According to the calendar, The Waste Land is more distant from us today than In Memoriam and Leaves of Grass were from T. S. Eliot when he completed his masterpiece in 1922. Yet as Eliot himself proved, poetic time, like Einsteinian time, is relative. Dante and Donne, he argued in his essays, were closer to the twentieth-century poet than Tennyson and Whitman. By the same token, even though The Waste Land has been making Aprils cruel for eighty-three years, it remains more modern than any poem written since.

The appearance of Lawrence Rainey’s scholarly new edition of the poem—The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose—serves to sharpen this paradox. Here is a book of 260 pages built on a poem of 433 lines—a text-to-commentary ratio appropriate to the Bible or the Greek classics. More than any previous editor, Rainey provides the reader with every resource that might help explain the genesis and significance of the poem. He offers a chronology of its composition, from Eliot’s first passing reference to “a poem that I have in mind,” in November 1919, through its simultaneous publication in The Criterion and The Dial in October 1922. He offers notes on the verse and notes on the notes, including full English quotations of the sources Eliot alludes to or leaves untranslated.

Most innovatively, Rainey includes ten prose pieces that Eliot published during the composition of The Waste Land, ranging from canonical essays like “The Metaphysical Poets” and “Andrew Marvell” to ephemeral journalism, like the “London Letters” Eliot wrote for the American Dial. He reproduces, as in an encyclopedia article, a series of illustrative photographs—the Cannon Street Hotel, haunt of the Smyrna merchant Mr. Eugenides; the interior of St. Magnus Martyr church, with its “splendour of Ionian white and gold.” He even prints the music for “That Shakespearian Rag,” with its trashy, immortalized lyrics: “That Shakespearian rag, most intelligent, very elegant.”

All of this adds up to the most imaginative and useful edition of The Waste Land ever published. Yet the result is not, as with most scholarly endeavors, to fix and familiarize the subject, to make it just one more item in the catalogue of knowledge. As Rainey says—quoting John Peale Bishop, who read the poem with wonder when it first appeared—The Waste Land remains “IMMENSE. MAGNIFICENT. TERRIBLE.”

In fact, the poem may be stranger today than it has ever been.

In fact, the poem may be stranger today than it has ever been. On the one hand, it now appears unmistakably a product of its time, full of dated references, falsified prophecies, and obsolete novelties; parts of The Waste Land are as redolent of the 1920s as the silent-movie and vaudeville effects it so brilliantly incorporates. Yet it also remains genuinely surprising, creating before our eyes the very atmosphere and vocabulary of modernness. Next to The Waste Land, the best works of later generations—Life Studies, Questions of Travel, The Whitsun Weddings, right down to the most distinguished books of the last few years, like The Orchards of Syon and The Bounty—seem positively traditional in their metric and lyric assumptions. The Waste Land is like one of those receding stars revealed by an orbiting telescope—an event in the past that we can never catch up to.

All of these paradoxes are implied in the oxymoron that no discussion of The Waste Land can avoid: “modern classic.” Indeed, the best way to approach the poem today may be through a dissection of the concept of the modern, which Eliot did so much to create. For the prose texts included in Rainey’s edition, along with Eliot’s other influential essays, reveal that his vision of modernism was actually a compound of two very different ideas. Each of those ideas had a revolutionary power, and helped to inaugurate the poetic era in which we are still living. But while one of them is sound and still valuable, the other was flawed from the beginning, and has become increasingly burdensome. And they can both be seen in action, with all their good and ill effects, in the laboratory of modernism that is The Waste Land.

As every reader of Eliot’s essays knows, the goal of his early criticism was to commit literary parricide. His constant theme is the debility of the nineteenth-century English poetic tradition, the tradition of Shelley, Tennyson, and Swinburne; it is only by deposing this etiolated dynasty that Eliot and his peers can ascend their throne. The Victorians are always Eliot’s polemical target, whether he is writing about Andrew Marvell (“the effort to construct a dream-world, which alters English poetry so greatly in the nineteenth century . . . makes a poet of the nineteenth century, of the same size as Marvell, a more trivial and less serious figure”), or John Dryden (“where Dryden fails to satisfy, the nineteenth century does not satisfy us either; and where that century has condemned him, it is itself condemned”), or the Metaphysical poets (“Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose”).

