The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, by Matthew Hollis (Faber & Faber, 524 pp., $40)

In one of T.S. Eliot’s most influential essays, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), he declared, in his best pontifical manner, that “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Well, now that we have the letters that Eliot wrote when he was composing some of his greatest poetry in London after the Great War, we can see that this was not entirely the case with Eliot himself. The man who suffers and the poet who creates were inseparable in Vivienne Haigh-Wood’s beleaguered husband. His endeavoring to appear otherwise was an attempt on the part of a rather private man, for all of his confessional impulses, to leave his wounds unbared. And in no poem is this more evident than in what many consider his masterpiece, The Waste Land, which marked its centennial last year.

To mark that occasion, the English poet and editor of Faber’s poetry list, Matthew Hollis, has written The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, which has already garnered high praise from critics in England, where it was published in October, and here, where it appeared just before Christmas. Helen Vendler, not altogether unwarrantably, has called the book “a work of art in its own right.” Over the years, Eliot’s work has attracted good criticism from superlatively good critics, including Helen Gardner, Hugh Kenner, Christopher Ricks, Ronald Bush, Lyndall Gordon, and Lawrence Rainey. Now, to this distinguished company, we can add Hollis, for he has written a truly bravura critical portrait of a poem that still dazzles as much as it mystifies its worldwide readers.

In a fast-paced narrative full of documentary detail, Hollis revisits the circumstances in which Eliot composed his famous work. Leaving a likely post in Harvard’s philosophy department, Eliot decided to stay in London, after studying at Oxford for a term, where he met and married his young English wife and began working in 1917 in the colonial and foreign department of Lloyds Bank. In 1917, he published Prufrock and Other Observations and in 1919 Poems, which became a rallying cry for the avant-garde. Working at the bank during the day, writing at night, and looking after his distraught, unhappy wife left Eliot increasingly frazzled and nervewracked, though he would never be ungrateful for infirmity’s creative benefits. In 1920 he brought together The Sacred Wood, the essays so instrumental to the making of his innovative poetry. In 1921, the poet became so overworked that he sought out a neurologist, who sent him to Margate and Lausanne to recuperate. While in Switzerland, he completed The Waste Land, the long poem on which he had been at work, intermittently, since 1919, though he had been mulling it over as early as 1914.

The music, allusiveness and inscrutability of the poem fascinated an audience reeling not only from the Great War’s aftermath but the outbreak of influenza in 1918, not to mention the collapse of Europe’s old imperial order. For the postwar generation, The Waste Land gave definitive voice to their sense of desolation, which one could hear echoed in so many of its cryptic, captivating passages:

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

In Eliot’s preoccupation with reality and unreality, which permeates The Waste Land, he followed John Henry Newman, a vital influence on his development. Newman’s epitaph, Ex umbria et imaginibus in veritatem, which his biographer Ian Ker translated as “out of unreality into Reality,” could also apply to Eliot. If Newman saw unreality, in part, as the consequence of modern man’s lack of any proper historical sense, without which he could have no sense of his true identity, Eliot saw his “Unreal City” in a postwar civilization overwhelmed by death. It was the cultural salvager in Eliot who advocated the historical sense as a means of helping the war’s survivors to recover their lost civitas. This was the impetus, after all, for getting Lady Rothermere to fork over for The Criterion, a periodical dedicated to putting European culture back together again.

Accordingly, in the essay on tradition, Eliot is insistent on the indispensability of the historical sense, to which Hollis pays justice at every turn. “Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum,” Eliot wrote with epigrammatical panache. “What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.” Hollis has given us the history surrounding the writing of The Waste Land in an elegant, incisive study. Without it, our ability to enter into the poem’s riches would be diminished.

The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem is many things: a portrait of Eliot’s family background in St. Louis and New England; a judicious revisiting of his marriage to a wife who, for all her travails, understood and nurtured the poet in her husband; a study of Eliot’s friendship with Ezra Pound, the poem’s clairvoyant editor; a portrait of his friendship with his early publisher and sounding board Virginia Woolf; an anatomy of the wide-ranging influences that went into the shaping of the poem; a detailed account of its slow-gestating composition; a tale of two cities, St. Louis and London, both of which had a signal impact on the poem; and, perhaps most impressively, a study of how the exigencies of life forge the alchemy of art.

