Thumbscrew and wailing wall: T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 80%
  • Interesting points: 89%
  • Agree with arguments: 80%
21 ratings - view all
Thumbscrew and wailing wall: T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’

TS Eliot with his wife Vivien Haigh-Wood

T.S. Eliot was the most erudite, technically skilled, experimental, obscure and difficult American poet, and The Waste Land (1922) the most influential poem of the 20th century. While working on his masterpiece, he was married to Vivien Haigh-Wood: an attractive, intelligent, imaginative companion and shrewd literary critic.  But for most of their marriage she was physically ill, and became an irrational, maddening and destructive drug addict, emotionally exhausting and increasingly crazy.

Vivien could also sail a boat in rough seas, once concealed her illness so that Eliot could continue his holiday in France with Ezra Pound and found a country weekend with friends conducive to reviving sexual interest her husband.  Eliot wanted to have children, but not with her.  Despite the flutter with Eliot, Vivien—a specialist in neurotic carnality—preferred sex with his teacher, landlord, benefactor and brother of an earl, the supposedly high-minded moral philosopher, Bertrand Russell.  He tried to justify his slimy behaviour with the mentally fragile Vivien by claiming  he “endeavoured to help them in their troubles.”  Eliot never confronted Russell, but asserted: “He has done Evil,” and wrote in “Gerontion”: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”  The promiscuous Vivien also announced she was ready at any moment to accept the sexual invitation of Eliot’s wealthy American friend and editor, Scofield Thayer.

Russell in 1957

Eliot described Vivien’s mental state as suffering “such incessant and extreme pain that you felt your sanity going, and that you no longer knew reality from delusion.”  His  friends hated the emotional devastation she caused.  Pound, always worried about Eliot’s financial and emotional welfare, exclaimed, “His wife hasn’t a cent and is always cracking up, & needing doctors, & incapable of earning anything. . . . If someone wd. murder or elope with his wife it wd. have the same effect of finding a few hundred £s.”  Yet Eliot remained trapped with his personal thumbscrew and portable wailing wall for seventeen years.  Her Vivisexion hurt him into art, and he declared, “The agony forced some genuine poetry out of me, certainly, which would never have been written if I had been happy: in that respect . . . I have had the life I needed.”

The third player in the creation of The Waste Land was the fiery and irascible, generous and benevolent, aptly named Ezra Pound.  In Ezra 9:3 the ferocious Old Testament prophet rages against the Jews’ intercourse with foreign tribes: “And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonished.”  In Robert Browning’s “Rabbi ben Ezra”, the sage exclaims, “I see the whole design.”  Though Pound urged modern poets to “make it new,” a famous passage in Canto LXXXI paradoxically broke his own rules and was deliberately archaic: “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage . . . . What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee.”

Ezra Pound photographed in 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn

Pound published “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” in 1920, and in The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem (Norton), Matthew Hollis perceptively reveals the confluence of the two minds and universal themes of the two poems. Pound and Eliot both  “aimed a withering assault upon establishment Britain, its hypocritical war, the slaughter of its young men in a futile cause, the failure of art to adequately respond to the trauma of the time, the unwillingness of a society to listen, the widening chasm between art and everyday life, the farewell to failure, to a bygone life.”

Pound was Eliot’s “editor, publisher, adviser, interlocutor, stimulator, supporter, conspirator, cohort and friend.”  Though James Joyce, who published Ulysses in 1922, had the fanatical conviction that everyone he knew should be in the service of his own art, he was impressed by Pound’s devoted service to Eliot and called him “a miracle of ebulliency, gusto and help.”  Hollis notes that Pound “encouraged Eliot never to be the battering ram (that was Pound’s job), nor the explosives expert (that was Wyndham Lewis’),” but to sap the foundations of the literary establishment by a more subtle and subversive assault.

Hollis explains how Pound’s seductive bullying made him what Dante called the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel, il miglior fabbro (the greater creator), which became Eliot’s formal tribute to Pound.  No one else, Hollis observes, “could have inhabited Eliot’s imaginative space as well as Pound did then, to accept the precepts of his approach, to know the possibilities of his talent, and to judge exactly how far to stretch him to his limits without snapping confidence or belief.”

It’s astonishing to recall that Pound actually cut 90% of Eliot’s first text and left only four original stanzas.  I regret the loss of twelve lines of Swiftian satire on the delightful Belinda in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock:

The white-armed Fresca blinks, and yawns, and gapes,

Aroused from dreams of love and pleasant rapes. . . .

Odours, confected by the cunning French,

Disguise the good old hearty female stench.

Eliot grew more wounded as Pound became more waspish.  But he slavishly submitted to Pound’s slashing but penetrating criticism, and offered no argument or defence, even as a point of honour, of his own work.  He picked up the pieces and wrote, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

While Eliot was writing the poem, friends noticed that the respectable banker, usually buttoned up in a “four-piece suit,” was wearing green face powder and wondered what he was playing at.  Virginia Woolf thought he was trying to look more cadaverous.  Hollis doesn’t mention that the poet wished to intensify his strained look, and extract sympathy for his marital  misery and financial bondage.  But Eliot’s fantastical pretence was aesthetic as well as personal, a daring attempt to place himself within an aesthetic tradition.  In his influential essay “In Praise of Make-Up” (1863), Charles Baudelaire extolled the majesty of artificial forms, and the need to appear magical and supernatural.  Eliot’s mime-like apparition showed the Bloomsbury bohemians that he was also a bold and rebellious artist.

