; the "shifting references" alter our notions of the self. The characters are little more than aspects of selves or, in the jargon of Eliot's dissertation, "finite centres," "points of view."

Here are the concluding lines of "The Fire Sermon":

[. . . .]

Lines from Augustine alternate with lines from the Buddha, and, as Eliot tells us in the footnote: "the collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident." Of course it is not. It is the way the poem works: it collocates in order to culminate. It offers us fragments of consciousness, "various presentations to various viewpoints," which overlap, interlock, "melting into" one another to form emergent wholes. The poems is not, as it is common to say, built upon the juxtaposition of fragments: it is built out of their interpenetration. Fragments of the Buddha and Augustine combine to make a new literary reality which is neither the Buddha nor Augustine but which includes them both.

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.

The echo from Marvell passes into an echo from Day: the poetic effect depends on amalgamating these distinct sources, on recognizing them as not wholly distinct. For we know, argues Eliot, "that we are able to pass from one point of view to another, that we are compelled to do so, and that the different aspects more or less hang together." The movement of The Waste Land is just such a movement among points of view: Marvell and Day, the Buddha and St Augustine, Ovid and Virgil.

We find ourselves in a position to confront a problem, which, though distant, is not forgotten: the problem of the poem's unity, or what comes to the same thing, the problem of Tiresias. We may begin to see how Tiresias can serve the function of "uniting all the rest," without that obliging us to conclude that all speech and all consciousness are the speech and consciousness of Tiresias. For, if we rush too quickly to Tiresias as a presiding consciousness, along the lines established by Conrad or James, then we lose what the text clearly asks us to retain: the plurality of voices that sound in no easy harmony. What Eliot says of the Absolute can be said of Tiresias, who, also, "dissolves at a touch into ... constituents." But this does not leave us with a heap of broken fragments; we have seen how the fragments are constructed into new wholes. If Tiresias dissolves into constituents, let us remember the moments when those constituents resolve into Tiresias. Tiresias is, in this sense, an intermittent phenomenon in the poem, a subsequent phenomenon, emerging out of other characters, other aspects. The two sexes may, as Eliot suggests, meet in Tiresias, but they do not begin there.

"The life of a soul," writes Eliot in the dissertation, "does not consist in the contemplation of one consistent world but in the painful task of unifying (to a greater and less extent) jarring and incompatible ones, and passing, when possible, from two or more discordant viewpoints to a higher which shall somehow include and transmute them." Tiresias functions in the poem in just this way: not as a consistent harmonizing consciousness but as the struggled-for emergence of a more encompassing point of view. The world, Eliot argues, only sporadically accessible to the knowing mind; it is a "felt whole in which there are moments of knowledge." And so, indeed, is The Waste Land such a felt whole with moments of knowledge. Tiresias provides not permanent wisdom but instants of lucidity during which the poem's angle of vision is temporarily raised, the expanse of knowledge temporarily widened.

The poem concludes with a rapid series of allusive literary fragments: seven of the last eight lines are quotations. But in the midst of these quotations is a line to which we must attach great importance: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." In the space of that line the poem becomes conscious of itself. What had been a series of fragments of consciousness has become a consciousness of fragmentation: that may not be salvation, but it is a difference, for as Eliot writes, "To realize that a point of view is a point of view is already to have transcended it." And to recognize fragments as fragments, to name them as fragments, is already to have transcended them not to an harmonious or final unity but to a somewhat higher, somewhat more inclusive, somewhat more conscious point of view. Considered in this way, the poem does not achieve a resolved coherence, but neither does it remain in a chaos of fragmentation. Rather it displays a series of more or less stable patterns, regions of coherence, temporary principles of order the poem not as a stable unity but engaged in what Eliot calls the "painful task of unifying."

Within this perspective any unity will be provisional; we may always expect new poetic elements, demanding new assimilation. Thus the voice of Tiresias, having provided a moment of authoritative consciousness at the centre of the poem, falls silent, letting events speak for themselves. And the voice in the last several lines, having become conscious of fragmentation, suddenly gives way to more fragments. The polyphony of The Waste Land allows for intermittent harmonies, but these harmonies are not sustained; the consistencies are not permanent. Eliot's method must be carefully distinguished from the methods of his modernist predecessors. If we attempt to make The Waste Land conform to Imagism or Impressionism, we miss its strategy and miss its accomplishment. Eliot wrenched his poetry from the self-sufficiency of the single image and the single narrating consciousness. The principle of order in The Waste Land depends on a plurality of consciousnesses, an ever-increasing series of points of view, which struggle towards an emergent unity and then continue to struggle past that unity.

From A Genealogy of Modernism: A study of English literary doctrine 1908-1922. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Cambridge UP. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Calvin Bedient

This might be as fair a place as any to take the pulse of the notion of a single and unifying protagonist in The Waste Land.

Again, the argument is that this notion has not been sufficiently entertained and tested in earlier commentary on Eliot. Stanley Sultan's few pages on the subject in Ulysses, The Waste Land, and Modernism form--as will be more fully noted--the one substantial, and neglected, exception.

As has perhaps been demonstrated, part I presents no obstacles to reading the poem in this light. On the contrary, the hypothesis of a single speaker and performer adds shadow, depth, drama, and direction to everything in the movement. It discovers a poem of far more seriousness, profundity, and complexity than Edward Said (among others) regards it as being: namely, "a collection of voices repeating and varying and mimicking one another and literature generally."

Certainly the original working title, "He Do the Police in Different Voices," implies the presence of a single speaker in the poem who is gifted at "taking off" the voices of others--just as the foundling named Sloppy in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend is, according to the doubtless biased and doting Betty Higden, "a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the police in different voices." This speaker has a flair for tones of criminality, sensationalism, and outrage--the whole gamut of abjection and judgment; or so the title implies. He shows a relish for such tones, he is virtuosic at rendering them. The working title was thus itself a harsh judgment on the protagonist (whom it travesties). All speech is abjection? The very impulse to perform voice is suspect? A complicity in the fascination of crime--say, murder? To create and to murder are near akin? These severe intimations are of a piece with the contemptus mundi of the poem.

The hypothesis of an all-centering, autobiographical protagonist-narrator is not only consistent with the working title; it explains the confident surfacing, in the latter part of the poem, of an unmistakable religious pilgrim. Unless this pilgrim can be shown to develop (to inch, scramble, flee) out of a waste land that is, or was, himself, the poem splits apart into two unequal sections, a long one constituted by what Lyndall Gordon calls "the Voices of Society" and a shorter one on a lone pilgrim to elsewhere. Neither Gordon nor A. D. Moody--each so admirable on The Waste Land--connects what they concur in regarding as a pilgrim with what they might agree to call the Voices of Society. But there is no difficulty in the way of positing the former as the "doer" of the latter--as one of the social voices, yet he who surpasses them in being able to do and place them in an ironic relation to other voices, including his own.

Gordon's valuable suggestion that the poem belongs in the religio-literary category of "the exemplary life" is in fact better served by this more unifying reading. "In the lives Eliot invokes," Gordon comments, "--Dante, Christ, Augustine, the grail knight, Ezekiel--there is always a dark period of trial, whether in a desert, a slough of despond, or a hell, followed by initiation, conversion, or the divine light itself." The protagonist is not merely one among others in hell (and the "conversation" between him and Stetson, who were alive and comparatively heroic together so long ago, only makes sense in a dimension of hell); hell is not merely others; the protagonist is hell, and it is out of this hell, at once his own and collective, that, through conversion, he must climb toward the divine light. If he does the voices of others, it is because in the first instance his ears are whores to them; he dramatizes, thus, his own abjection. He is not merely one of the denizens of the waste land; he is their sum, he is sin upon sin, even sinner upon sinner--or so his self-multiplying and self-shading ventriloquism suggests. Not that he does the voices altogether helplessly; on the contrary, he gathers them in his fist like a rattlesnake's severed coils and shakes them so as to disturb his own and his readers' war-dulled, jazz-dulled, machine-dulled ears. But, in any case, he demonstrates thus--he confesses--his own hellish entanglements with secularism and the flesh. The first three parts of the poem present the equation the others = me, if in a way that proves the equation a little false (it involves a sick self-belittlement). The rest of the poem clarifies the actual opposition of others/me that endows the first three parts with insidious drama.

[. . . .]

The protagonist both suffers from and exploits this essential theatricality of voice. His nature is a poet's nature, at once powerfully secretive and helplessly "open"--empathetic, susceptible, yours for the asking. The protagonist is, in a phrase Delmore Schwartz applies to Eliot himself, a "sibylline listener." He listens in on others with the mercilessness of one who fails to hear "the silence" in their speech yet with the full dramatic sympathy of his empathic nature, too--with a tenth of that capacity for sympathy which also, at its fullest and subtlest stretch, enables him to detect the ethereal presence of an attendant "hooded" figure (part 5), or look into the heart of light.

Eliot's prose poem "Hysteria" was about just such a protohysterical, protosalvational empathy. "As she laughed, I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it ... I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled by each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles." Laughter is hysteria, empathy with voice is hysteria-in-the-making, acting is controlled hysteria. The protagonist "acts" the voices of others as if he had little choice in the matter, and even his "own" voice is, to him, theater, the voice of Hieronymo as he plots a Babel of other voices, plots the crash of Babel itself.

Almost helplessly many, almost incapacitated by his capacity for openness, the protagonist will nonetheless find in this susceptibility to otherness and outsidedness (a susceptibility that, largely "sympathy," makes them inward, his) his virtú and virtue, his identification with what is pure and utter: so Other that sympathy with it minimalizes his abjection, which becomes no more than a clot of sound that he must cough up, a phlegm of speech. By imbuing his protagonist with his own auditory and vocal genius of participation in the abjectness of his times and in approaches to the Absolute (for "the silence" must be heard, and speech must edge it), Eliot made his poem a barometer sensitive both to the foggy immediate air and to the atmospheric pressure high and far off, the "thunder of spring over distant mountains" (part 5). A group or medley of voices cannot attend to a charged, remote silence; for that a single protagonist was necessary, one who could both "do" the group and find in himself the anguish and strength to leave it, repressing the fatal impulse (as Moody puts it) "towards a renewal of human love" and seeking, instead, the Love Omnipotent.

From He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its Protagonist. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986.

John Xiros Cooper

The Waste Land does not merely reflect the breakdown of an historical, social, and cultural order battered by violent forces operating under the name of modernity. For Eliot the disaster that characterized modernity was not an overturning, but the unavoidable, and ironic, culmination of that very order so lovingly celebrated in Victoria's last decade on the throne. Unlike the older generation, who saw in events like the Great War the passing of a golden age, Eliot saw only that the golden age was itself a heap of absurd sociopolitical axioms and perverse misreadings of the cultural past that had proved in the last instance to be made of the meanest alloy. The poem's enactment of the contemporary social scene in "The Burial of the Dead," "A Game of Chess," and "The Fire Sermon" exhibits the "negative liberal society" in which such events and people are typical. Eliot's choice of these events and people--Madame Sosostris, the cast of characters in "A Game of Chess," and the typist--as representative of a particular society is susceptible, of course, to a political analysis, which is to say, their representativeness is not self-evident, though they are presented as if it is. The "one bold stare" of the house-agent's clerk, put back in the bourgeois context where staring is one of the major lapses in manners, does not hold up the mirror to a simple gesture, but illuminates the underlying conditions that make a mere clerk's swagger possible. What is exposed is the "fact" that clerks in general no longer know their place. What we are to make of this fact is pointedly signaled by the disgust that the specifics of the rendering provoke and the social distance generated by the Tiresian foresufferance. . . .

