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T. S. Eliot and the Problem of Authorship

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land stands as a manifestation of the poet’s intensely personal experience of mental disorder, and an attempt to salvage meaning and significant experience out of a post-war Europe characterised by disillusionment and nihilism. The poem materialises both conscious and unconscious thought; by an arduous mental effort, the poet can ‘dislocate […] language into his meaning’ to render the modern world intelligible through poetry, yet, often through an automatic process of composition, the poetic self is reduced to a mere ‘receptacle’ for the literary tradition he involuntarily participates in. Eliot’s comments, following his ‘impersonal’ theory of poetry, attempts to divest The Waste Land of all personal and socio-political meanings, by dismissing it as a ‘relief’ achieved through a laboured period of poetic composition (alongside intense psychiatric care). However, the poem implicitly draws the reader’s attention to Eliot’s own sexual unfulfillment, and spiritual desire for meaning, in an increasingly fragmented existence. The Waste Land can also, despite Eliot’s rejection of the poem a ‘wholly insignificant grouse against life’, be extrapolated to characterise a prevailing sense of disenchantment in the aftermath of the Great War. This renders the poem ‘acutely conscious of [its] place in time, of [its] contemporaneity’, in relation to the timeless emotions and themes it explores. Thus, one must be careful not to take Eliot’s comments regarding the poem as authoritative; as Eliot himself understood, once published, a poem gains a critical and cultural presence of its own, permanently divorced from the poet’s original intention and meaning.

The Waste Land cannot be appreciated in its entirety without an exploration of Eliot’s relationship with women, which helps to frame the poem as a ‘relief’ from multiple personal crises. Eliot’s failed marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood famously brought her ‘no happiness’ and brought him the ‘state of mind [out of] which came The Waste Land’. In light of this comment, the poem may serve as an allegory for Eliot’s own stagnant and unfulfilled marriage. This is exemplified by the hyperactive, questioning female voice in the second section (a voice which pervades the poem), who desperately presses a closed and defensive male voice for answers. This latter, detached voice can only mediate and filter his true emotional responses through Shakespearean allusion: ‘I remember / those are pearls that were his eyes’. Eliot’s lack of intimacy with his wife, who displayed impulses of ‘a Dostoevsky type of cruelty’ toward him, undoubtedly colours his presentation of women throughout the poem. The opening of section two mirrors metrically Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, yet then proceeds to subvert the iambic pentameter by shortening a foot from the next line, unsettling the reader’s expectation of some sense of order being imposed by reference to the seminal literary figure of Shakespeare. Drawing on imagery employed by French Symbolist poets, Eliot’s presentation of Cleopatra is decadently claustrophobic, reflected syntactically through the amalgamation of verbs and adjectival principles (‘troubled’, ‘freshened’, ‘prolonged’ (lines 88-91)). This undermines the reader’s anticipation of lucid, romanticised lyrics, producing instead a stifled, deadening effect. Problematic sexual encounters continue into the third section, where Eliot satirises and deflates romantic notions of courtly love through ironic end-rhymes. The female typist remains passive, ‘bored’ (line 236) and ‘indifferen[t]’ (line 242) throughout the disturbing sexual incident. The drama associated with this violent sexual transgression is disconcertingly lacking; instead, the female figure’s divorce from her emotions renders her an unfeeling automaton, smoothing her hair ‘with automatic hand’ (line 255). This parallels Eliot’s own disconnect from emotion and feeling at the time of composition, confessing that he lacked the ‘freedom of mind’ needed to compose poetry.

