Waste Lands

The Waste Land: collaboration, montage and dislocation

The Waste Land was radical in both style and substance. Roz Kaveney examines the modernist devices, cultural influences and literary collaborations that shaped this landmark poem.

There are two really interesting things about The Waste Land (1922). One, obviously, is the fact that it is one of the high points of modernism in literature and has most of the characteristics of modernism found in the other arts expressed in literary terms; it is not only intelligent in what it says but in how it says it – Eliot applies, as we shall see, a rich array of modernist devices: sudden shifts of perspective, montage, intertextuality with classic work and popular song. The other interesting thing – and this is peculiarly important given that one of its techniques is a constant intercutting of different voices and different registers of diction – is that it was in a sense a collaboration: Eliot knew that what he was doing was of supreme importance and took very strong advice on its structure, on what it included, and on some of its individual lines, from Ezra Pound primarily but also to a significant extent from his first wife Vivienne.

'What you get married for if you don’t want children'

We remember how troubled Eliot's relationship with Vivienne became – and there is a lot that can be seen as foreshadowing its bad end in The Waste Land – but it is also worth remembering that, at this point, they were still co-conspirators against the world; the difficulties about sex and about physical and mental health had not become insurmountable, nor were her affair with Bertrand Russell or Eliot's areas of sexual ambivalence. They were working together on the literary magazine The Criterion, for example, and here, in particular, he took her advice to the extent of including lines that she suggested – notably and rather poignantly in the scene with the cockney ladies in the pub, and 'What you get married for if you don’t want children', a line particularly poignant in the light of Eliot's later obsession with the children he and Vivienne never had. (In the Four Quartets, he talks of the ghosts of children he never had.) However doomed their relationship was, her praise for the early stages of the work was important to him.

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

This folio from the manuscript draft of The Waste Land contains Vivienne Eliot’s autograph notes, including a line suggested by her – ‘What you get married for if you don’t want to have children’ – as well as praise for the poem (‘splendid last lines’).

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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
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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.

Pound

An even more significant influence was Pound, whose annotations are a model of how to help a friend with a difficult project, at once tough-minded and getting to the core of what made the poem important. Pound pushed Eliot to concentrate on its most original, most modernist sections – when we read the early drafts it is impossible not to agree with him. He pointed out of a section in heroic couplets that you can only parody Alexander Pope if you are as good at versification as Pope, and that Eliot was not; this is clearly correct if you read, say, the abandoned 'Fresca' section:

Or prudent slight domestic puss puss cat
or autumn's favourite in a furnished flat
or strolling slattern in a tawdry gown
a doorstep dunged by every dog in town.

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

Ezra Pound’s critique of T S Eliot’s attempt to parody Alexander Pope, from the manuscript draft of the abandoned ‘Fresca’ section of The Waste Land.

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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.

Ezra Pound, his metric and poetry by T S Eliot

Ezra Pound, his metric and poetry by T S Eliot

T S Eliot and Ezra Pound were first acquainted in the mid-1910s. In 1917 Eliot published this pamphlet – an exploration and appreciation of Pound’s poetry.

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Usage terms T S Eliot: © Estate of T. S. Eliot. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work. Henri Gaudier-Brzeska: This material is in the Public Domain.

When Eliot realised that a long section about a doomed fishing voyage (the original extended version of 'Death By Water') did not work and wanted to scrap the whole thing, it was Pound who argued firmly with him that the shorter end section of the piece was important and should be integrated into the poem as a whole – the drowned Phoenician sailor turns up as part of Sosostris’ non-canonical tarot pack – and thus saved ‘Phlebas the Phoenician a fortnight dead’ from the waste-paper basket.

What is noticeable about the draft of The Waste Land which Vivienne and Pound saw was that several sections – with other voices – were there and went on and on. There is an American man wandering around a red-light area – rather more aggressively than Prufrock had; there is the feckless highly cultured socialite Fresca; there are the doomed sailors. None of them added very much – and part of the point of the final poem is that so many of its polyphonic voices come and go in single lines or short sections. It was, of course, originally not even called The Waste Land – the original title was 'He Do The Police in Different Voices', in reference to the boy Sloppy in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend; Vivienne and Pound both kept Eliot from his excesses.

