By Lawrence Rainey, editor and annotaterYale
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.
Alwayswear 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
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
Her tresses fanned by little flutt'ring
Odours, confected by the cunning
Disguise the good old hearty female
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.