Fragments and Ruins: On the Centenary of The Waste Land


Henry Ware Eliot: T.S. Eliot, 1926

by Stuart Walton

Matthew Hollis
The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem
London: Faber & Faber, 2022. 524 pp

To write the biography of a poem, as distinct from another critical study of it, would once have seemed a doomed enterprise. In the era of the death of the author, what could be less relevant than what the poet happened to be doing during the composition of a major work? Ian Sansom’s 2019 biography of Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’, however, cleared a path that Matthew Hollis now treads in a work of historical and critical synthesis for the founding text of English modernism, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, one hundred years old and still entrancing and baffling in more or less equal measure. Jonathan Raban called it a colossal stop-sign to later poets, but its formal and tonal innovations were to prove seminal.

Hollis is also a poet, as well as being poetry editor at Faber & Faber, the post that was filled by Eliot himself once he had managed to leave Lloyds Bank behind for good. His masterly account of the unstable period in Eliot’s life before and during the writing of The Waste Land brings its birth to light, a slow process that accelerated to a pitch of rapid creative virtuosity in the writing of its final section. Here is Eliot’s crushed despair at his disinheritance from the family estate in St Louis, Missouri, his precarious and mostly disastrous first marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood, his constant nagging self-doubt, his dismay at not being seen as much more than a writer of satirical lyric, the demands of a draining job in the banalities of finance, the productively volatile literary comradeship with Ezra Pound, whose editorial attentions to the developing work helped, in every sense, to make it the ‘damn good poem’ Pound believed it to be. It is reported to Hollis that when, faced with the German invasion of Italy during the Second World War, Pound expected to be captured and stripped of his possessions, he instructed his wife Dorothy to bury the inscribed copy Eliot had given him in 1923, so that nobody else could have it.

When it was done, and the moment came to find a home for it, none of the various publishers making offers for The Waste Land on either side of the Atlantic had actually seen the work. What would now be an unimaginable luxury for a living poet did nothing to temper Eliot’s feeling that, whatever enthusiasm there was to bring his longest poetic work yet to public fruition, he was being shabbily undervalued. In years to come, he would reflect that the most important thing for a poet was to write as little as possible, in the interest of distillation and potency, the output gaining in stature through its rarity. The paltriness of the publishers’ proposed advances scarcely reflected, as Eliot put it in a letter to Richard Aldington, ‘the vast amount of verse, which in comparison with most writers, I refrained from writing’. In the spirit of postmodern homily, you had to listen to the notes he wasn’t playing.


I. The Burial of the Dead

The least conventional poem of the era begins, conventionally enough, with the seasons. Where winter and summer appear in traditional array – the protective blanket of snow that Carroll’s Alice imagined at the drawing-room window, the abruptness of summer showers turning to sun – spring is  gravid not with new hope, but with ruthless propagation. The Scottish poet James Thomson had ushered in the Spring section of The Seasons in 1728 with a ‘Symphony’ of birdsong, an ecstatic cacophony that punctures winter’s silence. Eliot notices only the struggling lilacs and the dull roots. Much more benign is the Munich sunlight that chases off the shower at the Hofgarten, where the strollers have taken shelter under the arched colonnade. A childhood memory of tobogganing, the excited cries and the rush of cold in the freedom of the mountain slopes, evokes thoughts of the crashed empires of Germany and Austria-Hungary, pulverised in the recent continental conflict, a once charmed life reduced to nothing but sleepless nocturnal reading.

As suddenly as the sunlight returned, the shadows have deepened. The mood of Ecclesiastes’ final chapter takes hold, the shutting of doors on the street, the fading of music. Fear of the everyday inhibits those at the end of their course. Desire has deserted them. The dust returns to the earth, now a mere handful, as does the diurnal shadow, behind one in the morning but rising to meet the evening walker, as the spirit returns to its progenitor. A burst of the lovelorn sailor’s song from Tristan und Isolde accentuates the bereft mood as Eliot recalls the ‘hyacinth girl’, his American paramour Emily Hale.

Another scene-change finds Madame Sosostris reading the Tarot. The notes that Eliot appended to the first edition, more to add to the page weighting of the volume than for their evident explanatory value, indicate that he took as free a mythographic approach to the interpretation of the figures on the cards as the clairvoyante does in her auguries. Her real-life model was the Russian theosophical mystic, Helena Blavatsky, whose opuscular screed The Secret Doctrine (1888), a melange of Tibetan and Hindu wisdoms, Darwinian science and Victorian race theory, had enjoyed a renewed post-mortem currency in the spiritualist fervour that followed the Great War. ‘I see crowds of people,’ the medium intones through a stinking cold, ‘walking around in a ring.’

These will be the crowds that pour back and forth across London Bridge in their daily circuit, under the brown fog that has shrouded London in both historical pollution and the accretions of cultural myth. The bleak perdition of the city would soon be in perfect tune with the urban literature of the modernist age, where human sensibility is so dulled that its name might as well be ‘Unreal’, a cryogenic spiritual state such as one who worked for years in a bank, while trying to be a poet, might recognise, but borrowing its vision of deathly congestion from the undone, or defeated (disfatta), souls in Dante’s Inferno.

