T. S. Eliot Essay - Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 2)

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) (Vol. 2)

Eliot, T(homas) S(tearns) 1888–1965

An American-born British poet, critic, and playwright, Eliot is the only American-born poet to have won the Nobel Prize. The Waste Land, published in 1922, changed the direction of American poetry. The original drafts of this poem, with Ezra Pound's editing, have recently been published. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

Eliot, like LaForgue, mixes the argot of the street with the question phrased to himself by a half-lunatic Hamlet, passes rapidly from the monuments of the past to the tenements of the present, transposes a sentimental velleity into a witty key, and enhances the grand and the tawdry by setting one against the other. Echoing internal rhymes enrich the vers libre of both, a vers libre, which, as Eliot has pointed out, resembles Elizabethan blank verse in its stretching, contracting, and distorting of a traditional measure. His early poems pay LaForgue the oblique tribute of paraphrase in several passages….

Eliot has made his work a storehouse of treasures, chosen fastidiously from the early Elizabethans and the metaphysicals, from various French poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Dante and his circle, and less likely sources. Occasionally a knowledge of his originals impairs one's pleasure in his accomplishment.

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1952, pp. 157-58.

[T. S. Eliot's] whole search, as a poet and as a thinker, has been for a higher order which will discipline his irritable excitability and his talent for critically negative and satirical delineation. Toward this end, he early set himself to the deliberate cultivation of a religious idealism and orthodoxy, and to Anglicanism as its most convenient institutionalization. Yet he remains intimately of this century, a poet of unresolved conflict, a recorder of physical sensation so intense it falls into ennui and revulsion, and of visions of beatitude with no reassuring perspective beyond the dream itself….

It is Eliot's method which marks him most inescapably as of this age. He wants to communicate the predicament of modern man in the midst of lost meanings. The intelligence that dominates his work is not an aggressive one like Pound's as we usually see it; rather it is like the ironically withdrawing and vulnerable spirit of [Pound's] Mauberley (1920)….

The Waste Land can, and in a sense should, be read as a Christian sermon in disguise, and Four Quartets as open religious contemplation. Yet neither work is finally a sermon or a devotion. Each explores a relationship between a speaker and his religious awareness poetically, in ways that create something more malleable than dogmatic doctrine. The result is a shifting design worked out of psychological ambiguities such as must engage the modern mind when it confronts issues of belief and morality.

M. L. Rosenthal, "T. S. Eliot and the Displaced Sensibility," in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 75-103.

[T. S.] Eliot is difficult, not because he knows so much or the age is so complex, but because he is a special sort of poet, a philosophical poet in an age of unbelief. Dante is a philosophical poet and Dante can be difficult enough; but there is not the discrepancy in Dante between what his materials say and what his form says that I seem to find in Eliot. Eliot is like one who takes his material from the blackened street, and uses a heap of broken bones to reconstruct a once beautiful body. This makes him difficult. (p. xxi)

Burnt Norton shows how Eliot's "intellectual" poetry may try the patience of an educated reader. A title names a place no one needs ever to have heard of; two untranslated Greek epigraphs follow, observations of an Ionian philosopher philosophers call "the dark"; thereafter are eight verses on time, prosaic as any in English literature. What is the effect? A reader who finds ignorance intolerable because it makes him feel guilty cannot continue until he discovers what the title signifies, what the epigraphs say, and whose ideas on time are being expressed…. To take Burnt Norton as a play is not pretense; the structure of the poem is dramatic, not discursive; when we see the poet as a protagonist and participate in his struggle, we follow the sequences. The dramatic action is primary. We must get it first. Most readers' difficulties with the poem are due rather to timidity of imagination than to inadequacy of erudition. (pp. 82-3)

Eric Thompson, in his T. S. Eliot: The Metaphysical Perspective (© 1963 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963, pp. xxi, 82-3.