The ambiguity in Eliot’s revolutionary poetics arises when he must explain the reason for his dissatisfaction with his immediate predecessors. The superficial explanation, and therefore the one that was easiest for later poets and critics to assimilate, is that the Victorians failed because they were not up-to-date enough. They did not accurately reflect the times they lived in, but retreated into a “dream-world” of verbal opiates. To be successfully modern, poets must courageously confront the modern world, as Eliot declares in the famous peroration of “The Metaphysical Poets”: “We can only say that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results.”

In other words, a civilization different in kind from any that has come before demands a new kind of poetry. This idea appears again and again in the previously uncollected essays included in Rainey’s edition. “Art,” Eliot declares in his July 1921 “London Letter” for The Dial, “has to create a new world, and a new world must have a new structure.” In the September 1921 “Letter,” he praises Stravinsky for having succeeded in this absorption of the new: the “Rite of Spring,” he writes, “did seem to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground-railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life.” In this quasi-Futurist vision, the best poet is the one with the toughest alimentary tract, able to suck nutrition from the hard rind of the twentieth century.

This is the principle at the heart of modernism, for which the modern is no longer a premise but an ideology.

This is the principle at the heart of modernism, for which the modern is no longer a premise but an ideology. It was an especially tempting idea in a century when technological changes were constantly accelerating. After all, if poetry must assimilate “the scream of the motor horn,” why not every subsequent development—the roar of the airplane, the static of the television, the whine of the modem? Doesn’t it follow that poetry must remake its own technologies just as often? It was by this logic that the twentieth century produced an endless series of avant-gardes, which, like Fibonacci numbers, had to summarize and transcend all their predecessors.

But Eliot’s charge that the nineteenth century was not modern enough is only superficially an argument about up-to-dateness. After all, the lodestars of his criticism are poets of the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries; in his Clark lectures, published as The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry, he drew a plumbline from Dante through Donne to Laforgue and, by implication, himself. What all these poets had in common was not modernity but a certain kind of intrepidity—the quality Eliot describes in “Prose and Verse,” the richest of the essays excavated by Rainey, as “courage and adventurousness in tackling anything that had to be expressed.” “Great poetry,” he writes still more explicitly, “capture[s] and put[s] into literature an emotion.” And the poets Eliot admires are those who captured experiences, sensations, and states of being that had never before been brought into poetry. Such poetic pioneers were, in another illuminating phrase from “The Metaphysical Poets,” “engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling.”

Poetry of this kind, what might be called the poetry of discovery, is only superficially related to modernism. Both types of poetry are in pursuit of some sort of novelty; but the poet of discovery wants something new to literature, something that has never been adequately expressed before, while the modernist poet believes he must find something new in life or in “civilization.” When Eliot castigates the Victorians, it is really their failure of discovery, not their failure of contemporaneity, that infuriates him. Thus, in “Prose and Verse,” he objects to Milton and Tennyson on the grounds that they wrote “language dissociated from things,” language that was not a “verbal equivalent for states of mind and feeling” but merely “a style quite remote from life.”

For Eliot, then, stylistic innovation is not something that must be undertaken self-consciously, in order to produce a novel effect. It should be the natural result of a poet’s attentiveness to new subjects, new feelings, new complexions of consciousness. And this kind of discovery continues to be what we value highest, both in the poetry of our own time and in the poetry of the past. Eliot remains our most influential critic, even in these days of his seeming eclipse, because we instinctively assent to his demand that each poet offer us a sense of reality—or, to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase, a criticism of life—which we cannot find in any other poet. For the age of Johnson, a poet’s merit lay in his mastery of conventions; for the age of Eliot, the poet can be a master only if he puts those conventions to new uses.

Is it possible, and worthwhile, to disentangle the two principles that are conflated in Eliot’s criticism? The best way to answer that question is to return to Eliot’s masterpiece, and to its strange double existence in the past and the future of poetry. For The Waste Land now appears, after several generations of reading and interpretation, to be a combination of two kinds of novelty—the “period” modernism of the 1920s, with its swagger and pose, its urban nihilism and fashionable despair, and the enduring newness of Eliot’s own spiritual and musical discoveries.

