Nov 22 2022
THE WASTE LAND: A BIOGRAPHY OF A POEM: Edmund Prestwich admires the depth and scope of Matthew Hollis’s study of T S Eliot’s most famous work
Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem is a work of art as much as scholarship. I found it absorbing, illuminating, moving and entertaining, packed with information about Eliot’s life, his circumstances in London, his marriage to Vivien, his literary friendships, especially that with Ezra Pound, the development of his ideas about poetry, and the roles Pound and Vivien played in the evolution of The Waste Land itself. It will richly reward both readers with little or no previous knowledge of Eliot’s work and those who know the poem and are broadly familiar with the story Hollis tells. However, I think its most profound reward comes when it’s seen as a whole, not as a mass of fascinating anecdotes and information but as a form in the air with a powerful emotional resonance of its own. I’ll come back to that idea later.
A biography of a poem, not a critical study. For readers familiar with The Waste Land, Hollis’s book refreshes our approach in a different way to standard critical discussion. Conventional criticism tends to fire up the analytical muscles of the mind, those that deal in opinions and abstract ideas, not intuitions and aesthetic emotion. Hollis’s account of the experiences and circumstances that fed into the poem speaks directly to the imagination. He largely leaves it to the reader to absorb this material and apply it in his or her own way. For example, the early chapter ‘Armistice’ opens with a section on an ordinary German American soldier caught up in the war and killed in its last few minutes. This man had never heard of Eliot or been heard of by him but his death epitomizes the waste and grief of the conflict in a piercingly intense way. His story, and more general information about the war and its aftermath, give a direct new charge to moments like the revelation of Lil’s husband’s four years in the army in ‘A Game of Chess’. In a more indirect way they recharge the whole sense of aimlessness and malaise hanging over the poem.
Of course there are passages of explicit literary-critical reflection. Hollis’s sensitive comments on rhythm and cadence, so fundamental to the genius and distinctiveness of Eliot’s verse, are particularly illuminating: in them, a poet speaks of poetry with the special insight of a practitioner. Less distinctive in mode but also clear and valuable were summaries of Eliot’s critical thought about tradition, individual talent and the place of personality in poetry, which Hollis developed into reflections on how Eliot’s ideas in these areas related to the writing of The Waste Land itself. Sometimes too he does explicitly point up connections between the socio-historical context and the poems.
Though they’re not Hollis’s target audience, even readers who don’t particularly care for Eliot’s or Pound’s poetry should be moved by and find something heroic in both Eliot’s and Pound’s dedicated striving in the cause of art. For Eliot, making his way in an alien England, this meant an exhausting struggle against ill health, marital unhappiness, money worries, and the demands of work. Instead of being sustained in these struggles by family bonds and a sense of harmony between his own purposes and the values of those close to him, he had to find or create a framework of meaning for himself. ‘The mind of Europe’, as expressed in its literature and art, was the framework he found within the period covered by Hollis. Something he said in 1935 suggests how close he could come to being overwhelmed by what one might call moral loneliness and consequent despair: ‘There are moments, perhaps not known to everyone, when a man may be nearly crushed by the terrible awareness of his isolation from every other human being.’ It is easy to forget how little publishing success his poetry enjoyed before ‘The Waste Land’. The pressure he was under brought about the nervous collapse in which some of ‘The Waste Land’ was composed.
But of course for all the frustrations of his life he wasn’t really alone. He had literary friends, and above all he had Ezra Pound, closely allied to him in literary endeavour but temperamentally and in social manner pretty well his opposite. No book has given me a more vivid sense of Pound’s exuberance and the generosity of his striving on behalf of many writers and artists than this one does, although I’ve read both A. David Moody’s and Hugh Kenner’s biographies. No doubt this is partly to do with Hollis’s sheer talent as a writer, a poet who knows how to deploy words and ideas to maximum effect. I think it also shows what an inspired decision it was to write his book as a biography of The Waste Land itself rather than of the people around it. This lets him present events and personal interactions in a highly selective way, not burying what Pound would have called ‘luminous particulars’ – those that radiate wider suggestiveness – under a mass of flatly factual detail. Anecdotes illustrating Pound’s physical and mental energy, the sheer unquestioning vigour of life in the man, give the book much of its exhilarating animation. Wyndham Lewis is the source of one:
‘A splendidly built young man , stripped to the waist, and with a torso of dazzling white, was standing not far from me, Lewis recalled. ‘He was tall, handsome and serene, and was repelling with his boxing gloves a hectic assault of Ezra’s. After a final swing at the dazzling solar plexus Pound fell back upon his settee.’ The young man was Ernest Hemingway, and with Pound he would get on like a house on fire: he had ‘a terrific wallop’, Hemingway would acknowledge, ‘and when he gets too tough I dump him on the floor’.
