The Path to the Wasteland


How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!

With his features of clerical cut,

And his brow so grim

And his mouth so prim

And his conversation, so nicely

Restricted to What Precisely

And if and Perhaps and But.


T.S. Eliot, Lines for Cuscuscaraway and Mizra Murad Ali Beg

The Waste Land was published when Eliot was thirty-four. Behind it lay a strenuous history of intellectual, emotional and spiritual experiment, but only three years later he was to ask that no biography of him be written. The private derails were not to be made public


Throughout his life, Eliot stressed the ‘impersonal’ element in his writing, the idea that true poetry is an escape from personality rather than an expression of it. It follows that we must learn to see his work not as the outpourings of an overcharged soul, a revelation of the private experiences he was so careful to protect, but as a series of artefacts, well-made verses that communicate matured experience through a range of traditional knowledge. At first sight this may seem passionless. It is not. Under the prim exterior, the beautifully urbane manners, was a fermenting, deeply subjective man fully aware of:


The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract


But precisely because such experiences are for all of us so very personal, their significance perhaps not clear until many years later, Eliot would have said that in themselves they are little capable of being directly analysed or used as the immediate subject of mature poetry. As we shall see, this in its turn had a profound effect on Eliot’s idea of what a poet does, what a poem is and what both reader and writer derive from verse at all.


Thus, though the details of Eliot’s life remain interesting - the details of a poet’s life always do - it would be naive to assume that they explain the poetry. That poetry is, to repeat, a reinvestigation of the traditions of intellectual, emotional and spiritual life activated not by the scholar’s desire to pin the past down but by the poet’s need to find himself and belong to what he has inherited.


Repeated reading of The Waste Land will make this feeling clear. On a first acquaintance, it is a most baffling poem - disconnected arbitrary full of references and quotations not only in English but in a wide range of lndo-European tongues stretching back to Sanskrit. It is even supplemented by a set of notes. But in places it is instantly vivid and moving. The last section of ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ much of ‘A Game at Chess’ and the central episode of ‘The Fire Sermon’ have an immediate impact. And it is just this power to raise feeling that urges as on. We come slowly to feel our way towards an appreciation of at least some of the powerful juxtapositions in the work and wish to understand more. We begin to want to deepen our experience of the poem by exploring its more difficult aspects. We shall find that if we do so by recognising the emotion and drama of the supporting ideas - the sense of longing, fear and final triumph behind the vegetation rites, or the ceremonious dignity of Spenser - then we shall not be hoarding intellectual lumbar but acquiring things permanently valuable which confirm and enrich our first impression of the poem. It is for this reason that a lengthy account of Eliot’s intellectual sources has been included here. These, as we have seen, are more important to the poetry than the details of his life. It is vital that they eventually be known and experienced. And it is oar our imaginative experience that is important - a response which Eliot’s poem can deepen. Dante, Baudelaire, Shakespeare and the rest are not neutral clues in a donnish word-game but an essential part of oar intellectual selves, the coinage of intelligent exchange. They are the foundations of the order and tradition within which Eliot worked, and they are a common inheritance. They are ours. The Waste Land presents many of them as something once infinitely valuable but now increasingly remote. If we bring our own experience of them to Eliot’s work, however, we shall begin to meet him on common ground. In the end, Eliot’s conscious reworking of traditional knowledge should lead as to read the Collected Works not as a diary or a crossword puzzle but as a series of meditations. To adopt a title from his favourite, Donne, they are a record of the ‘progresse of the soule’


Having said this, it is clear that the aspect of Eliot’s life which we mast trace is the intellectual one: what ideas was Eliot nurtured among, what did he reject, modify or discover? This is also a means at approaching Shakespeare, about whose private life we know even less. A knowledge of the people to whom he wrote the Sonnets might be interesting – it would certainly have the thrill of good gossip – but it would add not long to the stature of the poems, whose value lies precisely in their brilliant recasting of age-old themes into a timeless beauty. This is equally true of The Waste Land.