Not that these two species can be simply distinguished, line by line. Take, for instance, the most famous of literary clairvoyantes, Madame Sosostris. Her pack of Tarot cards is one of the necessary binding elements in Eliot’s fragmentary poem. “The drowned Phoenician sailor” prepares the way for Phlebas, whose appearance in Part IV creates one of the poem’s most effective shifts of tone—an eerie submarine interlude between the “burning” of “The Fire Sermon” and the “stony places” of “What the Thunder Said.” (Ezra Pound’s sure editorial touch, so surprising in so erratic a poet, prevented Eliot from cutting the whole of Part IV: Phlebas, Pound advised, “is needed ABSoloootly where he is.”)

Similarly, Madame Sosostris’s “one-eyed merchant” looks forward to Mr. Eugenides, in Part III, and her “Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!” returns to terrible effect in the neurotic dialogue of Part II. The whole Sosostris episode helps to create that illusion of hidden coherence which gives The Waste Land its mythic power—even though, as Eliot himself acknowledged in 1956, it is finally no more than an illusion: “I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail.”

Yet Madame Sosostris is also a manifestation or a casualty of one of the most dated impulses in The Waste Land, Eliot’s attack on twentieth-century “decadence.” Her fashionable spiritualism, we are meant to see, usurps the traditional prestige of religion, and preys on the insecurities of a rootless bourgeoisie: Mrs. Equitone, the fortune-teller’s client, announces her lack of conviction in her very name. Later, in Four Quartets, Eliot would again name those who “haruspicate or scry” as agents of spiritual confusion.

From this point of view, Madame Sosostris belongs with the poem’s other emblems of modern depravity: the predatory Mr. Eugenides, who tries to arrange an assignation at the Cannon Street Hotel, and the “young man carbuncular,” “one of the low” whom a levelling capitalism has allowed to get above himself. Together, they vividly evoke Eliot’s sense of a world in which traditional boundaries—of nation and religion, sex and class—have collapsed, leaving sterility and anxiety in their wake. This is, of course, one of the most sinister tropes of the interwar period, and sheds a great deal of light on Eliot’s attraction to anti-Semitic stereotypes (in “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar” and “Gerontion”) and his sympathy for a protofascist figure like Charles Maurras. Possibly it was only Eliot’s turn to Christianity, in the late 1920s, that prevented these tendencies from developing into the fanatical rage for order that was Pound’s downfall.

Madame Sosostris, one might say, is a Tiresias-figure in a way Eliot never intended, at once a Joycean myth and a Spenglerian demon. And that same ambiguity runs through the whole of The Waste Land. At certain moments, Eliot seems to be staging his despair, in order to call attention to the moral strenuousness that allegedly distinguishes the moderns from the Victorians—their determination, as he puts it in the brief essay “The Lesson of Baudelaire,” “to arrive at a point of view toward good and evil.” The famous passage beginning “What are the roots that clutch” has something of this histrionic quality, as does the evocation of “hooded hordes swarming” in Part V. Then, too, Eliot’s allusiveness can seem programmatic, as though written to fulfill the prescription of “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” Many of Eliot’s allusions are magically effective, seeming to spring without premeditation from his auditory imagination, but others are showily eclectic, including the flourished “shantihs” that conclude the poem.

Where The Waste Land is still unquestionably vital, however, is in that element of poetry which can never be forced or forged: its music, and especially its rhythm. It was Eliot who established, by precept and example, that the rhythm of a poem is just as important a tool of discovery as its subject and diction. Nothing is more eloquent of a poet’s individuality, or more essential to his conquest of experience for art, than the patterns of nerve and thought recorded in his voice. “A poem,” Eliot avows in “The Music of Poetry,” “may tend to realize itself first as a particular rhythm before it reaches expression in words.” That may be why some of the best and most convincing passages in The Waste Land approach as nearly as possible to pure rhythm:

              If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock. . . .

Or, again, from the song of the Thames-daughters in Part III:

       The river sweats
Oil and tar
The barges drift
With the turning tide
Red sails
To leeward, swing on the heavy spar.

In fact, it might be possible to discern the essence of Eliot’s artistic and spiritual biography strictly from a study of his evolving rhythms. Such a study would also show how Eliot captured for poetry the sound and movement of whole areas of human experience.

Even today, almost a century later, ad-olescence is still the plangent hesitation of Prufrock; sexual disgust is the stern bite of Sweeney Among the Nightingales; spiritual quest, with its necessary doubt and self-suspicion, is the spiralling repetition of Four Quartets. And The Waste Land is all of these and more, including something that cannot be precisely named—except as the signature in verse of T. S. Eliot’s unrepeatable genius.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 8, on page 12
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