II. A Game of Chess

The opening of the second section banishes the grey trudge of the London crowds with a flood of refulgence, exotic scent and colour, the royal barge of Cleopatra borrowed from Shakespeare, by him from Plutarch, transposed to a gorgeous panelled interior accoutred with jewels, sculpted glass, unguents and candles. A picture above the mantelpiece depicts the rape of Philomela by her brother-in-law, the Thracian king Tereus. In order to prevent her from bearing witness against him, he cut out her tongue, for which she was transformed by the merciful gods into a nightingale, the female of which species is songless.

A dialogue follows between one starved of love and another determined to remain mute. The exchange has a dead fatalism about it, turning as it does, through broken-backed lineation, on the concept of Nothing. ‘Do / You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / Nothing?’ These lines are thought to be painfully imitative of the troubled converse of the Eliots’ faltering marriage. Vivien’s nerves were often bad, her recurrent bouts of physical and mental ill-health typically dismissed by biographers with the nebulous imprecision reserved for women’s ailments. She is permanently entering another bedridden state of collapse, few commentators much interested in what was wrong with her. Hollis gives a selection of her diagnoses: neuritis, colitis, bronchitis, menstrual trauma, the gastrointestinal enterococcus parasite that causes urinary tract infection and endocarditis, migraine, depression, probable bipolar disorder. ‘I never know what you are thinking,’ she might have told Eliot, who is thinking of the ‘rats’ alley’ of the battlefield trenches and of his father, who had died in 1919. A reminiscence of the drowned father in The Tempest (‘Full fathom five…’) prompts a snatch of music-hall song – ‘that Shakespeherian rag’ – before the gloom breaks back in on a wordless chess game, the players rubbing their open eyes in fatigue, waiting for the knock on the door that might make something happen.

What happens is a lengthy vernacular passage set in a London pub at closing time, the tattling of women drinkers unsparingly judging each other while the publican, in minatory capitals, calls time. It could be a 1920s version of Albert Square’s Queen Vic, loquacious farewells fading off down the street, the poet adding his own sententious adieu, in the voice of the maddened Ophelia in Hamlet, or perhaps the American minstrel-troupe founder, Edwin Christy: ‘Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies…’

III. The Fire Sermon

In an address to a cohort of monks seeking enlightenment, the Buddha had preached that all of life was aflame: the senses, the impressions by which they are stimulated, those emotional impulses cited in the opening lines of The Waste Land, memory and desire. The aim was to achieve liberation from these passions, a serene estrangement from both tangible and intangible influences, the satisfaction of the knowledge that one had transcended them.

What is left here, though, is only the decay and putrefaction of the postwar world, slimy ground, the brown waters of a canal in the shadow of a gashouse, motor horns blaring, the rats from the trenches again. Once more, the high-minded and the vulgate voices are shaken up together. A hint of Marvell’s wingèd chariot hurrying near is soon eclipsed by the lascivious Australian soldiers’ song, ‘Oh the moon shines bright on Mrs Porter / And on her daughter / A regular snorter’. The brown fog of Part I closes in again, cloaking a shabby Greek dealer in dried fruits, probably the ‘one-eyed merchant’ foretold in the Tarot, operating out of the shard of western Asia Minor that had been awarded to Greece after the Armistice, engulfed in flames by 1922 as the Turks retook it.

Enter Tiresias, blind prophet of Greek myth, whose transition between female and male allowed him to experience the sufferings of both sexes. He spies candidly on a scene of carnality between a tired secretary returned from work at ‘the violet hour’ and her visiting swain, a ‘young man carbuncular’ who works in an estate agent’s office. The sex they have is joyless, arid, predicated on male entitlement – ‘His vanity requires no response’ – and the startling candour with which the woman dismisses the interlude after his departure – ‘ “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over”.’ Antique romance was already dead long before the sexual revolution, just getting under way at Eliot’s death in early 1965.

Henry Ware Eliot: T.S. Eliot, 1926

Wagner’s Rhinemaidens from Götterdämmerung surface through the tarry waters to sing of the Thames and its history. It was in a barge on the river in 1561 that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, flippantly suggested to Elizabeth I that, with the Spanish prelate and ambassador Álvaro de la Quadra present, there was no reason for them not to marry. Another of the maidens gave herself up in a boat drifting off Richmond, ‘Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe’. The lover of another wept tears of remorse at the possible consequences of their coition. A fresh setting is announced, like the head-note of a dramatic scene: ‘On Margate Sands’. But the Kent coast brings no relief, only the lament of a poet in a seafront shelter, on furlough from the bank and the wife. ‘I can connect / Nothing with nothing’. Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again. Murmurs of the Buddha’s fire teachings mingle with the St Augustine of the Confessions, as though what might unite eastern and western spiritual traditions, if anything connected with anything, is the ascetic temperament, renunciation of the world of sensual delight in Carthage and Bihar. The Buddhist monks, attent on their hillside above Gaya, must find abjuration within themselves; Augustine lifts his eyes to the Creator, who will pluck him out of the entanglements of the world’s net, in which his feet are snared. And yet, for all the valiance of piety, one goes on ‘Burning burning burning burning’.

