The Waste Land: A Biography of A Poem: A Review

The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis. London: Faber & Faber, 2022, £25, pp. 485.

Many of us have experienced T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a lurking but unknown context for modern literature. Where to begin with it? Even those of us who have read it many times over still scratch our heads at its allusions and half-quotations, even with aids like Eliot’s own notes or B.C. Southam’s popular guide to the Selected Poems.

The arrival of Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, one of a number of publications marking the poem’s centenary in 2022, provides an opportunity for both new readers and devotees to get to grips with Eliot’s work. The poem’s story unfolds through Hollis’s expert interweaving of Eliot’s life along with that of its chief editor, the mercurial Ezra Pound. Pound—credited in the poem’s inscription as il miglior fabbro, “the better craftsman”—famously cut an initial draft to ribbons. So: no Pound, no Waste Land. This is despite the pair’s stark differences: Eliot was awkward and restrained; Pound was brash and rash, sometimes found boxing Hemingway bare-chested in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment. Hollis deftly avoids giving us two truncated biographies of the writers rather than a biography of the poem itself. Throughout, he conjures a sense of inevitability about the poem’s arrival, eerily calling to mind the Emmaus-inspired lines from its final section: “Who is the third who always walks beside you?”

We could break Hollis’s account of the poem’s key influences down into four areas: the social, the singular, the savantic, and the spiritual.

The Social

The Waste Land is inseparable from the First World War. Its opening evokes a lost Europe with its talk of German summers at the Arch Duke’s house, before shifting to post-war London where “death had undone so many.” Hollis makes these well-known connections but exceeds the usual fare, unpacking how much the fate of Europe animated Eliot after the war, vexed as he was by the Treaty of Versailles, taking a conservative turn influenced by the work of the French monarchist Charles Maurras. He spoke of surrendering himself to “the mind of Europe,” receiving a living tradition stretching from the prehistoric cave-drawings at Font-de-Gaume to Hamlet and beyond (118). And yet, despite this conservative bent, The Waste Land was a revolution in form—a seeming collage of voices: high and low, East and West, Shakespeare and ragtime, Greek myth and pub gossip, London trains and Augustine. Hollis pinpoints times, dates, and places which enlivened Eliot to the polyphony of modernity, yet also stresses Eliot’s insistence that the poem was an “emotional unit,” “conceived in terms of one voice” (287).[1] The result is a oneness which persists despite the appearance of the many, explaining how such a traditionalist became a cornerstone of modernism.

Despite this conservative bent, The Waste Land was a revolution in form—a seeming collage of voices: high and low, East and West, Shakespeare and ragtime, Greek myth and pub gossip, London trains and Augustine.

Pound was similarly animated by Europe, attempting “to straighten out his ideas on history, the rise of nations, the developments and atrophies of civilization” in his ever unfolding Cantos (138-139). He failed to gain any purchase with his lambasts however, his failure catalyzing a famed “literary selflessness” as he devoted himself to supporting Eliot in writing his own long poem (175). The two men were united by a common purpose here. Unfortunately, they were both equally inclined to an inexcusable anti-Semitism—Pound, it must be said, to a greater extent than Eliot. Hollis treats this vice justly throughout whenever its mention is necessary, neither excusing nor exaggerating.

The Singular

“The critics say I am an learned & cold…. The truth is I am neither”—so Eliot confided in Virginia Woolf (242). He was right about the critics—he is still generally regarded as a cold fish, thought to eschew intimacy for an elitist web of arch literary references. Why talk about your feelings when you can quote Dante? Eliot was often damned by the faint praise of being “clever” (181). Yet one of the greatest strengths of this book is showing how deeply singular and personal a poem The Waste Land is. This is nowhere more evident than in the second section, “A Game of Chess.” The voice pleading “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me” is taken from countless episodes of his first wife Vivien’s ill-health. Hollis closely reconstructs the composition of these lines alongside Eliot’s diary entries regarding a particular bout of Vivien’s neuritis, before transitioning to the trenches (“rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones”). The transition parallels Vivien’s breakdown with wartime shellshock, somewhat trivializing the former. Before readers cast aspersions on Eliot here, they should note that Vivien gave Eliot notes on the whole poem and praised this section highly.[2] Her notes here simply read “WONDERFUL, wonderful, yes & wonderful.”

The Savantic

Hollis also illuminates The Waste Land as a savantic enterprise, deeply concerned with birthing a modern poetry still in step with the Great Tradition. Pound championed Eliot as the great hope for modern verse, an alternative to the sentimentality of the dominant “Georgian poetry.” Hollis records a remark from Virginia Woolf, who noted Eliot’s interest in “making this new poetry flower on the stem of the oldest”—perhaps the most intuitive remark ever made about Eliot’s own perception of his art (12).

The explicitly Christian nature of Eliot’s later great works can often result in the religious aspects of earlier poems being (usually wilfully) overlooked.

