"The Waste Land" Essay, Research Paper
Pound’s criticism of The Waste Land was not of its
meaning; he liked its despair and was indulgent of its neo-Christian hope. He dealt
instead with its stylistic adequacy and freshness. For example, there was an extended,
unsuccessful imitation of The Rape of the Lock at the beginning of "The Fire
Sermon." It described the lady Fresca (imported to the waste land from
"Gerontion" and one day to be exported to the States for the soft drink trade).
Instead of making her toilet like Pope’s Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce’s
Bloom. Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the
defacation, there was no point in another round. To this shrewd advice we are indebted for
the disappearance of such lines as:
The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes.
Electric summons of the busy bell
Brings brisk Amanda to destroy the spell
Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done . . .
This ended, to the steaming bath she moves,
Her tresses fanned by little flutt’ring Loves;
Odours, confected by the cunning French,
Disguise the good old hearty female stench.
The episode of the typist was originally much longer and more laborious:
A bright kimono wraps her as she sprawls
In nerveless torpor on the window seat;
A touch of art is given by the false
Japanese print, purchased in Oxford Street.
Pound found the d?cor difficult to believe: "Not in that lodging house?" The
stanza was removed. When he read the later stanza,
–Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit;
And at the corner where the stable is,
Delays only to urinate, and spit,
he warned that the last two lines were "probably over the mark," and Eliot
acquiesced by cancelling them.
Pound persuaded Eliot also to omit a number of poems that were for a time intended to
be placed between the poem’s sections, then at the end of it. One was a renewed thrust at
poor Bleistein, drowned now but still haplessly Jewish and luxurious under water:
Full fathom five your Bleistein lies
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves’ Disease in a dead jew’s/man’s eyes!
Where the crabs have eat the lids . . .
That is lace that was his nose
Roll him gently side to side,
See the lips unfold unfold
From the teeth, gold in gold….
Pound urged that this, and several other mortuary poems, did not add anything, either
to The Waste Land or to Eliot’s previous work. He had already written "the
longest poem in the English langwidge. Don’t try to bust all records by prolonging it
three pages further." As a result of this resmithying by il miglior fabbro, the
poem gained immensely in concentration. Yet Eliot, feeling too solemnized by it, thought
of prefixing some humorous doggerel by Pound about its composition. Later, in a more
resolute effort to escape the limits set by The Waste Land, he wrote Fragment of
an Agon, and eventually, "somewhere the other side of despair," turned to
From "The First Waste Land." In Eliot in His Time: Essays on the
Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of The Waste Land." Princeton, Princeton UP,
So it would have been about mid-January 1922, in London, that The Waste Land received
its final form, and likely its title too . The state of the manuscripts Eliot had unpacked
after his return from the continent may be readily summarized. "The Burial of the
Dead" had lost its Cambridge opening but was otherwise lightly annotated. "A
Game of Chess" had had its opening heavily worked over by Pound, to tighten the
meter, and Vivien Eliot had supplied a few suggestions for improving the pub dialogue.
"The Fire Sermon" was a shambles; it needed much work. "Death by
Water" had been cut back to ten lines. "What the Thunder Said" was
Pondering these materials, Eliot perceived where the poem’s center of gravity now lay.
Its center was no longer the urban panorama refracted through Augustan styles. That had
gone with the dismemberment of Part III. Its center had become the urban apocalypse, the
great City dissolved into a desert where voices sang from exhausted wells, and the Journey
that had been implicit from the moment he opened the poem in Cambridge and made its course
swing via Munich to London had become journev through the Waste Land. Reworking Part III,
and retyping the other parts with revisions of detail, he achieved the visionary unity
that has fascinated two generations of readers. He then went to bed with the flu,
"excessively depressed." (Pound Letters, appendix to No. 181.)
He was anxious. He thought of deleting Phlebas, and was told that the poem needed
Phlebas "ABsolootly." "The card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen.
sailor." He thought of using "Gerontion" as a prelude, and was told not to.
"One don’t miss it at all as the thing now stands." (Pound Letters, No.
182.) What seems to have bothered him was the loss of a schema. "Gerontion"
would have made up for that lack by turning the whole thing into "thoughts of a dry
brain in a dry season." Later the long note about Tiresias attempted the same
strategy: "What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem."
The lost schema, if we have guessed about it correctly, had originated in a preoccupation
with Dryden as the poem grew outward from "The Fire Sermon." If Vergil had once
sponsored the protagonist’s journey as Homer sponsors the wanderings of Leopold Bloom,
Vergil was pertinent to a poem prompted by Vergil’s major English translator, John Dryden.