The tradition into which Eliot was born - in 1888 - was that of the high-minded Puritanism of nineteenth Century America: bland, useful and, at its worst, rather smug. His mother wrote religious verse; his grandfather had been a leading force in the Unitarian Church. Poetry and duty surrounded his early years. So did other forms of culture. As a schoolboy, Eliot attended Smith Academy, where he studied Latin, Greek, English, History, French and German. He then went on to Harvard, a society ‘quite uncivilised’, as he was to call it, ‘but refined beyond the point of civilisation’. He took part in its genteel existence ‘measured out with coffee spoons’ and, like his early creation Prufrock, wandered the slums as an antidote. He continued his studies in literature and added Dante to his repertoire, along with ancient art and philosophy. He also became interested in primitive religion and ritual.


We have seen that Eliot had begun to write, and it is clear from these early poems that, under the urbane surface, Eliot’s spiritual instincts were deeply troubled. After a year in Paris he returned to Harvard with the drafts of his first great poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917). Here, in this powerful and remarkably mature poem, the precious, precarious social world explored by Henry James is threatened by intimations of chaos and extreme states. The balding narrator’s cowardice holds him back in his bourgeois existence, but the tension is there, an intimation of the opening lines of ‘A Game of Chess’


The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock belongs to the over-cultured world of Eliot’s Harvard days, though its location could be any English speaking upper class suburb and urban backstreet. This is a poem about vision and moral turpitude, the fine web of social graces that binds itself round the narrator until the invitation to a rawer experience at the opening is lost oil in genteel tittle-tattle. The narrator cannot follow           Emerson’s injunction to ‘affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times.’ Instead, the mild-mannered, balding Prufrock accepts his reluctant impotence. He can forge no link between the salon, the slums and the sea. He is no prophet, no hero. Caught in a polite, delicate world of tea and subordinate clauses, his vision of submarine delights is  purely private, the fantasy of a fading gentleman. What visions he does hare are of a guessed-at, but unlived life. He is the American cousin of the French Symbolists’ sad daddy, particularly that of Jules Laforgue, whom Eliot had briefly sketched before:


… Life, a little bald and grey,
Languid, fastidious and bland,
Waits, hat and glove, in hand,
Punctilious of tie and suit
(Somewhat impatient of delay)
On the doorstep of the absolute.


The French Symbolist poets were of great importance to Eliot’s development. By the time he came to write The Waste Land, he had absorbed a wider range of influences, but in 1908, when he first came across Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Modern Literature, he encountered an argument which suggested a way of putting spiritual vision before mere realism. The world may become –as Baudelaire had sometimes seen it – a ‘forest of symbols’. All the things of the material world can, in this theory, be made into images of the inner world of the poet. We see this in such works as Rhapsody on a Windy Night where the universe is an outward, visible sign of the poet’s spiritual condition. Through it he can penetrate the mysterious world of emotional experience, explore it not always with hysterical extravagance, but often, like Laforgue, with a wry defeatism that is sometimes flippant, sometimes scathing, as Prufrock himself is.


Eliot had gone to Pans to became a poet He returned to Harvard to study philosophy, His thesis work was closely concerned with the problem that was to preoccupy him throughout his life: the relation of chaotic subjective experience to a higher and absolute coherence. From this period stems the idea that the limited, individual consciousness is not reality. The matter is a complex one, and Eliot’s use of Bradley (the philosopher on whom he wrote has doctoral thesis) eventually becomes that of a poet applying philosophy as a tone or colour to his thought rather than that of the rigorous professional logician. Nonetheless, it is here that we can begin to see Eliot moving away from purely subjective poetry and towards the communal, universal truth enshrined in tradition. Some of the poems of this late Harvard period again show the religious tension that Eliot was experiencing.


