Matthew Hollis – The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem
Ted Hughes said “Each year Eliot’s presence reasserts itself at a deeper level, to an audience that is surprised to find itself more chastened, more astonished, more humble”. So it’s strange to learn in The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem that Eliot’s presence was very minor indeed before the publication of the poem in question. Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) had made ripples, but Poems (1920) had sunk beneath imputations of coldness, heartlessness, and the general idea that its author was not so much a poet as a satirist. Prufrock had been published in a run of a mere 500 copies; Poems was printed by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, but in only half that number. Eliot’s greatness was hardly a foregone conclusion.
By and large, Matthew Hollis manages to recreate the uncertainty that Eliot must have felt. It would have been easy to write this ‘biography’ in the voice of hindsight, but teleological flash-forwards are few and, though we know how the story ‘ends’, we always sense that the stakes are high. The first half of the book actually has nothing directly to do with The Waste Land at all: it is as much about Ezra Pound as it is about Eliot, and as much about the reviewers as it is about the bards. Hollis brilliantly evokes the street-fight nature of publication and literary criticism, leaving us in no doubt as to the hostility that Eliot, Pound, Joyce et al. had to weather, or the independent-mindedness of the few who dared promote them. The composition of Poems, according to one review, had been time spent “very laboriously writing nothing”, while Prufrock and Other Observations met with the opinion that “erudition is one thing, the dictionary another, and poetry different from either of them”.
Thank God that Pound, unlike Eliot, was not easily demoralized. For Hollis, there is no overstating Pound’s role in the The Waste Land (or to use the working title provided by Dickens, He Do the Police in Different Voices), from the micro-edits to the badgering of publishers. He made good on one of his oft-quoted modernist manifestos – “To break the pentameter, that was the first heave” – and was constantly steering Eliot away from his instinctive formal purism. Part II, ‘A Game of Chess’, originally opened “The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, / Glowed on the marble, where the swinging glass”: Pound knocked out the “swinging”, which jolted the stiff blank verse into something twitchier. He culled whole passages, such as the scatological couplets which started Part III, ‘The Fire Sermon’. He whittled down Part IV, ‘Death by Water’, to a tenth of its size, and he had the intelligence to leave Part V, ‘What the Thunder Said’, virtually untouched.
But Eliot arrived at some of the most important decisions himself. How different the first lines of the poem might have looked:
First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place,
There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind…
Then we had dinner in good form, and a couple of Bengal lights.
When we got into the show, up in Row A,
I tried to put my foot in the drum, and didn’t the girl squeal…
Eliot realised that this wasn’t the register he was after, and at some point – it is not quite clear when – he came up with a radical alternative:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Hollis pinpoints the crucial event: April is “not a month of growing or nourishing or nurturing as any other spring might expect, but breeding, as animals and bacteria breed.” He manages to convey the excitement of this, one of literature’s Big Bang moments, without resorting to any cheap tricks. It’s enough to know that breeding, at the end of the line, serves as a “supercharger”, one that “would fuel the early engine of the poem through a chain of reacting echoes. Breeding, mixing, stirring, covering, feeding.”
The Waste Land is often narrowly read as a symptom of a collapsing marriage, but A Biography of a Poem nuances Vivien Eliot’s reputation as a worry and a nerve-frayer. The truth is that both parties were constantly breaking down, taking it in turns to nurse each other back to precarious health; moreover, Vivien offered another sounding-board for Eliot’s draftsmanship, and her hand lives on in the finished poem. It was she, Hollis believes, who argued for Lil’s husband being “demobbed“, instead of the flabby “coming back out of the Transport Corps”. Vivien’s rehabilitation is a surprise; another is that Eliot composed straight onto a typewriter, working only from the sketchiest pencil notes. Indeed, there was little of the ‘professional’ poet about him: no real writing routine, no cave to retreat to. John Berryman summed up the Eliot phenomenon best: “he would collect himself and write a masterpiece, then relax for several years writing prose, earning a living, and so forth; then he’d collect himself and write another masterpiece, very different from the first, and so on…a pure system of spasms.”
“A system of spasms” could at times describe Hollis’ book, whose structure occasionally crosses to the wrong side of quirky. 187 pages in, we cut back several decades to Hailey, Idaho, where Pound was born in 1885; there are similar excursus on the Eliot family, one of which (admittedly early on) widens into a nine-page history of their hometown of St Louis, Missouri. These scene changes are sometimes effected with rather too much sense of their own style. A discussion of Eliot’s Poems is followed by a section break, then: “Remote, extreme, foreign: such was the mind of W. B. Yeats. Subtle, erudite, massive: that of James Joyce.” It all gets back on topic soon enough, of course – we learn that Yeats never cared for Eliot’s poetry – but in a book that is overwhelmingly both scholarly and fascinating, those adjectival triads are trying a little too hard. I would have swapped them for a bit more date-dropping, as I often found myself wondering whether it was 1920, ’21 or ’22. No doubt Hollis is keen to avoid a linear through-line that could have made The Waste Land seem inevitable, a cosy assurance that ‘he’ll make it in the end’ – he did, but Eliot couldn’t have known that for sure.
Maybe he suspected it, though. One of the most spinetingling passages in The Waste Land: A Biography is an extract from the diary of Virginia Woolf, who had failed to catch a train with the poet that she published.
‘Missing trains is awful’ I said. ‘Yes. But humiliation is the worst thing in life’ he replied. ‘Are you as full of vices as I am?’ I demanded. ‘Full. Riddled with them.’ ‘We’re not as good as Keats’ I said. ‘Yes we are’ he replied. ‘No; we dont write classics straight off as magnanimous people do.’ ‘We’re trying something harder’ he said.
The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem is published by Faber and is available here