The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis

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Review by Terence Jagger

T S Eliot, when I read The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, was my introduction to modernism as a reluctant and noisily sceptical schoolboy, and I quickly came to love The Waste Land too. For me, it is the seminal poem since the First World War. Any reader quickly becomes aware that Eliot may have been the author, the poet, the creative force, but that there was also a critic and editor, who fiercely challenged and largely shaped the poem – Ezra Pound. A quick look at the facsimile of Pound’s comments reveals how wholesale, how drastic and how outspoken were his suggestions and indeed instructions. But this book illuminates much more than one man’s editing of another’s poem; it tells the whole story of the birth of the poem, and is in many ways a joint biography of their early lives. As a rough indication, the detailed discussion of the writing of the poem begins on page 218!

The book starts with the war, and with the deaths of two young men – Jean Verdenal, a Paris friend of Eliot’s who died at Gallipoli, and who is the dedicatee of Prufrock and Other Observations; and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a friend of Pound’s whose death in the trenches would fire in Pound such undirected and retributive fury. The poem has an author and an editor, but it also has a midwife, the personal hurt and cultural despair of the years after the war.

We then go back to Eliot’s and Pound’s early years in London. Eliot, in spite of the energetic campaigning of Ezra Pound, found it hard to get published, and rejection, together with a very difficult domestic and matrimonial life, and guilt about his relationships with his family in America, added worry and anxiety to physical exhaustion. And when it came, early publication of Prufrock was met by much hostility and incomprehension.  Arthur Waugh found the poems “frequently inarticulate” and barely above triviality. (Arthur’s son, Evelyn Waugh, took a different view of Eliot, and in due course quoted The Waste Land as the title of one of his novels (A Handful of Dust), and had a character declaim it from a balcony in another). But every time Eliot was attacked, Pound defended him – and although Pound’s was by far the brighter star in the literary firmament at this time – with his critical intelligence he prepared the world for Eliot’s later triumphs. Hollis sums up Pound’s analysis of Eliot thus: “In three short phrases, Pound had distilled Eliot’s craft: an original rhythm, and inventive form, a personal take on tradition.”

The poem was published was published in 1922, so the war, and the immediate post war years were crucial in its gestation: 1918 saw unrest in the UK, the first of several deadly waves of influenza (and the establishment of a new private printing press by Leonard and Virginia Woolf). Further back in his life, Eliot’s upbringing in St Louis was not congenial; the city was alarmingly behind the times even when he was born in 1888, with bad sewers, appalling atmospherical pollution from coal, gas and industry, and full of corruption and inefficiency. But he loved the Mississippi, and he heard the ragtime, and though in London, he heard from his family of the appalling racial violence of 1917. Here in his rejected past are powerful images for his later poetry – the river, the yellow fog, the cargo of dead negroes. Hollis’ analysis roots the poem much more strongly in these American experiences, and in his difficult family and matrimonial relationships, than I am used to, and it is both convincing and exciting – though his immediate English and European experience and ill-health would play a major role as well.

As well as dealing with his quotidian life and experience, Hollis is justly robust about Eliot’s anti-semitism, making no excuses, and also focuses on his development as a critic, as well as as a poet. So in 1919, he is suddenly catapulted to a position of high standing in literary London (and further afield), moving quickly on the up escalator while Pound, to whom he was always close, was losing his standing and many of his roles. 

At the same time as Eliot and his wife are suffering ill health and a poor, almost broken relationship, and Eliot is struggling with overwork at the bank which employed him and had a period of poor relations with his publishers as well, he nevertheless continued to be an exceptional critic, honing his view of what poetry was and what it was to write poetry. And he developed his position that no reader should look to an author for meaning, that the reader’s understanding is not identified with what the author is supposed to have consciously meant when he wrote it. This is important, because The Waste Land, full of references and obscurities, invites detailed, didactic analysis.  Eliot would say, that’s fine, go ahead, but that’s your meaning, not mine.