[It] seems to me that The Cocktail Party is so deficient in plot and characterization as to merit not at all the encomiums that greeted its production on Broadway. There is a discord between the convention of drawing-room comedy it employs and its deeper aim, which is nothing less than that of getting at the essence of the human situation. What the audience warms up to is the familiar trappings of comedy; but the deeper meaning, since it remains dramatically unrealized, is impressed upon it, if at all, with the shallowness of a pious lesson or message—the price paid for the evening's diversion. For in its aspiration to get at the human essence, the play falls short as lamentably in its way as did the plays of the German Expressionists…. And in its dramatic structure The Cocktail Party is indeed the epitome of essence without content.

Philip Rahv, "T. S. Eliot: The Poet as Playwright," in his The Myth and the Powerhouse (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Philip Rahv), Farrar, Straus, 1965.

[It] seems to me that the more we see of the hidden side of Eliot the more he seems to resemble Milton, though he thought of Milton as a polar opposite. As we look at all the contraries reconciled in Eliot—his schismatic traditionalism, his romantic classicism, his highly personal impersonality—we are prepared for the surprise (which Eliot himself seems in some measure to have experienced) of finding in the dissenting Whig regicide a hazy mirror-image of the Anglo-Catholic royalist. Each, having prepared himself carefully for poetry, saw that he must also, living in such times, explore prose, the cooler element. From a consciously archaic standpoint each must characterise the activities of the sons of Belial. Each saw that fidelity to tradition is ensured by revolutionary action. (Eliot would hardly have dissented from the proposition that 'a man may be a heretic in the truth.') Each knew the difficulty of finding 'answerable style' in an age too late. With the Commonwealth an evident failure, Milton wrote one last book to restore it, and as the élites crumbled and reformed Eliot wrote his Notes. If Milton killed a king, Eliot attacked vulgar democracy and shared with the 'men of 1914' and with Yeats some extreme authoritarian opinions.

Milton had his apocalyptic delusions, but settled down in aristocratic patience to wait for the failure of the anti-Christian experiment, 'meanwhile,' as Eliot said in the conclusion of 'Thoughts after Lambeth,' 'redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us.' In the end, they thought, the elect, however shorn of power, will bring down the Philistine temple; and the self-begotten bird will return. As poets, they wrote with voluptuousness of youth, and with unmatched force of the lacerations of age. And each of them lived on into a time when it seemed there was little for them to say to their compatriots, God's Englishmen. Eliot can scarcely have failed to see this left-handed image of himself in a poet who made a new language for his poetry and who transformed what he took from a venerable tradition….

Eliot certainly has the marks of a modern kind of greatness, those beneficial intuitions of irregularity and chaos, the truth of the foul rag-and-bone shop. Yet we remember him as celebrating order. Over the years he explored the implications of his attitudes to order, and it is doubtful whether many people capable of understanding him now have much sympathy with his views. His greatness will rest on the fruitful recognition of disorder, though the theories will have their interest as theories held by a great man.

Eliot ridiculed the critics who found in The Waste Land an image of the age's despair, but he might equally have rejected the more recent Christian interpretations. The poem resists an imposed order; it is a part of its greatness, and the greatness of its epoch, that it can do so…. The Waste Land is in one light an imperial epic; but such comforts as it can offer are not compatible with any illusions, past, present, or future.

Frank Kermode, "A Babylonish Dialect" (1965–66), in his Continuities (© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by Frank Kermode; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1968, pp. 67-77.

Eliot's greatest poetry is written in the tension between these polar terms, between the ineffable Meaning and the temporal Approach; between the Logos and the mere words, the dialect of the tribe. It is relevant also to note the Augustinian distinction between the meaning of a sentence and the syllables of which it is composed; which Kenneth Burke has recently linked to the distinction between Spirit and Matter. If men are syllables, God is the meaning. So the higher term includes all the lower terms and transcends them; the tone of the transcendence can be urgent or reluctant. There is clearly a relation between the transcendence, the abstraction of Eliot's later poems and his sense of the burden of objects, the despotism of finite things. The object, often cancelled as an object, is entertained as form or shadow. But Eliot is not Mondrian or Kandinsky: he does not cancel the object in a fine flourish, his mind made up from the start. In the early poems the objects are seen from a distance and thus controlled: the distance is often the measure of the poet's distaste, the low vision, as in the 'young man carbuncular' of The Waste Land. The later mode is disciplinary and ascetic; and incidentally a way of buying the highest and dearest property, the salvation of one's soul. But there is misgiving, either way. It is the poignancy of misgiving that keeps the poetry human….