Ovid, who supplied Tiresias and Philomel, and told the story of the Sibyl’s terribly
longevity which may underlie the line about fear in a handful of dust, was a favorite of
Dryden’s, and (on Mark Van Doren’s showing) pertinent to Dryden’s London and Eliot’s.
Wren’s churches, notably Magnus martyr, were built after the fire Annus Mirabilis celebrates,
which is one reason Eliot works Magnus Martyr into his Fire Sermon. And in disposing
ornate diction across the grid of a very tame pentameter, Eliot’s original draft of the
opening of Part II had rewritten in the manner of French decadence a Shakespearean passage
(" . . . like a burnished throne") that Dryden had rewritten before him in a
diction schooled by his own time’s French decorum. No classroom exercise is more
ritualized than the comparison of Antony and Cleopatra and All for Love.
But the center from which such details radiate had been removed from the poem. What
survived was a form with no form, and a genre with no name. Years later, on the principle
that a form is anything done twice, Eliot reproduced the structural contours of The
Waste Land exactly, though more briefly, in Burnt Norton, and later still three
more times, to make the Quartets, the title of which points to a decision that such
a form might have analogies with music. That was post facto. In 1922, deciding
somewhat reluctantly that the poem called The Waste Land was finished, he was
assenting to a critical judgment, Pound’s and his own, concerning which parts were alive
in a sheaf of pages he had written. Two years afterward, in "The Function of
Criticism," he averted to "the capital importance of criticism in the work of
creation itself," and suggested that "the larger part of the labour of an author
in composing his work is critical labour; the labour of sifting, combining, constructing,
expunging, correcting, testing." He called it "this frightful toil," and
distinguished it from obedience to the Inner Voice. "The critical activity finds its
highest, its true fulfilment in a kind of union with creation in the labour of the
artist." (Selected Essays, "The Function of Criticism," IV.)
For it does no discredit to The Waste Land to learn that it was not striving
from the first to become the poem it became: that it was not conceived as we have it
before it was written, but reconceived from the wreckage of a different conception. Eliot
saw its possibilities in London, in January 1922, with the mangled drafts before him: that
was a great feat of creative insight.
In Paris he and Pound had worked on the poem page by page, piecemeal, not trying to
salvage a structure but to reclaim the authentic lines and passages from the contrived.
Contrivance had been guided by various neoclassic formalities, which tended to dispose the
verse in single lines whose sense could survive the deletion of their neighbors.
When they had finished, and Eliot had rewritten the central section, the poem ran, in
Pound’s words, "from ‘April . . .’ to ’shantih’ without a break." This is true
if your criterion for absence of breaks is Symbolist, not neoclassical. Working over the
text as they did, shaking out ashes from amid the glowing coals, leaving the luminous bits
to discover their own unexpected affinities, they nearly recapitulated the history of
Symbolism, a poetic that systematized the mutual affinities of details neoclassic canons
From "The Urban Apocalypse" in Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion
of the Fiftieth Anniversary of The Waste Land." Princeton, Princeton UP, 1973.
During the final stages of The Waste Land’s composition Eliot put himself, for
what was to be the last time, under Pound’s direction. On 18 November, on his way to
Switzerland, Eliot passed through Paris and left his wife with the Pounds who were then
living there. It seems likely that Eliot showed Pound what he had done in Margate. Pound
called Eliot’s Lausanne draft ‘the 19 page version’ which implies that he had previously
seen another. He marked certain sheets on two occasions: once in pencil, probably on 18
November, once in ink, on Eliot’s return from Lausanne early in January. Pound undoubtedly
improved particular passages: his excisions of the anti-Semitic portrait of Bleistein and
the misogynist portrait of Fresca curtailed Eliot’s excessive animus, and his feel for the
right word improved odd lines throughout. Pound was proud of his hand in The Waste Land
If you must needs enquire
Know diligent Reader
That on each Occasion
Ezra performed the caesarian Operation.