As its social critique was aimed negatively at the liberal ethos which Eliot felt had culminated in the War and its disorderly aftermath, The Waste Land could not visibly adopt some preliberal code of values. In the same way, the poem could not propose a postliberal, historicist or materialist ethic without an historicizing epistemology. The poem's authority rested instead on other bases that provided, not a system of ideas as the primary form of legitimation, but a new lyric synthesis as a kind of experiential authenticity in a world in which the sacred cosmologies, on the one hand, had fallen prey to astrologers and charlatans, while, on the other, the cosmology of everyday life, i.e. the financial system (the "City" in the poem), had fallen into the soiled hands of racially indeterminate and shady importers of currants and the like, among them, of course, the pushing Jews of the plunderbund. . . .

The poem attempts to penetrate below the level of rationalist consciousness, where the conceptual currencies of the liberal ethos have no formative and directive power. Below that level lay the real story about human nature, which "liberal thought" perversely worked to obscure, by obscuring the intersection of the human and the divine at the deepest levels of consciousness. That stratum did not respond to the small-scale and portable logics of Enlightenment scientism, but to the special "rationality" of mythic thought. Its "logic" and narrative forms furnish the idiom of subrationalist, conscious life. To repeat: if not on the conventional rationalist basis, where does Eliot locate the authority of The Waste Land, and authority that can save the poem from mere eccentric sputter and give it a more commanding aspect? I think it was important for Eliot himself to feel the poem's command, and not simply to make it convincing to skeptical readers; Lyndall Gordon's biography makes this inner need for strength in his own convictions a central theme in Eliot's early life. But to answer our question: the authority the poem claims has two dimensions.

The first is based on the aesthetics of French symbolisme and its extension into the Wagnerian music-drama. Indeed the theoretical affinites of Baudelaire et al. and Wagner, which Eliot obviously intuited in the making of The Waste Land, can be seen now as nothing short of brilliant. Only in our own time are these important aesthetic and cultural connections being seriously explored. From symbolisme Eliot adopted the notion of the epistemological self-sufficiency of aesthetic consciousness, its independence from rationalist instrumentality, and thus its more efficacious contact with experience and, at the deeper levels, contact with the divine through its earthly language in myth. From his French and German forebears, Eliot formulated a new discourse of experience which in the 1920s was still very much the voice of the contemporary avant-garde in Britain and, in that sense, a voice on the margins, without institutional authority. But here the ironic, even sneering, dismissal of the liberal stewardship of culture and society reverses the semiotics of authority-claims by giving to the voice on the margins an authority the institutional voices can no longer assume since the world they are meant to sustain has finally been seen through in all those concrete ways the poem mercilessly enacts. The Waste Land is quite clear on that point. We are meant to see in "The Fire Sermon," for example, the "loitering heirs of City directors" weakly giving way to the hated métèques, so that the City, one of the "holy" places of mercantilism, has fallen to profane hands, The biting humor in this is inescapable. . . .

The second dimension of the authority on which The Waste Land rests involves the new discourse on myth that comes from the revolutionary advances in anthropology in Eliot's time associated with the names of Émile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, and the Cambridge School led by Sir James Frazer and Jane Harrison. We know that Eliot was well acquainted with these developments at least as early as 1913-14. The importance of these new ideas involved rethinking the study of ancient and primitive societies. The impact of these renovations was swift and profound and corresponds, though much less publicly, to the impact of On the Origin of Species on the educated public of midcentury Victorian life. Modernist interest in primitive forms of art (Picasso, Lawrence, and many others), and, therefore, the idioms and structures of thought and feeling in primitive cultures, makes sense in several ways. Clearly the artistic practices of primitive peoples are interesting technically to other artists of any era. Interest in the affective world or the collective mentality of a primitive society is another question altogether. That interest, neutral, perhaps, in scholarship, becomes very easy to formulate as a critique of practices and structures in the present that one wants to represent as distortions and caricatures of some original state of nature from which modernity has catastrophically departed. Eliot's interest in the mythic thought of primitive cultures, beginning at Harvard, perhaps in the spirit of scientific inquiry, takes a different form in the argument of The Waste Land. There it functions pointedly as a negative critique of the liberal account of the origins of society in the institutions of contract, abstract political and civil rights, and mechanistic psychology.

The anthropologists rescued the major cultural production of primitive societies—myth--from the view that saw these ancient narratives either as the quaint decorative brio of simple folk or, if they were Greek, as the narrative mirrors of heroic society. Instead myth, and not just the myths of the Greeks, was reconceived as the narrative thematics of prerationalist cosmologies that provided an account of the relationship between the human and the divine. Myth was also interpreted psychologically, and Nietzsche is crucial in this development, as making visible the deeper strata of the mind. If the concept is the notional idiom of reason, myth is the language of unconscious life. What Eliot intuited from this new understanding was that myth provided a totalizing structure that could make sense, equally, of the state of a whole culture and of the whole structure of an individual mind (Notes 25). In this intuition he found the idiom of an elaborated, universalizing code which was not entirely the product of rationalist thought. In addition, this totalizing structure preserved the sacred dimension of life by seeing it inextricably entwined with the profane. For the expression of this intuition in the context of an environment with a heavy stake in the elaborated codes of a rationalist and materialist world view which had subordinated the sacred to the profane, Eliot adapted for his own use the poetics of juxtaposition.

The textual discontinuity of The Waste Land has usually been read as the technical advance of a new aesthetic. The poetics of juxtaposition are often taken as providing the enabling rationale for the accomplishment of new aesthetic effects based on shock and surprise. And this view is easy enough to adopt when the poem is read in the narrow context of a purely literary history of mutated lyric forms. However, when the context is widened and the poem read as a motivated operation on an already always existing structure of significations, this technical advance is itself significant as a critique of settled forms of coherence. Discontinuity, from this perspective, is a symbolic form of "blasting and bombardiering." In the design of the whole poem, especially in its use of contemporary anthropology, the broken textual surface must be read as the sign of the eruptive power of subrational forces reasserting, seismically, the element totalities at the origins of culture and mind. The poem's finale is an orgy of social and elemental violence. The "Falling towers," lightning and thunder, unveil what Eliot, at that time, took to be the base where individual mind and culture are united in the redemptive ethical imperatives spoken by the thunder. What the poem attempts here, by ascribing these ethical principles to the voice of nature and by drawing on the epistemological autonomy posited by symbolisme, is the construction of an elaborated code in which an authoritative universalizing vision can be achieved using a "notional" (mythic) idiom uncontaminated by Enlightenment forms of rationalism.

Powerful as it is in the affective and tonal program of the poem, functioning as the conclusion to the poem's "argument," this closural construction is, at best, precarious when seen beyond the shaping force of the immediate social and cultural context. This construction, achieved rhetorically, in fact is neither acceptable anthropology, nor sound theology, nor incontestable history, but draws on all these areas in order to make the necessary point in a particular affective climate. The extent to which the poem still carries unsurpassable imaginative power indicates the extent to which our own time has not broken entirely with the common intuitive life that the poem addressed 60 years ago.

From T.S. Eliot and the Politics of Voice: The Argument of "The Waste Land." Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by John Xiros Cooper.

Louis Menand

All the difficulties with the late-nineteenth-century idea of style seem to be summed up in The Waste Land. It is, to begin with, a poem that includes an interpretation--and one "probably not in accordance with the facts of its origin"--as part of the poem, and it is therefore a poem that makes a problem of its meaning precisely by virtue of its apparent (and apparently inadequate) effort to explain itself. We cannot understand the poem without knowing what it meant to its author, but we must also assume that what the poem meant to its author will not be its meaning. The notes to The Waste Land are, by the logic of Eliot's philosophical critique of interpretation, simply another riddle--and not a separate one to be solved. They are, we might say, the poem's way of treating itself as a reflex, a "something not intended as a sign," a gesture whose full significance it is impossible, by virtue of the nature of gestures, for the gesturer to explain."

And the structure of the poem--a text followed by an explanation--is a reproduction of a pattern that, as the notes themselves emphasize, is repeated in miniature many times inside the poem itself, where cultural expressions are transformed, by the mechanics of allusion, into cultural gestures. For each time a literary phrase or a cultural motif is transposed into a new context--and the borrowed motifs in The Waste Land are shown to have themselves been borrowed by a succession of cultures--it is reinterpreted, its previous meaning becoming incorporated by distortion into a new meaning suitable to a new use. So that the work of Frazer and Weston is relevant both because it presents the history of religion as a series of appropriations and reinscriptions of cultural motifs, and because it is itself an unreliable reinterpretation of the phenomena it attempts to describe. The poem (as A. Walton Litz argued some time ago) is, in other words, not about spiritual dryness so much as it is about the ways in which spiritual dryness has been perceived. And the relation of the notes to the poem proper seems further emblematic of the relation of the work as a whole to the cultural tradition it is a commentary on. The Waste Land is presented as a contemporary reading of the Western tradition, which (unlike the "ideal order" of "Tradition and the Individual Talent") is treated as a sequence of gestures whose original meaning is unknown, but which every new text that is added to it makes a bad guess at.

The author of the notes seems to class himself with the cultural anthropologists whose work he cites. He reads the poem as a coherent expression of the spiritual condition of the social group in which it was produced. But the author of the poem, we might say, does not enjoy this luxury of detachment. He seems, in fact, determined to confound, even at the cost of his own sense of coherence, the kind of interpretive knowingness displayed by the author of the notes. The author of the poem classes himself with the diseased characters of his own work--the clairvoyants with a cold, the woman whose nerves are bad, the king whose insanity may or may not be feigned. He cannot distinguish what he intends to reveal about himself from what he cannot help revealing: he would like to believe that his poem is expressive of some general reality, but he fears that it is only the symptom of a private disorder. For when he looks to the culture around him, everything appears only as a reflection of his own breakdown: characters and objects metamorphose up and down the evolutionary scale; races and religions lose their purity ("Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch"); an adulterated "To His Coy Mistress" describes the tryst between Sweeney and Mrs. Porter, and a fragmented Tempest frames the liaison of the typist and the young man carbuncular; "London bridge is falling down." The poem itself, as a literary object, seems an imitation of this vision of degeneration: nothing in it can be said to point to the poet, since none of its stylistic features is continuous, and it has no phrases or images that cannot be suspected of--where they are not in fact identified as--belonging to someone else. The Waste Land appears to be a poem designed to make trouble for the conceptual mechanics not just of ordinary reading (for what poem does not try to disrupt those mechanics?) but of literary reading. For insofar as reading a piece of writing as literature is understood to mean reading it for its style, Eliot's poem eludes a literary grasp.