Eliot's later poems … are meditative poems, dealing with their objects at the remove of contemplation and generalization. In this kind of poetry we do not get the particular object, or even the feeling of that object: we get the feeling of all such objects, attracted into a single cadence…. In … Little Gidding the white hedges are provisional, moments in the approach to the Meaning, and Eliot is prepared, at need, to set them aside. But meanwhile the poetry acknowledges that kind of whiteness, that kind of sweetness, the merging of subject and object in those sensory terms; even if the cadence prepares us to disengage ourselves from all such occasions, at need. Hence the short name for Eliot's later cadences is nostalgia. He writes of objects and experiences as if he had already left them—with whatever degree of reluctance—behind. In these lines the elaborate complicity with the 'you' ('If you came this way in May time …') is partly to register the delicacy of the occasion, partly to make up for the poet's rejection of the objects; because he has contracted to reject them, however reluctantly. The short way to say this is perhaps too short, that Eliot's Christianity was not Franciscan; but his poetry was enlivened by a Franciscan scruple. Perhaps this explains why the technical resources of the passage are lavished upon the voluptuary sweetness; the single line, in the first part, which is released from the elaborate grammatical chain.

Denis Donoghue, in his The Ordinary Universe (reprinted with permission of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. from The Ordinary Universe by Denis Donoghue; © 1968 by Denis Donoghue), Macmillan, 1968, pp. 241-66.

Eliot's dogmas are in his prose, not in his poetry.

The poems helped to bring an age to self-awareness—and so, in a sense, to create the age they reflected and expressed. But they also transcend the age, as they transcend the dogmas of Eliot's prose. They named what had been nameless—and so only dimly known—and what they named, they brought to consciousness….

A bored and weary sophistication is no longer a fashionable pose among young intellectuals, but so long as there remains any reason for a thoughtful and sensitive person to feel emptiness and alienation, "Prufrock" will continue to speak to us. Every age is in some degree, when we look at it from the vantage point of high expectation, a waste land, where love fails and hope dwindles, and the springs of growth seem to have dried up.

Hyatt H. Waggoner, in his American Poets From the Puritans to the Present (copyright © 1968 by Hyatt H. Waggoner; reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company), Houghton, Mifflin, 1968, pp. 409-27.

[Eliot's] juvenile poems are skillful but perfectly conventional imitations of Keats, Tennyson, Kipling, and the like. The change comes with startling abruptness early in 1909; and we know from Eliot's own account what the primary stimulus was: Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in France, which he read in December 1908. From this book he went on to the poets therein discussed and quoted, and he made his "deliberate choice of a poet to mimic": Laforgue, whose vers libre he found to resemble the loose blank verse of Webster, Tourneur, the later Shakespeare, and their contemporaries. Consciously adopting the ironic manner of Laforgue and a verse form and style deriving partly from him and partly from Jacobean drama, Eliot had a starting point that was very different from anything else in English in 1909. Hence the break with the immediately preceding English tradition is much sharper and more obvious in Eliot's case then in Pound's. The break is, of course, by no means complete: like Pound's personae, the early poems have some affinity with Browning's dramatic monologues; the themes of isolation and the buried life recall Arnold, whose presence may always be felt in Eliot's criticism; and sometimes there are incantatory lyrics reminiscent of Tennyson, Kipling, or even Swinburne. But Eliot has made the point emphatically that no poetry being written in English in these years seemed to him of the slightest interest; and instead of coming to London, as did Pound, he chose to spend the year 1910–11 in Paris.

Monroe K. Spears, in his Dionysus and the City: Modernism in Twentieth-Century Poetry (© 1970 by Monroe K. Spears; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1970, pp. 139-40.