Eliot’s cosmetic mask was the prelude to his mental breakdown—competing with and complementing Vivien’s—in 1921.  He confessed, “I have had considerable mental agony at one time or another, and once or twice have felt on the verge of insanity or imbecility,” and could say with King Lear, “I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”  So he desperately turned to Dr. Roger Vittoz of Lausanne, Switzerland, said to be the best mental specialist in Europe, who had helped Eliot’s friends Ottoline Morrell and Julian Huxley recover from severe depression.

Eliot described his illness as aboulie (lack of will), “an emotional derangement which has been a lifelong affliction.  Nothing wrong with my mind.”  Vittoz’s 30-minute sessions were crankish and bizarre.  He believed that he was able through “brain control” to detect “pulses or waves emitted from the brain by placing his hands on the patient’s cranium. . . . Reception of stimuli, concentration upon them, conscious action upon them: these were the tenets of Roger Vittoz.”  The treatment was absurd, but Eliot believed in it. And it worked!  He was now ready to complete The Waste Land.

Matthew Hollis’ brilliant, elegantly written analysis of apparently familiar material is a superb addition to a new literary genre that includes Michael Gorra’s perceptive Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (2012) and Ian Sansom’s egoistic and superficial September 1, 1939: A Biography of a Poem (2019).  (I’d welcome similar books on the genesis of Conrad’s Nostromo, Lawrence’s Women in Love and Mann’s The Magic Mountain.)  Hollis follows the creation of the poem, month by month, from November 1918 to January 1922, with an epilogue in 1960.  He reveals, with incisive quotations, the close connection between Eliot’s critical and creative work, and Eliot’s attempts to justify his methods and ideas.  Hollis’ lawyer-like evaluation of evidence  places the poem in the personal, social and historical context, and describes the negative critical reception by bewildered critics.

Devastated by Vivien and stimulated by Pound, Eliot devised astonishing new poetic techniques.  He wrote with original rhythm and inventive form, technical precision and objective observation.  He made new poetry flow from the seeds of the old, fusing allusions to and quotations from great works of literature (identified in the heavyweight notes to the poem) with his own imaginative intensity.  He’d foreshadowed the mixture of the beautiful and the ugly in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” (1918) when the animalistic Sweeney, sitting in a bordello, is spattered with bird shit, which Eliot distills as “liquid siftings.”  He was both difficult and obscure, and baffled contemporary readers were warned they would need a dictionary, an encyclopedia and a martyr’s spirit to confront the formidable poem.

As Eliot swerves between misanthropy and bigotry, Hollis confronts his anti-Semitism, a prejudice he inherited from his high-toned mother.  In 1920 he stoked the fire and wrote her, “I have an instinctive antipathy to Jews as I have to certain animals.”  Anti-Semitism also strengthened his bond with Pound, whose mad ravings were condemned by his poet-friend Basil Bunting, who told him: “Either you know men to be men, and not something else, or you make yourself an enemy of mankind.”  Pound later apologised for his “stupid, suburban prejudice”; Eliot never did.  In After Strange Gods, his lectures at the University of Virginia in 1933, the year Hitler took power, he declared, “reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”  He later quietly suppressed the disgraceful book.

Eliot’s circumspect and respectable hatred was more insidious than Pound’s fascist broadcasts, and his hostile pronouncements also incited the mob to murder innocent victims.  But his deep-rooted prejudice did not prevent him from bringing out his books with Jewish publishers—Boni & Liveright and Knopf—and cultivating the friendship of good (useful) Jews.  Leonard Woolf published The Waste Land at the Hogarth Press; the wealthy and cultivated Sydney and Violet Schiff gave him splendid hospitality and sympathetic understanding.

The Waste Land, like Pound’s “Mauberley,” describes the effect of the Great War on civilian life.  The rats in the poem recall the rats in the trenches that gnawed wet red galleries into unburied corpses.  (Rats also carry disease in Camus’ The Plague; and the ultimate torture in Nineteen Eighty-Four is putting a caged rat on Winston’s head, which threatens to devour his face.) Eliot’s poem states, “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.”  But in his notorious “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar” (1920) Eliot shifts the antipathetic rats from the trenches to the (lower case) Jews: “The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs.”

He expressed the personal theme of The Waste Land by referring to his attempt to recover from his breakdown and his meaningless life on the Kentish coast: “On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.”  Eliot insisted in his papal bull “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) that “Poetry is not a turning lose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”  Nevertheless, in one of the great sleight-of-hand manoeuvres in twentieth-century poetry, Eliot portrayed his own private misery as the universal condition of modern man.

Margate Sands

Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has had thirty-three of his fifty-four books translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets and published on six continents.  He’s recently published Alex Colville: The Mystery of the Real (2016) and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy (2018), and has just completed a book on his friend James Salter.

A Message from TheArticle

We are the only publication that’s committed to covering every angle. We have an important contribution to make, one that’s needed now more than ever, and we need your help to continue publishing throughout these hard economic times. So please, make a donation.

Member ratings
  • Well argued: 80%
  • Interesting points: 89%
  • Agree with arguments: 80%
21 ratings - view all

You may also like