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The Waste Land provides an insight into the mind of a neurasthenic who lacks the mental strength required to achieve a sense of poetic coherence. Thus, Dr Roger Vittoz’s treatment of Eliot at a sanitorium in Lausanne clear influences the poem and its composition. This treatment attempted to alleviate one’s sensation of being ‘a rudderless ship in a storm’, a condition Eliot diagnosed personally, fearing himself a ‘prey to every impulse, subject to all fears’. This realisation of one’s inability to perceive and order experience is present in the narrator of the poem, who can connect ‘nothing with nothing’ (line 302), signifying an excessively chaotic mind. The repetitions of ‘rock’, ‘water’ and ‘mountains’ (line 334) in section five materialise the speaker’s anguished solipsism, with failed attempts to transcend the mind’s constraints being reflected formally in the cyclical nature of the verse. This is countered through concerted efforts of the individual will, which give (as Joyce similarly achieved in Ulysses) ‘shape and […] significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’. Through this mental effort, the poet obtains control with a ‘hand expert with sail and oar’, rendering the sea ‘calm’ (lines 420-1) and the poem’s form controllable. Eliot later alludes to luminaries of religious thought in an attempt to find order for his spiritual yearnings. However, while figures such as Dante had their vision consumed by an exposure the beauty of God’s eternal light, the poet’s state of mind is more akin to Dr Vittoz’s diagnosis of a detached neurasthenic, who ‘often looks without seeing’, just as the narrator ‘could not / [s]peak’ and their ‘eyes failed’ (lines 38-9). Eliot’s poem, indebted to Arthur Symons’ The Symbolist Movement in Literature, instead turns inward for consolation, retreating from the mundane reality of the external world to the potentially visionary insights found at the ‘frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meaning still exist[s]’.

Despite Eliot’s attempts to reduce the socio-historical importance of his poem as a commentary on post-war Europe, it cannot be denied that The Waste Land captures a sense of the futility and meaninglessness of modernity. However, one must remain attentive to the ways in which Eliot’s autobiographical details give rise to such expressions of a collective post-war consciousness. Through situating The Waste Land both spatially and temporally in London, Eliot uses the ‘unreal city’ (line 60) and the ‘crowd’ (line 62) who inhabit it to project, in the form of hallucinations, his own desires and disorders, rather than commenting directly on the actual disillusionment of the London population. Critics such as Seamus Perry seek to accentuate the ‘poem’s ambition’ by inferring from Eliot’s ‘expression of […] local melancholy’ a general diagnosis of the modern human condition. However, such critics mistakenly infer from the poem’s plethora of allusions, and grandiose thematic aspects, a sense of ‘ambition’ which strategically ignores the chief function of this poetic method – that is, to allow Eliot to talk ‘about himself [and his personal suffering]’, without ‘giving himself away’. Thus, while the poem tends inevitably towards wider socio-political readings, it is chiefly a personal account of isolation and spiritual deprivation, whose sentiment merely happened to resonate with contemporary readers as a sign of some larger notion of a post-war consciousness.

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Eliot’s reported comment on The Waste Land as a ‘wholly insignificant grouse against life’ attempts to diminish the poet’s role in composition, furthering his ‘impersonal’ theory of poetry as a precursor to the school of New Criticism. Yet, as Eliot tries to repress his own personal circumstances, one finds them painfully resurfacing throughout the poem. In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Eliot lays out a manifesto that divorced the poet from a poem’s meaning through their engagement in a ‘continual self-sacrifice’, culminating in the ‘extinction of personality’, thus rendering the ‘emotional of art […] impersonal’. Despite Eliot’s best efforts, however, there remain signs of authorial intent which illuminate his poetic composition; as Lyndall Gordon has identified, the ‘impersonal façade of his poetry […] masks an often quite literal reworking of personal experience’. Specifically explored in the poem are the notions of ‘memory’ and ‘desire’ (line 3), both as emotions to be expunged yet also inevitably indulged in by the poet-speaker. The opening section of the poem, though devoid of any clear rhyme scheme, draws the reader’s attention to the abundance of ‘-ing’ words, where each participle is isolated by caesuras, deflating the verse’s metre through the weak final ‘-ing’ syllable. This effect is akin to the poet’s mind stopping and starting, both engaging with and rejecting the impulse towards remembrance, in a tortured attempt to achieve impersonality. As a highly elusive and self-fashioned poet, Eliot’s comments and notes on The Waste Land merely complicate the reader’s understanding of the poem, as opposed to suggesting some inviolable authorial intention through an overriding schema. Contemporary critics were quick to identify how Eliot’s ‘poetic personality’ was mediated through ‘a zig-zag of allusion’, thus rendering such simplistic discussions of personal intention impossible. In this sense, one should not take Eliot’s statements regarding the poem as the key to unlocking its meaning. Given his awareness of the subjectivity of a reader’s response (contrasted with his desire to impose order on the poem through carefully referenced notes), Eliot’s explanations become futile attempts to salvage some overriding order from a disordered and unintelligible poem which consistently evades meaning.