At its best this facsimile edition of [The Waste Land] is a splendid revelation of two powerful literary intelligences meshing in unselfish service of their art—a sort of metapoem, or hymn to craft, and an exceptionally inspiring handbook of right attitudes in critic and creator.

But striking as a creative collaboration is, it's scarcely a guarantee in itself that a poetic masterpiece has been brought off. The great function served by The Waste Land was that of introducing new forms of intellectual awareness—a new kind of mind, really—and persuading the general culture of that mind's interest, value, and possibilities. The poem told a "story"—yet had no definable narrative sequence; it developed a whole set of historical, cultural, and religious themes—yet eschewed explanation, qualification, announcements of purpose, and all other helpful hints; and it appeared to accomplish these tasks simply by behaving as though contemporary readers had taken (the day before the poem was published) a leap forward into extraordinary sophistication. People can (and ought to) think faster than they've been thinking, the poem seemed to insist. People can (and ought to) translate several languages at once, can and ought to link up—in a second—multiple, "unrelated" perspectives, and can and ought to find grounds of comfort among astonishing densities of allusion….

The mind Eliot envisaged—Pound envisaged it too, for he was utterly remorseless about deleting passages of explanation and amplification from The Waste Land—was simultaneously anthropological, novelistic, journalistic, psychoanalytic, everything by turns, nothing long, troutlike in its movement, shuttling in sensation between then and now, the Thames in 1600, the Thames in 1921 … And the poem wasn't an overnight triumph. People said the vision was brain-breaking: they held that no such mind was feasible, argued that the aptitudes blithely assumed to be just around the historical corner in fact would never be natural to anybody, and that in truth The Waste Land was just another outbreak of "obscurity." But the poem did triumph in the end.

Benjamin DeMott, "Modeling a New Mind from a Brain-Breaking Vision," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, November 27, 1971; used with permission), November 27, 1971, pp. 35-7, 61-2.

T. S. Eliot was the representative poet of the time, for the same reason that Shakespeare and Pope were of their's. He articulated the mind of an epoch in words that seemed its most natural expression. Everything he said seemed to belong in some future edition of Bartlett's Quotations. He is the most difficult author in the twentieth century to avoid. Two generations of poets learned to write largely by carefully, year by year, shedding his influence, his metrics, his reading matter.

Kenneth Rexroth, in his American Poetry in the Twentieth Century (copyright © 1971 Herder and Herder, Inc.; used by permission of the publisher, The Seabury Press, New York), Herder, 1971, p. 56.

Eliot in a famous paragraph said that [man and artist] should be kept separate from one another, and the thousand or so lines of the original manuscript [of The Waste Land] afford little material for biography. The homosexual interpretation of The Waste Land, which is now quite fashionable, gains no new support, and indeed seems even more gratuitous. Another view of the work, often strongly expressed, that The Waste Land is merely a sequence of distinct poems which we have somehow been induced to regard as a unified structure, will, I suppose, survive the clear indications that Eliot, at any rate, thought of it as one poem, with a shape which he himself could discover only by rigorous experiment. It is true that poetry written on this plan requires of the reader that he ask no impertinent questions as to its provenance and that he make, as a prior act of submission, the assumption that all necessary evidence as to its coherence within one center of consciousness (let us, if we're careful, call this the "Tiresias") is within the poem. Eliot's own "Notes" have notoriously done much to prevent people from reading the poem in this way; all those scholarly clues invite a quite different treatment, and Eliot's own slightly contemptuous allusions to them have done nothing to abate the practice. Yet Pound did read it in that way; no doubt Eliot told him about Jessie Weston, Frazer, and so forth, but there is nothing whatever in his annotations to suggest that he cut or changed lines by considering them in relation to such topics as the Chapel Perilous or the Hanged God. He cared only about the verse and, it must be stressed, the voice of Eliot. This voice he cultivated, and it is hardly too much to say that what we recognized as unmistakably the tones of a great poet owe a good deal of their peculiar quality to Pound's practical advice. His marginalia are not very interesting, and sometimes cannot any longer be understood, even by himself; he did his work with penciled slashes and queries; but that he succeeded uniquely is hardly to be disputed, and the view which one occasionally hears—that the original manuscript is more interesting than the cut version—is scarcely intelligible to anybody who really knows Eliot's poem….