The New Criticism might have been keen on persuading readers that texts should be read without reference to authors or their lives, but Hollis shows how the text arrives on the page only as a result of the poet’s art surviving the crucible of his life. The death of Eliot’s father and his unlikely creative friendship with Ezra Pound—il miglior fabbro, “the better maker,” as he called him—were aspects of the life that radically affected the composition of Eliot’s poem. Yet an even more humdrum example would be how the poet’s fondness for the radio led to his deploying different voices in The Waste Land. If Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene structured their rapid-fire narratives after the cinema, Eliot structured his voices after stations on the “wireless,” as the American exile would always call the radio.

Hollis presents the voices of his “biography” along similar lines. Since he is both a biographer—he wrote a superb life of the poet Edward Thomas—and an accomplished poet himself, he adds credibility to Eliot’s contention that “The only criticism of poetry worth noticing is that of poets,” which, if not entirely true, is not entirely false, either. It is certainly true, as Hollis shows, that the composing of poetry and the appraisal of composition inherent in criticism often went hand-in-hand in Eliot’s workshop.

“Why did it matter so deeply to Eliot to consolidate the link between poetry and criticism?” Hollis asks. “Because they were interlocutory. Each engaged the other in a mutually supportive dialogue.” In this light, Hollis argues, citing several of Eliot’s critical essays but also the critical decision-making that governed the composing and revising of the poem, “The poet is the smith at the poem’s forge; the poem is the heated metal; criticism is the anvil over which the object is shaped; when it is cooled, it is for the reader to determine the sensory significance of the poem.”

As this passage shows, Hollis writes a poet’s prose—brisk, precise, and revelatory. His use of the adjective “sensory” instead of “analytical” to describe the reader’s experience of poetry is a good example. For Hollis, we must read poetry not to wring “meanings” from it—dull paraphrases that often ignore the real dynamism of poetry—but to experience it as we experience any other art form—music, say, or theater—with our senses as well as our reason. Indeed, the unparaphrasable mysteriousness of Eliot’s poem could almost have been wrought precisely to baffle the philistinism that calls for poems to behave as though they were newspaper editorials or the platitudinous effusions of politicians.

Hollis also demonstrates a practical understanding of the life of composition. In his account of the writing and rewriting of the poem’s five sections, which he seamlessly intersperses with accounts of the poet’s engagements with Pound, Conrad Aiken, the Woolfs, James Joyce, Richard Aldington, Wyndham Lewis, and other contemporary writers key to the poem’s unfolding, he recreates the exhilarating serendipity of composition. His treatment is a good deal more valuable than the recitation of lunches and business dealings with which Robert Crawford fills out his dreary, uncritical two-volume biography. Hollis also reminds readers of the extent to which Eliot plundered the work of Aiken, his Harvard classmate, in writing The Waste Land. The critic who declared in his essay “Philip Massinger” (1920) that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” was not speaking figuratively.

One corrigendum: the author suggests that Joyce had a low view of Newman. Not so. As Gilbert Stuart, one of the editors of Joyce’s letters, points out, “Joyce regarded [Newman] as the greatest nineteenth-century master of English prose . . . passages from whose work he had a habit of reciting to his friends in the mellow after-dinner hour at Les Trianons or Fouquet’s (his favorite Parisian restaurants).” Getting this detail right is important, if only because Eliot saw in the “Oxen of the Sun” section of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), where Newman figures prominently in its parodies of classic English prose style, a welcome confirmation of his sense of the vitality of tradition.

Since Eliot’s idea of tradition is at the heart of The Waste Land’s innovative aesthetic, it is always useful to return to his essay on tradition, in which he touched on the matter with a critical acuity that will help readers understand how the radical traditionalist within the innovative poet turned his various influences to account, including those of Chaucer, the Bible, Baudelaire, Dante, Shakespeare, John Webster, Richard Wagner, Dickens, Saint Augustine, and the Upanishads, to name a few. Eliot’s essay also explains why the poet’s profound understanding of tradition continues to inspire the best artists in all the arts. “If the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged,” Eliot wrote. But that’s not what he has in mind:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. . . . Whoever has approved this idea of order . . . will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.