I think that Pound’s influence went deeper than his comment during the winter of
1921-2, going back rather to 1918, 1919, and 1920 when he and Eliot were engaged in a
common effort to improve their poetry. Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920) is a
covert dialogue with Eliot, a composite biography of two great unappreciated poets whose
flaws are frankly aired. Pound criticizes a Prufrock-like poet too given to hesitation,
drifting, ‘maudlin confession’, and aerial fantasy–the phantasmal seasurge and the
precipitation of ‘insubstantial manna’ from heaven. As though in answer, Eliot put aside
his most confessional fragments, ‘Saint Narcissus’ and ‘Elegy’, and in 192l overlaid
private meditation with documentary sketches of contemporary characters–a pampered
literary woman, Fresca (like Pound’s Lady Valentine), Venus Anadyomene (another Mauberly
character), Cockneys, a typist with dirty camisoles, and a scurfy clerk. The Pound
colouring in these sketches did not quite suit Eliot. Where Pound is exuberant in his
disgust, Eliot becomes callow or vitriolic–and Pound himself recognized this in his
comments on typist and clerk: ‘too easy’ and ‘probably over the mark’. Eliot’s characters
are not as realistic as Pound’s. They are projections of Eliot’s haunted
consciousness–they could be termed humours. Unlike the satirist, Eliot does not criticize
an actual world but creates a unique ‘phantasmal’ world of lust, cowardice, boredom, and
malice on which he gazes in fascinated horror. The Waste Land is about a
psychological hell in which someone is quite alone, ‘the other figures in it / Merely
From Eliot’s Early Years. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.
It is against this background that we must reconsider the Eliot-Pound collaboration on The
Waste Land. For despite all the stylistic changes that Pound brought about in Eliot’s
long poem, changes that have recently been submitted to careful study–the thematic
strains of the original Waste Land are not significantly altered in the final
version. Indeed, one might argue that Pound’s excisions and revisions made Eliot’s central
themes and symbols more prominent than they would otherwise have been, buried as they were
under the weight of such satirical intrusions as "He Do the Police in Different
Voices" (Part 1) or the Popean couplets about Fresca at her toilet at the beginning
of Part II 1.37
Consider what happens to "Death by Water," which Pound reduced from
ninety-two lines to ten. The first section, written in quatrains rhyming abab, introduces
a parodic version of Ulysses in the person of a foolish sailor on shore leave, regaling
his cronies in the public bars, who are "Staggering, or limping with a comic
gonorrhea," with stories of the "much seen and much endured." In the margin
of the manuscript, Pound wrote, "Bad–but cant attack until I get typescript."
The second section, written in rather slack Tennysonian blank verse, is the dramatic
monologue of the sailor, telling of a fishing expedition from the Dry Salvages north to
the Outer Banks of Nova Scotia. Even as the sailor meditates on the significance of a
mysterious Sirens’ song heard one night on watch (lines 65-72), a song that makes him
question the relationship of reality to dream, the ship hits an iceberg and is destroyed.
After this ending ("And if Another knows, I know I know not, / Who only knows
that there is no more noise now"–) comes the "Phlebas the Phoenician"
lyric, which is the only part of the original that remains in the finished poem.
Pound seems to have decided that the long account of the sailor’s voyage was an
unnecessary digression. But when Eliot wrote from London, "Perhaps better omit
Phlebas also???" Pound replied, "I DO advise keeping Phlebas. In fact I more’n
advise. Phlebas is an integral part of the poem; the card pack introduces him, the drowned
phoen. sailor. And he is needed ABSOLOOTLY where he is. Must stay in." Pound
understood, in other words, that "Death by Water" is the essential link between
the Madame Sosostris passage and the following lines near the end of Part V:
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
Phlebas’ "death by water" is the necessary prelude to the hints of rebirth
contained in these lines, whereas the actual sea voyage, as described in the cancelled
narrative portion, is irrelevant to the poem’s life-in-death theme. Curiously, then, Pound
seems to have understood Eliot’s purpose better than did Eliot himself.
In discussing Pound’s "operation upon The Waste Land," Eliot
I have sometimes tried to perform the same sort of maieutic task; and I know that one
of the temptations against which I have to be on guard, is trying to re-write somebody’s
poem in the way I should have written it myself if I had wanted to write that poem. Pound
never did that: he tried first to understand what one was attempting to do, and then tried
to help one do it in one’s own way.
This is an important distinction. Pound did not try to transform The Waste Land into
the sort of city poem he himself might have written. Rather, he helped Eliot to write it
in his own way. "What the Thunder Said," for example, is left virtually
untouched by Pound, for here Eliot discovered his quest theme and brought it to a swift
and dramatic conclusion.
