The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, poetry, evaluation

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1) was never without its detractors. For some twenty years after its appearance, the poem was the subject of almost incoherent abuse by older men of letters, who saw it as an undergraduate prank or confidence trick. Even Yvor Williams, as late as 1947 (2), called it ‘broken blank verse interspersed with bad free verse and rimed doggerel’ – a judgement that made John Press so angry that he said it ‘reveals so crippling an insensitivity to the texture and rhythm of verse that one is tempted to disregard any judgement on poetry that he may choose to deliver’. (3) Ivor Brown, drama critic and editor of The Observer called it ‘balderdash’, however, and J.B. Priestley allegedly called Eliot ‘donnish, pedantic and cold’, adding that ‘it would have been better for contemporary English literature if Eliot had stayed in Louisville, or wherever he came from.’

Today the poem is widely accepted as one of the most seminal in twentieth-century literature, and the Internet alone has many approving and helpful articles, some excellent. (4) But for all its status, and the many thousands of students who must study it every year, is it a great poem? Certainly it’s a key poem, iconic of important trends in poetry even today, and one I’ve read with pleasure off and on for forty years, but calling it a masterpiece I’m not so happy about.

Firstly there is the speed at which it was written: three months. Also relevant is Eliot’s disturbed mental state at the time: he later described the poem as ‘a personal grouse against life’. (5) Finally came Ezra Pound, who drastically cut the piece into a shape that reflected his ideas, i.e. Pound’s rather than Eliot’s, of what modern poetry should be. Completely removed were allusions to Eliot’s own anxieties, the lengthy narratives, the Rape of the Lock parody and traditional forms. (6) Perhaps that was just as well, as much of the original wasn’t too good.

Admonished by the sun’s inclining ray,
And swift approaches of the thievish day,
The whitearmed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,
Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes”

The sailor, attentive to the chart and to the sheets.
A concentrated will against the tempest and the tide,
Retains, even ashore, in public bars or streets
Something inhuman, clean, and dignified”

But Pound did retain the sections that were novel and arresting. Older critics believed a poem should be understandable, or largely so. There could be a ‘fine excess’, to quote Keats, and of course a depth beyond what straightforward prose could reach, as there often is in Shakespearean verse. But what The Waste Land offered was not profundities but lacunae, sections that floated in from heaven knows where and trailed off into other tongues.

In time, of course, the difficulties became great fun. American prosperity after WWII saw a vast expansion of literary studies, and Matthiesson’s 1935 book, The Achievement of T.S. Eliot, was soon buried under mountains of critical erudition. Eliot had added notes to the poem, that were, he confessed, as likely to confuse the reader as enlighten. In 1927 he mischievously remarked: (3)

I admit that my own experience, as a minor poet, may have jaundiced my outlook; that I am used to having cosmic significances, which I never suspected, extracted from my work (such as it is) by enthusiastic persons at a distance; and to being informed that something, which I meant seriously is vers de société; and to having my personal biography reconstructed from passages which I got of books, or which I invented out of nothing because they sounded well; and to having my biography invariably ignored in what I did write from personal experience.

No doubt the students who struggled through The Sacred Wood and similar essays must have wondered whether such obscurities and lacunae did not extend into Eliot’s literary criticism as well. It was certainly difficult to know what that dry, all-knowing voice was actually saying. If Eliot was seen as one of the more influential of the new critics – and he certainly climbed the commanding heights of his profession – there was precious little working put down on the page to see how the master arrived at his sweeping judgements. I’ll quote George Watson as his book is now accessible, gratis, on the Internet, and deserves careful study: (7)

Secondly, ‘relevance’ means relevance to modern poets rather than to modern readers, and Eliot even commits himself openly to this object in the 1935 lecture on Milton: ‘Of what I have to say I consider that the only jury of judgement is that of the ablest poetical practitioners of my own time.’ Thirdly, Eliot eschews close analysis in favour of general judgements; his taste and techniques were formed decades before the New Criticism of the thirties, and he never practises the ‘close analysis’ characteristic of that school.