In the second half of the book, Hollis follows in fine detail how Pound and Eliot (along with Vivien) brought this flowering about. There is a tense moment-by-moment account of the editing of “A Game of Chess”: Pound calls the opening lines “too tum-pum at a stretch,” prompting Eliot to drop two syllables from the second line, introducing a jarring line of tetrameter among neighboring pentameters; Vivien’s English ear was essential in scripting the pub conversation between the two ladies at the section’s end, suggesting the snippets of slang, “demobbed” instead of Eliot’s clunky “discharged out of the army” (269). Eliot took their suggestions on board yet had confidence enough to push back and retain plenty, foregoing Vivien’s suggestion to show slang pronunciation through spelling (keeping “something” rather than “somethink”). To read Hollis’ account of such moments of composition is to see in real time that flowering of modern poetry on the stem of the oldest.

The Spiritual

Finally, Christian readers will be relieved to know that Hollis does justice to The Waste Land as a spiritual poem. Eliot’s conversion to orthodox Christianity, with his entry into Anglicanism, didn’t come about until 1927. The explicitly Christian nature of his later great works can often result in the religious aspects of earlier poems being (usually wilfully) overlooked. Yet Eliot was raised in a prestigious Unitarian family. Although Hollis omits some key spiritual influences in the young Eliot’s life—F.H. Bradley’s idealist philosophy, New England Puritanism, a religious experience in 1910—his spiritual framing of The Waste Land nonetheless ensures that it sits in continuity with his later life.[3]

Eliot had drifted from his cradle religion by the time of The Waste Land, finding in it only “petty vagaries,” but this discontent was key for his writing. A 1919 visit to Périgueux Cathedral whilst visiting Pound in France introduced Eliot to the Cathars—medieval anti-trinitarian and dualist heretics, burned at the stake for their beliefs. This discovery had a profound impact upon him. “What had Eliot to offer compared to such commitment?… The Unitarianism of his childhood seemed to him a poor man’s fuddle: a culture of humanitarianism, of ethical mind games rather than a passionate adherence to Incarnation, Heaven and Hell… And in the absence of a religious conviction, his writing simply could not bear the weight” (116). Although Eliot’s exploring eventually ended in a more orthodox Christianity, one of his greatest steps in its direction—like Augustine encountering the Platonists—was his encounter with the other-worldly commitment of the Cathars. The same trip took him to the cave drawing Font de Gaume, an equally profound experience. It was there that Eliot blindsided Pound by admitting that he feared a life after death (120). So struck was Pound that he returned to the moment repeatedly in his own writing (see Canto XXIX, where the Eliot character states “Now, at last, I have shocked him”). Pound, however, held a fairly textbook attitude toward religion as a modern Bohemian: “All religions are evil” (135).

In Hollis’s telling, Pound’s Cantos present economic justice as the great hope for modernity; The Waste Land instead hopes for spiritual direction. How could two men so at odds on such a fundamental topic as religion unite to create one of the great works of modern poetry? Despite their difference on the ultimate cure for the wound of modernity, the two were united in their assessment of the injury and that a new poetry needed to be part of the treatment. In a glorious summary section, Hollis describes how the two men

found a way for the poem to exist within them both at the same moment, possessed by neither but possessing of both. In that instant the poem was neither ‘Eliot’s composition nor Pound’s’ editorial, but a common project, equally imagined, inhabiting each man simultaneously and fully. The poem had become an event occurring in both men in unison, in creator and critic, in poet and reader, in two halves of a combining mind. Pound did not of course share the same life experienced as Eliot… but he understood how to experience the force of [Eliot’s] feelings in the poem in which they were converging, and, crucially, he understood how to transmute them into an experience that others might comprehend (367).

Hollis’s book is a thoroughly worthy way to mark the centenary of The Waste Land, for readers both new and old. The book’s greatest merit, though, is its restraint in drawing parallels between the context of The Waste Land and today. Such links would be easy, but Hollis, like a poet, shows rather than tells. The Waste Land’s enduring relevance speaks for itself. No attentive reader could fail to appreciate the increasingly obvious fact that what we’ve long called “postmodernity” is really just the long expiring half-life of the same modernity which Eliot diagnosed so astutely a century ago.

Rhys Laverty is Senior Editor of Ad Fontes and Managing Editor at the Davenant Press, as well as a student in Davenant Hall’s M.Litt program. His writing has appeared in Ad Fontes, Mere Orthodoxy, and the Theopolis Institute. He lives in Chessington, UK, with his wife and two children.

[1] My honest advice, though, if you have struggled with The Waste Land, would be to listen to a recording performed by two voices, ideally male and female. It wasn’t until I heard Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins reading the poem together that it truly began to make sense to me.

[2] Vivien’s annotations on the drafts, along with Pound’s and Eliot’s, can all be seen in another excellent book published for the poem’s centenary, a new color edition of The Waste Land: A Facsimile & Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, ed. Valerie Eliot (London: Faber & Faber, 2022).

[3] A superb treatment of Eliot’s religious and philosophical development can be found in Lyndall Gordon’s The Imperfect Life of T.S. Eliot (London: Virago, 2012).


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