‘The Waste Land – A Biography of a Poem’

I’ve greatly enjoyed reading Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, even though it tells a story that has been told before – most notably in Robert Crawford’s very good biography, Young Eliot, which I read not so long ago. Well, good stories stand re-telling.

What I appreciated most about Hollis’s book was that he tells Ezra Pound’s story in tandem with Eliot’s. While Eliot was working through his personal crises to produce his greatest poem, Pound was facing a professional crisis, with his Propertius mocked and literary London turning its back on him. After this I understood why he felt the need to do something momentous – and headed straight down the blind alley of the Cantos

Hollis takes us through the various stages of The Waste Land’s composition, explaining what parts were written when, who commented on each fragment, and how Eliot responded to the feedback. The information has been out there before, in Valerie Eliot’s edition of the fragments, in the magisterial Ricks and McCue edition of the works, and in Lawrence Rainey’s detective work on Eliot’s typewriters. Hollis turns bibliograpical information into a story, and makes biographical sense of it, to show how the poem came together.

He also takes us through the grim story of Eliot’s marriage. Here he doesn’t have much to add to other accounts, except insofar as he fills in (more darkly than usual, I think) Eliot’s relationship with his parents, and their dislike of Vivienne, which added to his sense of entrapment, and of failure.

On the pre-Waste Land poems Hollis is perceptive. He makes it clear why the Gautier-style quatrains (which I like more than he does) were a dead end from which Eliot needed to escape. He is tough on Eliot’s lapses into Anti-Semitism. Yet on the poetic stuff of The Waste Land itself he is sometimes oddly uninformative. Why did Eliot think that the long section of ‘Fresca’ couplets might have been a good idea? Why, apart from the fact that Pound suggested it, did he cut them completely? The account of ‘What the Thunder Said’ the complex last section of the poem, seems particularly thin. We get a lot about the personal background, and what Eliot and Pound were doing at the time, but very little about why the poem needed to be written in this way. On the poem’s intellectual background the book is less forthcoming than it might be. Jessie L. Weston has no more than a walk-on part, and Eliot’s serious study of Sanskrit is not foregrounded. This book tells us a lot, but not the whole story.

But I guess that’s poetry – always elusive. And I guess I’ll read the next book on The Waste Land that comes along, in the hope it’ll tell me more a about the really important things…


  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted November 22, 2022 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Thank you – good to see you back!

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