It's almost impossible to think of a world in which The Waste Land did not exist. So profound has its influence been not only on twentieth-century poetry but on how we've come to view the century as a whole, the poem itself risks being taken for granted. It was precisely a sense of the risk of familiarity that had inspired Eliot to write, in April 1919:
There are only two ways in which a writer can become important — to write a great deal, and have his writings appear everywhere, or to write very little ... My reputation in London is built upon one small volume of verse, and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year. The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.
There's a wonderful matter-of-factness about Eliot's sense of the literary economy that reminds us that, since 1917, he'd worked as a banker for Lloyds of London. The "event" that would be The Waste Land was begun, it seems, in late January or early February 1921. However groundbreaking, the poem did not spring fully formed from anyone's brow. In May 1921, for example, Eliot would read the "Circe" episode of James Joyce's unpublished novel Ulysses. This episode is set in Dublin's red-light district, and is also sometimes known as the "Nighttown" chapter. Much of the milieu of the poem Eliot first entitled "He Do the Police in Different Voices," with its dramatis personae of roués, reprobates, and riffraff, may be traced directly to Joyce. In fact, the working title of The Waste Land may have come directly from Ulysses:
(ecstatically, to Cissy Caffrey)
White thy fambles, red thy gan
And thy quarrons dainty is.
Dublin's burning! Dublin's burning!
On fire, on fire!
One very useful way of thinking about the format of The Waste Land is as a night in a music hall, complete with snatches of music, overheard inconsequential conversations, impious ejaculations from male (and female), impersonators, impressionists. The more general milieu of the poem is one of political, cultural, and social upheaval, the literal upheaval caused by trench warfare, the literal sense of dismemberment, discontinuity, and dissociation that followed the Great War of 1914–1918. The wrenching effect of that war is reflected not only in the "heap of broken images" but in two and a half lines excised by Ezra Pound from the final version of The Waste Land:
The main gaffjaws
jammed. A spar split for nothing, bought
and paid for as good Norwegian pine.
The "jammed" here is in one sense a masterstroke, miming as it does the violent enjambment of the run-on line in which it occurs, but it's also an indicator of the somewhat overwrought feel of some of the writing even in the sections that survived Pound's red pencil:
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Those "tins" are symptomatic of the interest in canning that had peaked during the Great War when the need for huge amounts of army provisions resulted in more attention being paid to the range of possibilities in readymade, nonperishable food. The "violet" of the "violet hour" also derives largely from Joyce. Varieties of violet, purple, and mauve are the dominant tones of the "Circe" episode in Ulysses because of the late nineteenth-century associations of those colors with decadence and depravity. Purple was no doubt a mainstay of the décor of the Cairo brothel in which Mrs. Porter plied her trade. Though the figure of the blind, bisexual Tiresias has no exact counterpart in Ulysses, he does nonetheless summon up the milieu of The Odyssey in a way which Eliot had characterized in his insightful, and influential, 1923 essay on "Ulysses, Order, and Myth," in which Joyce's "mythical method" is first described:
In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him ... It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.
Eliot would pick up on the subject of "futility" in an interview conducted in 1959. When asked if Pound's severe pruning of the typescript might have modified "the intellectual structure of the poem," his response was "No. I think it was just as structureless, only in a more futile way, in the longer version."
I've no doubt that the supersnickety Eliot was conscious here of the Latin root of the word, futilis, meaning "leaky." The short version of The Waste Land is, in other words, a less intrinsically defective vessel than the longer. The idea of whether or not the poem is adequate to the choppy waters of early twentieth-century life is one that might indeed be said to be one of its subjects. It was clear by 1921 that a sailor was less likely to be "home from sea," less likely to be safe and sound as in Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem," but to have undergone "Death by Water." "Requiem" had been collected as far back as 1887, a mere year before Eliot was born but a substantially different society, a society in which the assertion by the narrator of Browning's Pippa Passes (1841) that "God's in His heaven — / All's right with the world!" was still fairly plausible. The image of the "leaky vessel" is one to which the Author of Authors had been known to appeal:
For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.
God's outburst in Jeremiah 2:13 might be taken as a succinct epigraph to The Waste Land, a poem substantially taken up with the idea of spiritual aridity and loss of faith. One of these "cisterns" shows up in Section V of the poem, subtitled "What the Thunder Said":
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
What's astonishing about these eight lines is just how "reminiscent" they are, in tone and technique, of any number of Victorian poems. The rhyme scheme is hardly one we'd associate with a revolutionary work of art. Indeed, much of the feel of the poem from line to line is almost numbingly traditional. Part of what gives The Waste Land its impact, though, is the power of what happens interstitially, between the lines. There's a sense that we are about to glimpse, if only through the cracks, some great arrival or departure.
Reprinted from The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, with an introduction by Paul Muldoon. Introduction copyright 2013 by Paul Muldoon. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation.