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Ezra Pound and the drafts of The Waste Land

  • Article written by: Mark Ford
  • Published: 13 Dec 2016
The manuscript of T S Eliot's The Waste Land show how extensively Ezra Pound's revisions and suggestions shaped the published work. Mark Ford takes a look at Pound's marginalia and celebrates his ruthlessness and skill as an editor.

T S Eliot’s The Waste Land made its first appearance in print in October of 1922 in the first number of The Criterion, a quarterly literary journal founded and edited by Eliot himself. That same month, Eliot dispatched to John Quinn, a New York-based lawyer and patron of the arts, a packet containing a notebook entitled 'Inventions of the March Hare', in which he had made copies of most of his early poems and the 54 leaves of the drafts of The Waste Land. Quinn insisted on paying market rates for the notebook, but he reluctantly agreed to accept as a gift The Waste Land drafts in payment for his lengthy negotiations on Eliot’s behalf with various New York magazines and publishing houses.

Quinn died unexpectedly two years later, and these manuscripts ended up in storage with the rest of his papers. In the early 1950s they were eventually retrieved, only to be sold under conditions of strict secrecy to the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. It was not until 1968, three years after Eliot’s own death, that the acquisition was announced. Eliot’s widow, Valerie, at once set about editing this material for a facsimile edition published in 1971. This edition revealed not only the major role played by Ezra Pound in cutting and revising the poem until it achieved its final form, but also the responses of Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, to his portrayal of a character to whom she bore a strong resemblance: in the margins of the passage in ‘A Game of Chess’ dramatising a relationship between a neurotic wife (‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me’) and a silent, traumatised husband (‘I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones’) Vivien wrote WONDERFUL wonderful wonderful.

Manuscript of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's annotations

Manuscript of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's annotations

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Usage terms T S Eliot: © Estate of T. S. Eliot and reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Ezra Pound: By Ezra Pound, from New Directions Pub. acting as agent, copyright © 2015 by Mary de Rachewiltz and the Estate of Omar S. Pound. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Berg Collection:
© The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection
of English and American Literature
The New York Public Library
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Letters from T S Eliot and Vivienne Eliot relating to The Waste Land

Letters from T S Eliot and Vivienne Eliot relating to The Waste Land

‘I have done a rough draft of part of part III, but do not know whether it will do, + must wait for Vivien’s opinion as to whether it is printable’: This letter from 1921 reveals how T S Eliot valued Vivienne’s input during the composition of The Waste Land.

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Usage terms © Estate of T. S. Eliot. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

The Waste Land was initially to be called ‘HE DO THE POLICE IN DIFFERENT VOICES’, a quotation from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. It was mainly composed in 1921 – although a few passages date from much earlier – and in various locations: in London, in Margate and at a sanatorium near Lausanne in Switzerland, where Eliot spent late November and December undergoing treatment for what he called ‘an aboulie and emotional derangement’. It was in this sanatorium on Lake Geneva – referred to in the poem by its French name of Lac Leman – that Eliot wrote the poem’s last section, ‘What the Thunder Said’.

Manuscript of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's annotations

Manuscript of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's annotations

The manuscript draft of The Waste Land features the poem’s original title, ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’. T S Eliot drew the quotation from Charles Dickens’s novel, Our Mutual Friend (1864).

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Usage terms T S Eliot: © Estate of T. S. Eliot and reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Ezra Pound: By Ezra Pound, from New Directions Pub. acting as agent, copyright © 2015 by Mary de Rachewiltz and the Estate of Omar S. Pound. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Berg Collection:
© The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection
of English and American Literature
The New York Public Library
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

He first showed the sprawling manuscript to Ezra Pound during a two-week stopover in Paris in early January. Pound would initially have read a diffuse account of a night on the town in Boston. The draft of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ opens with a monologue delivered by a nighthawk who is familiar with the likes of Silk Hat Harry and Old Jane and Trixie and Stella: ‘First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place’, the poem was to begin. After Tom’s place they take in a show, which is followed by more drinking at the Opera Exchange, an account of a visit to a brothel, near-arrest by ‘a fly cop’ [a plain-clothes policeman] and much careering around in cabs. Heavily indebted to Joyce’s Ulysses, this night-town episode had to go, allowing the poem to start at the draft’s line 55: ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land…’

My favourite of the comments Pound wrote in the margins of the manuscript is ‘echt’, German for the real thing. He wrote this against ‘A rat crept softly through the vegetation’ and against ‘And I Tiresias have foresuffered all / Enacted on this same divan or bed’. His main term of praise is ‘O.K.’, although occasionally he writes STET (meaning ‘let it stand’). His various disapprovals take more various forms: ‘Too tum-pum at a stretch’, ‘too penty’ [i.e. too much iambic pentameter], ‘Too loose’, ‘Perhaps be damned’, ‘make up yr. mind’, ‘verse not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it’, ‘Too easy’.

Manuscript of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's annotations

Manuscript of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's annotations

A page from The Waste Land manuscript heavily revised by Ezra Pound, including his comments, ‘Too easy’ and ‘Perhaps be damned’.