Eliot taught for two years in the Harvard philosophy school, but, as we have seen, he came to object to its divorcing philosophy from religion. The latter was increasingly occupying him. He was now reading Dante again and committing long sections to heart He had worked on Indian philosophy, in particular the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gua: he was also reading widely in European mysticism and the lives of the saints. His Harvard poems reflect this These later works are not as fine as Prufrock. Maturing is not the same as regular bettering. They are riddled with images at martyrdom and glimpses at divine reality, but they are not convincing. They discuss fleeing a world that has not yet been fully or agonisingly lived in. The great human strength of The Waste Land is the known awfulness of the real world. Its varieties of brutal deadliness have been felt along every nerve. In the Harvard poems there is only an intellectual position: sincere no doubt, but thin and rather pretentious. Circumstances were soon to change this, and Eliot kept his early drafts. Several years and a welter of experience later, he was able to rework lines like these from The Death of Saint Narcissus more effectively:



Come under the shadow of this gray rock -

Come in under the shadow of this gray rork.
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow sprawling over the sand at daybreak, or
Your shadow leaping behind the fire against the red rock:

I will show you his bloody cloth and limbs
And the gray shadow on his lips.


In 1914 Eliot returned to Europe. The idea was that he should complete his philosophical education at Oxford. In reality, his strictly academic years were behind him. The young don with his intensely private religious life now met two critical influences on the formation of The Waste Land the American poet Ezra Pound and Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the English woman who was to be Eliot’s first wife.


Pound was a brilliant sponsor of young literary talent, and Eliot was one of his finest disciples among the London literary figures. Pound set about grooming Eliot, concerning himself generously in the material details of his life and borrowing money for the publication of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) Above all, he encouraged Eliot at this period to move away from purely religious verse and back to a satirical mode in which the influence of Pound’s ideas is clear Some of these, such as his anti-Semitism, are unpleasant in the extreme. The discussion of sexuality is also troubling and prefigures much of the analysis in The Waste Land.


Sexual inhibition - which is not the same as a lack of sexual drive - is clear in many of Eliot’s early works. Something of this can be seen in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but other and earlier poems show a fear of women, such as his rather Swinburnian stanza from Circe’s Palace:


Around her fountain which flows
With the voice of men in pain.
Are flowers that no man knows
Their petals are fanged and red
With hideout streak and stain.
They sprang from the limbs of the deed -
We shall not come here again.

In other works, such as La Figlia Che Piange, Eliot takes an alternative stance: the safe and melancholy delcicacy of a moment, which for all its beauty of epithet, is again rather Victorian. The girl in this poem is less a real woman than a pose from a late-nineteenth-century painting. Thirdly, and perhaps mare deadly, Eliot’s women are charming but pretentious. It is these vacuous ladies of Prufrock’s world, talking of Michelangelo, or the cloying artistic hostess in the Portrait of a Lady, who under stress, lead to the neurotic, febrile woman of the first part of ‘A Game of Chess’.


The fourth type of Eliot’s early woman is the common good-time girl: the clerk’s victim in The Waste Land, and, in such Sweeney poems as Sweeney Erect and Sweeney Among the Nightingales, someone more brashly vulgar and, to the poet, offensively sexual. Such, are the girls in Mrs. Porter’s ‘rooming house’, where Sweeney is a regular visitor, as he is shown to be again in The Waste Land.


If the women of many of the early poems are demonic or, more often, trivial, the women in Sweeney Agonistes say much about revulsion from physical love. They are degrading and the degraded man is Sweeney, the barely articulate sensualist who says.


Birth, and copulation, and death.
That’s all the facts, when you come to brass tacks:

Birth, and copulation, and death.
I’ve been born, and once is enough.


Sweeney is modern, sensual man whose sexual instincts though strong, cannot lead to a vision of an improved world. His interest in women is bestial, and the women he is interested in are low, tawdry creatures. Sweeney is  no more than hair, eyes and mouth as he takes his vicarious pleasure:


This withered root of knots of hair

Slitted below and gashed with eyes

This oval O cropped out with teeth:

The sickle motion from the thighs


Jack-knifes upwards at the knees,

Then straightens out from heel to hip

Pushing the framework of the bed

And clawing at the pillow slip.


This is sex at its most empty, the degrading fear and passion that underlies the neurosis shown in such sections of The Waste Land as lines 95-106 or 196-206.