It’s easy to imagine that such vitality itself had a beneficial effect on the perennially exhausted, reserved and life-fearing Eliot. However that may be, Pound was a vital source of encouragement, stimulus and practical literary help to Eliot in the years leading up to the writing of ‘The Waste Land’. The concrete benefits were immense. Nearly all the verse Eliot published, up to and including The Waste Land itself, found publication through Pound’s efforts. Further benefits, perhaps still greater ones, were felt both in Eliot’s developing ideas about the literary tradition and in his verse compositions. Famously, the tight, short-lined poems of Poems (1920) reflect Eliot’s and Pound’s shared decision to write in a way that emulated the tightness of the French poet Théophile Gautier’s Émaux et Camées.
When it comes to The Waste Land itself, it’s common knowledge that the poem benefited enormously from Ezra Pound’s inspired editing, and from lesser contributions by Eliot’s then wife, Vivien. Valerie Eliot’s edition of facsimiles and drafts of ‘The Waste Land’ showed this as far back as 1971. Hollis explores and brings to life the way Vivien’s and particularly Pound’s responses changed the poem. In fact he sees Pound’s contribution as very much transcending mere editing, writing
Like a sculpture half-emerging from its marble, the ‘poem’ that Eliot brought back from Switzerland was neither defined nor discrete – it was still a miscellany of parts... What Pound and Eliot achieved together in Paris and London didn’t make it a better poem; it made The Waste Land a poem for the first time... They had found a way for the poem to exist within them both at the same moment, possessed by neither but possessing of both. In that instant the poem was neither ‘Eliot’s’ composition nor ‘Pound’s’ editorial , but a common project, equally imagined, inhabiting each man simultaneously and fully.
Eliot scholars are better qualified to judge this final assessment than I am but the chapters focusing on the detailed discussion of how the poem evolved and of Pound’s contribution, as stimulus as well as editor, did seem to me to make a compelling case for it.
I said the book was a work of art as well as scholarship. Seen as a whole it presents the contrast between Eliot’s and Pound’s careers in a moving and ambiguously thought-provoking way. It begins and ends with their contrasting positions in 1960. Then, Pound was in utter disgrace, a war time traitor who had spent more than ten years in a mental asylum and who might have been executed had he not been found unfit to plead. Eliot was recognised as the great poet of the age. Though Eliot acknowledged his debt to Pound in warm personal letters, nothing could shake Pound’s own sense of failure. As presented by Hollis, the mere arc of their careers has an effect like that of a great, symbolically resonant novel. But the effect of rereading the book’s epigraphs and opening after absorbing the rest of it is more haunting than the analogy with a novel suggests. The second of these epigraphs is Eliot’s acknowledgement of a debt to a friend whose generosity he describes with almost hagiographic eloquence. The acknowledgement was written in 1949 when Pound was in the asylum. The friend is unnamed, which speaks volumes in itself. The second is an example of that generosity – Pound in 1966, brushing off a request for recollections of Eliot, concludes ‘I can only repeat, but with the urgency of 50 years ago: READ HIM.’ But it’s the first epigraph that’s heartbreaking, a single line from The Waste Land’s final section: ‘There is always another one walking beside you’. So many ripples of suggestion are started by that, especially if we apply it to ourselves (‘you’ as the reader) as well as to Eliot and Pound. The line never meant so much to me before I read it in this new context.