These are hardly arguable statements about Eliot’s criticism. They go a very little way, however, towards describing what an Eliot essay is like. To do that would require a more impressionistic account, leading to statements that might prove highly debatable, since the rhetoric of his criticism is opaque enough to leave a good deal in doubt.

But are Yvor Williams’ strictures justified? I think so. The lines remaining after Pound’s cuts are generally adequate but not overwhelming.

Indifferent blank verse:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings

Bad free verse:

Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.

Rhymed doggerel:

O O O O that Shakespherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

And so on. Most were new to poetry, of course, but nothing that a MFA workshop today would get excited about. The Waste Land also fails that test of good poetry, that nothing is superfluous or unnecessary. We could lose odd lines and sections, I think, without feeling the poem was fatally damaged. Nor can we say, as we often do with contemporary art, that conception is more important than execution, because the conception is rather more Pound’s than Eliot’s. All the same, however, I’d still prefer to read Eliot’s poetry than that of Yvor Williams, carefully crafted though it often is. Why?

The answer has something to do with context, the larger pattern of cultural expectations that the New Criticism regarded as irrelevant. But as George Watson (7) remarked about I.A. Richard’s Practical Criticism:

It seems more natural to suppose that all but the simplest poems exist in traditions which dictate in some sense the significance of the poem, and that poems torn from their historical context tend to mean some other thing, or to descend into the merely meaningless. If this is so, then Practical Criticism and its record of failures in response is not an indictment of English education – justly indictable as that may be – but an impressive body of evidence to suggest that unhistorical reading is bad reading.

Indeed I’d go a little further and suggest the ‘tradition’ is something which shifts with our own circumstances. The composition we were so pleased with one evening commonly proves on the following morning to be a grave disappointment. We have to cut out the bad, regrow the lines, and keep coaxing the thing into life without too much subverting our original intentions.

All poets know this, but those who simply read for pleasure – that vital body on which literature depends – can try a little experiment. Open at random a long poem which was once well known but hasn’t been read for a while, and immediately start reading somewhere around the middle of the poem. My experience is generally one of confusion: the lines seem odd and uninviting, and it’s only slowly that the poem ‘comes back in focus’. Reading is a trained response, and the ‘rules’ differ between types of poetry.

Analogies prove little, but it may help to switch disciplines and look at modern art. I think Matisse is over-rated, but there’s no doubt that standing in front of, say, the Red Studio is a moving experience quite different to that gained from looking at an old masterwork. Art critics, who belong to the cosy circle of museums and dealers that maintain prices, sometimes assert that Matisse’s skills are the equal of the old masters, or that Picasso’s drawings rival those of Raphael. This is nonsense, as anyone with a little art training can see for themselves. (8) Other factors apply, one of which may be what I’d call ‘granularity’, for want of a better term. In dreams we see a world real enough until we take a magnifying glass to it, and find the impressions cannot be looked into further. What we see is what we’re given, and, unlike real life, we cannot focus on some aspect to explore it in more detail. Something like this is happening in The Waste Land. The poem as a whole is giving each word or phrase its significance and emotive power, especially when it’s something we’ve known for a long time, when to our response is added those largely buried memories of who and what we were when we first got to know the work.

How and why that is I’ll consider in a later post.


1. T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). The Waste Land. 1922.
2. Yvor Williams, In Defense of Reason, 1947, p.500.
3. John Press, A Map of Modern English Verse, OUP, 1969, p. 78.
4. Domestico, A and Lewis, P. T.S. Eliot. The Modernism Lab. Also by Pericles
5. James E. Miller Jr. T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land.
6. Breaking the “Spell of Tradition”: Ezra Pound’s Co-Creation of T. S. Eliot’s
The Waste Land by Amanda Zeligs.
7. Literary Critics: A Study of English Descriptive Criticism by George Watson. Barnes and Noble, 1964.
8. Oil Painting Techniques.

Related Website Pages

Modernist Approaches.
Perpetual Revolution.
Sociology of Poetry.
Art as Purposeful Activity.

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