In assessing Pound’s response to The Waste Land, critics invariably cite the
famous letter to Eliot (24 December 1921) in which Pound says: "Complimenti, you
bitch. I am wracked by the seven jealousies, and cogitating an excuse for always exuding
my deformative secretions in my own stuff, and never getting an outline. I go into nacre
and objets d’art." But the fact is that, despite these self-depreciating words, Pound
knew well enough that The Waste Land, like "Gerontion," was not his sort
of poem. As Eliot himself observes, after thanking Pound for "helping one to do it in
one’s own way," "There did come a point, of course, at which difference of
outlook and belief became too wide."
From The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton, Princeton UP,
Louis L. Martz
And yet it was evident, even in 1936, that ‘Burnt Norton’ was adapting the five-part
structure of The Waste Land, for that structure was signalled by the use of
a short lyric as part IV of the sequence. But what did it mean, what does it mean, to feel
the five-part structure of The Waste Land working within so different a poem? To
answer this question it may help to review the process by which The Waste Land gained
its peculiar structure, emerging from the hands of Ezra Pound, as Eliot says, reduced to
half manuscript length.
First of all, without Pound’s editorial intervention, we would not have the short
lyric, ‘Phlebas the Phoenician’, appearing by itself as part IV of The Waste Land, and
thus, presumably, we would not have the short lyrics constituting the fourth sections of
all the Four Quartets — the short movement that helps to create analogies
with Beethoven’s late quartets. Indeed we might not have the Phlebas lyric at all, without
Pound’s advice, for Eliot, upset by Pound’s slashing away at the eighty-two lines
preceding this lyric in the manuscript, wrote to Pound, ‘Perhaps better omit Phlebas
also???’ Pound was horrified: Eliot seemed not to understand the central principle of the
poem’s operation. ‘I DO advise keeping Phlebas,’ Pound replied. ‘In fact I more’n advise.
Phlebas is an integral part of the poem; the card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen.
sailor, and he is needed ABSoloootly where he is. Must stay in.’
What Pound describes in that vehement answer is the sort of organization that Eliot
later called musical, in his lecture ‘The Music of Poetry’, delivered in 1942, just as he
was completing Four Quartets: ‘The use of recurrent themes is as natural to
poetry as to music,’ Eliot says:
There are possibilities for verse which bear some analogy to the development of a theme
by different groups of instruments ['different voices', we might say]; there are
possibilities of transitions in a poem comparable to the different movements of a symphony
or a quartet; there are possibilities of contrapuntal arrangement of subject-matter.
So, in The Waste Land, after the embers of lust have smouldered in ‘The Fire
Sermon’ — ‘Burning burning burning burning’– the death of Phlebas by water provides a
moment of serenity, quiet, poise, as Phlebas enters the whirlpool in whispers to a death
not to be feared, but foreseen and accepted. The lyric acts as the lines about the still
point act in the two poems of ‘Coriolan’, where, first, amid the turmoil of the crowd at
the parade, the people think they find their answer in the military leader: ‘O hidden
under the dove’s wing, hidden in the turtle’s breast, / Under the palmtree at noon, under
the running water / At the still point of the turning world. O hidden.’ But then,
ironically, it appears in the second poem that the difficulties of a statesman have led
him also to seek the still point: ‘O hidden under the … Hidden under the … Where the
dove’s foot rested and locked for a moment, / A still moment, repose of noon.’ The lyric
of Phlebas acts as such a moment of repose, a nodal moment, tying together the strands of
the poem, as Pound explained. And the fourth part, the short lyric, in all the Four
Quartets, performs a similar function of poise and knotting, as the poem finds a
temporary rest where themes and images and voices merge for a moment.
One voice of great importance speaks at the close of the Phlebas lyric, which is not
simply a translation from Eliot’s poem in French, Dans le Restaurant, for the
closing lines are quite different. The French poem ends in an offhand, conversational
tone: ‘Figurez-vous donc, c’?tait un sort p?nible; / Cependant, ce fut jadis un bel
homme, de haut taille.’ (Imagine then, it was a distressing fate; / Nevertheless, he was
once a handsome man, of tall stature). In The Waste Land Eliot has changed
the tone from conversational to prophetic by evoking the voice of St Paul addressing ‘both
Jew and Gentile’ in his epistle to the Romans (ch. 2, 3): ‘Gentile or Jew / O you who turn
the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as
A similar effect is created by Pound’s critical slashing away of all those weak and in
part offensive Popeian couplets at the outset of part III of The Waste Land manuscript.
‘Do something different,’ Pound advised. So Eliot did: he pencilled on the back of the
manuscript page a draft of the new opening passage, ‘The river’s tent is broken . . .’ –
lines that stress the eternal presence of the river within the waste land, culminating in
the line that echoes the voice of the psalmist in exile: ‘By the waters of Leman I sat
down and wept’, with its attendant question, ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a
strange land?’ (Psalm 137:4).