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Usage terms T S Eliot: © Estate of T. S. Eliot and reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Ezra Pound: By Ezra Pound, from New Directions Pub. acting as agent, copyright © 2015 by Mary de Rachewiltz and the Estate of Omar S. Pound. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Berg Collection:
© The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection
of English and American Literature
The New York Public Library
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

Pound tightened Eliot’s phrasing in many sections of the poem. His comments in the margins of the sex scene between the typist and the young man carbuncular (‘spotted about the face’ in the drafts) are particularly extensive. This encounter was even more unsavoury in the original: the young man’s hair ‘is thick with grease, and thick with scurf’, he impertinently drops cigarette ash on the typist’s mat, and when it’s all over pauses in a corner of the stable-yard ‘to urinate and spit’ (‘probably over the mark’ wrote Pound against these lines). The revisions Pound suggested went some way to moderating the snobbery and disgust so vividly on display here, although plenty of both still survive in the passage as published.

Manuscript of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's annotations

Manuscript of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's annotations

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Usage terms T S Eliot: © Estate of T. S. Eliot and reprinted by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Ezra Pound: By Ezra Pound, from New Directions Pub. acting as agent, copyright © 2015 by Mary de Rachewiltz and the Estate of Omar S. Pound. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further. Berg Collection:
© The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection
of English and American Literature
The New York Public Library
Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

It was Pound’s deletions, however, that most improved The Waste Land. As well as the 54 lines of the night-town episode, he advised cutting the 72 lines of social satire in Popean rhyming couplets with which ‘The Fire Sermon’ opened, and the 83 lines that initially made up the first section of ‘Death by Water’ – these describe a fishing voyage in the North Atlantic that goes badly wrong. Eliot also considered inserting interludes between each of the poem’s sections, in some of which, again, his prejudices are uncomfortably explicit:

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves’ Disease in a dead jew’s eyes!

Pound understood how the mystical or visionary impulse in Eliot was intimately bound up with his habit of insultingly denouncing people that he deemed undesirable; like an expert chemist, Pound –il miglior fabbro (meaning ‘the better craftsman’ as Eliot called him in the poem’s dedication) – juggled with these sensitive sections in the drafts of The Waste Land, until he discovered the right kind of balance between them.

Pound was also acutely sensitive to the internal patterning of the poem, the way recurring themes such as ‘death by water’ create a subtle, almost cryptic ongoing narrative that connects its various vignettes and characters. When, in response to Pound’s suggestion that the North Atlantic fishing passage be cut, Eliot wondered if the lines about Phlebas the Phoenician (in fact a translation of an earlier Eliot poem written in French entitled ‘Dans le Restaurant’) should go too, Pound responded:

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.

Eliot, indeed, seems to have been inspired by Pound’s comment to indicate in one of the notes that he compiled for the poem that Phlebas should be linked not only with Madame Sosostris’s tarot card, but with Mr Eugenides the Smyrna merchant, and with the poem’s references to The Tempest’s Ferdinand as well. Pound, in other words, might be said not only to have helped shape and structure Eliot’s poem but to have influenced Eliot’s own interpretation of it.

‘Complimenti, you bitch’, Pound wrote to Eliot on 24 January of 1922, on reading through the revised poem, adding, ‘I am wracked by the seven jealousies’. This letter included a poem called ‘Sage Homme’, in which he figured himself as the male midwife (sage femme is the French term for a midwife) who had performed a ‘caesarean Operation’ on Eliot’s poem. ‘Sage Homme’ extends the gender confusion that lies at the heart of The Waste Land in the ‘personage’ of Tiresias, an ancient Greek prophet who had lived as both man and woman:

These are the poems of Eliot
By the Uranian Muse begot;
A Man their Mother was,
A Muse their Sire.

The quasi-erotic implications of Pound’s metaphor correspond to the troubling vision of sexuality that underlies the poem’s vision of modern life.

Pound was quick to realize too, that, if published with sufficient éclat, Eliot’s poem was likely to serve as a ‘justification’ to a wider audience of the kinds of modernist experimentation, in both poetry and prose, to which he was so committed. After much scheming and wheeling and dealing by both men, The Waste Land triumphantly appeared in three separate printings in late 1922: in Eliot’s own, Criterion, in the American magazine The Dial (which also chose Eliot for its annual Dial Award of $2,000), and as a book – bulked out by the Notes – published by the American firm of Boni & Liveright. A further printing, by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, came out in Britain the following year. Given its radical originality and difficulty, in a surprisingly short time The Waste Land did indeed convert many to the concept of poetry implicit in its use of collage, allusion and fractured narrative. Along with James Joyce’s Ulysses, published the same year, it came to embody to the world at large what Pound called ‘our modern experiment’, to which he would in time contribute The Cantos – a vast and rambling work which even most Poundians admit would have benefitted from an editor as skilled and ruthless as Pound had proved himself to be when editing The Waste Land.

Copyright Mark Ford

  • Mark Ford
  • Mark Ford is a Professor in the English Department at University College London. He has published widely on 19th-, 20th- and 21st- century British and American poetry, and is the author of three collections of poetry himself: Landlocked (1992), Soft Sift (2001), and Six Children (2011). He has also edited the anthology London: A History in Verse (2012).