From Discovering Modernism: T.S. Eliot and His Context. Oxford University Press, 1987. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Carol Christ

In The Waste Land Eliot, with a desperate virtuosity, presents various ways of constituting the male and female, as if in search of a poetic figuration and voice that place him beyond the conflicts that characterize his earlier poetic stances. The early sections of the poem, up to the entry of Tiresias, develop the strategy of "Portrait of a Lady." They juxtapose the meditations of a male voice with a number of female portraits: Mme. Sosostris, the wealthy woman and the working-class woman in "A Game of Chess," Marie, the hyacinth girl, and, in Eliot's rough draft of the poem, Fresca. In this collage Eliot gives the women of the poem the attributes of traditional literary character. They inhabit settings, they exist in dramatic situations, they have individual histories, and they have voices. They constitute most of the identified speakers in the first three sections of the poem, and they contain among them a number of figures for the poet: the sibyl of Cumae; Mme. Sosostris with her Tarot deck; Fresca, who "scribbles verse of such a gloomy tone / That cautious critics say, her style is quite her own"; and La Pia, who can connect "nothing with nothing." One might appropriately object that these are for the most part satiric portraits (indeed, some of them savagely satiric), but they are nonetheless the ways in which the poem locates both verbal fluency and prophetic authority.

In contrast, the male voice through which Eliot presents these women has none of the definitional attributes of conventionally centered identity. It resists location in time and space, it conveys emotion through literary quotation, and it portrays experience only through metaphoric figuration: the cruel April at the poem's beginning, the desert landscape, the rat’s alley, where "dead men lost their bones." Eliot thus turns the shifting figuration that appears as unsurety in "Portrait of a Lady" to a poetic strength. The very lack of location and attribute seems to place the speaker beyond the dilemmas of personality, as if Eliot had succeeded in creating the objective voice of male tradition. But for all this voice seems to offer, the early parts of the poem imagine men as dead or dismembered: the drowned Phoenician sailor, whose eyes have been replaced by pearls, the one-eyed merchant, the fisher king, the hanged man, the corpse planted in the garden. Thus Eliot allows us to read the sublimation of body and personality that mark the poem's voice as a repression of them as well, an escape from dismemberment by removing the male body from the text.

The one place where Eliot attaches a specific historical experience to the speaking voice of the poem -- the episode of the hyacinth girl -- supports such a reading. The episode begins with the speaker's quoting a woman who addressed him, recalling a gift he gave her: "You gave me hyacinths first a year ago." The speaker then describes his own consciousness of that moment in their relationship. When they came back from the Hyacinth garden, her arms full and her hair wet, he could not speak and his eyes failed, he was neither living nor dead, and he knew nothing, "looking into the heart of light, the silence." Perhaps in recognition of the special status that this episode has by virtue of its attachment to the poet's "I," many critics have found in it the emotional center of the poem. The moment offers some revelation of spiritual and erotic fullness ("the heart of light"), but the speaker portrays himself as unequal to it. Speech and vision fail him, and he ends the passage by borrowing the articulation of another poem ('Oed' und leer das Meer'), a ventriloquized voice that is not his own, that reveals him at a loss for words. We have here a Tiresias who, at the moment of sexual illumination, loses not only his sight but his voice as well, a seer who does not gain prophetic power from sexual knowledge. As in his early poetry, Eliot represents the moment of looking at a woman as one that decomposes his voice.

Eliot's use of visual imagery in "A Game of Chess" sustains this sense of a moment of vision evaded. For all the elaborate description of the woman's dressing table and chamber, the passage avoids picturing the woman herself, unlike its source in Antony and Cleopatra, The long opening sentence of the description -- seventeen lines long -- carefully directs the eye around what is presumably the woman sitting in the chair, but she only appears at the end of the passage, in the fiery points of her hair, which are instantly transformed into words. The passage thus finally gives the reader only a fetishistic replacement of the woman it never visualizes, a replacement for which he immediately substitutes a voice. A number of the images in "A Game of Chess" reinforce this concern with the desire to look and its repression the golden Cupidon that peeps out while another hides his eyes behind his wing, the staring forms leaning out from the wall, the pearls that were eyes, the closed car, the Pressing of lidless eyes, and in the second section, Albert’s swearing he can’t bear to look at Lil. All of the eyes that do not look in this section of the poem are juxtaposed to images of a deconstituted body, imagined alternately as male and as female: the change of Philomel, withered stumps of time, the rat's alley where dead men lost their bones, and the teeth and baby Lil must lose. As the men in the section resist looking, so they do not speak. Albert is gone, and the speaker cannot or will not answer the hysterical questions of the lady.

The poem changes its figuration of gender with the introduction of Tiresias. Eliot states in a note to the passage that "the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem" -- a declaration that critics have tended to view rather skeptically. But what Tiresias sees is the sight that the poem has heretofore evaded: the meeting of the sexes, a meeting that Tiresias experiences by identifying with the female. As the typist awaits her visitor, Tiresias asserts, "I too awaited the expected guest," and at the moment when the house agent's clerk "assaults" her, he states, "And I Tiresias, have foresuffered all," a position assumed again in the lines spoken by La Pia. Paradoxically, when the poem assumes the position of the female, male character becomes far more prominent: in the satiric portrait of the house agent's clerk, which is the first extended satiric male portrait in the poem, in the image of the fishermen, and in the extended fisherman's narrative that originally began Part IV and concludes with the death of Phlebas. As if repeating the doubleness of identification that Tiresias represents, that death affords at once the definitive separation of male identity and a fantasy of its separation of male identity and a fantasy of its dissolution as "He passed the stages of his age and youth / Entering the whirlpool."

In the final section of the poem, Eliot changes its representation of gender dramatically. He drops the strategy of character that had been the principal way in which the poem had up to this point centered its emotion and develops a voice and figuration for the speaker that remains separate from categories of gender. He accomplishes this by using both specifically religious allusions and natural images that for the most part avoid anthropomorphization. He seeks to evoke a poise from natural elements, as in the water-dripping song, which he gives a religious rather than a sexual resonance. Through the song Eliot moves the power of articulation in the poem from character to nature. The hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees, and the sound of the water for which he yearns is finally realized in the last line of the section: "Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop." As if in recognition of its separation from gender, this temporary poise immediately issues in the appearance of the third figure, "who walks always beside you[,] ... / ... hooded / I do not know whether a man or woman. . . ."

When the sexual concerns of the poem return, in the next passage, they assume a very different form than they have heretofore. Eliot does not locate them in relation to particular female characters or voices, although the image of the woman who "drew her long black hair out tight" does recall the woman in "A Game of Chess"; he evokes them through a sexual fantasy that represents the collapse of civilization as an engulfment within an exhausted and blackened vagina, suggested in the images of empty cisterns, exhausted wells, and bats "with baby faces" crawling "head downward down a blackened wall." This passage develops the technique of "Prufrock" in displacing images of sexual anxiety onto elements of the poem's landscape, such that the world itself rather than the characters within it locates its sexual malaise. These feminized images now possess the power of music and song that had been given to the water and the thrush; the woman fiddles "whisper music" on the strings of her hair, the bats whistle, and voices sing out of the cisterns and wells. Despite what would seem the movement of the power of articulation to the feminine, Eliot's figurative technique here opens the way both for the poem's resolution and for the transfer, through nature, of the power of music and song to the male poet. By shifting to a poetic mode that expresses emotion through landscape rather than through character, Eliot can achieve sexual potency in purely symbolic terms, as, in the decayed hole, the cock crows, and the damp gust comes, bringing rain. The very way in which these images resist, because of their natural simplicity and the literary allusions with which Eliot surrounds them, what would seem to be their obvious sexual symbolism is precisely their virtue, for they enable the poem to resolve its sexual conflict at the same time that it arrives at a figuration that places the poet beyond it. At the moment when the cock crows, Eliot transfers the power of articulation to the landscape, as the thunder speaks, giving the power of translation to the poet. When the poet interprets the commands of the thunder, he once again describes human situations, but he articulates them in abstract and ungendered terms, as if only a language free from the categories of gender allows him to imagine human fulfillment.

From Carol Christ, "Gender, Voice, and Figuration in Eliot’s Early Poetry." In T.S. Eliot: The Modernist in History. Ed. Ronald Bush. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Michael North

The typist who appears next in the passage is a worker named metonymically for the machine she tends, so merged with it, in fact, that she is called a "typist" even at home. In The Education, Henry Adams proclaims his astonishment at the denizens of the new American cities: "new types, -- or type-writers, -- telephone and telegraph-girls, shop-clerks, factory hands, running into millions on millions .... " Eliot's point here seems very close to Adams's. Eliot's woman is also a "type," identified with her type-writer so thoroughly she becomes it. She is a machine, acting as she does with "automatic hand." The typist is horrifying both because she is reduced by the conditions of labor to a mere part and because she is infinitely multiple. In fact, her very status as a "type" is dependent on a prior reduction from whole to part. She can become one member of Adams's faceless crowd only by being first reduced to a "hand."

The typist is the very type of metonymy, of the social system that accumulates its members by mere aggregation. Yet this "type" is linked syntactically to Tiresias as well. In fact, the sentence surrenders its nominal subject, Tiresias, in favor of her. The evening hour "strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea, / The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights / Her stove, and lays out food in tins." The typist shifts in mid-line from object to subject, from passive to active. Does the evening hour clear her breakfast, or should the reader search even farther back for an appropriate subject, to Tiresias himself. Though this would hardly clarify the syntax, Tiresias could function logically as both subject and object, seen and seer, because, as the notes tell us, he is the typist: "All the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias." The confused syntax represents this process of identification, erasing ordinary boundaries between active and passive, subject and object.

On what basis can the typist merge with all other men and women to become part of Tiresias? In other words, what is the figurative relationship between the whole he represents and the part acted by the typist? The process of figurative identification seems similar to that in "Prufrock," where women are also represented as mere "arms" and where all women are also one woman. As in "Prufrock," the expansion to "all" depends on a prior reduction of individual human beings to standardized parts, just as Prufrock has "known them all already, known them all," Tiresias has "foresuffered all." His gift of prophecy, however, depends on the supposition that human behavior is repetitive, that "all" is in fact the mere repetition of a single act into infinity, enacted "on this same divan or bed." What, therefore, is the real difference between the industrial system, in which "all the women are one woman" and the identification represented by Tiresias? In which case is the typist less of a type?

The poem itself suggests that there may be no difference because Tiresias and the "human engine" are one and the same:

[North quotes from the line beginning "When the human engine" to the line ending "throbbing between two lives."]

By means of this intricate chiasmus, Eliot links the human engine that waits to Tiresias who throbs through the middle term of the taxi, which both waits and throbs. In so doing, Eliot suggests a link between the reduced conditions of the modern worker and the mythical hermaphrodite who includes all experience. The passage contains within itself a representation of this link in Tiresias's throbbing "between two lives." Tiresias appears here almost as a metaphor for metaphor, throbbing between two lives as the common term that joins them. But the activity of joining, the throbbing that seems to evoke human longing, is in fact the noise of the taxi engine, the drumming of its pistons a travesty of human sexual activity. In this way, the passage mocks its own insertion of Tiresias between two lives by positioning the taxi as the true medium between individual and race, present and eternity. Even stylistically, the passage undermines its own assertion of metaphorical identification by merely juxtaposing the two elements that both terms share: There is no "between" between throbbing and waiting, no comma or other punctuation, and yet this is where the all important connection between Tiresias and the modern worker is accomplished. Read in this, way, the passage suggests that the process by which Tiresias represents all men and women is no different from the process by which the modern industrial machine conglomerates them into one mass, that what looks like metaphorical representation is but the additive accumulation typical of industrialism.