The Waste Land is, as many knew from the beginning, a great modern poem, immune to the wrong kinds of exegesis. Some thought it profoundly right about the state of the world, and very gloomy; others, whom the poet would reject even more strongly, take it to be a very personal document. Eliot himself, in a lecture quoted by his widow, called it "just a piece of rhythmical grumbling," which I suppose could be said of Coleridge's "Dejection Ode" with at least equal force, and perhaps of "The Prelude" too. The truth is that it is many things, among others the product of a distinguished mind under exquisite pressures.

Frank Kermode, "Rhythmical Grumblings," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1971 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), January, 1972, pp. 89-92.

I know almost nothing about Eliot the man. My image of the Governor is drawn from his own writings, often reread and haunting me between times. I am involved in intimacy with a writer who inspires in me no warmth of affection, but a great, though grudged, respect.

The traits which repel me are obvious enough. The Governor mistrusts and even despises the rank and file of the human race and the generalities of human experience. Life on earth is disgusting as a rule, and illusory at best; the implication of his discourse is that we might just as well be dead—in fact, we are dead. He hankers for the Catholic feudal culture of the middle ages, though he's far too intelligent to idealise the good old days and in his gloomiest moments talks as if man on earth has always been unhappy, as he always will be.

The Governor is anti-semitic, though he rarely embarrasses us with a rabid outburst. As he grows older, he becomes more and more pompous and his tendency to disguise unprovable dogmas as common sense observations becomes more irritating. He has a chilly sense of humour, and his bitter wit can be very amusing. But even when we concede his intellectual brilliance, what can it be, we must ask and wonder, that draws us back … to that dry voice insinuating repulsive doctrines?

I can only give my own answer. The Governor, I think, is not Eliot, and part of our fascination with him consists in observing his struggles to maintain that pose, that created personality. The Governor is responsible for those writings of Eliot which one wants most to go back to; but even in some of his finer work, the guard is occasionally dropped, and one sees a man who might have been 'better'—more lovable, normally warm, decently lax—but who might have been much worse, a morbid fascistic aesthete, an elderly adolescent, demonstratively miserable in his own perversions….

Without his drastic exercises in self control, his wary intellectualism, Eliot might have wasted himself in aestheticism or fanaticism, in the blind alleys frequented by the unbalanced. As it is, I think the value of his best poetry lies in our sense of weakness mastered by effort; his 'classicism' is not (of course) a matter of inert imitation of past masters, but an attempt to subjugate, in a Roman spirit, the petty and mischievous animal within himself; to defy the age not with a series of postures and raspberries like Pound's, but from a sturdy platform tested by the watchful intellect; to find an 'objective correlative', in his own famous phrase, for his nasty private obsessions; to make sense of himself in terms valid for others as well….

I think that Eliot becomes a great poet with The Hollow Men and remains one through the Ariel poems and Ash Wednesday. In these poems, straddling the period of his conversion to Anglicanism, he makes his most important discoveries, both technically and philosophically; he is intellectually at his most alive. Earlier, he tends towards preciosity and incoherence; later we find pomposity, repetition, dilution and eventually, in the absolute nadir of The Cocktail Party, a banality to compare with that of Wordsworth's later sonnets. Intellectual strenuousness and astringency expressed with a complete command of poetic rhythm and flow—everything sounds so right—are the best things which Eliot has to offer; and fine though parts of Murder in The Cathedral and the Four Quartets will always be, they seem both slack and smug by comparison. Eliot was beginning by then to reduce himself to cliché, and the paradoxes which dance so fiercely in Ash Wednesday lumber about in the Quartets like corybantic bank managers.

