Waste Land Voices

On this day in 1922 T.  S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was published in book format. Eliot’s manuscript title for the poem was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” this taken from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, in which the orphan, Sloppy, entertains his acquaintances by a dramatic reading of the crime news. Virginia Woolf noted Eliot’s similar talent, describing in her diary how she listened rapt to his after-dinner reading of his poem: “He sang it & chanted it & rhymed it. It has great beauty and force of phrase; symmetry; & tensity. What connects it together, I’m not so sure….”

More than a few contemporaries applied Woolf’s last comment to Eliot himself. V.  S. Pritchett described him as “a company of actors inside one suit, each twitting the others.” Conrad Aiken said that Eliot “cries out for analysis.” When the book publication included Eliot’s “Explanatory Notes,” adding the voice of the pedant-critic to the voices in the poem, it was all too much for Robert Frost. He subtitled his New Hampshire poems, published in 1923, “A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes,” and then merely listed as his “notes” for the long title poem all the titles of the other “explanatory poems” in the collection.

But the poem was immediately noticed, even by James Joyce, whose Ulysses also came out in 1922. These are the beginning lines of a Waste Land parody included in a letter Joyce wrote in 1925, after spending a few rainy days at a Rouen hotel:

Rouen is the rainiest place getting
Inside all impermeables, wetting
Damp marrow in drenched bones.
Midwinter soused us coming over Le Mans
Our inn at Niort was the Grape of Burgundy

But the winepress of the Lord thundered over that
grape of Burgundy
And we left in a hurgundy.
(Hurry up, Joyce, it’s time…)

William Faulkner also enjoyed parodying Eliot. Faulkner’s first book, a poetry collection titled The Marble Faun, was published on this day in 1924. The poems are almost Victorian in style, Faulkner’s anti-modernist intention being to offer “an escape for poetry lovers from the scribblings that some authors are presumptuous enough to call poetry.” That he had T.  S. Eliot very much in mind is clear from “Love Song,” a Prufrockian parody included in Faulkner’s earlier sequence of poems presented to his future wife:

Now, do I dare,
Who sees the light gleam on her intricate hair?
Shall I assume a studied pose, or shall I stand —
Oh, Mr…? You are so kind….
Again the door slams inward on my mind….

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.