The typist, that is to say, is just as much a type within the "inclusive human consciousness" represented by Tiresias as she is within the routines of her office. The same thing is true of the typist's lover. Tiresias is able to understand the young man carbuncular, "one of the low," because he has "walked among the lowest of the dead." He is able to understand human beings, in other words, only insofar as they are types. The uniformity of modern industrialized life is therefore but one instance of the uniformity of all human life. Adorno makes this point when he says of Kafka, "The absence of choice and of memory which characterizes the life of white collar workers in the huge cities of the twentieth century becomes, as later in Eliot's 'Waste Land', the image of an archaic past." That archaic past is not the one the Victorians fondly identified with Athens but one in which human beings are "driven together like animals." Adorno may well be thinking of Tiresias, in whom a sterile conglomeration of male and female represents an ancient situation still repeated in the modern city, inside, in the loveless sex of the typist and her young man, and outside, in the inorganic relationships of the crowd.

Tiresias was certainly at one point to have served the very function Eliot assigned to modern literature in his early essays. As an observing eye that is both of the crowd and outside it, he is to reconcile individual and community, part and whole, freedom and necessity. The directions Eliot included in his notes to the poem suggest that Eliot hoped even after the poem was written that Tiresias could fill this role. But the Tiresias he has actually portrayed in the poem itself is instead the incarnation of the failure of reconciliation, a mere juxtaposition of part and whole that dramatizes the gulf between them. As a dramatic figure, Tiresias demonstrates two equal but opposite fears that both gripped Eliot, a fear of fragmentation and loneliness and a fear of featureless uniformity. In the modern world, it seems, freedom cannot be had without fragmentation and loneliness, and community cannot be had without coercion and conformity.

from Michael North, The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Margot Norris

[Wyndham] Lewis' Nietzschean derision of "the crowd" in Blast was widely echoed in modernist representations of patriotic enthusiasm, as in Yeats's elegy for Major Robert Gregory, and the blind obedience of massed armies and the mass casualties they produced, as in Eliot's "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many / I had not thought death had undone so many." But in Blast Lewis doubly politicizes the crowd by naming its desire as suffrage, echoing Nietzsche's excoriation in Ecce Homo of women's democratic movements as bids for cattle voting rights: "Their attitude is as though these universal crowds wanted some new vague Suffrage" (B2, 94 ). Of Cantleman, his alter ego in Blasting and Bombardiering running with the crowds at the Olympiad, Lewis writes, "he was very stupid. He was a suffragette." In "The Code of a Herdsman" Lewis writes, "As to women: wherever you can, substitute the society of men. Treat them kindly, for they suffer from the herd" (BB, 70). This feminization of the crowd brings modernism's contradictory discourse of population control into sharper focus, and exposes the logical strategy that lodges control with art. The 1915 war issue of Blast blasts "Birth-Control" and blesses "War Babies" (B2, 92-93). The logic of the etymological play—the blighting of birth control as enabling the breaking out of the embryo—is clearer than the political logic of a polemic that simultaneously despises the crowd produced by overpopulation and inveighs against the contraception that would reduce its size and proliferation. The issue is clearly the investiture of control: the indiscriminate population control by war preferred to the discriminate population control by democratic female suffrage, because the violence of the war at least releases energy and creates a vortex while feminism empowers the herd. Modernism ultimately enacted, in its own textual strategies, the function of the war as an imperfectly self-correcting machine that disciplined the masses and thereby institutionalized itself as the war's cultural counterpart.

The modernist text that becomes most conspicuously identified with the contradictory effects of this project is, of course, Eliot's The Waste Land. Canonized as the premier address to "the unprecedented death toll of the First World War," its historical reference encloses the illogical nexus of maritial and feminist discourses of population control in order to sublate them wholly to the mythology of sacral fertility. Upon the editorial pruning by Pound, the poem's opening introduces a montage of displaced historical codes for the outbreak and aftermath of World War I: the post-war haunting of watering places by the dislocated German aristocrats from eastern Europe, the ethnic chauvinisms and tensions of the Hapsburg Empire displaced from the Balkans to the Baltic, and the figure of the arch-duke careening downhill on a sled nearly out of control: "Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch. / And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's / My cousin's, he took me out on a sled, / And I was frightened." The challenge of the poem may be sited in the insomniac reading of the baroness: "I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter." What does one read after the catastrophe of a war that murders sleep, and what a writing replaces the peace foreclosed by historical nightmare? "Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London." The fall and dispersal of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Vienna) opens the text, and the deferred twilight of the British Empire (London), ingesting the religion of its colonies along with India's tea and spices, closes it in a cacophony of indigested and untranslated quotations that textually foreclose geopolitical peace. The poem's tacit attempt to reconstitute a third empire of polyglot and polymath a culture—what Eagleton describes as "an alternative text which is nothing less than the closed, coherent, authoritative discourse of the mythologies a which frame it"—becomes no more than another haunting, another invasion of the poem by the dead. "Eliot celebrates the voices of the dead," Maud Ellmann writes, "but he comes to dread their verbal ambush in The Waste Land."

Ellmann's elegant rhetorical summation of the poem's compulsive attempt to remember and resurrect the dead through a doomed prosopopoeia—"The Waste Land strives to give a face to death"—endows the impossibility of representing the mass death and destruction of World War I with a compelling figure of poetic performativity. But one might argue that there are two kinds of dead trying to appear in the poem, and that they are not equal: the poetic dead voices of the literary tradition, whose eloquence is the louder for the fragmentariness of their utterance, and the voiceless war dead. Indeed, even the figure of the spared, the demobbed of returning soldier who gives the poem its most direct and specific historical reference, is not detachable from the repulsiveness of the mob. His wife, in fact, is given a face, or gives herself a face ("pulling a long face"), and it is the face of an anti-Helen; the face that launched a thousand ships becomes the young version of Pound's "old bitch gone in the teeth." Lil is a young bitch gone in the teeth, whose toothless face creates universal aversion: "He said, I swear, I can't bear to look at you. / And no more can't I, I said." In fattaching Lil's supreme ugliness to the unwholesomeness of her class, Eliot tracks highly specific causalities—the toothlessness of calcium deficiency from the multiparity of six pregnancies before the age of thirty-one ["You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique. / (And her only thirty-one)"]—back to the pullulating breeding of the masses.

The poem reverses the flow of the war dead to return them, by way of London Bridge, to the teeming slums from which they came. Eliot, like Lewis, tropes the war as a bridge between home and front, between living and dead—"The bridge, you see, is the war" (BB, 2)—and this bridge crosses, too, the discourses of population control that have cast their contradictory shadows upon other modernistic war writing. Reversing Gaudier's "good mouth," Lil's toothless head is carved into the barren landscape like a giant dead skull: "Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit" [I. 339] to be traversed by "the hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plain, stumbling in the cracked earth." But in spite of the industrial and urban pollution ("The river sweats oil and tar") they produce along with the "White bodies naked on the low damp ground / And bones cast in a little low dry garret," the poem blasts Birth-Control for the masses as surely as did Blast. "You are a proper fool," says Lil's interlocutor of her botched abortion, and Lil replies, "The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same." As a form of population control, the war too was a botched abortion—of the sort that reduced her progeny, but left Lil ill, disfigured, and prematurely aged. World War I may have reduced some of Europe's unwanted masses, but at the price of leaving her countries weak, disfigured, and spiritually dessicated.

The conversation in the pub that retells the conversation with Lil is Eliot's Arnoldian demonstration that the discourse of the Populace is impervious to poetry because it lacks the porosity of other parts of the poem that let quotation leak in. For discourse to become art like sculpture requires the scission of metaphoric teeth. "I didn't mince my words," the speaker says, and her narrative is conspicuous in its seamless wholeness, unchopped by the parataxes that segment the poem's other speech. The masses produce a nearly perfect redundancy of citation, the episode suggests; culture and tradition are replaced by verbatim or unmasticated reproduction of earlier verbatim reproductions. This pullulation or regurgitation of trivial discourse—the speaker telling us what she told Lil Albert had said before he left—reproduces endless Heideggerean Gerede or idle talk deprived of teeth, "You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set, / He said." The conversation's twice-told and triangular structure, whose parenthetical asides make a confidante of the poem's addressee, restores the implied reader herself to the masses. It is among the poem’s projects to break up this mindless abulia of the masses by using the text's erudition to babelize its readership, carving its homeogeneous philistinism into polyglottal segments and cultural elites. By refusing to translate or reference many of its citations, the poem's cultivation creates borderlines of incommunication and minefields of incomprehension that recreate the conditions of geopolitical war and class revolution. The unified empire of culture the poem conjures up in its referenced appeal to the cosmopolitanism of Cambridge anthropology and the archetypalism of comparative religion becomes no more than a bogus sublation of the poem's politics into a myth of universal order that its own textual babelization ritually destroys.

In America's Modernisms: Revaluing the Canon. Essays in Honor of Joseph N. Riddel. Ed. Kathryn V. Lindberg and Joseph G. Kronick. Copyright © 1996 by Louisiana State UP, 1996.

Tim Dean

My account of impersonality shifts the critical debate away from closet logic toward a different way of conceptualizing sexuality’s impact on Eliot’s poetry. Sexuality in Eliot involves hiddenness not as a mode of concealment, but as an occult mode of access with erotic implications. His impersonalist theory of poetry compels Eliot—even in the face of his own conscious intentions—to embrace a passivity and openness that renders him vulnerable to what feels like bodily violation. Hence his propensity for embodying these qualities in women and sexually ambiguous youths, such as Saint Sebastian and Narcissus. Eliot imagines figures for the ideal impersonalist poet as eminently rapable, and he conceives this violation as the paradoxical precondition for that "inviolable voice," which, in The Waste Land, he attempts not merely to represent but actually to approximate. The raped and wounded figures in his poetry represent not abject bodies that Eliot repudiates as a means of shoring up his precarious masculine heterosexual identity, as recent critics have claimed. On the contrary, these violated figures represent Eliot’s poetic ideal. Rejecting the terms of revelation and concealment that have dominated Eliot criticism, I shall argue that from his impersonalist practice something fundamental remains to be learned about the relation between transhistorical conceptions of poetic utterance and modern forms of sexuality.


A rather different way of reading Eliot’s gestures of renunciation stems from recognizing in the modernist use of masks a technique of self-dispossession that entails a structural rather than a psychological form of masochism. By this I mean that impersonal masking—the speaking in a voice other than one’s own—involves the poet in a suspension or diminuition of self that tends to accompany the poetic medium itself, irrespective of his or her own preferences. While modernist impersonality is readily grasped as entailing the use of personae, we need not understand masking as solely or even primarily a technique of concealment. Persona originally referred to the mask worn by actors in Greek drama, but the word etymologically derives from the Latin phrase per sonare, meaning "to sound through." Rather than designating the visual form hiding the actor’s face, persona initially denoted the mask’s mouthpiece or a reed device inserted into it for amplifying the actor’s voice. Thus in the first place a persona was less a means of visual concealment than of vocal channeling; it entailed a form of speaking through rather than of speaking falsely. More than a mode of camouflage, impersonation may represent a way to inhabit other existences—a way to transform oneself by becoming possessed by others. This distinction furnishes us with a rationale for approaching modernist impersonality as a strategy not of dissimulation but of access to regions of voice beyond the self’s.


