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Revisiting "The Waste Land"

by Lawrence Rainey

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This groundbreaking book of literary detective work alters our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece, The Waste Land. Lawrence Rainey not only resolves longstanding mysteries surrounding the composition of the poem but also overturns traditional interpretations of the poem that have prevailed for more than eighty years. He shines new light


This groundbreaking book of literary detective work alters our understanding of T. S. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece, The Waste Land. Lawrence Rainey not only resolves longstanding mysteries surrounding the composition of the poem but also overturns traditional interpretations of the poem that have prevailed for more than eighty years. He shines new light on Eliot’s greatest achievement and on the poem’s place in the modern canon.
Far from the austere and sober monument to neoclassicism that admirers have praised, The Waste Land turns out to be something quite different: something grim and wild, unruly and intractable, violent and shocking and radically indeterminate, yet also deeply compassionate. Rainey looks at how Eliot went about writing the poem and at the sequence in which he composed the parts. Arriving at new insights into the poet’s intentions, Rainey unsettles tradition-bound views of the poem and shows us that The Waste Land is even stranger and more startling than we knew.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Anniversary Edition
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Revisiting The Waste Land

By Lawrence Rainey


Copyright © 2005 Lawrence Rainey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12372-2

Chapter One

With Automatic Hand


In memory of Donald Gallup (1913-2000), Bibliographer of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound

TO STUDENTS OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY modernism, 1971 was the year when Valerie Eliot published a facsimile edition of The Waste Land's prepublication manuscripts. The event invited new accounts of the poem's development and fresh assessments of how that might bear on our understanding of the poem. One year later Hugh Kenner and Grover Smith published essays which, while differing sharply in premises and procedures, reached a consensus that part III, "The Fire Sermon," was the earliest portion of the poem to have been written, probably around midsummer 1921, followed first by parts I and II and then by IV and V (these latter completed in December 1921). Their efforts were followed in 1977 by Lyndall Gordon's attempt at "Dating The Waste Land Fragments," a wide-ranging survey which addressed both the principal parts of The Waste Land and the various drafts and ancillary poems. In the end, however, Gordon remained divided over the claims of two sharply incompatible hypotheses for dating the principal parts of The Waste Land and concluded that the questionwas, at least for the present, "unresolved" ("DTWLF," 146). In 1979 there was still another consideration of the dating by Peter Barry. Barry urged a complicated chronology which assigned priority to the first leaf in the typescript for part I, a passage recounting a rowdy night on the town in Boston (assigned to April-May 1921), followed by all of part III (September-October), then the rest of part I and all of part II (early November), and finally parts IV and V (November-December). Finally, in 1984, Ronald Bush offered a reading of the poem which echoed Smith's and Kenner's thesis assigning priority to part III, and relied on Gordon's conjecture that a specific fragment, the one beginning "London, the swarming life," might date from as far back as 1918.

By 1985, however, debate had come to a standstill, and since then a lack of new evidence or argumentation has effectively put a halt to discussion. What had once seemed a new dawn has turned into a lunar landscape, with critics condemned to retracing the dusty tracks left by Kenner, Smith, Gordon, and Barry. At the same time, as Christine Froula has lately noted, more recent criticism has increasingly drawn upon the prepublication manuscripts to offer "readings that cross easily between the 1921 and 1922 texts," despite legitimate uncertainty about the date or status of virtually all the prepublication manuscripts. Indeed, as Froula's repeated references to "the 1921 manuscript" and "the 1921 text" indicate, the specificity of the prepublication materials-their heft, their material and historical density-has been leveled by a process of abstraction into "text," or even "the 1921 text," that definite article urging a monolithic entity that is at odds with the experience of pondering the undated, disordered scraps that jostle one another in the facsimile edition. That experience inevitably raises a host of questions. Did one passage or fragment antedate the others and preserve the trace of an original program which had later dissolved? Were specific passages composed all at once or in discrete and discontinuous moments? Were the ancillary poems conceived as independent works or meant to form part of the poem's texture? Was the poem's composition a straightforward progress or did it entail more entangled loopings? If we are to address these questions, if we are to restore the specificity of the prepublication materials and assess their bearing on critical understanding of The Waste Land, we must first return to the manuscripts themselves, revisiting the debates which ground to a halt in the mid-1980s. More concretely, we must resolve the vexing question concerning the priority of parts I and II versus part III, a question that hinged on the identity of a typewriter that mysteriously disappeared. Then we must establish a chronology for the entire corpus of prepublication materials to furnish a coherent account of the poem's production, assaying its significance for long-standing debates about the plan or program which shaped the poem's composition. And last, we need to integrate those considerations into a history specific to the early twentieth century, a culture of the book that gravitated around that epitome of modern communication flows, the typewriter, and that recognizably modern protagonist, the typist. "Such an exercise needs no apology," wrote Hugh Kenner at the outset of his own attempt to address the prepublication manuscripts some thirty years ago. "The Waste Land is still a determinant of modernist consciousness, postmodernist also if it has come to that, and the profit ... may be that we shall learn a little more about the history of our own minds" ("UA," 24). Or, as Ezra Pound put it in his preface to the facsimile, "The more we know of Eliot, the better" (TWL:AF, vii).