A similar concentration upon the emergence of the prophetic voice is created by the
removal of the monologue that opens The Waste Land manuscript, the monologue of the
rowdy Irishman telling of a night on the town in Boston. This was excised by Eliot
himself, perhaps under Pound’s influence, perhaps because Eliot himself saw that the rowdy
vitality of those singing, drinking men who stage a footrace in the dawn’s early light
does not accord with the voice that follows, the voice of one who is so reluctant to live
that April becomes the cruelest month. That excision brings us quickly to the voice of a
modern Ezekiel, speaking the famous lines:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images.
Then these lines of true prophecy play their contrapuntal music against the voice of
the false prophet, Madame Sosostris.
But I need to explain what I mean by the prophetic voice. With William Blake, we should
discard the notion that the prophet’s main function is to foretell the future. If, like
Blake, we think of the biblical prophets, we will recall at once that they spend a great
deal of time in denouncing the evils of the present, evils that derive from the people’s
worship of false gods and the pursuit of wealth and worldly pleasures. Prophecies of the
future appear, but these are often prophecies of the disasters that will fall upon the
people if they do not mend their evil ways. Denunciation of present evil is the primary
message of the Hebrew prophet: he is a reformer, his mind is upon the present. But then he
also offers the consolation of future good, if the people return to worship of the truth.
Thus the voice of the prophet tends to oscillate between denunciation and consolation: he
relates visions of evil and good, mingling within the immense range of his voice the most
virulent excoriation and the most exalted lyrics. This, I think, is exactly the sort of
oscillation that we find in Pound’s Cantos and The Waste Land.
From "Origins of Form in Four Quartets." In Words in Time: New
Essays on Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ed. Edward Lobb. Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press, 1993.
The Waste Land is a much more complex case–in part because the poem that Eliot
wrote and the poem that was published differ considerably. The Waste Land would
have openly established popular culture as a major intertext of modernist poetry if Pound
had not edited out most of Eliot’s popular references. Though Pound, like Eliot,
assailed the "very pernicious current idea that a good book must be of necessity a
dull one," he did not consider contemporary popular culture seriously as a potential
antidote to literary dullness. His work on The Waste Land simply made the poem more
Poundian: he collapsed its levels of cultural appeal while leaving its internationalism
and historicism intact, recasting the poem as the first major counteroffensive in high
culture’s last stand. To be sure, almost all Pound’s emendations improve the poem, and
Eliot acceded to the recommendations of "il miglior fabbro" in
virtually every instance. Still, part of Eliot’s original impulse in composing The
Waste Land was lost in this collaboration precisely because Pound’s relation to the
cultural divide differed from Eliot’s own. Had Eliot improved rather than deleted the
passages condemned by Pound, he might have given literary modernism a markedly different
The manuscript of The Waste Land shows Eliot drawing on popular song to a
greater extent than he uses the Grail myth in the final version. For the long idiomatic
passage that was to have opened the poem he considered several lyrics from popular
musicals. "I’m proud of all the Irish blood that’s in me / There’s not a man can say
a word agin me," he quotes from a George M. Cohan show; from two songs in the
minstrel tradition he constructs "Meet me in the shadow of the watermelon Vine / Eva
Iva Uva Emmaline"; from The Cubanola Glide he takes "Tease, Squeeze lovin
& wooin / Say Kid what’re y’ doin.’" The characters’ nocturnal spree then
takes them to a bar that Eliot frequented after attending melodramas in Boston:
into the Opera Exchange,
Sopped up some gin, sat in to the cork game,
Mr. Fay was there, singing "The Maid of the Mill."
Pointing out that these lines are "the first examples in the draft of [Eliot's]
famous techniques of quotation and juxtaposition," Michael North suggests a direct
connection between the miscellaneous format of the minstrel show–or, one might add, the
English music hall–and the very form of The Waste Land. But the hints of popular
song that survive in the published Waste Land are eclipsed by the more erudite
allusions that dominate the poem. Thanks to the deletion of the original opening section,
for example, the first line places the poem squarely within the "great
tradition" of English poetry. A long poem called The Waste Land that begins,
"April is the cruellest month," largely shaped the course of literature and
criticism for years to follow. One can only imagine the effect of a long poem called He
Do the Police in Different Voices beginning, "First we had a couple of feelers
down at Tom’s place."
From "T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide." PMLA 110.2 (March 1995).