Eliot’s ideas about occult transmission are dramatized in The Waste Land. While Madame Sosostris stands as the poem’s best known medium, she is not the only figure associated with clairvoyance. Both the Sibyl, whose words compose the poem’s epigraph, and Tiresias, who supposedly unites the poem, are second-sighted. Given that Eliot derived Madame Sosostris’s name from a fortune-teller called Sesostris in Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow (a novel published only in November 1921), biographer Lyndall Gordon is justified in claiming that the Sosostris scene must have been a significant late addition to the poem; her pack of cards "is a unifying device," Gordon suggests, "a late attempt to draw the fragments together with a parade of the poem’s characters." Madame Sosostris is thus in one respect a modern incarnation of Tiresias, himself "the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest," according to Eliot’s note. It is not only as mediums but also as ostensibly unifying consciousnesses that Tiresias and Sosostris represent surrogates for the impersonalist poet.


Although associated with femininity and so-called passive homosexuality, the experience of self-dispossession cannot be understood as the prerogative of any psychological identity because it represents the loss of identity as such. Self-dispossession is rendered intelligible by psychoanalytic theories of masochism—or by cultural stereotypes about heterosexual women and effeminate homosexuals—but may in fact be a structural entailment of the poetic medium as much as a psychological impulse. "[T]he poet has . . . no identity . . . he has no self," argued Keats, in a formulation suggesting that the poet’s identity consists in the loss of identity or, as he put it in the same letter, in self-annihilation. In this transhistorical conception of poetic utterance, which stretches back to Plato’s Ion, the suspension of individual identity, by whatever means, is deemed necessary for poetic making. With Bersani’s account in mind, we could say that the "appeal of powerlessness" concerns aesthetic pleasure as much as it does erotic Jouissance, because the medium requires a self-shattering or impersonalization that is synonymous with poetic practice itself.

From "T.S. Eliot, Famous Clairvoyant." In Laity, Cassandra and Nancy Gish (eds.) T.S. Eliot: Essays on Gender, Sexuality, Desire. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Debojoy Chanda

Classicism in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Ever since T. S. Eliot described himself as “[c]lassicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion” in his 1928 preface to “For Lancelot Andrewes” (qtd. in Deane 31), a great deal of scholarship began to be expended in interpreting his magnum opus “The Waste Land” (1922) in light of his concept of ‘classicism.’ Most scholars adopted one of two approaches: they either asserted that Eliot’s classicism was associated in some way with Augustan neoclassicism, or misread Eliot’s essay “Ulysses, Order, and Myth” to subsequently view his classicism as consisting in an advocacy of classical myths used a la James Joyce’s Ulysses to represent the “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Eliot, “Ulysses” 270).

Eliot did indeed base his version of classicism on Augustan neoclassical influences. Nevertheless I would argue that in the final reckoning his classicism did not have much to do with them. Consequently, attempts to view “The Waste Land” as a work that is ‘classical’ by virtue of the presence of neoclassical features in it are riddled with problems. As for the approach centering on Eliot’s interpretation of Joyce’s “mythical method” (Eliot, “Ulysses” 271), while myths do indeed feature very prominently in “The Waste Land,” the implications of myth for Eliot are not as straightforward as proponents of this approach would have us believe. I will attempt to reassess Eliot’s concept of classicism in order to reveal what I believe it connotes. In light of this reassessment, I will also posit a reconsideration of “The Waste Land”’s classicism.

Eliot adopted his concept of classicism from Charles Maurras and the long tradition of French reactionary thought. After the French Revolution, Classicism as an aesthetic principle in France was defined in opposition to Romanticism which, as a literary and philosophical movement, was believed to have been responsible for spawning the Revolution and its excesses (Vaughan 320). In light of this opposition to Romanticism and the Revolution, classicism was constructed as an aesthetic involving allegiance towards the Latin tradition in literature, as well as towards royalism, Catholicism, and a rigidly hierarchical social structure. Maurras’ twentieth-century version of classicism was largely an adaptation of this aesthetic (Asher 8).

Eliot had been considerably influenced by Maurras’ thought. He saw Maurras’ version of French classicism as the outcome of a general propensity towards the ideals of seventeenth-century French neoclassicism that had characterized the early part of the twentieth century. This propensity, according to Eliot, was accompanied by a corresponding allegiance to the monarchical form of government, and to the Catholic Church, these having been the mainstays of sociopolitical life in seventeenth-century France (Asher 38; Kimmel 40).

Irving Babbitt, who had also wielded influence upon Eliot’s intellectual development, framed his own version of classicism drawing upon Maurras’ French neoclassical predilections. Babbitt, who had been a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Harvard, had taught Eliot, and had facilitated his first encounter with Maurras’ thought. Babbitt’s classicism viewed the Romantic tradition of Rousseau as the “glorification of impulse,” and asserted that this preponderance of impulse could be checked by a thorough grounding in the ancients. Babbitt believed that a classical education would make true virtue one’s second nature.

While absorbing influences from Maurras’ and Babbitt’s conceptions of classicism, Eliot almost completely reconfigured them to formulate his own version. He retained Maurras’ and Babbitt’s thought only insofar as he defined his classicism against Romanticism, stating in his essay “The Function of Criticism” (1923) that classicism is “complete,” “adult,” and “orderly” as opposed to the “fragmentary,” “immature,” and “chaotic” character of Romanticism. Eliot opposed Maurras’ classicism because he considered its alliance with royalism and Catholicism problematic—he felt that to generalize about a “classicist in art and literature” being likely to adhere to a monarchical form of government and to the Catholic Church would be to gloss over the “many cross-currents” (qtd. in Asher 38). Given this multiplicity of “cross-currents,” Eliot decides in “The Function of Criticism” to view his classicism as a concept with merely literary and not sociopolitical associations (Eliot, “Function” 34-36).

Eliot’s decision to prune his classicism of sociopolitical ramifications is also explained by his belief that the term classicism has certain bearings when applied to literature, and completely different ones when applied to “the whole complex of interests and modes of behavior and society” (Eliot, “Ulysses” 269-70). His pruning of sociopolitical ramifications was also governed by his opinion that one’s choice of classicism or Romanticism should not be dictated by national and consequently sociopolitical biases, but by an inquiry into “which, of the two antithetical views [as literary concepts] is right [i.e. better for purposes of literary expression].” Eliot casts his ballot in favor of classicism because he links it with a “more mature” literary form that Romanticism lacks (Eliot, “Function” 36; emphasis in the original).

Eliot thus links his version of classicism specifically with literary form—a link he also highlights in the second lecture from his Syllabus of a Course of Six Lectures in Modern French Literature (1916) (Asher 38). However, he first spells out the implications of this association of classicism with form only in his essay of homage to T. E. Hulme published in the Criterion of April 1924. In it, Eliot speaks of the “classical moment in literature” as being one involving the evolution of an ideal literary form “which satisfies the best intellect of the time” (qtd. in Ellis 56). Eliot views this ideal form as the marker of the age of classicism (Ellis 56). Being the distinguishing feature of the classicist age, this form is evidently what constitutes classicism. For Eliot, therefore, classicism is not merely associated with literary form, but in fact refers to an ideal literary form.

In this context, one should note that like Eliot, Hulme views classicism as a literary form—specifically a verse form. He defines Romanticism and classicism as two verse forms embodying two contrasting attitudes to life. According to Hulme, while the Romanticist verse form is characterized by an attempt to epitomize the infinite, the classicist form is distinguished by a contrarious “holding back” through a surrender to tradition (qtd. in Rae 45). Eliot consciously aligns his classicism with Hulme’s in his essay of homage to him. Consequently, given Hulme’s yoking of classicism with tradition, it is not surprising that tradition also becomes one of the central components in Eliot’s version of classicism as delineated by him in “The Function of Criticism” (Eliot, “Function” 31-33).

Eliot speaks of “tradition” in “The Function of Criticism” with direct reference to his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In this latter essay, he describes tradition in terms of literature, speaking of it as a view perceiving all the works of the European literary canon from Homer to the present day as “ha[ving] a simultaneous existence” and composing an “ideal order” amongst themselves. According to Eliot, whenever a “really new” literary work is produced in the present day, that work is introduced into this ideal order, thereby causing an ‘alteration’ of the already-existing works in the order. Such a view of the tradition of European literature therefore requires that “the past should be altered by the present as much as [that] the present [should be] directed by the past” (Eliot, “Tradition” 4).

The most obvious question that rears up at this point is: if classicism, for Eliot, is a reference to a literary form, what sort of form could incorporate within itself the presence of the European literary tradition while simultaneously effecting its alteration? Eliot answers this question in his essay on Andrew Marvell published in 1921. In it, he describes Marvell’s poetry as “a classic: classic in a sense in which [English Romantic poetry] is not” (Eliot, “Marvell” 156). The first use of “classic” in this description, as per Frank Kermode, refers to the more common employment of the word as a noun ascribing a certain cultural status to literary works (Kermode 24). Its use in the second instance, on the other hand, is clearly in accord with Eliot’s utilization of the word in his essay of homage to Hulme as the adjectival form of “classicism” (Ellis 56; Eliot, “Romanticism” 293). Eliot emphasizes this implication by speaking of Marvell’s poetry in the context of the latter instance as being opposed to English Romantic poetry, in keeping with his own definition of classicism against Romanticism. Through this latter usage, Eliot brings Marvell’s poetry within the purview of his version of classicism.

According to Eliot, Marvell’s poetry is “classic” in this latter sense because of his poetic form’s ability to “unite.” Given the relevance of the word “classic” in this epithetical sense to his notion of classicism as an ideal literary form, Eliot is here evidently indicating that the constituents of this ideal form are to be found in this ability to “unite” that Marvell’s poetic form possesses. What Eliot means by this capacity to “unite” is the capability that a poetic form has to incorporate the presence of past works of the European literary canon within itself by alluding to them, while simultaneously using the literary resources at its disposal to alter their content (Eliot, “Marvell” 149). He makes these indications clear by explaining this power to “unite” via the instance of Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress,” quoting the following lines from it:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,
And yonder before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity. (qtd. in Eliot, “Marvell” 149)

Eliot says that in these lines Marvell alludes to Horace’s first and fourth odes, and to Catullus’ poem “Viuamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus” (“Let us live and love, my Lesbia”). Eliot states that in alluding to these works, Marvell uses his poetic voice to alter their content, making it “more comprehensive by penetrating greater depths” than Horace or Catullus had accomplished (Eliot, “Marvell” 149). By extension Eliot indicates that Horace’s odes have similarly alluded to and altered the content of “Viuamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus,” Catullus’ poem having been the work that had ostensibly started the carpe diem tradition encompassed in Horace’s odes and in Marvell’s lines (Rainey 219). Marvell’s allusion to and alteration of Horace therefore involves a simultaneous allusion to and alteration of the fountainhead of the carpe diem trope in the European literary tradition. What Eliot consequently signifies is that the quoted lines from “To His Coy Mistress” cannot be viewed in isolation. By citing and modifying the source of the carpe diem theme in European literature, the lines should be seen as in effect altering the entire European literary tradition that deals with this theme, thereby helping perceive and alter the whole of European literature as a “simultaneous order” in keeping with Eliot’s tenets in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (Eliot, “Tradition” 3).

