The Publication of The Waste Land


The Waste Land was composed during a period of enormous personal difficulty for Eliot. His ill-fated marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood was already foundering, and both he and Vivien suffered from precarious health. After a physical and mental breakdown in 1921, Eliot went to Lausanne in Switzerland for treatment. There he completed The Waste Land (1922), a poetic exploration of a soul's, or civilization's, struggle for regeneration.


The Waste Land offered a bleak portrait of post-World War I Europe: sometimes laced with disgust, but also hesitantly gesturing towards the possibility of (a perhaps religious) redemption, the poem caught the mood of confusion and feelings of nostalgia for a "paradise lost" after World War. On publication the poem was not unanimously hailed as a masterpiece but this is perhaps due to its complexity; its slippage between satire and prophecy; its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time; its elegaic but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures. However, Conrad Aiken, a critic at the time, noted that the poem succeeds “by virtue of its incoherence, not of its plan; by virtue of its ambiguities, not of its explanations.” and many reviewers felt that Eliot had captured the disillusionment of a generation. Perhaps as a result the poem has become one of the most famous works of modern literature.


Ezra Pound contributed greatly to the poem with his editorial advice. The original version of the manuscript with Pound's queries and corrections, published in 1971, is essential reading for admirers of the poem. Following Pound's suggestion, Eliot reduced The Waste Land to about half its original length and in acknowledgement Eliot later dedicated the poem to him: "For Ezra Pound, 'Il miglior fabbro'".