And then this:
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
Closing the book, you move on. The whisperings, however, together with the birdlike twitterings, reverberate in your mind’s ear. This noisy and peculiar work, like the snatch of an overheard song, or a nocturnal stab of shame at the thought of someone you once wronged, will not leave you alone.
There is little doubt that, of these two first-time readers, the erudite and the uninformed, Eliot would lean toward the second. “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” he wrote, in an essay on Dante. “It is better to be spurred to acquire scholarship because you enjoy the poetry, than to suppose that you enjoy the poetry because you have acquired the scholarship.” What he sought, as both a writer and a reader, was “some direct shock of poetic intensity.” True to that quest, “The Waste Land” is a symphony of shocks, and, like other masterworks of early modernism, it refuses to die down. (Go to MOMA and let your gaze move across Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” from west to east. If you don’t flinch when you reach the faces on the right, bladed and scraped like shovels, consult your optician.) The shocks have triggered aftershocks, and readers of Eliot are trapped in the quake. Escape is useless:
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
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
I happen to think, for what it’s worth, that these lines, which come toward the end of “The Waste Land,” are the greatest that Eliot ever wrote. They cast a shadow of a doubt over everything that we believe about ourselves, at different stages of our lives; over the stories of ourselves that we tell to other people; and over what they tell of us in turn. As always with Eliot, abstraction is offset by the taut particularity of physical things: the spider, the wax seals, and the shuddering blood, concluding in the long and mournful double “o” of “rooms.” And the word “surrender” could be applied to so many daring souls: a lover at the instant of ecstasy, a religious devotee, a hounded warrior, a corruptible politician, a wooer who hastens, like Eliot, into a proposal of marriage, or a Dostoyevskian gambler, with the family jewels in his pocket. All of them will face that overwhelming question: “What have we given?” It is something that each of us must ask, on our deathbeds, though nobody wants to die in shame.
Like the Book of Psalms, “King Lear,” and Nadal vs. Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2src18, “The Waste Land” is divided into five parts. Each part has a title: “The Burial of the Dead,” “A Game of Chess,” “The Fire Sermon,” “Death by Water,” and “What the Thunder said.” What of the title of the poem itself? “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” Eliot wrote, and, as with Macavity, the master criminal in his “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” (1937), you can’t always tell where the poet’s been. It could be, in this case, that he stole from Tennyson’s “The Passing of Arthur,” and its undulating mood—“as it were one voice, an agony / Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills / All night in a waste land, where no one comes, / Or hath come, since the making of the world.”
But Tennyson unfolds a single story, whereas Eliot has many tales to tell, some of them overlapping, or no sooner begun than snapped off, and, to anyone versed in Tennysonian euphony, “The Waste Land” can seem like a baffling Babel. You might as well be rummaging through international newspapers, or spinning the dial on a radio. Listen to the scraps of languages other than English—Italian, French, German, Latin, Sanskrit—that litter the poem, and the profusion of people who speak. Somebody named Marie, of aristocratic descent, recalls an episode from her girlhood; someone else chatters to friends in a pub. The pub’s landlord chimes in, too—“HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.” There is a clairvoyante, Madame Sosostris, and another seer, the blind Tiresias, with whom Odysseus once conversed in the underworld, and who now watches two loveless urban dwellers making love. Elsewhere, another woman brushes her hair and complains of bad nerves, while a third records, without anger or animation, a sexual act (“After the event / He wept”), which occurred in Richmond, in southwest London. She asserts her modest origins:
“My people humble people who expect
To Carthage then I came.
Hang on, what? Within three lines, we have jumped not just from Britain to Carthage, and from modern to ancient, but from a woman to a man: the last line is taken from St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” Chase down the quotation and you will discover that immediately before it comes the clause “I became to myself a barren land.” Aha.
Trying to sort out who is uttering what, at any juncture, in “The Waste Land” is far from a fool’s errand, but it’s a tough task nonetheless. (Anyone attempting it should arm themselves with “The Poems of T. S. Eliot,” edited in two redoubtable volumes by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue.) Augustine is not the only source whose words Eliot, ever the ventriloquist, throws into the mix. Others include Dante, Milton, Marvell, Spenser, Baudelaire, the explorer Ernest Shackleton, and a gang of English dramatists: John Webster, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Kyd, and the leader of the pack, Shakespeare, who never keeps quiet for long. “The Tempest,” especially, rumbles through the poem:
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.
Catch the echo here, in the final line, and you want to ask what the hell Shakespeare’s Ferdinand is doing behind a gashouse. Isn’t he meant to be shipwrecked on Prospero’s island? The whole passage, collapsing history in on itself, is startling even now, so imagine how it flummoxed readers in 1922. Parody was not far behind; in a tale of 1925, P. G. Wodehouse mocked “the jolly, wholesome sort of poetry the boys are turning out nowadays”—specifically, “good, honest stuff about sin and gasworks and decaying corpses.”
Meanwhile, for readers who didn’t catch the echo, Eliot offered help. Appended to “The Waste Land,” when it appeared as a book, in late 1922, was a section titled “Notes on the Waste Land.” This gave references for the litany of quotations that bestrew the poem: “The Tempest, I, ii,” “Ezekiel, II, i,” “Paradise Lost, IV, 14src.” There is no disguising an aroma of practical jesting; Eliot treats us to nineteen lines of Ovid, untranslated, and solemnly informs us that, when “The Waste Land” mentions a hermit-thrush, the bird in question is Turdus aonalaschkae pallasii. Nice to have that sorted out. “It was discovered that the poem was inconveniently short,” he later explained, “so I set to work to expand the notes, in order to provide a few more pages of printed matter, with the result that they became the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view today.” If the Notes were bogus, however, why did Eliot include them in subsequent collections of his verse, where length was no longer an issue? Forget hermit-thrushes; what’s the Latin name for a wild goose?