The first two scholars who attempted to date the Waste Land manuscripts, Hugh Kenner and Grover Smith, agreed that the principal question was the problem of the typewriters-three of them, to be exact. One was especially distinctive: its characters were discernibly larger than those of the others, and, as Valerie Eliot noted that it had been used with the kind of "violet ribbon used by Pound" (TWL:AF, 63), both critics inferred that this machine was Pound's. Eliot must have worked on it while visiting him in Paris in January 1922, they reasoned, and it had been used to type fair copies of parts IV and V of the poem because these were apparently the last to be drafted and had still not been typed when Eliot came to Paris ("UA," 24; "MOTWL," 131). That left a more difficult question: what was the relationship between parts I and II, typed on a second kind of typewriter, and part III, typed on a third? The facts were both suggestive and confusing: suggestive because in theory the different typewriters offered a key to identifying discrete levels or times of composition; confusing because in practice there seemed to be no way of establishing the chronology of their usage.

These typewriters produced characters generally rather similar in appearance. Yet on closer scrutiny they can be distinguished from each other by several features. One is the minuscule forms of the letters t and f. In the typewriter used for parts I and II (Fig. 1), the descender of the lowercase t ends with a finishing stroke that seems oddly constricted, curving back sharply as it rises toward the cross-stroke above. Similarly, the ascender of the lowercase f concludes with an arc that curls back toward the character's body, giving it a crabbed appearance, and it ends at a point high above the level of the cross-stroke. The characters from the other typewriter, the one used for part III, are recognizably different (Fig. 2). The finishing stroke of the lowercase t culminates in a wide, stately curve, arcing beyond the length of the cross-stroke above, while the ascender of the lowercase f also finishes with a wide, graceful arc, circling downward until it nearly touches the cross-stroke below. Moreover, this machine produced apostrophes and quotation marks that are notably elongated; numerals such as 2 and 3 without serifs; alignment that is straight and even, as opposed to the often wobbly alignment of the other machine; and characters that are crisp and well-defined, as opposed to the worn appearance of the other machine ("UA," 24; "MOTWL," 131-132). There is one other distinction that Kenner and Smith did not notice: the machine with apparently wider characters, the one used for part III, actually allocated less space per letter than the other, 2.10 mm, while the machine with the crabbed finishing strokes (parts I and II) allocated more, 2.12 mm.

Both Kenner and Smith concluded that part III, typed on the 2.10 typewriter, was the earlier material, though they did so on very different grounds. Kenner noted that much of the material in part III was written in elegiac quatrains (a stanza pattern so named because of its use by Thomas Gray in his famous "Elegy in a Country Churchyard"). The same stanza, he observed, had also been used by John Dryden in his "Annus Mirabilis," a poem that celebrates the reconstruction of London after the fire of 1666 and elaborates a sustained analogy between modern London and ancient Rome. Eliot published a review of a new book on Dryden on 9 June 1921, allowing us to infer that he was reading in Dryden in May. Further, on 9 May he had notified John Quinn that he had "a long poem in mind," and that it was "partly on paper" already. Thus, Kenner concluded, the material "partly on paper" was probably the typescript draft for part III. And even if this typescript draft was not completed by 9 May, it was certainly completed shortly thereafter, and certainly preceded the composition of parts I and II. The 2.10 machine, with its rounded, stately finishing strokes was Eliot's "London typewriter" ("UA," 25), which had first been used to type part III; while the 2.12 was "the one he used at Lausanne" ("UA," 38).

