A Breath of Dust

"I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying," T. S. Eliot said of The Waste Land. A new guide to the poem inadvertently suggests we should take him at his word
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Lawrence Rainey's introduction to this book opens with an anecdote about a starstruck and tongue-tied Donald Hall, the American poet (and, like Eliot, a former editor of the Harvard Advocate), who journeyed to meet his hero in London in 1951. Having babbled his way through the interview, Hall rose to take his leave.

Then Eliot appeared to search for the right phrase with which to send me off. He looked me in the eyes, and set off into a slow, meandering sentence. "Let me see," said T. S. Eliot, "forty years ago I went from Harvard to Oxford. Now you are going from Harvard to Oxford. What advice can I give you?" He paused delicately, shrewdly, while I waited with greed for the words which I would repeat for the rest of my life, the advice from elder to younger, setting me off on the road of emulation. When he had ticked off the comedian's exact milliseconds of pause, he said, "Have you any long underwear?"

I sat for a second or two after reading that before I remembered its analogue, in a novel that had been published seven years prior to this encounter. In Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder's father gives him sage counsel about going to Oxford.

Do you know in the summer before I was going up, your cousin Alfred rode over to Boughton especially to give me a piece of advice? And do you know what that advice was? "Ned," he said, "there's one thing I must beg of you. Always wear a tall hat on Sundays during term."

A few pages later on Charles meets Anthony Blanche at a lunchtime feast in Oxford, after which the louche, stammering, epicene figure "stood on the balcony with a megaphone which had appeared surprisingly among the bric-a-brac of Sebastian's room, and in languishing, sobbing tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to the river."

"'I, Tiresias have foresuffered
   all,'" he sobbed to them
   from the Venetian arches—
"Enacted on this same d-divan
   or b-bed,
I who have sat by Thebes
   below the wall
And walked among the l-l-
   lowest of the dead ..."

Like many of the post-Great War generation, Waugh had taken The Waste Land as the specially resonant poem of an epoch, and indeed paid it a further compliment by alluding to one of its more famous lines ("I will show you fear in a handful of dust") in the title of one of his late novels, A Handful of Dust.

George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, which was published just before Hall met Eliot at the London offices of Faber and Faber, has the glacial O'Brien tell Winston Smith, "There is no possibility that any perceptible change will happen within our own lifetime. We are the dead. Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone." When O'Brien springs the trap on Smith and leads him to Room 101, it might be said that "we are in rats' alley / Where the dead men lost their bones." (My student Michael Weiss, who pointed this out to me, speculates that it might be a partial or subliminal revenge on Orwell's part for Eliot's refusal to let Faber and Faber publish Animal Farm.)

But these are among, and only among, the influences of The Waste Land. What of the influences upon it? Several of them are fairly easy to determine: Geoffrey Chaucer, Andrew Marvell, Charles Baudelaire, the Bhagavad Gita, Ulysses, and James Thomson's "The City of Dreadful Night." They are easy to determine partly because they are obvious; partly because Eliot did not attempt to disguise the provenance of his poem, or at least not ostensibly; and partly because he proudly accompanied the final book with a convenient set of references and an acknowledgment of debts. This tactic, which Peter Ackroyd in his biography says was adopted "in order to avoid the charges of plagiarism which had been leveled at his earlier poetry," shows Eliot to have been, like Bellow's Augie March, a "Columbus of the near-at-hand." A hasty visit to Margate is pressed into service as readily as a recent text from James Joyce, or a class on the Buddha that the poet had attended not long before, and few of the London landmarks are very far from the bank in "The City" at which Eliot toiled from nine to five.

Rainey's edition is best read in conjunction with Valerie Eliot's 1971 facsimile of the successive drafts of the poem. Here we can see, as they occurred, the alterations wrought by the editorial hand of Ezra Pound. As dedicatee of The Waste Land, Pound is usually credited with trimming and improving the text, and certainly deserves recognition for promoting and marketing it. Most of the changes, however, turn out to have been for the worse. (In any case, as a reader of the Cantos will readily see, if Pound was truly any good at pruning and refining, he must have been literature's most salient example of the physician who could not heal himself.) It might now seem a bit stale for Eliot to have put the last words of Kurtz on his epigraph page, because to us "the horror, the horror" has become a cliché. It wasn't so in 1922, and the death wish of the Cumaean Sybil, substituted by Pound, rather robs the poem of its main retrospective claim, which is to modernity. A spirited opening stave, very much in debt to Joyce and depicting a night of pointless debauchery, was cast aside. Worst of all, Pound shielded readers from Eliot's lengthy and intense prologue to the moment "When lovely woman stoops to folly," in Part III of "The Fire Sermon." I would have wanted to keep the Popean parody:

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 reek of disgust there—which is horridly protracted over several more excised lines—is essential to an understanding of Eliot, and has a very direct connection to the distraught marital relations that, among many other pressures, kept his nerves on a knife edge while he was composing the poem.

