Can You Feel Lit? T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land

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Should you come away from The Waste Land with an aching noggin, take heart: a prominent literary critic once said that the poem couldn't be "read," only "reread"—in other words, only on repeated readings does the poem start to make sense. Should that prove too daunting, at your next cocktail party why not distract your friends by passing along these nuggets about the origins and ideas behind The Waste Land.

1. Show off. Eliot had a top-notch education—he attended prestigious boarding schools, got his B.A. at Harvard, studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne, and would have gotten a Ph.D. from Harvard had he bothered to defend his thesis. He learned Latin, Greek, French, German, Sanskrit, and the ancient Indian language Pali; he studied French Symbolist poetry, Buddhist philosophy, Renaissance theater, and epiphenomenalism (whatever that is).

The problem? Eliot couldn't resist flaunting all this knowledge. As a result, The Waste Land is a minefield of footnotes. Before you even get to the first line, you've got an allusion to Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a quote in Greek, and another quote from Dante's Purgatory in Italian. Later you find whole passages in German, French, Italian, and Sanskrit. The take-away message? Never play Trivial Pursuit with T.S. Eliot.

2. Nix the Dickens. Eliot's close friend Ezra Pound is famous in literary circles for his extensive revisions of the manuscript of The Waste Land. One of his changes? To cross out the original title, "He do the Policemen in Different Voices."


It's just Eliot slipping in another obscure allusion, this time to Charles Dickens' last novel Our Mutual Friend. The quote comes from the character Mrs. Betty Higden, referring to the talents of an orphan named Sloppy:

'I aint, you must know,' said Betty, 'much of a hand at reading writing-hand, though I can read my Bible and most print. And I do love a newspaper. You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.'

In other words, Sloppy changes his voice when he reads the newspaper, "doing different voices" for different characters. Eliot is here pointing to his own practice of writing different "voices" of a wide range of characters in The Waste Land. Clever—but a bit of stretch. Pound knew what he was doing.

3. The vivacious Viv. Most of the "characters" in The Waste Land are figments of Eliot's imagination—except for one: his wife, Vivien. Eliot met Vivien Haigh-Wood in Cambridge in 1914 and married her three months later. Haigh-Wood was a socialite flapper working as a governess; Eliot was a 26-year-old over-educated self-confessed virgin. The couple quickly discovered they were sexually incompatible, so Haigh-Wood (known as Viv) consoled herself by having an affair with Eliot's mentor, philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Eliot learned later that Viv's family had attempted to forestall the marriage because of Viv's history of mental instability. He struggled to endure Viv's screaming outbursts, anorexia, constipation, neuralgia, and "catarrh of the intestines" (whatever that might be). Eliot describes her hysterical speech in The Waste Land:

'What shall I do now? What shall I do?' 'I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street 'With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow? 'What shall we ever do?'

Not surprisingly, the relationship didn't last. Eliot headed to the U.S. in 1928 on a lecture tour: while out of the country, he had his attorney send Viv a letter announcing their separation. On his return to England, he went into hiding to escape her. An increasingly unstable Viv started hanging around outside the doors of Faber & Faber where Eliot worked; the famous poet had to escape out the back door. After alienating friends and family and joining the British Union of Fascists, Viv's brother Maurice had her committed to an insane asylum, where she died in 1947.

Feminist biographers have attempted to restore Viv's reputation—certainly, anyone would find marriage with the fastidious Eliot difficult. (He found the very thought of menstruation repulsive and thought shaving in front of his wife was too intimate.) In any case, we can thank Viv for putting a great poet through great anguish—out of which came great poetry.

4. Don't explain. Eliot was adamant in his refusal to help eager readers interpret his poems. Of The Waste Land, he said, "I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying."

5. The Groucho Connection. Remember that Saturday Night Live skit with Chris Farley where he would interview famous celebrities simply by describing parts they had played and quoting from their movies—to their great unease? Now substitute T.S. Eliot for Farley and Groucho Marx for the succession of celebrities.

Rather surprisingly, the Nobel Laureate adored Marx movies, and in 1964 Eliot achieved one of his life goals by having the great comedian and his wife to dinner. A somewhat intimidated Groucho boned up on Eliot's poetry and reread King Lear just in case, but all Eliot wanted to do was quote Groucho's old lines. Eliot refused to talk about his poetry, or Lear for that matter, and before long the Marxes were making their excuses and heading for the door.

See Also...

Can You Feel Lit? Macbeth

Elizabeth Lunday writes about art, architecture and literature for sources such as mental_floss and her blog, The Dilettante. Her first book, Secret Lives of the Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculptors, will be released in Fall 2008 by Quirk Books. It contains the outrageous and uncensored profiles of the world's greatest artists, complete with hundreds of little-known, politically incorrect, and downright bizarre facts—like who died of syphilis, who beat his wife, and who was convicted of murder. She's also written about a wide range of other topics from archeology to wastewater management, and once you've written about wastewater management, you can write about anything.