Revisiting the Waste Land
by Lawrence Rainey
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|Restringing the Waste Land
by Hugh Graham
John Peale Bishop, editor of Vanity Fair and one of the first to read Eliot's poem The Waste Land, was unable to say anything except that it was "immense, magnificent, terrible." Bishop lost his innocence not long after that, and went down a rabbit hole of interpretation. The critics soon followed him there.
Eliot would have said that Bishop had got it right the first time. Eliot himself wrote that the emotional force of a poem "can communicate before the whole text is understood." In an essay on poetry and criticism, he remarked, "I myself should like an audience which could neither read nor write." The meaning, he wrote, was secondary: "The chief use of the 'meaning' of a poem, in the ordinary sense may be . . . to satisfy one habit of the reader to keep his mind diverted and quiet while the poem does its work upon him." Referring directly to the poem itself, he later recalled, "I wasn't even bothered if I understood what I was saying."
Lawrence Rainey, Professor of Modern English at the University of York, England, wouldn't be in the least surprised. His recent Revisiting The Waste Land takes an unequivocal stand in the endless debate on whether the poem's meaning can be found in any coherent structure or narrative: he says it cannot.
But before we take Rainey at his word, we must remember the scant three things that can still be said of The Waste Land's conscious message: that sex and love as ends in themselves are deadly; that life lived without sacrifice to something greater is a desert; and though we have this thirst, we still cannot find an object for it, since we are waiting for a God who may or may not arrive.
And that's it. As Pound would argue, everything else in the poem is music. To prove the point, Rainey has put Eliot's process under the microscope. Eliot started to write the poem in bits and pieces in May of 1921, in London, in the flat he shared with his wife Vivien. The classical city to which he thought he had moved from Boston had turned out to be an alien, modern metropolis. His marriage was under stress since he was repressed while his wife was passionate and neurotic, and his dreary work at Lloyd's bank was eating up his creative energy. Life had become meaningless. In July his brother and parents visited and stayed until late August. He kept writing. By the fall, an aftertaste of his mother's disapproval coupled with the stresses of job and marriage drove him to a breakdown. He wrote more in November, then spent December in Lausanne, Switzerland, taking a rest cure, and continued writing. He finished the poem in Paris on his way back to London in early January.
Rainey explodes previous theories that the entire poem was written after Eliot's breakdown in the order III, I, II, IV, V. He concludes the following: that parts I, II and part of III were written before the breakdown, and more of III subsequently in Lausanne, where IV and V were done in one shot; that bits of some of the parts were taken from previous poems; and that in the end, Pound threw out much of I and III in Paris, and Eliot reworked them. Finally, I, II and III were all stitched together and IV and V were left intact after Pound had cut altogether a third of the entire poem. Pound had only one criterion: to save what was lyrical; hence the poem's 'music' and lack of narrative meaning.
In uncovering the final order of composition, Rainey drags us through labyrinthine literary forensics involving the make, character-size and ribbon style of the three typewriters used by Eliot, the dating of drafts according to paper thickness, manufacturer and water mark; ten 'strata' of work on different sections, segments and earlier poems amounting to fifty 'drafts', and endless correspondence. For moments, when drowsy, one could be forgiven for thinking Rainey is on the site of a catastrophe looking for DNA.
There is evidence from Eliot himself that the poem's discontinuous nature was deliberate; Eliot called it "structureless". It is observably, as Rainey himself says, "oneiric" or dreamlike. Its cadences come from repetitions and refrains that are musical rather than narrative. The shifting identity of the protagonist is an effect, not a puzzle or an error. In a peculiar sense it is a 'jazz' poem, cobbled in an age which was beginning to explore abstraction and discontinuity.
Nor is further evidence needed to debunk the false meanings derived from Eliot's infamous 'Notes'. He added footnotes to the four-hundred-odd lines to satisfy a publisher's desire to give it heft as a book. Written half seriously, they set the critics on a wild goose chase. The Legend of the Holy Grail, it would later turn out, provided not the sensational disclosure of a plot but only inspiration; the tarot cards were taken as a code-breaking machine when their use was at best allusive and atmospheric. Outside the footnotes, some biographical nuggets, though correctly identified, added nothing. Cleanth Brooks, according to Rainey the biggest "Waste Land inventor" of them all, claimed to know more about the poem's supposed protagonist than could be gleaned from the work itself. Even after the Grail was finally dismissed, critics looked doggedly for a "hidden structure", much like the teenyboppers who played the Beatles' Abbey Road backwards for mystical clues.
But along the way some good observations were made: Gilbert Seldes discovered (and Rainey elaborates on this) the British traditions of Music Hall, satire and invective that were as important as anything in the poem's formation. The sequence portraying the indifferent copulation of a typist and a clerk is supported in 1920s popular fiction by the stock character of the typist, signifying the low-paid office girl fallen into bleak moral doldrums.
But here too, Rainey overdoes it, providing a lengthy and self-indulgent treatise on "office girl" fiction of the 1920s. Sometimes his lapses into obtuse academic prose provoke laughter. Intoxicated by what sounds like Literary Theory, he writes, in a huge exposition on the symbolism of the typist's hand, that a manual gesture "rests upon the ineffability of what is to be expressed . . . the consummate figure for what cannot be figured, a sign of what resists, exceeds or dwarfs signification."
While Rainey suggests that narrative meaning may be lacking but documentary meaning and background can be found, his failure to distinguish what themes there are, such as those pertaining to sacrifice, is a serious lapse. In the end we have a book heavy on documentation and light on criticism, so that some of it feels the way Eliot eventually saw his "Notes": as frivolous, unessential padding. Nevertheless, Rainey must be commended for laying down limits to interpretation and for discouraging any further bullying of Eliot's masterpiece into a narrative.
The runic quality that came from Eliot's creation of atmosphere with juxtaposition and the sparest use of words made it perfect material for the literary hustler, Ezra Pound. Rainey's contention here that the poem was invented as the flagship of a calculated modernist plot is supported by useful research. Pound generated excitement about the poem before it was even finished, calculating rightly that its formless grandeur would fascinate thousands. He created anticipation at the elite US publishing house of Horace Liveright, and at Vanity Fair and the US literary magazine The Dial. Meanwhile, Eliot concentrated on getting the most select small publisher he could, approaching the Woolfs' Hogarth Press and founding his own magazine The Criterion (places safe from the vulgarizing popularity he feared). With Eliot working the narrow front and Pound the broad, they eased The Waste Land onto a tantalized market with more skill than a Hollywood studio. In the end, Liveright, The Dial, Hogarth and The Criterion all got to take part. The Waste Land's reputation was made almost before anyone knew what it was.
"Modernism" turns out to have been not so much a descriptive as a prescriptive term for a craftily manufactured movement, one of the first to capture the ivory tower and the curious public all at once. And the poem became, like Modernism, both elitist and popular, recondite and marketable. For the elitists it did so without apparent narrative structure; and for the rest of us by being "immense, magnificent, terrible."