The vision of Hollow Men and Ash Wednesday is radical; it goes to the roots. It expounds and defies, at the same time, the sterility of bourgeois culture…. Neither the rhythms of Hollow Men nor the emotions of despair and bafflement which they help to communicate will be forgotten easily; but the identification of the sufferers with stuffed guys, and the grim little parody of nursery rhyme at the end give, classically, a sense of distance and proportion. Eliot writes out of direct experience of despair; but gives form, through his self control, expressed in perfect technical control, to a common despair, which we can recognise for the childish, if powerful emotion which it is. The poem achieves the mastery of emotion which must precede its effective release.

Ash Wednesday is even finer; longer, more elaborate in its musical structure, but as lucid in its texture. All obscurity except that arising from the essential difficulty of difficult ideas is purged. Language is taken to the borders of nonsense, where it is especially memorable, and is made to give sense. This wordplay is both serious and exhilarating; one gets not the pleasure of crossword puzzle solution, as in too much of The Waste Land, but the delights of energetic thought at the frontiers of language….

And I deny that the later works are more 'human' than those of the 'middle-period' (1925–30). In Ash Wednesday Eliot's vision of life gives no quarter to the illusions of the age, yet is also spry, exhilarating. In the Quartets, the sense of challenge has been lost with the terseness. They are too reasonable, too urbane; they are technically and intellectually lax, by comparison. We find the Governor transforming himself into T S Eliot OM, making a hearty truce with the values of the English middle class which he had once, properly, found dismal.

Angus Calder, "T. S. Eliot: the Governor," in Books and Bookmen, January, 1972, pp. 22-6.

The claim of the Notes [appended to The Waste Land], as notes, is that the ultimate reference of poetry is a plane of knowledge, carefully amassed, coherent, commanding consent, verbal yet irrefragable. The Notes makes us less sure, rather than more, of what we have just been reading. You advance into them, panic surges up as you lose your footing: should I not have seen this reference to Dante? caught that allusion to St. Augustine? these lines from Tristan? Where is my Latin? What should I know, have known, ever know?

A closer inspection of the Notes and the quality of our reaction to them leads us, before long, back to ourselves and our poem. The Notes may look like a commentary, they are none the less part and parcel of the poem, sharing its purposes, its effects, its ironies. This plane of knowledge, first of all, to which the poem refers and which supposedly elucidates it: by sending us off after the Holy Grail, Eliot was condemning us to perusal of what is perhaps the most confused, prolix, acrimonious and inconclusive wrangle of modern scholarship. Here if anywhere will historical research display the weakness of its version of knowledge. Eliot understood as well that knowing what an allusion alludes to does not give us its meaning—its tone, history and function. The question, stated another way, is another question. Expanding the allusion by citing its context may only befog the issue and drag us off into exegesis. The verse Eliot quotes from Verlaine is no less finely obscure in Verlaine's poem than in his own; the reference to Parsifal if anything elucidates that poem rather than The Waste Land. Furthermore, to give with the authority of a scholar one reference to a line is to cancel its other references and reduce it to a pointer.

Such considerations, however, will seem otiose to the reader who has pushed past his respect for scholarship and caught the underlying tone and texture of the Notes. They are an exercise, something like a pensum, and thus arbitrary. No one of them is essential, there could have been a dozen more or a dozen less, in fact there are just fifty-two; they could just as well have turned to the "elucidation" of other sorts of "difficulty". Dean-pan gloss, home-made erudition and self-irony mingle unashamedly in a fashion that recalls no one so much as Rabelais (in his Notes to the Quart Livre, for example) and his magisterial mocking of the pedants….

The only voice missing from the chorus of voices in the poem was the scholar's, and in the Notes Eliot supplied this lack, with a vengeance.

The humour of the Notes helps Eliot make his proof: reading serious poetry demands more than seriousness and something else than erudition. To follow up his references in whatever depth is to learn more about the poem, yet he has so managed it that we are his accomplices at every stage. If panic has yielded to a grin, both reactions come to seem valid. One man's bit of nice meat is another man's poison. The Notes bring out into the open the complexity of our reactions and expectations, our ignorance, our wounded vanity, our confusion before a problem of "meaning". Far from dissipating it, they reinforce the perplexity which the "difficulties" of the poem aroused: no, we did not catch the allusion to Ecclesiastes, or the "references to vegetation ceremonies"; we did not see why there were twenty-two parts to the poem, in five sections, we did not grasp "the plan" of the work, its progress and development; we could not read Wagner's German, or the Sanskrit, take the point of "laquearia", of "the ships at Mylae" and a swarm of other details. Nor, to carry the argument one step further, is our vision any less clouded, our response any less confused, before the Notes, or before the material of the Notes, or before the whole literature of the West to which poem and Notes refer us….