The satirical poems which describe the collapse of European culture have great elegance but are riddled with disturbing anti-Semitism, a crude and rather sensationalist presentation of the idea that a Jewish economic conspiracy was undermining traditional values. This idea, as we have seen, may have been derived from Ezra Pound. A poem such us Burbank with Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar juxtaposes the cultured ex-patriot American, touring Venice with his guidebook and memories of Ruskin, with Bleistein -  ‘Chicago, Semite Viennese’ - and Sir Ferdinand Klein, a womanizing financier. The confection of quotations at the start suggests the rich cultural past of Venice. The poem shows its collapse and Burbank’s puzzled musing on this. This theme of bewilderment is suggested again in ‘A Cooking Egg’ while the impotence of the Church and its refusal to take a sufficiently radical stand on spiritual matters are hinted at in Lune de Miel and attacked in a more lively way in The Hippopotamus and Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service. Again, the women in these poems fail to provide the prosperous, creative energy, the secure sexuality, which the poet needs. As early as 1909, in Conversation Galante, he had suggested that woman was ‘the eternal enemy of the absolute’, and this, of coarse, was to be taken much further in The Waste Land.


The most powerful of these early poems is Gerontion, which Eliot at one time considered as a section of The Waste Land. Here a desiccated arid empty little old man ruminates not simply on the unlived life and the decayed house in which he is living, but an the failure of spiritual experience, the triviality of those around him and his sense of being cheated oat of meaning. There is a feeling of great age about Gerontion, of disillusioned passion and long patience, that characterises some of the portraits of Rembrandt. Gerontion is more noble than Prufrock, more inured to suffering and disappointment. He is not at home in a salon world. One does not sense his wearing formal clothes. He lives among the detritus of time, in a world where ‘Christ the tiger’ is longed for by some, reduced to nothing by others. In the rhetorical fourth section - which shows Eliot’s debt to Jacobean playwrights - time and history are seen cheats. The great things of life are illusions which came too late or at the wrong time. Our motives are misunderstood. Love, despite being welt meant, has been a cruel deception, and now ‘I have lost my passion’. The aged Gerontion looks with saddened helplessness at the futile wreck of human life. He is a little apart from it in his sleepy corner. Such disillusion, the feeling that both private and public history had been a deception, that life is sad and unredeemable, prefigures The Waste Land even in its imagery. His moods are, as Gerontion declares:

Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season


These varieties of anguish may be partly a reflection of the fact that Eliot’s first marriage was a cruel disaster. To the shy and somewhat tortured don, Vivienne Haigh-Wood’s vitality and lack of inhibit ion were perhaps challenging and exciting; but if we read the earlier poems to find ‘the pattern … of the personal emotion,’ then we come away with the clear impression that women’s sexuality and his own response to it troubled Eliot deeply. He had been brought up in a puritanical home, he had lived an intense intellectual and spiritual life, and he was only twenty-six. A year after his marriage he wrote:


For the boy whose childhood has been empty of beauty, who has never known the detached curiosity for beauty, who has been brought up to see goodness as practical and to take the line of self interest in a code of rewards and punishments, then the sexual instinct when it is aroused may mean the only possible escape from a prosaic world.


But sex was not an escape. Vivienne’s mental arid physical well-being were extremely precarious, and Lyndall Gordon comments well that Eliot’s marriage - and with it the very poor stale of his finances - was ‘to be the grim underside of has life, the secret inferno to be traversed before he might be worthy of the genuine awakening only Christianity could supply’. A line of Eliot’s own from this time is most poignant: ‘It is terrible.’ he wrote, ‘to be alone with another person.’ Terror and neurosis, are the powerful subjects of the first section of ‘A Game of Chess’.


The First World War kept Eliot in England. He was now living in a foreign country with an unsympathetic wife. He no longer belonged to the world of the universities. He had committed himself to literature and was still fervently searching for some form of religious truth. His conviction of man’s corrupt nature had not left hitn, and now more than ever any form of tolerant liberalism was unacceptable to him. Poverty and overwork, first as a schoolmaster and then as a bank clerk, ground him down. And all the time he was reviewing and involving himself in criticism and lecturing. The pressure became intolerable and his energy gave way. He began to discover that suffering in unredeemed mediocrity was far mere dreadful than the imagined martyrdoms of his early verse. Eventually he was given leave of absence by his bank and went first to rest by the English coast and then for professional help in Switzerland. He returned from Lausanne to Paris, where he presented Ezra Pound the first drafts of what was to become The Waste Land.