Montage and shifting rhythms

One of the fascinating things about The Waste Land is that it uses, in its final version but also in large parts of its original draft, a constant shift of voice and viewpoint that is analogous to the technique of montage that Eisenstein was going to theorise about in film a couple of years later and practise in his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin, as also to the savage disconnections of rhythm that a decade earlier Stravinsky had used in his work for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe and most especially in the Rite of Spring. It has one of the other characteristics of modernism – the constant opening up of vast vistas of time and space by quotation and archaism: Stravinsky had Roerich's evocations of the distant Russian past for backdrops in the Rite; Joyce had Homer and the Irish legendarium in Ulysses; Picasso the benin bronze face and futurist face in his cubist masterpiece Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. The Waste Land is all about dislocation – a past that produced a culture that is eating itself, a future that is either sterile or apocalyptic; some other modernisms are hopeful, but Eliot’s tends to conservative despair.

Metrically, it constantly shifts around the history of poetry (as the obstetric ward section of Ulysses does the history of prose) – bits of pseudo-Shakespearean blank verse; sudden echoes of Oliver Goldsmith that are almost doggerel:

When lovely woman stoops to folly
and paces round her room again alone
she smooths her hair with automatic hand
and puts a record on the gramophone

These are interpolated with bits of Sanskrit ‘Datta ... Dayadhvah ... Damyata’. The constant shifts of voice are managed through a refusal of consistent metre. The poem has a narrative as much as a prosodic underlying pulse.

In his study The Figure of Echo, the late American poet John Hollander argues for the importance of allusion as a poetic technique – by mentioning a work of art, you expand it holographically into your own text, rendering it thicker and more capable of reading with complex nuance than would otherwise be the case. Eliot uses allusion throughout The Waste Land – to the Sibyl, knowing all and wanting to die; to Tiresias who has known existence as man and woman; to Wagner's Tristan and Isolde with their hopeless doomed love; to the Buddha and his messages of acceptance and peace; to Dante with his sense of damnation and possible salvation; to the Roman poet Ovid and narratives of rape and metamorphosis. Above all, he alludes to the bleak landscape through which grail knights travel and where heroes find the road to the land of the dead; to the proto-anthropologist James Fraser's attempt to comprehend and unify the underlying structures of all human myth; to the pagan tarot and the spookier bits of the Christian mythos. 

From Ritual to Romance, a source referenced in The Waste Land

From Ritual to Romance, a source referenced in The Waste Land

Chapter on the grail legend of the Fisher King, from Jessie Walton’s From Ritual to Romance, 1920.

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At the same time, he is aware of living in a world of popular culture and low company, about which he feels profoundly ambivalent. When the cockney ladies say goodbye to each other, it is in the words of the mad Ophelia ‘Goodnight Sweet ladies’. Jazz and ragtime – it’s not likely that Eliot made a clear distinction – have their own vitality, but he sees them at the same time as debasing or parodying the high culture of the past:

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag –
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

What makes The Waste Land so important a poem is that it sums up the years after the First World War and the devastating epidemic of Spanish influenza. It has a sense that a whole society has gone forever – the first speaker is a Germano-Russian aristocrat nostalgic about the lost past and already aware that she may need to be careful about her future. It is a poem about changing morals – the typist trying to minimise what is effectively a rape; the jazz songs; the cockney woman who has lost her looks by taking abortion drugs. It is a poem of desolation – urban landscapes of mind-weary crowds and rats crawling out of canals by gasworks; mythic landscapes of desert and rocks that do not provide shade; of nameless dread and ‘fear in a handful of dust’.

The Waste Land is a heap of fragments shored up against ruins; it is the voice of one who sees mysterious figures walking beside him or ravaging a desert; it is a poem of desolation that hopes for consolation but only seizes it momentarily at the end with its echo of the Elizabethan playwright Thomas Kyd's blood-and-thunder revenge drama The Spanish Tragedy juxtaposed with the Buddha's sermons and a final blessing.

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo's mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih Shantih Shantih.

 

 

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  • Roz Kaveney
  • Roz Kaveney is a freelance writer and publisher's advisor. Her poetry collections include Dialectic of the Flesh; her books on popular culture include Reading the Vampire Slayer. Her most recent novels are Resurrections and Tiny Pieces of Skull.

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