Rainey writes that The Waste Land is "preceded by its reputation," which is hardly worth saying, since that is what "reputation" means. He adds that it is "endowed with authority so monumental that a reader is tempted to overlook the poem itself." Perhaps. But since we must indeed look back at the work through the refraction of what we already "know" about Eliot, it might be worth asking why such a pious Christian felt so impelled to exhaust himself in the invocation of darkness and despair. Eliot had not quite become a committed Anglo-Catholic in 1922, but he had formed an attachment to the royalist, Catholic, traditionalist ideas of Charles Maurras and his Action Française, which later mutated (as did Eliot) toward fascism. Most of Eliot's later work is much more "contained," as it were, and less "wild" (a term frequently used by reviewers of The Waste Land). He himself became more formal, more Anglicized, more calm and devotional. Yet there was plainly a death wish at work, and none of the subsequent attachments to order and to the organic society could quite conceal it.

Exegesis can go only so far. It is extremely useful to know that while Eliot was trying to make up his mind about the twentieth century, he depended so much on Bertrand Russell for friendship and material help. We know that he had studied Eastern religion, but might it not have been from the famously agnostic Russell that he drew encouragement to cite those "faiths" that preceded monotheism? No answer in these pages. It was for me, however, astonishingly interesting to discover that there was actually a popular song, written for the Ziegfeld Follies in 1912, called "That Shakespearian Rag." Its authors, Gene Buck and Herman Ruby, cannot have imagined the moan of immortalization that Eliot was to give their ephemeral ditty. (Not content with annexing and slightly mangling Buck and Ruby's title, Eliot even inverted their comment "Most in-tel-li-gent, ve-ry el-e-gant" and could be accused of echoing their view that "that old clas-si-cal drag / Has the proper stuff.")

The allegation of plagiarism is often tiresome, since it is very difficult to establish originality or authenticity, and since poetry almost invariably involves synthesis (which Ackroyd rightly describes as Eliot's particular gift). Still, it is surprising to find no mention at all, in this extensively sourced volume, of Madison Cawein's poem Waste Land. Cawein was as distant from Eliot, in poetic terms, as it was possible to be. He was a Kentucky blues man and a barroom versifier. However, like Eliot, he was fascinated by the Celtic twilight and the search for the Grail. And his verses, with their haunting title, did appear in the January 1913 edition of Poetry magazine. Since that very issue also contained an essay by Ezra Pound on the new poets writing in London, it seems more rather than less likely that Eliot would have read it.

I looked at the man; I saw him plain;
Like a dead weed, grey and wan,
Or a breath of dust. I looked again—
And man and dog were gone,
Like wisps of the graying dawn.

After fanatically going to buy some long underwear immediately after his meeting with Eliot, Donald Hall shook himself, as all servile acolytes eventually must, and decided that the great man must have been joking. But how certain can we be that Hall was correct in this assumption? Several of Eliot's English friends caught him overdoing things: wearing a bowler hat at odd moments, and saluting uniformed guardsmen in the street—trying too hard, in other words. (Auden did a much better job of becoming an American, or at least a New Yorker, than Tom from St. Louis did of becoming a stage Englishman.) At other times Eliot was apparently far too dismissive and laconic.

Various critics have done me the honor to interpret the poem in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism. To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.

He was to tell the Paris Review that in the composition of the closing sections "I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying." There seems no reason at all why we should not take him at his word. Defensive modesty of this variety can often be worth noting; what critic has ever succeeded in getting any sense or any beauty out of the final pages? And in what conceivable universe—even the batty, sinister one of Ezra Pound, who insisted that the poem open in that manner—is April the cruelest month?

It is not disputable that by publishing The Waste Land when he did, Eliot caught something of the zeitgeist and enthralled those who needed borrowed words and concepts to capture or re-express the desolation of Europe after 1918. But this latest attempt at context and explication has the effect, prefigured in earlier scrutinies, of helping to further demystify what is certainly the most overrated poem in the Anglo-American canon.

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair.
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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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