Consequently, Eliot signifies that what constitutes classicism as a literary form is the allusion to and alteration of content from a past work of European literature—a process which automatically encompasses and alters the entire European literary canon down to its sources through that past work’s own literary allusions. One should note in this context that the passage Eliot quotes from “To His Coy Mistress” to demonstrate this process of allusion and alteration is exactly the one he himself alludes to and modifies twice in the third section of “The Waste Land.” In fact, the poetic form of “The Waste Land” depends on Eliot’s citation and modification of the content of past English, French, German, Italian, Greek, and Latin literary works, and of the Bible. In Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), Eliot refers to the European literary tradition as being made up specifically of these bodies of literature (Eliot, Culture 189-90). Therefore, if the alteration of material from past works of the European literary canon is what classicism as a literary form is about, it is executed through the full length of “The Waste Land” via Eliot’s procedure of citing and altering the content of works from those very bodies of literature which, for him, together constitute this canon.

It can consequently be concluded that “The Waste Land” sees Eliot putting into exercise the literary form he refers to through his use of the term “classicism.” Given the fact that he was working on “The Waste Land” even as he was writing “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and his essay on Marvell, it is not surprising that “The Waste Land” puts into practice this literary form whose possibilities Eliot lauds in these essays. By using “The Waste Land” to cite and modify those very lines by Marvell that themselves do the same for Horace who in turn alters Catullus, Eliot demonstrates in practice what he speaks of in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—that this ‘alteration of the past’ so intrinsic to the European literary tradition is a continuous process (Eliot, “Tradition” 4).

Very often when citing a quote from a literary work in “The Waste Land,” Eliot modifies it to some degree. This is what he does when quoting “To His Coy Mistress.” But through the example of Marvell’s modification of Horace and by extension the latter’s modification of Catullus, Eliot makes it obvious that by the ‘alteration’ of a literary allusion, he refers to the modification of that allusion’s substance and not of a quote as such. This alteration of the substance of literary allusions may not always be very overt in “The Waste Land.” Nevertheless, I would assert that every allusion made in “The Waste Land” has its substance altered merely by the presence of the allusion. This is because these allusions, whether in the form of quotation or paraphrase are singly or otherwise collapsed with Eliot’s own lines. This changes the context and the implications of the allusions’ content by forcing the reader to consider Eliot’s lines and the allusions simultaneously (Brooker & Bentley 24).

To demonstrate this process of alteration, let us take the instance of the first literary text alluded to in the body of “The Waste Land”—Countess Marie Larisch’s autobiography. The passage in “The Waste Land” paraphrasing portions from the autobiography is preceded by and fused with Eliot’s own lines discussing the aridity of the waste land of the poem’s title. The substance of the alluded content from the Countess’ autobiography is, as I have stated, altered by its mere citation, thanks to this fusion with Eliot’s lines—it changes the context and the implications of the Countess’ talk of her aristocratic lifestyle, making it symptomatic of the moral and spiritual aridity of modern civilization. This same process of modification through the collapse of lines applies to Eliot’s use of quotations as literary allusions. For example, in the two instances when he alludes to “To His Coy Mistress,” he partially quotes the poem’s line “But at my back I always hear” and melds it with his own input. This alters the connotations of the line in the context of “The Waste Land,” making it signify a sense of physical decay in keeping with the moral decay of modern civilization that the poem portrays.

Even when the allusion to the literary text is too short and/or obtuse to be either a quote or a paraphrase, its content is altered by this same process. When, for example, Eliot claims that he is citing Baudelaire’s poem “The Seven Old Men,” his reference is limited to the words “Unreal City” (Eliot, “Waste Land” 60; “Notes” 71) which neither constitute a quotation from nor a paraphrase of any part the poem. The words only bear a rough resemblance to the poem’s opening line which speaks of the illusory character of a city “crowded with dreams” (qtd. in Rainey 83). At any rate, the reference melds with Eliot’s own lines to make the city of London illustrative of the illusoriness and emptiness that, for Eliot, characterizes materialistic modern life.

This ‘classicist’ framework within which “The Waste Land” functions is, however, fractured in three parts of the poem where Eliot applies this process of allusion to Asian and not European literature. According to the notes appended to “The Waste Land,” Eliot refers to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon in the poem’s third section, and to the Sanskrit Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in its fifth section. This allusion to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad being the more extensive of the two, it would be fruitful to closely examine it.

“What the Thunder Said,” the title of the fifth section of “The Waste Land,” alludes to a fable narrated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The fable is about the three classes of beings in Hindu mythology i.e. the gods, the demons, and the humans going to Brahma, the creator of the universe, to ask him what they should ideally do. In response to their query, Brahma utters a single syllable—“da.” While the humans take it to mean “datta” i.e. “give,” the demons think it means “dayadhvam” i.e. “be compassionate,” and the gods feel it means “damyata” i.e. “control yourselves” (Rainey 119-20). What ensues as a result of Brahma’s instruction is thus a crisis of meaning. In the final verses of “What the Thunder Said,” Eliot alludes to this fable by thrice quoting the syllable “da,” besides citing the words “datta,” “dayadhvam,” and “damyata” (Eliot, “Waste Land” 400-11).

By the quotation of the syllable “da” which pertains to a crisis of meaning, I would suggest that the allusion to and alteration of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad’s content gets reduced to a process bearing no meaning. The repetition of the syllable “da” in “What the Thunder Said,” after all, recalls another instance to which such a repetition is central—Dadaism, which derives its name from the syllable “da” that constitutes an integral part of French baby-talk (Shell 162). Eliot, while writing “The Waste Land” was greatly concerned with the element of meaninglessness in Dadaism, as his essay “The Lesson of Baudelaire” (1921) proves (Eliot, “Baudelaire” 144). The syllable “da” that Brahma utters in the aforementioned fable from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is used in “The Waste Land” to onomatopoeically represent the sound of thunder (Rainey 120). Be it as a literary allusion to onomatopoeia or as a reference to baby-talk, the syllable connotes the absence of meaning. It collapses in “What the Thunder Said” with Eliot’s lines to also draw them within its ambit of meaninglessness instead of having its content coherently modified by them.

One observes this same failure to make meaning in the allusions to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, and to the closing benediction of the Upanishads. The line from the third section of “The Waste Land” that alludes to the Buddha’s Fire Sermon runs “Burning burning burning burning;” it ultimately gets reduced to the single word “burning” with which the section closes. The word remains isolated, with no punctuation marks or other formal features with which to make sense of it. This isolation of the word leaves it without a sense of closure although it is itself used to close the third section of “The Waste Land.” Lacking Eliot’s lines to collapse itself with, it also lacks closure within the poem’s classicist framework in that its content thereby remains unmodified in contrast to the European literary allusions in the poem (Eliot, “Waste Land” 308-11). Without this element of closure, the word and by extension its meaning remain open-ended, encompassing any possible number of meanings only to indicate the absence of any specific meaning assignable to it. These very features are to be found yet again in another allusion in “The Waste Land”—the Upanishadic “Shantih shantih shantih” with which Eliot ends the poem (Eliot, “Waste Land” 433). Isolated, and without any punctuation to make sense of it or any of Eliot’s lines to modify it, the citation lacks closure and consequently meaning.

Through these three citations, Eliot indicates that the allusion to and alteration of the content of the Asian work within the classicist literary form opens itself to the possibility of an absence of meaning. This can be traced to a belief Eliot expresses about Asian culture in his essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. He states in it that Asian culture is cut off from the comprehension of Europe because all culture makes sense to the European insofar as he perceives it through the prism of Christianity. He says, “[i]t is in Christianity that our [European] arts have developed…It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance…The [European] World has its unity in this heritage, in Christianity and in the ancient civilisations [sic] of Greece, Rome, and Israel, from which, owing to two thousand years of Christianity, we trace our descent” (Eliot, Culture 200). In short, the European literary tradition encompassed by Eliot’s classicism gains meaning in the European situation by being perceived through the lens of Christianity because “[i]t [i]s only in relation to his own religion that the insights of any…m[a]n ha[s] its significance to him” (qtd. in Izzo 104).

For Eliot, European culture is synonymous with Christian culture in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. He brings even pre-Christian Greek and Latin literature within the purview of Christianity because he views Virgil as having “led Europe towards the Christian culture which he could never know”—a conception that Eliot formulated largely because of Virgil’s role in Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Kermode 23). Thus, the European literary tradition whose subjection to the process of alteration Eliot describes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is bound by and comprehended through the Christian religion.

Eliot’s classicist literary form in “The Waste Land” is, as I have indicated before, a formal exposition of the European literary tradition as represented in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Eliot’s own lines in the classicist form of “The Waste Land” are, in the context of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” significatory of the “really new” work of art in the “ideal order” of the European literary canon, altering the past works of the canon by modifying their content. Therefore, what Eliot’s classicist form demonstrates in “The Waste Land” through its citation of Asian literature is in effect an attempt to fit a non-European work within this ideal order. But this intrusion of the non-European work into the European literary canon is, as I have shown, marked by a failure to make meaning. Eliot’s conception of the European literary tradition as described in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture evidently attributes this failure to the fact that the non-European work lacks the “background of Christianity” so intrinsic to enabling the European reader’s comprehension of the European work. Therefore, in keeping with Eliot’s representation of the European literary canon vis-à-vis his classicism in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “The Waste Land” shows how intrinsic the European literary work and the alteration of the European literary canon are to the poem’s classicist form; it does so not only through its profusion of European literary allusions, but also by its fracture of the classicist form to introduce the non-European work only to highlight how such a work is alien to the form.

Works Cited

Asher, Kenneth. T. S Eliot and Ideology. New York, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Brooker, Jewel Spears, and Philip Bentley. Reading The Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation. Amherst, Massachusetts: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Deane Patrick. “Eliot’s Classicism, Pound’s Symbolism, and the Drafts of The Waste Land.” At Home in Time: Forms of Neo-Augustanism in Modern English Poetry. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994. 31-55.

Eliot, T. S. “Andrew Marvell.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed. with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005.146-57.

---. “Notes” on “The Waste Land.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed. with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005. 71-74.

---. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. Christianity and Culture. USA: Mariner Books, 1940. 79-208.

---. “Romanticism and Classicism.” Canonical Texts of English Literary Criticism with Selections from Classical Poeticians. Ed. Rangoon Kapoor. Delhi, India: Academic
Foundation, 1995. 294.

---. “The Function of Criticism.” The Criterion 1922-1939 in Eighteen Volumes: Volume 2 (October 1922-July 1924). Ed. T. S. Eliot. London, UK: Faber & Faber, 1967. 31-42.

---. “The Lesson of Baudelaire.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed.with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005. 144-45.

---. “The Romantic Englishman, the Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed.with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005.  141-43.

---. “The Waste Land.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed. with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2005. 57-74.

---. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” 22 June 2010 <>.

---. “Ulysses, Order and Myth (T. S. Eliot on Ulysses and Myth).” The Critical Heritage: James Joyce (Volume 1: 1907-27). Ed. Robert H. Deming. New York, NY: Routledge, 1970. 268-71.

Ellis, Steve. The English Eliot: Design, Language, and Landscape in Four Quartets. London, UK: Routledge, 1991.

Izzo, David Garrett. The Influence of Mysticism on 20th Century British and American Literature. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2009.

Kermode, Frank. The Classic. New York, NY: The Viking Press, 1975.

Kimmel, Michael S. Absolutism and its Discontents: State and Society in Seventeenth-Century France and England. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Inc., 1988.

Rae, Patricia. The Practical Muse: Pragmatist Poetics in Hulme, Pound, and Stevens. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1997.

