Beauty Born of Ashes

The story of a lyrical masterpiece that almost wasn’t

T. S. Eliot in 1923 (Wikimedia Commons)
T. S. Eliot in 1923 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis; W. W. Norton, 544 pp., $40

 “The Waste Land,” not “The Wasteland” or “Waste Land,” and “not Waste Lands,” T. S. Eliot would correct people regarding the title of his epoch-defining poem. Originally he’d had in mind another title altogether, “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” a phrase pinched from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. But that belonged to an earlier vision of the poem, a sort of literary vaudeville review in acts and interludes of differing registers, voices, and intensities. What Eliot ended up with—thanks especially to the committed intervention of his friend Ezra Pound—was more a symphony of ruin in five movements, an “emotional unit.” How this poem came to be, its life and times, is explored on the occasion of its centennial, with aplomb and intelligence, by poet and editor Matthew Hollis in The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem.

Hollis re-creates the bleak atmosphere of the first decades of the 20th century, when young men of Eliot’s generation, especially in Europe, were slaughtered on an industrial scale in the Great War, and the subsequent Armistice celebrations proved to be superspreader events for the lethal Spanish influenza. We are reminded that Eliot’s first book, the 1917 Prufrock and Other Observations, was dedicated to his friend “Jean Verdenal, 1889–1915, mort aux Dardanelles,” and that the “rats’ alley” of “A Game of Chess” is not some random squalor but an infamous trench. Europe, supposedly the bastion of Western civilization, had seemed to self-destruct. Then, in 1919, America amended its constitution to outlaw the sale of alcohol, leaving rumrunners to supply the Jazz Age with booze, hopefully “the real McCoy.”

The book is also the story of the friendship that ushered the poem into being, between Eliot, grandson of a Unitarian preacher from St. Louis, and Pound, son of a land claims registrar in the Idaho Territory. Two expat American poets who had settled in literary London, Eliot was “Possum” to Pound’s “Rabbit,” affectionate nicknames taken from the Br’er Rabbit stories.

Eliot—thin, dry, morose, moralizing, quick to take offense—was frequently off-putting even to good friends or sympathetic publishers. Virginia Woolf, one of his early publishers, writes on a first meeting: “Mr Eliot is … a polished, cultivated, elaborate young American … very intellectual, intolerant, with strong views of his own.” She later reports that there was a rumor in Bloomsbury that Eliot put violet powder on his face in an effort to look more “cadaverous. ” It is a relief to come across Eliot, then, “bearded and sunburnt” while visiting the Pounds in France, or to find him practicing scales at Margate on his mandolin.

In Hollis’s sometimes cinematic book, though, Pound steals every “scene” he is in. His boundless energy and generosity toward fellow writers are matched only by his ludic idiosyncrasies, starting with his phonetic spelling and neologisms. “ABSoloootly,” he writes of retaining Phlebas in the final draft of “The Waste Land”; of James Joyce’s “Circe” chapter (Ulysses would also come out in 1922), he writes, “enormous—megaloscrumptious—mastadonic.” On the Left Bank, he would hold court at a restaurant next to a dancehall. “Whoever has not seen Ezra Pound,” journalist Sisley Huddleston wrote, “kicking up fantastic heels in a highly personal Charleston, closing his eyes as his toes nimbly scattered right and left, has missed one of the spectacles which reconcile us to life.” Pound was fond of tennis and boxing and, though tone deaf, took up the bassoon. (“He will be a soloist always,” his wife, Dorothy, remarked dryly.) When Wyndham Lewis visited Pound’s studio, he found Pound engaged in a boxing match with “a splendidly built young man, stripped to the waist, and with a torso of dazzling white”—this would be Hemingway. At one point, Pound, seeking “a little repose” while holidaying in Siena, attempted to fake his own death by sending a letter, purportedly from his widow, to Margaret Anderson at the Little Review and went so far as to include a photograph of his death mask. Anderson wasn’t fooled.

It’s all the more tragic, then, that Pound wound up in disgrace. Pound, once modernism’s kingmaker, saw his star decline even as Eliot’s rose. Pound spiraled into paranoid, profascist anti-Semitism, was arrested for treason, and spent years locked up in a mental hospital. Hollis forcefully calls out anti-Semitism when it occurs, as it not infrequently does, in the writings of Eliot and Pound, and to a lesser extent, their garden-variety casual misogyny (for a time, Hollis points out, all of their publishers were women). The “worst mistake I made,” Pound would later lament, “was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism.”

Surprisingly suspenseful, Hollis’s book shows how, at many turns, Eliot’s poem could have ended up something else, full of scattered brilliances but not the sustained masterpiece we have today. Eliot’s wife, Vivien, was responsible for some crucial line edits. (The line about abortion, for instance: “It’s that medicine I took, in order to bring it off” became, in Vivien’s vernacular, “It’s that [them] pills I took, to bring it off.”) But Pound is the one who took a blue pencil to swaths of lines, curbing Eliot’s impulse toward diffusion, rhymed couplets, and interludes. Even so, his work was nearly undone when one publisher wanted more pages to make a book of the poem. In the end, the neat solution was to pad it with Eliot’s notes, which have been fused with the poem ever since.

Hollis bookends the poem’s story with chapters set in 1960, toward the end of Eliot’s life, when Pound was a broken man. Their former roles now reversed, with Eliot playing encourager and consoler. Eliot dedicated his great poem of 1922 to Pound, “il miglior fabbro”—that is, to the better maker or craftsman, a compliment of Dante’s in the Purgatorio to the troubadour Arnaut Daniel. It was an acknowledgment of Pound’s part in the poem, of which Eliot was author but Pound something more than midwife.

Hollis concludes with snippets of contemporary reviews of “The Waste Land,” which range from awe to ridicule to bafflement: “The thing is a mad medley … so much waste paper” (Manchester Guardian); “a pompous parade of erudition” (Freeman); “the finest poem of this generation” (New York Tribune). But the most important assessment comes from Pound himself, who offers Eliot the simplest but highest praise: “a damn good poem.”

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A. E. Stallings is an American poet and former MacArthur fellow who lives in Athens, Greece. Her latest collection, This Afterlife: Selected Poems, was just published.


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