September 20: On this day in 1923 an unsigned review in the Times Literary Supplement dismissed T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as “a zig-zag of allusion” by a writer who was “parodying without taste or skill,” and “walking very near the limits of coherency.” Just published in England in book form—a handset, 450-copy first edition by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press—the poem had received mixed reviews and itself been immediately parodied (H. P. Lovecraft’s “Waste Paper,” for example). The TLS review was not as hostile as some, its final paragraph actually holding out some hope: “But it is the finest horses which have the most tender mouths, and some unsympathetic tug has sent Mr. Eliot’s gift awry. When he recovers control we shall expect his poetry to have gained in variety and strength from this ambitious experiment.”
Donald Hall, the American poet, children’s writer and memoirist, was born on this day in 1928. One of the chapters in Remembering Poets (1977), an engaging series of “Reminiscences and Opinions” about a handful of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed writers, is devoted to Eliot. Hall was just twenty-one when he first contacted Eliot, sending a fan letter and getting a friendly but firm reply:
“Mr. Hall,” began the letter, which I received as a junior in college, “I wish that you would date your letters.” It was my first communication from T. S. Eliot, and I have dated every letter, note, and postcard I have written since. It is hard to credit the authority Eliot’s name commanded in 1949, much less his signature. Had his words begun, “Mr. Hall, I wish you to commit arson upon the person of an elderly gentleman residing in your vicinity,” I would have set out to burn down a nearby old man. No one since has embodied, or seemed to embody, such authority…. No one can assume the center of that stage as Eliot did: There is no longer such a stage.
A decade later, Hall interviewed Eliot for The Paris Review; their talk concluded with Eliot expressing his own doubts about his accomplishment:
HALL: One last thing. Seventeen years ago you said, “No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written. He may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.” Do you feel the same way now, at seventy?
ELIOT: There may be honest poets who do feel sure. I don’t.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.