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

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
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.

Presented by

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

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In