Rainey, Lawrence. “Editor’s Annotations to The Waste Land.” The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. Ed.with Annotations and Introduction by Lawrence Rainey.

Shell, Mark. Stutter. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Vaughan, William. “The French Romantics.” The French Romantics (Volume 2). Ed. D. G. Charlton. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1984. 308-52.

Original Contribution


Timothy H. Smith

An Unwelcome Oasis: The Misguided Attempt to Remake The Waste Land for iPad Readers

Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water
—T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Touch Press, whose digital offerings include a survey of the solar system, a catalogue of gems and jewels, and a beefed-up periodic table, has released an interactive version of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for Apple’s iPad. And so far, both critics and consumers have welcomed the company’s first literary foray. In its first week, the application was the highest grossing in the app store, becoming the “US iPad App of the week,” and reviewers have celebrated the product. Self-proclaimed “philistine” Shane Richmond of the Telegraph calls it “stylish” and “an essential for your iPad,” while more “literary” reviewers argue that it improves a Waste Land experience. One says its “various ways of approaching the text are enticements to the multiple readings that make a full appreciation of the poem possible” (Saavedra). Another maintains, “The multimedia does not detract, it enhances, and gives reading an intimidating poem the joy of exploration, of discovery” (Fussner).

Yet Touch Press’s treatment of the poem remains problematic for several reasons. The designers advertise their hope to “extend the reach of Eliot’s greatest work, bringing a depth of understanding and sensitivity to poetry in the digital space,” but the app benefits no audience significantly. Among other issues, the caterings toward new readers will not add anything to an academic’s relationship with the poem, and the esoteric annotations sometimes guide too strictly a beginner’s reading. Moreover, while The Waste Land’s interpretive challenges might have made it seem hospitable to elucidative features, the additional materials often cheapen the fundamentally elusive text. Touch Press’s app may be charming in some ways, but it certainly is not the “absolute delight” (Beale) most have deemed it. My hope here is to show that ultimately the app instantiates Huckleberry Finn’s claim that “overreaching don’t pay.”

At its core, The Waste Land for iPad reads like any other e-book. It preserves what Touch Press calls “the typography and integrity of the original,” as published in 1922. But the application distinguishes itself from other digital versions through its “wealth of interactive features,” most of which offer interpretive assistance or address the poem’s historical significance. The application’s interactive notes, its copy of The Waste Land manuscript, and the video commentaries provided by Paul Keegan, Craig Raine, and Jeanette Winterson constitute the features I consider “elucidative.” Touch Press asserts that its notes, which are silently appropriated from B. C. Southam’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot, address Eliot’s allusions comprehensively, and one would be hard-pressed to disagree. For the title page alone, Touch Press provides three annotations, variously addressing the title, epigraph, and dedication. The notes attached to the poem’s five sections then appear just as regularly, with almost one annotation per line. A copy of the poem’s manuscript next allows users to see, through Ezra Pound’s edits, what the final draft accomplishes poetically.

The more “reflective” features explore the poem’s cultural impact. Video commentaries from Seamus Heaney (poet), Fiona Shaw (actress), and Frank Turner (musician) discuss Eliot’s influence on music and literature. A gallery of images provides, among other things, a cultural backdrop, displaying Eliot’s hometown (St. Louis) and eventual workplace (London), as well as some key figures in Eliot’s life (Pound and Valerie Eliot). Fiona Shaw’s filmed performance of the poem and audio readings from T. S. Eliot, Alec Guinness, Ted Hughes, and Viggo Mortensen—all synchronized to the text—then round out the suite of features.
For those initially reading The Waste Land or returning to it after a long absence, some of these additions might prove valuable. Touch Press’s references to other works of art, for example, may give users unfamiliar with Eliot’s style or with modernism generally some avenues into the difficult poem. Allusions to Eliot’s influence on Bob Dylan, as well as suggested analogies between his abstract lyrics and Eliot’s poetry, could increase Dylan’s fans’ patience for the text. Similarly, the inclusion of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon might clarify the poem’s basic form and function for those more experienced with the visual arts. This is a conclusion one must draw independently, however, for the caption simply reads, “Picasso was a contemporary of T. S. Eliot’s, active as a painter during the same period that Eliot was writing.”

The application’s presentation of the major debates surrounding The Waste Land could also improve a beginner’s experience. While Touch Press may not satisfactorily address the poem’s structure, the commentaries from Fiona Shaw, Paul Keegan, Craig Raine, and Jeanette Winterson together offer a solid critical introduction, demonstrating how Eliot’s poem both necessitates and benefits from different points of view. The discourses addressed, contested since 1922, concern the poem’s tone, as well as its relationship to the cultural temperament of the 1920s.

Touch Press first presents the question whether The Waste Land is, as Calvin Bedient explains, “a poem, as many have thought, of despair? Or a poem, as others have believed, of heroically attained salvation? Or, as still others have suggested, of something in-between, something baulked?” (ix). Shaw claims in one of the app’s briefest videos that the poem ends on a positive, calm, and uplifting note, and elsewhere her tranquil performance of the concluding section corresponds with her commentary. Yet Jeanette Winterson argues otherwise in her video, saying “it’s very bleak,” and Ted Hughes’s restless reading matches her take. Then Eliot himself, reading in 1947, suggests another possibility, indicating a sort of tonal ambiguity through a neutral affect.

Now a quick look at the poem’s critical history illustrates that such divergences regarding the tone have been common. One quiet voice in the Times Literary Supplement suggested that The Waste Land might concern “heroically attained salvation” in the first review ever published: “Life is neither hellish nor heavenly; it has a purgatorial quality” (Brooker 77). But as Lois Cuddy and David Hirsch note, this reading fell mostly on deaf ears until Cleanth Brooks shifted the critical consensus with his 1939 essay, “Critique of the Myth,” which argues that Eliot’s poem is optimistic, depicting presently hellish conditions while suggesting how redemption might be gained later. Before then, most saw the poem “as an expression of negation, futility, and despair over the emptiness of life after World War I” (Cuddy 1). J. C. Squire called it a continuous “state of erudite depression,” and Edmund Wilson highlighted that “nothing ever grows during the action of the poem and no rain ever falls. The thunder of the final vision is ‘dry sterile thunder without rain’” (Brooker 115, 85). And, as evidenced by Winterson’s comment, pessimistic interpretations persist today, even if most critics now gravitate toward optimism. One of the app’s key advantages, then, is that it introduces beginners to a historically significant line of debate.

The application’s video commentaries also address the poem’s relationship with World War I. Paul Keegan suggests that a widespread post-war distress, which Eliot also experienced personally, manifested itself in Eliot’s writing. He claims that The Waste Land includes “forms of tepidity or unfeelingness that suggested some malaise that might be collective but was also specific to Eliot.” Winterson agrees, adding that Eliot purposefully tried to create a work reflecting his contemporaries’ anxieties. She says Eliot “was not in any way an unconscious thinker”; rather, he was so attuned to the contemporary culture and reader reception that he “could hear the grass grow, he was so keen.” According to her, Eliot understood precisely both the sentiment he was communicating and the atmosphere in which he was publishing.

However, Craige Raine’s commentary suggests Eliot’s style actually had little to do with any post-war malaise. Pointing to Pablo Picasso’s early twentieth-century art, he explains that the ‘“modernist aesthetic” developed before World War I even began. Regarding Eliot specifically, Raine alludes to Pound’s saying of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that “Eliot has modernized himself” back in 1914. And given that The Waste Land has been called a “gradual progression” of “Prufrock,” featuring “more of the ‘overwhelming question’” (Bedient 4-5), one could easily argue Eliot was not primarily addressing wartime atrocities. Perhaps he was actually exploring contemporary issues separate from war, such as failing human relationships in an increasingly materialistic society.
Historically Eliot’s critics have addressed all these possibilities, so, again, users gain quick access to a major critical debate. I. A. Richards argues that the poem expresses the “plight of a whole generation” (278), while Alan Marshall points out the following:

Eliot rejected this kind of acclamation in the most withering terms: “When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the ‘disillusionment of a generation,’ which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention.”…[The public] identified with the poem too readily. (95)

John Soldo adds that Eliot could have been responding to any number of influences, including “an unhappy marriage,” “a congenital hernia,” “literary aspirations [that] were yet to be fulfilled,” or a teaching job that was “exasperating” (21). Although the app may not provide this much detail, it does give readers a basic rundown of the discourse.

Unfortunately, other features, such as the annotations, could cheapen a beginner’s experience. Perhaps users could avoid the paratextual notes, but it seems unlikely that an inexperienced reader struggling through oblique references and multiple languages could resist the temptation of efficient “elucidation.” And the problem with any seemingly innocent glance at the notes is the following: in addition to suggesting a “correct” way to read the poem, “comprehensive notes” can also disrupt the flow of the reading experience.  

The note explaining the dedication illustrates perfectly how annotations can detract from the The Waste Land: it briefly outlines Ezra Pound’s role in the modernist movement, his personal relationship with T. S. Eliot, and his editing of The Waste Land, as well as the fact that the epigraph is not actually taken from Dante’s Commedia but from Pound’s reworking of a Dantean phrase. Undoubtedly the explanation there of Eliot’s allusion to an allusion (dedicated to the writer of the first allusion, no less) could overwhelm or distract a reader who has not yet even reached “April is the cruelest month.” Even the less weighty annotations could hamper the reading experience, such as a literal description of where Margate is, for then users wonder why Eliot was ever there anyway. Almost invariably, simple questions blossom into larger ones, and the questions provoked by the app’s notes are not often conducive to an improved Waste Land experience. The fact that a note exists to explain that “Mrs. Equitone” is not an allusion and needs no further explanation should suggest how overboard Touch Press has gone.

Yet some critics have argued that elucidative materials such as these are integral to understanding the poem. Elizabeth Drew argues the following:
The ugliness, the emptiness, and the aimlessness of the contemporary world…cannot be clarified without the study of external sources….Before [The Waste Land’s] intensity can be fully appreciated as an experience of poetry, the intellectual background has to be absorbed and the logical links explained. (59-60)
Drew feels that annotations such as those in the app are necessary because Eliot’s “range of reference is so wide, and to most readers so unfamiliar” (59).  However, her argument that Eliot’s poetry must “tell us something” or it will not establish “a coherent whole of feeling and attitude” (60) fails to acknowledge that incoherence and bewilderment can constitute a feeling and attitude. Similarly misguided is her belief that “it is a justifiable ambition to want to know what the poet is feeling and what he is holding an attitude towards” (60). It is obviously difficult to discuss anything done purposefully in any work of art, but one can reasonably conclude that the multilingual passages and esoteric allusions in the poem serve a function that immediate translation and explication mitigate. One critic even suggests that the poem is ultimately “about” the “fantasy of interpretation” (Ross 134).

William Pritchard offers a more reasonable stance on how elucidative materials affect readings of The Waste Land, drawing an important distinction between the notes Eliot added to the poem and the “scaffolding” critics have added: “Eliot’s notes, if not taken too seriously, are harmless and sometimes amusing. But other sorts of notes or glosses adhering to the poem…can be more insidious, more inhibiting to responsive, creative reading” (333). Annotations only exist, he adds, due to “an editorial anxiety to fill in the blanks which the poem so carefully does not fill in” (333). Ultimately paratextual notes are not actually integral parts of the piece or even useful to beginning readers. Pritchard points out that Wyndham Lewis once said of Ulysses, a work that greatly influenced The Waste Land, that “no one who looks at it will ever want to look behind it” (334), and the same applies to Eliot’s poem, where forays into the poem’s depths distract readers from the surface’s wonderful subtleties.

