Book Review: Matthew Hollis. The Waste Land. A Biography of a Poem


Book Review – Matthew Hollis. The Waste Land. A Biography of a Poem. Faber & Faber: London, 2022. 544 p. ISBN: 978-0571297214. €30,50.

What is in a title? “Three words, not two, as [Eliot] would find himself pointing out with frequency, beginning with Ezra Pound himself. ‘Not “Waste Land,” please, but “The Waste Land,” ’ he would tell his friend that summer[i]; and ‘not “The Wasteland” but “The Waste Land,” ’ he would subsequently correct a translator[ii]; and ‘not Waste Lands’ either, come to that (to Lady Rothermere[iii]). Three words, one definite article.” It is now well documented and known to Eliotian scholars that T. S. Eliot composed the first parts of what was to become his first long poem and masterpiece under another title – “He do the Police in Different Voices”, borrowed from Charles Dickens. But these quips from Eliot’s letters typically point to Matthew Hollis added value approach to writing “A Biography of a Poem,” a work commissioned a decade ago to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of this epitome of the war poem originally published in 1922.

Fathering and christening a literary piece can be as excruciating and uncertain as delivering and naming a child, at least as far as Eliot, whose two marriages were childless, is concerned, and it is all of Hollis’ merit to endeavor bringing his readers as close as possible to the meanders of a poet’s workings in the liveliest manner, without sacrificing scholarly accuracy and soundness. Poet himself, and co-editor of a collection of modernist manifestos (Strong words, Modern Poets about Modern Poetry, Bloodaxe Books) Hollis certainly had what it takes to take on the challenge of navigating through and make the most of the dazzling amount of archival sources and scholar material now available on T. S. Eliot’s aesthetics and his poetic and critic career – including the new works pouring out from the opening of the Emily Hale letters deposit, the publication of Eliot’s complete prose and the ongoing publication of his correspondence, in order to document the brooding and the breeding of the poem that was to establish its author as the prominent man of letters he eventually became.

For not much of a future was written when the American born, Harvard educated, 26 years old Thomas Stearns Eliot found himself stranded in London at the outbreak of WWI. Were it not for a decisive meeting that took place on 22 September 1914 with Ezra Pound, the man who had been shaking British poetry into modernism, who can tell what ill fate would have befallen on an Eliot estranged from his family by a socially wronged marriage and orphaned before he had proven the soundness of his career choices? Or so it seems to be the backbone of the book: the poet and the poem that changed the English poetic canon forever owe as much to the man’s own genius than to his countryman fellow’s. If the book were to be stripped from the myriads of details that sometimes get in the way of the reading, one could reword it as “E. P.: a Masterclass in mentoring a poet and editing a poem”, so much has Hollis intertwined Pound’s own poetics, whereabouts, stamina and vista with the making of Eliot and “The Waste Land”.

Indeed, after having set the tension between what appears to be Eliot’s two poles, the negative one being his wife Vivien, a sick and sickening muse, and the positive one being Ezra Pound, mentor, impresario, coach and editor, Hollis explores in depth and at length the energetic arc thus created. Mixing significant biographical details (Eliot’s disastrous marriage, his father’s death, his own precarious health, a pivotal visit of Saint-Front cathedral in Périgueux with the Pounds) and pinpointed insights in Eliot’s poetics and aesthetics (the now well known tradition renewed, auditory imagination, impersonality, objective correlative) against historical and literary backdrops (the postwar deadly flu, the dreary consequences of the Versailles Treaty, the Irish Civil War, the moods and economics of literary pundits and journals) and weaving in Pound’s own influential experiments, Hollis tracks down the tiniest streams and clues which have fueled “the long poem” that Eliot had in mind at least since the Armistice and maybe earlier.

This thorough exploration of the premises of the “The Waste Land” accounts for a meaty first part which gives insights into the reception of Eliot’s first poems (cold to icy) and his status in the British literary world (shunned and snobbed were it for the reading of “Prufrock” by an expatriate, Katherine Mansfield, that led to an invitation at the Woolf’s newly set Hogarth Press, and to an offer to write criticism for The Athenaeum at night, after working at Llyods during the day). It also offers useful final synthesis on several polemics and debates stemming out of his earlier poetry that have entertained the scholar scene since Eliot’s Nobel Prize: Eliot’s antisemitism – indeed he was, and rather unapologetic with that – though he eventually regretted his remark about “reasons of race and religion [that] combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable” that stained  his essay “After Strange Gods” enough for him to keep it out of print. Then there was his supposedly closeted homosexuality, he tended to homophilia and mysogenia at most. A third topic was the role of the poem’s hoax notes, indeed they were essentially meant to lengthen its American edition.

The second part reconstructs piece by piece the composition and writing of the poem’s five parts, building mainly on the 1971 drafts publication by Valerie, Eliot’s second wife, which shows the extent and relevance of Pound’s editing, but also Vivien’s sensitive interventions. Hollis interestingly delves into the materiality of the writing process (hand and typescript drafts, annotations by Vivien and Pound, the different typewriters and papers used) which partially unveils the workings of Eliot’s mind: how after reading Joyce’s “Circe” he slashed out the very 54 first lines of “The Burial of the Dead” he had typed in the winter of 1921 and revised three times; how the second part which quickly followed was first titled “In the Cage,” then “A Game of Chess,” totalizing 228 lines with the first one, now both governed by a common title “He Do the Police in Different Voices”; how Vivien had the “ivory men” line removed which was to be restored in 1960; how the “Fire Sermon” started as a failed mock-heroic drama; how by fall 1921, depression was looming over Eliot now resting at Margate where he wrote “Dirge” which almost found its way to The Waste Land were it not for Pound’s decisive intervention; how Pound revised these three parts while Eliot was looked after by Dr. Vittoz in his Lausanne clinic where he wrote a 93-line fourth part titled “Death by Water,” ending with ten lines translated from a poem originally written in French, and, in one single continuous, unaltered stream, the final part which would be later titled “What the Thunder Said” which catalyzed the earlier fragments and precipitated the definitive phrasing of “A Game of Chess” and “The Fire Sermon” painfully sketched before his nervous breakdown.

Amazingly, it emerges from Hollis’ narrative a contrasted image of T. S. Eliot. For all his ailments and plights, the poet demonstrates a surprising physical and mental resilience – he survives the flu epidemics despite his asthma, heavy drinking and smoking, escapes from his wife by managing a parallel platonic love affair with Emily Hale with whom he has renewed contact at least by 1923, inscribing the third of his personal copies of Ara Vos Prec for her; finds the will and courage to consult with a mental health physician to overcome a burn out that was about to threaten the composition of the long poem; and a shrewd business and literary flair when it comes to negotiate his status and financial interests.

Things would never be the same after The Waste Land came out. From now on Eliot would climb the escalina of fame up to the Nobel Prize while Pound would infamously descend it down to the inferno of political and mental confusion. But the two most prominent modernizers of English language poetry would unfailingly remain indebted to each other, Eliot putting all his status weight in the campaign to free his friend from the asylum he was condemned to and ensuring the publication of his masterpiece 117 Cantos in which, notably in “Canto VII”, “The Waste Land” resonates, or vice versa.

Overall, Hollis’ book offers a lively introduction to T. S. Eliot’s poetics, set against a very well documented biographical and literary background. Surely an opus the secretive and emotionally controlled “impersonal” poet would have loathed. But then posterity comes with a price.


[i] 1922.

[ii] Angel Flores, first translator of The Waste Land in Spanish (as La Tierra Baldia).

[iii] Patron of The Criterion in which first issue ‘The Waste Land’ was orginally published in England.

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