Hollis sums up Eliot’s critical views thus:

Tradition is not an inheritance but a labour, the work of our common culture.  Every poem has ancestors. As readers, we tend to reward poets for their differentiation from that which has gone before, whereas if instead we simply read without judgement we might find that the most individuating moments of our poets are those in which they are in communication with the past. To be in possession of this insight is to be in possession of the historical sense, which can open a portal that permits the poet to write not only from their own era but in a common existence with the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer. To do that is not only to affect the literature of the present but – and this was Eliot’s crucial point – to alter the literature of the past. An existing order is ever so slightly changed by the arrival of new work: what we learn from the new alters how we look at the old, and the whole of art readjusts – just fractionally – to admit a new presence and create a new order. …  No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone … Art never improves, but it is always aggregating, absorbing itself in what has come before.  

And in reacting to an apparently terrible production of Webster’s Duchess of Malfi in 1919, Eliot criticised the actress for trying to interpret, rather than transmit the lines of poetry. Poetry is something which the actor cannot improve or “interpret”, he wrote; there is no such thing as the interpretation of poetry; poetry can only be transmitted. The ideal is an actor with no personal vanity at all … a view which will resonate with anyone who has listened to Eliot reading his own poetry!

So Hollis takes us in a lot of detail through the formative years of Eliot’s (and Pound’s) literary lives – and sometimes deep into their childhoods and family pasts, and builds up a convincing and meticulous picture of Eliot’s interests, state of mind, and personal and professional pressures. But by 1919, it is clear that something new is stirring, a big poem, unlike anything Eliot or anyone else had attempted before. But for that he needed space and time, and while in 1921 he made a start in London – on a poem which had a long introductory section called He Do the Police in Different Voices, none of which survived into the final text, it was long stays in Margate and Switzerland, largely alone, that were to provide the opportunity to finally finish the great work.

We then follow Eliot through his different typescripts and carbons, and what happened to each of them, and the brutal but brilliant criticism of Ezra Pound. Pound had no doubts that Eliot’s poem is very important, as he told Scofield Thayer early in February 1922, almost enough to make everyone else shut up shop. But interestingly, as he was working through draft with Eliot in Paris, he was working on his Eighth Canto – but did not send the draft to the man he’d worked with so closely that fortnight, but to Ford Madox Ford in Sussex, asking him to go through it with a red, blood-red, green, blue, or other pencil and scratch what is too awful. It seemed telling that, at the moment of his great collaboration on Eliot’s poem, Pound would not seek Eliot’s opinion in return. Perhaps it was Pound’s sense of selflessness that left him unwilling to disturb Eliot, but whatever the reason, Pound confided in Ford that it was so difficult to find good criticism, and one goes blind, deaf after a time. The Cantos and The Waste Land could have been in mutual co-operative partnership that month, but Pound hadn’t let it happen. 

One of the last things to be added to the poem was the title: Three words, not two, as he would find himself pointing out with frequency, beginning with Ezra Pound himself. Not “Waste Land”, please, but “The Waste Land”, he would tell his friend that summer; and ‘not “The Wasteland” but “The Waste Land” he would subsequently correct a translator; and ‘not Waste Lands either, come to that (to Lady Rothermere). Three words, one definite article.  

But it was done. The master poem of the twentieth century was complete. Hollis is clear that it is still Eliot’s poem, and a magnificent achievement, and that it would have been done, and done brilliantly, even without Pound. But Pound brought focus, direction, and order, and was a brilliant midlife at a difficult labour.

Something truly exceptional had taken place between Eliot, Pound and The Waste Land, something truly rare. It wasn’t that a good poem had been made a better poem through being well edited: that isn’t what happened in Paris and London that winter. Instead, the common focus of Eliot and Pound transformed those pages into a poem for the first time.Admittedly, it contained everything at that moment that the poem needed to exist (everything but its title and a beginning to The Fire Sermon), but its pieces were still provisional, and had yet to be assembled in such a way as to make the most distinctive object from it.

I was worried that such an exhaustive approach would alienate me from the poem, stifle me with detailed textual analysis and drown the meaning and the emotion. But that wasn’t the case at all, I know I will continue to enjoy The Waste Land in future, even more, and probably in different ways. And – but who am I to say this – I still agree with Eliot himself: I think it is the best I have ever done, and Pound thinks so too. Pound was blunter: Complimenti, you bitch. I am wracked by the seven jealousies.

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Matthew Hollis, The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem(Faber & Faber, 2022). 978-0571297214, 544pp., hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (paperback due out in early August) – free UK P&P