A clever argument might be made that an awareness of allusions further fragments the poem in a way that coheres with its disjointedness, but such a stance too heavily deemphasizes the poem’s unique effects. Certainly The Waste Land loses something when focus moves from the text to the paratext, for miniscule explications interrupt the poem’s progression and divert readers’ attentions from Eliot’s measured musical sense. As Pritchard explains, “What we need to work at instead is keeping the poem moving, paying attention to the sequence [of voices]”; annotations that readers “store untroubled in the mind and then read on” do not add much to a reading, only disrupting “the voices in motion that make up the poem’s substance” (335, 333).

And though Pritchard was writing decades after Drew, their differences in opinion cannot simply be attributed to critical shifts over time, for F. O. Mathiessen argued similarly in The Achievement of T. S. Eliot in 1935. Therein he maintains Eliot was right in believing “that ‘poetry can communicate before it is understood.’ That is to say, it can work upon the ear the depth of its incantation; it can begin to stir us by its movement before our minds say what it is that we feel” (84). Mathiessen points to the sensuous opening passage of “A Game of Chess” and explains that, while the allusion to Shakespeare undoubtedly helps “heap up an impression of Renaissance splendor and luxuriance” (85), the passage operates successfully without knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra. He argues that a “sensation of magnificence” arises simply through this passage’s “beauty of sound” and “richness of connotation” (84), so a “proper” experience with the poem requires no knowledge of Eliot’s intellectual background. He implies there a shared belief that notes only water down The Waste Land, diluting the experience for beginning readers.

A little ironically, commentaries in the app reiterate this point. Seamus Heaney remembers in college having to read The Waste Land as if it were a textbook, learning and regurgitating the interpretations of his professors before teaching those same ideas himself a few years later. He recalls, “I never had the experience of being alone and a little bewildered and then coming back to and being excited by and getting to know on one’s own the poetry.” Then he concludes that one should not read it “under the eye of the instructor” before “sufficiently attending to the strangeness of the thing itself.” Meanwhile, Winterson claims that any attempts to make The Waste Land approachable necessarily lessen the poem’s effect, as “the only thing Eliot is interested in is the whole experience.” She explains, “You read it out loud. You read it six times. And it means what it means. There are no shortcuts.”

The other major problem for Eliot beginners using The Waste Land for iPadis its lack of a basic biography. Many new volumes of poetry include chronological outlines of poets’ lives and works, oftentimes with added historical context, but all Touch Press includes are sparse details in captions throughout the app’s image gallery.

For those a little more experienced with the poem, a couple commentaries might merit inclusion. Jim McCue’s video explores The Waste Land’s publication history, as he highlights some differences between its publication in Criterion and The Dial, saying they reveal that another version of the poem was floating around in the early 1920s. McCue also discusses how Virginia Woolf made errors in The Waste Land’s first English publication in book form, writing, “A crowd flowed under London Bridge,” rather than over. His brief but insightful commentary shows how the seemingly simple process of publication can prove quite colorful—a useful fact for budding critics to remember.

Intermediate readers should also appreciate a perspective regarding the poem’s obscenities. One of Craig Raine’s commentaries draws attention to the fact that people tend to overlook the eroticism of Eliot’s poem because its sex scenes are so desolate. He compares D. H. Lawrence’s and Joyce’s struggles to get published in the ’20s to the public’s easy acceptance of Eliot’s poem. Raine believes Eliot shows a darker side of love than either Lawrence or Joyce and suggests that prudish audiences are more willing to stomach unpleasant depictions of sexuality. His commentary thereby inspires reflections on what constitutes “appropriate literature” and why.

The readings and the performance included in the app could also enhance an intermediate reader’s appreciation of the poem, although some people who feel that readings necessarily involve interpretations might argue that they restrict an audience’s understanding. Many critics maintain that “the lurking possibilities of mistaking [a passage’s] direction” (Pritchard 336) constitute one of The Waste Land’s key features, so users might be better off without any of the readings. Finding the central voice of the poem to be “universal and dislocated,” these critics want to focus on “the volatile surface intensities of language” (Pritchard 336), rather than force interpretation in any particular direction. Even individual voices, Harriet Davidson suggests, may resist categorization:

[The voices range] from vivid characters such as Marie, the hyacinth girl, Stetson’s friend, Madame Sosostris, the nervous woman, the pub woman, Tiresias, and the Thames daughters, to the non-human voices of the nightingale, the cock, and the thunder, and the voices from literature in the many allusions in the poem. The many abrupt changes and mutations in the voices of the poem often blur the proper boundaries between identities, further increasing the reader’s confusion about who is speaking. (126)

But any solely dismissive stance on readings or performances certainly seems misguided. A more reasonable view might hold that they bring new insights to the application’s users, revealing “lurking possibilities” readers might not consider on their own.

One might even argue that the various readings in the app actually delimit interpretive possibilities more than they constrain them. As Davidson points out, a “reader’s interpretation, like any desire for order, is really just another proliferation of possibility, not at all a stabilizing of the poem” (126). When Eliot does not “feign congestion” in the Madame Sosostris passage and Fiona Shaw “does an admirable stuffy nose” (Fussner), users see that the speaker could be either involved directly in the action or merely overseeing it. And other divergent readings function similarly. As Pritchard might conclude, the application’s readings together illustrate that “a variety of responses, most of them cogent and relevant, will prove The Waste Land to be a work eminently hospitable to divergent ways of reading it” (336). Eliot’s offering two largely different readings himself should be support enough for a claim concerning multiple readings’ utility.

Sadly the application also has two huge flaws for intermediate readers. First, Touch Press includes no list of significant publications suggesting where readers could pursue further inquiries, and the video commentaries feature no citations at all. The relatively shallow analyses among most of the commentaries are also problematic. The application ignores what Colleen Lamos calls “a curious twist of literary history,” where “recent critics of The Waste Land have returned to the questions that concerned its initial readers, before its elevation to the status of a classic” (109). While one of the app’s commentaries does briefly allude to the disapproving early criticism of John Crowe Ransom and others, nowhere does Touch Press suggest that any negative views persist today. Ignoring the more controversial problems regarding Eliot’s sexism, anti-Semitism, and classism, the app glosses over many critics’ seeing the poem as a “rather tarnished literary icon…now primarily of interest for precisely the errant tendencies that were previously corrected, explained away, or ignored” (Lamos 108). Further, no discussions of his religious sense appear, and no commentaries examine The Waste Land’s effects on philosophy, literary criticism, or social studies. The app will greatly dissatisfy anyone hoping to begin exploring Eliot’s work more seriously.

For serious Eliot scholars, the application’s benefits are clearly the fewest. With the app, there may be “no more need for multiple paperweights and broken book spines while you prep for your teaching or draft an article on The Waste Land” (Gray), but this is probably worth less than the $13.99 price tag. The shallow commentaries certainly will not teach experts anything new, so the app could only benefit them as a potential source of commentary. Somebody might like to examine, for example, how the app features such a variety of functions, perspectives, and foci that it ultimately retains and expands the elusiveness and nuance of The Waste Land itself.

Obviously, like intermediate readers, serious scholars are also disadvantaged by the lack of citations, but the app’s facsimile might pose an even bigger problem. The inclusion of only a partial scan of the manuscript must bewilder anyone who has encountered the manuscript in its fully published form. For The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts represents far more than a poet’s initial scribblings and a few of his contemporary’s suggestions. It is a poem largely distinct from the one published in 1922. The draft is twice the length of the final text, and its order is entirely undecided and random, aside from the portions labeled “He Do the Police in Different Voices Part I and II” (later sections I and II). The conclusive “What the Thunder Said” originally appears in the middle of the poem, followed by several largely autobiographical pieces that disappear entirely in the final draft, excepting a few transplanted lines. Pound tells Eliot in a letter that “the thing runs now from April…to shantih without a break,” so portions titled “The Death of Saint Narcissus,” “Song,” “Exequy,” “The Death of the Duchess,” “Elegy,” and “Dirge” get the axe.

But regrettably, Touch Press presents almost none of this information. The narrative section placed before “April is the cruelest month” does not appear in the app, and the formerly disorganized pile of fragmented poems is reorganized into its recognizable order. Each of the sections removed by Pound is excluded entirely, which is unfortunate because Touch Press explains that Pound wielded great editorial powers but then fails to demonstrate his greatest triumphs. Without a typed version next to it, which the book form provides, the facsimile pages included in the app are also essentially illegible. Of course one can discern what Eliot has written, as an ordered Waste Land now exists as a published poem, but Pound and Vivienne Eliot’s scribbles are almost impossible to make out. As this addition clearly cannot be for the poem’s serious scholars, the fact that new users cannot read the collaborators’ comments makes its inclusion seem a poorly executed afterthought—and probably the interactive poem’s weakest feature.

So the app can neither offer much to Eliot veterans nor give those just starting the poem an ideal introduction, while intermediate scholars are better off exploring libraries and journal collections. Max Whitby, co-founder and CEO of Touch Press, expressed a hope in a February 15, 2011, press release that the app would “bring a profoundly important subject to the attention of a new digital audience and make it come alive in their hands,” but he failed to recognize that The Waste Land never died and needs no infusion of vitality. Interested readers have sought and will continue to seek out the poem in its original form, and while The Waste Land for iPadcan boast of some innovative features, it cannot ultimately claim to be a reinvigorated or livelier version of the poem. Readers interested in either beginning The Waste Land or supplementing their present understanding should seek an alternative path through the wastes.


Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984. Print.

Beale, Rachael. “Review: The Waste Land iPad App.” Bookseller, 13 June 2011. Web.

Bedient, Calvin. He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its Protagonist. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. Print.

Brooker, Jewel Spears. T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Cuddy, Lois A., and David H. Hirsch. Critical Essays on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Print.

Davidson, Harriet. “Improper Desire: Reading The Waste Land.” The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Ed. Anthony David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 121-31. Print.

Drew, Elizabeth A. T. S. Eliot: The Design of His Poetry. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1950. Print.

Fussner, Nora. “Those Are Pearls that Were His iPad.” Electric Literature, 29 June, 2011. Web.

Gray, Will. “Review: The Waste Land iPad App.” T. S. Eliot Society, 8 August, 2011. Web

Lamos, Colleen. Deviant Modernism: Sexual and Textual Errancy in T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

Marshall, Alan. “England and Nowhere.” The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Ed. Anthony David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 94-107. Print.

Matthiessen, F. O. The Achievement of T. S. Eliot. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1935. Print.

Pritchard, William H. “T. S. Eliot.” The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia UP, 1993. 319-42. Print.

Richmond, Shane. “The Waste Land iPad App Review.” The Telegraph, 15 June 2011. Web.

Richards, I. A. Principles of Literary Criticism. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1961. Print.

Ross, Andrew. “The Waste Land and the Fantasy of Interpretation.” Representations 8.1 (1984): 134-58. Print.

Saavedra, John, Jr. “An eBook for Young and Old.” Steam Punk Publishing, 29 June 2011. Web.

Soldo, John J. The Tempering of T. S. Eliot. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Research, 1983. Print.


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