IV. Death by Water

Madame Sosostris had mentioned a ‘drowned Phoenician sailor’, and here he is, consumed by the sea two weeks ago, already being washed away to bone underwater. The Phoenicians were a maritime trading nation, much like the British, for whom a watery death would have been an occupational hazard. Released from the fire of life, Phlebas is no longer caught in the banality of ‘the profit and loss’ that the weary bank-worker must continually oversee. His life, as in the myth, has flashed before the drowning man, ‘age and youth’, as he succumbed to the wind-whirled eddies. The same culmination awaits us all.

V. What the Thunder Said

After the fatal waters closing over the luckless sailor comes the drought. Mountains loom over the opening passages of Part V, barren masses that render thought inert, the shivering sublime of Burke and Kant reduced to sterile rock. There is no water because there is no rain, only dry thunder grumbling across the sky, to echo the resentful scowls of those who inhabit the remotest regions. Here is no refreshing spring, no Mosaic casting of water from the stone, but a mere mirage of ‘A pool among the rock’, and the facetious imitation of dripping water by the significantly named hermit-thrush, a North American species whose song doesn’t at all resemble the dripping water the poet wishfully claims, in both verse and notes, to have heard in it.

The scene darkens, and we are apparently on the road to Emmaus, with the spectral presence of the other who walks on the opposite side of you. Eliot cites the hallucinatory intimation of the members of one of Shackleton’s three Antarctic expeditions, that during the exhaustion of the last leg, they repeatedly imagined there was one more of them than there were. If the other who accompanies the disciples is the risen Saviour, he might chaperone all the lost and the seeking. In another five years, Eliot would join the Anglo-Catholic church.

Meanwhile, the eastern plains are flooded with postwar refugees, cities explode under aerial bombardment, towers fall. Riots and internecine savageries erupt. A ruined church with its fallen headstones and dry bones recalls the valley that the prophet Ezekiel comes upon, insisting that one day these remains will be resurrected at the divine command.

At the close, echoing from Himalayan peaks over the Gangetic plain, the thunder sounds, bellowing its counsel in the Sanskrit of the Upanishads. Datta – give. Dayadhvam – sympathise. Damyata – control (your own spiritual burnings, your memory and desire). Once more, a lone figure sits by the turbid waters, once more fishing in the river of life, the parched flatland behind him. What is there left that might be set in order?

Everything is broken, fissiparous, ruined by the war to end all wars, by the splintering of the poet’s mind under spiritual conflict. London Bridge is still falling down, as in the  children’s singing game. In Lausanne in the autumn of 1921, Eliot had been treated by a professional bump-feeler, Dr Roger Vittoz, who believed in the power of mind over mind, for a condition termed aboulie (apathy, lassitude, demotivation), which had left him feeling like Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie. Amid the wreckage, an eroded tower, surrounded by the ‘fragments I have shored against my ruins’, one of modernist poetry’s most quoted lines, denoting the splinters and particles into which world cultures have been slivered – Elizabethan theatre, the poetry of the French Second Empire, the Vedic scriptures, whatever. From these last issues the fading wish for a peace that would do well to enter all understanding, rather than passing it. ‘Shantih  shantih  shantih’


Matthew Hollis shows that what Eliot achieved in The Waste Land was the consummation of the fragmentary approach beginning to be prevalent in aesthetics of the period. He read a draft of the ‘Circe’ chapter of Ulysses not long after Joyce had finished it, and fell under the excited influence of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, staged at the Princes Theatre, London, in June 1921. In correspondence with Pound, he called for the variegation of verse forms within a single work, combinations of heterogeneous images, a formal playfulness in the service of serious themes. As much of his life slipped beyond rationalising – an adulterous dalliance with Nancy Cunard in the wintry summer of 1922, when Eliot read the draft of the poem to the Woolfs at their dinner table, and he had seemingly begun wearing makeup, a veneer of violet powder and a touch of lip colour like a Georgian macaroni – the intensity that he looked to achieve in poetry began to precipitate. ‘[O]nly those who have personality and emotions,’ he had remarked in the essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), ‘know what it means to want to escape from these things.’

The Eliot who surfaces from Hollis’s pages is not the Solonic legislator of the Faber years, who never quite renounced the family tradition of antisemitism as Pound bitterly did his own. He is a prematurely elderly young man, married in haste and repenting at agonised leisure, washing over with self-doubt and the anxiety of influence, but determined to find the same productive dislocation of the tradition that cubism, atonality and the stream of consciousness had begun to effect. Most of all, Hollis judiciously puts renewed emphasis on the contribution that Pound, the miglior fabbro of the dedication, made to the composition of The Waste Land, with the result that this monumental study is not only enlightening in its biographical diligence, but also a moving testament to the collaborative nature of one of the century’s great creative acts.

About the Author

Stuart Walton is author of An Excursion through Chaos (2021), a debut novel The First Day in Paradise (2016), and studies of the emotions, the five senses, intoxicants, chillies and Adorno.

Image Rights

Henry Ware Eliot’s photographs are in the public domain.

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