The Waste Land makes clear that the psyche of post-war Europe has been devastated in a manner akin to physical ruins, leaving the narrator attempting to convey his meaning in a state of spiritual ennui, offering only ‘fragments […] shored against [his] ruins’ (line 431). This contrasts strikingly with previously accepted Victorian narratives, which prophesied an inevitable, linear march towards a perfectible civilisation. The unencumbered style of the poem’s final section, which features unfamiliar enjambment and a lack of end-stopped lines, gives the verse a sense of its unconscious composition. Eliot later identified this as part of a quasi-mystical religious experience, wherein the poet engages in a ‘communion with the divine’, accessing insights into some deeper truth that will render the rest of the poem intelligible. References to the Hindu Upanishads in this section suggest a potential for Eastern thought to offer a means of spiritual reconciliation through transcending Western materialism. Indeed, repetitions of ‘Datta’, ‘Dayadhvam’ and ‘Damyata’ (line 433) (give, sympathise and control) and ‘Shantih’ (line 434) can be read in the context of Eliot’s own life, given Dr Vittoz’s suggestion for Eliot to concentrate on and repeat a single, subduing word such as ‘calm’. The concluding lines of the poem, characterised by intense formal fragmentation and constant use of allusion, may initially be read as a descent into madness (paralleling Hieronymo’s insanity in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy), yet upon closer examination, it becomes clear that the poem, frustrated with an isolation from words and their meaning, metaphorically bites out its tongue and utters words and meanings beyond comprehension. These existential fears of incommunicability are finally subdued through the ritualised incantation of the Eastern word ‘Shantih’ (line 434), providing a ‘peace that passeth all understanding [and comprehension]’. Through allusions to Dante’s purgatorial flames as the cure for sexually depraved desires, The Waste Land looks forward towards a consoling future, mirroring Eliot’s later ascetic ‘new life’ as a committed Anglican. In the translated final lines of the poem: ‘then he hid himself in the fire that purifies them’ (line 427), Eliot too suggests he will finally transcend his corruptible body and ascend to immortal celestial perfection – ‘like the swallow’ (line 428) – in heaven.

To conclude, The Waste Land is an infinitely elusive poem which resists interpretation, not least because of the poet’s own ambivalence towards its intention and ultimate meaning. Through considering Eliot’s personal contexts, however, it becomes clear that the poem affords him a ‘relief’ through poetic self-actualisation, wherein an ‘exorcism’ of a ‘daemon’ (a poetic idea) which ‘oppresse[s]’ him must be ‘[brought] to birth’ to make sense of a deeply profound, yet inscrutable, experience of religious longing. It is undeniable that despite Eliot’s poor value judgement of the poem as a ‘wholly insignificant grouse against life’, The Waste Land stands as an unparalleled poetic achievement in the twentieth-century. In its receptivity to the literary traditions of the past, and to the possible visionary experiences of the individual, the poem enables the reader to comprehend Eliot’s attempt, alongside many other thinkers of his time, to give intense spiritual meaning and order to the fleeting nature of modern consciousness.



Primary Reading

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales (New York City: Penguin Random House, 2005)

Eliot, T.S., Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 2002) Selected Secondary Criticism

Secondary Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed., Modern American Poetry (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005)

—— T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 2006)

Cianci, Giovanni and Jason Harding, eds., T. S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Gold, Matthew K., ‘The Expert Hand and the Obedient Heart: Dr. Vittoz, T.S. Eliot, and the Therapeutic Possibilities of “The Waste Land”’, Journal of Modern Literature, 23. 3 (2000), 519-533

Gross, John, ed., The Modern Movement: A TLS Companion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992)

Harding, Jason, ed., The New Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017)

Harris, Amanda Jeremin, ‘T.S. Eliot’s Mental Hygiene’, Journal of Modern Literature, 29. 4 (2006), 44-56

Kirk, Russell, Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Peru; Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1988)

Laity, Cassandra and Nancy K. Gish, eds, Gender, Desire and Sexuality in T.S. Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Maddrey, Joseph, The Making of T.S. Eliot: A Study of the Literary Influences (Jefferson; North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2009)

Moody, A. David, ed., The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Reeves, Gareth, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994)

Ricks, Christopher, T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (London: Faber and Faber, 1994)

Scofield, Martin, T.S. Eliot: The Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

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