When I corresponded with Hollis by email about the book, I asked him about Eliot’s idea of tradition, which he treats brilliantly. “All literature is happening at once,” Hollis explained. He went on:

That’s a mind-stretching thought of Eliot’s that deserves some reflection: what exactly did he mean by it? That the writings of the past act upon the writings of the present is hardly a controversial idea, but Eliot was saying something stranger and deeper: that the present also acts upon the past. Influence was not a one-way stream, he believed, but something more like a pool in which time swirls. But how can a contemporary work of art act upon one already made in history? It does so, says Eliot, because the achievements of our age shed new light upon those that have gone before; the past is enlarged because of our contribution to it and is therefore changed by it. We know more than the past because the past is what we know, and we must maintain our connection to it in order to retain our connection to deep culture. Tradition, therefore, becomes a kind of door that we must pass through—and individual talent is the key that opens it.

Hollis also shared with me his sense of Eliot’s astute understanding of how poets help themselves to objects beyond their emotions to express those emotions’ essence—one way out of the narcissistic labyrinth that characterizes too much contemporary poetry. “For an artist to operate across such vast time and space,” Hollis pointed out, “for an art to be transcendental, requires a poet to communicate not with something so private to himself as personal feelings or emotions, but to find a representative for those feelings that can be understood by anyone without a personal connection to the author: it requires, in other words, what Eliot called an ‘objective correlative.’” Since Eliot first broached his famous theory in an essay on Hamlet in 1919 by arguing that Shakespeare’s play was a failure because there was no objective correlative in the play that could have reasonably given rise to Hamlet’s rarefied distress, some readers have tended to see the theory as little more than an excuse for brash revisionism. Yet Hollis is certainly right to see it as one of the governing principles behind the composition of The Waste Land. When Pound spoke of the long poem with all its musical registers as an “emotional unit,” he was nicely encapsulating its achievement. Hollis, too, captures the essence of Eliot’s method: “A reader cannot be expected to take interest in the poet’s emotion, only in the expression of emotion through a form common to both readers and writer alike, namely the senses.” The Waste Land epitomizes that “impersonal” form common to both readers and writer alike. Though a lot of Eliot’s personal emotion went into the composition of the poem, as Hollis so copiously shows, The Waste Land succeeds by giving that emotion its proper objective correlative—not least through its wonderful music.

Hence, the array of voices in The Waste Land: auditory fragments culled from literature, myth, opera, history, ragtime, religion, the public house at closing time, and the intimate tete-â-tete between husband and wife, all giving expression to Eliot’s sense of the dislocation, ignominy and spiritual longing of the postwar social order, without ever stinting poetry’s power to get at life’s redeeming reality—as here, in lines, which once read, can never be forgotten:

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms

Here, one might say, is a good example of the triumph of Eliot’s impersonal method, which nicely exemplifies what Oscar Wilde had in mind when he said that “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Many readers of a certain age who revere Eliot’s poetry have read many accounts of the principles that helped make it happen, but Hollis’s is among the very best. It certainly comports with something that Delmore Schwartz said about the poem. If Eliot’s poem grew out of the despair that lacerated what he called the “mind of Europe” after the carnage in the trenches—the voices of whose dead haunt the poem’s auditory revue—it has not stopped speaking to generations of readers with no firsthand experience of the war but who still recognize its despair as their own. Writing in Partisan Review in 1945, after Europe had once again descended into ruination, Schwartz reaffirmed the poem’s prophetical appeal. “Modern life may be compared to a foreign country in which a foreign language is spoken,” Schwartz wrote. He continued:

Since the future is bound to be international, if it is anything, we are all the bankrupt heirs of the ages, and the crises expressed in Eliot’s work stand as a prophecy of the crises of our own future in regard to love, religious belief, good and evil, the good life, and the nature of the just society. The Waste Land is as good as new.

What gives Hollis’s book so much of its critical élan is that it treats the poem as such on nearly every page, without ever losing sight of its legitimate claim to be regarded as the defining classic of modern poetry.

Photo by John Gay/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


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