Grover Smith reached the same conclusion by a complex body of assumptions and inferences. First and foremost, Smith assumed that the passage depicting Madame Sosostris in part I derived from Aldous Huxley's portrait of a fortune-teller in Crome Yellow, a novel published in November 1921. If so, he reasoned, parts I and II, both typed with the 2.12 machine, could not have been written earlier. Second, Ezra Pound had once remarked that the passage beginning "Summer surprised us ..." contained "snatches of conversation heard by Eliot from his fellow patients" in Lausanne ("MOTWL," 132). If so, Smith inferred, it reinforced the hypothesis that parts I and II were written after Eliot's journey there in November 1921. Third, Vivien Eliot's written comments on one copy of part II indicated that she was surprised when she saw it for the first time; and though Smith did not explicitly state this, apparently he assumed that "the first time" could only have been in Paris in January 1922. If so, it corroborated the view that parts I and II were primarily composed and typed in Lausanne. That inference, in turn, became the premise for another. If parts I and II were composed and typed in Lausanne, then Eliot must have taken this typewriter with him: "It is assumed that Typewriter [2.12] was a portable machine and that Eliot took it to Lausanne" ("MOTWL," 133). And from this premise, yet another inference followed: part III was neither composed nor typed in December in Lausanne, for Eliot would have used the same typewriter to do so; "it follows, then, that the fair [typescript] copy of Part III was made before Eliot left England on November 18" ("MOTWL," 133). Indeed, it was very likely that "Part III, or some prototype of it, existed by the time Eliot and Vivienne went to Margate about the middle of October" ("MOTWL," 133).

Kenner and Smith, then, agreed that part III, typed on the 2.10 machine with the rounded t's and f's, had been written and typed before parts I and II, typed on the 2.12 machine. Part III was for Kenner "the earliest continuous stretch of the poem" ("UA," 25), for Smith "the first germ of The Waste Land" ("MOTWL," 133). They also agreed on its date of composition: Kenner assigned it to May 1921, or not long thereafter; while Smith thought it had "probably" been composed by early May, and in any case sometime before Eliot left for Margate in mid-October 1921 ("MOTWL," 133). Finally, they concurred that the 2.12 typewriter, the one with the crabbed finishing strokes used for parts I and II, was firmly linked with Eliot's experience in Lausanne: for Kenner it was "the one he used at Lausanne" ("UA," 25), for Smith "a portable machine ... that he took ... to Lausanne" ("MOTWL," 133). But that claim entailed an obvious puzzle: if Eliot used this typewriter in Lausanne to type parts I and II, why did he not use it to prepare a typescript of parts IV and V as well? Why, in fact, bother to prepare a fair copy of parts IV and V by hand if one had a typewriter at one's disposition? Smith never considered the question, but Kenner clearly anticipated it: when Eliot prepared part IV, he reasoned, "a typewriter" was "for some reason inaccessible" ("UA," 41). It was at least an answer, however vague. ("For some reason"? What reason?) To Smith's hypothesis that Eliot had taken a "portable machine" with him to Lausanne there was a still stronger objection. For when Eliot went on to Paris in January 1922, why did he use Ezra Pound's typewriter to prepare typescripts of parts IV and V? Had he jettisoned his own typewriter while in Lausanne, or lost it while en route to Paris?

Lyndall Gordon, writing seven years later, struggled to address these questions. She was the first to consult the manuscripts themselves and to focus on evidence offered by study of their papers. By collating the kinds of paper used in the Waste Land manuscripts with those used in poems whose dates of composition were already established, she hoped to date not just the major parts of The Waste Land but all the fragments and independent poems. For our purpose, her comments on the chronology of parts I and II, versus part III, are the most important. Having examined the typescripts of other poems by Eliot, Gordon was aware that the 2.12 typewriter, the one with the crabbed finishing strokes, was used not only for parts I and II of The Waste Land but for numerous poems that Eliot had composed much earlier. Gordon, in fact, dubbed it "his Harvard typewriter" ("DTWLF," 144), implying that he had used it at least since 1914, perhaps even earlier. But if so, its usage typified not Eliot's stay in Lausanne but his everyday life in London, and therefore it would seem that parts I and II had been written not late in 1921 in Lausanne but earlier. And this suspicion was buttressed for Gordon by other evidence. First, parts I and II were written on the same kind of paper as a poem titled "Song for the Opherion," and since "Song" had been published already in April 1921, in the Tyro, parts I and II presumably had been composed long, long before the Lausanne period (late November-December) urged by Kenner and Smith. Second, the original opening of part I had described a raucous evening in Boston, a scene redolent of the Night-town episode in Ulysses, which Eliot was reading in manuscript in early May 1921, so corroborating an earlier dating of parts I and II. And third, Eliot's letter of 9 May to Quinn, stating that his "long poem" was already "partly on paper," could be deemed further confirmation: "on paper" might refer not to part III or some part of it, as Kenner and Smith had urged, but to parts I and II.


Excerpted from Revisiting The Waste Land by Lawrence Rainey Copyright © 2005 by Lawrence Rainey. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Lawrence Rainey is professor and chair in modernist literature, Department of English, University of York. He is the author of Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture, published by Yale University Press. 

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