It would be a mistake to think that the waste land was ever considered an enclave of folly and failure in the domains ruled by human achievement. It cannot be limited in place or time or mood, "the poet in exile", "the twenties", "despair". We are all in it, it is in us all…. This was one of Eliot's points. Nor on the other hand must we gather that the waste land names all reality, or that the poem claims to deal with such a notion. The poem—any poem—can only touch on what is sayable, and what can be said or guessed occupies a tiny principality on the border of our lives and of the reality they figure. Its diplomacy is only as valid as its sense of the limits on its power. This too was one of Eliot's points….

Friendship with The Waste Land changes one's life. A new authority has entered the active mind, that one cannot quite identify with "Eliot". Of other poems one can say as much; to many works of art one owes such exaltation, such invigorated lucidity, a renewed concern for works and values of the past, a more vivid sense of the conditions under which one leads a life, a precious encouragement to keep on. Yet there is a telling completeness in this poem's form which offers more, to my mind. Nothing within the scope of the poem is beyond the reach of its statement, not even the poetry of Scripture. The poem takes us to the limits of what we can know and leaves us stationed there. We are brought, that is, to inhabit a horizon. The familiar and the unfamiliar equally, in fact the whole realm of discourse and its awarenesses, have been placed, seem suddenly small. And being so located, our bewilderment, however far we probe into the formal patterns which sustain it, finds new confirmation. The result is to believe that our own disorder is not an anomaly, our perplexity not an aberration; but that they are guaranteed by an unreadable logic. We have seen ourselves only in what we could be shown: "fear in a handful of dust". And this fear could not easily be distinguished, as we read, from the presence shuffling the broken images, caught between the figures of dramatic metaphor, growing, invisible tree, out of the "stony rubbish" of the poetry: an earnest, at least, of something different.

We can be grateful to Mrs. Eliot for having published the manuscript facsimile more modestly and tastefully than many would have done. Her true astuteness, however, has been to offer us a new version of The Waste Land's finished form, flanked by just such waste material as its lucidity transcended, which was not and never will be necessary to it. The bare text of The Waste Land is of course no more self-sufficing than that of any other poem. What it needs, to be brought to efficient life, is what we know of ourselves.

David Mus, "New Readings in The Waste Land," in Poetry (© 1972 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), December, 1972, pp. 156-66.

The mysterious Quinn Manuscript—the original draft of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, with nine satellite poems—was published just fifty years after its completion in the latter part of 1921. It has long been known that Ezra Pound drastically edited this first draft, cutting down to 433 lines what, because of its concentration, he yet termed 'the longest poem in the Englisch langwidge'. The version which first appeared in the first number of The Criterion (October 1922) represented about two thirds of the draft.

What has been recovered and printed is:

  1. A single typescript of Section I, 'The Burial of the Dead'.
  2. A typescript—with one carbon copy added—of the next two sections, both extensively annotated by Pound, and Section II annotated by Vivien Eliot also.
  3. Manuscripts of the last two sections, with typed copies made on Pound's typewriter.
  4. Nine satellite poems, some manuscript, others typed. (p. 7)

One fact is immediately clear; the 'missing links' are not links. Their elimination did not make the poem less, but more coherent; the excision did not cut out logic, copulatives or argument; but subsidiary episodes, weaker versions of the pub scene, the typist's seduction and the death of Phlebas. Their recovery makes the work seem less unified, less integrated. 'I think it was just as structureless, only in a more futile way, in the longer version' was a characteristic boutade of Eliot. (p. 9)

M. C. Bradbrook, in her T. S. Eliot: The Making of "The Waste Land," edited by Ian Scott-Kilvert; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, 1972.