The Waste Land

Composition history


Eliot probably worked on the text that became The Waste Land for several years preceding its first publication in 1922. In a letter to New York lawyer and patron of modernism John Quinn dated 9 May 1921, Eliot wrote that he had "a long poem in mind and partly on paper which I am wishful to finish".[5]

Richard Aldington, in his memoirs, relates that "a year or so" before Eliot read him the manuscript draft of The Waste Land in London, Eliot visited him in the country.[6] While walking through a graveyard, they discussed Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Aldington writes: "I was surprised to find that Eliot admired something so popular, and then went on to say that if a contemporary poet, conscious of his limitations as Gray evidently was, would concentrate all his gifts on one such poem he might achieve a similar success."[6]

Eliot, having been diagnosed with some form of nervous disorder, had been recommended rest, and applied for three months' leave from the bank where he was employed; the reason stated on his staff card was "nervous breakdown". He and his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, travelled to the coastal resort of Margate for a period of convalescence. While there, Eliot worked on the poem, and possibly showed an early version to Ezra Pound when, after a brief return to London, the Eliots travelled to Paris in November 1921 and stayed with him. Eliot was en route to Lausanne, Switzerland, for treatment by Doctor Roger Vittoz, who had been recommended to him by Ottoline Morrell; Vivienne was to stay at a sanatorium just outside Paris. In Lausanne, Eliot produced a 19-page version of the poem.[7] He returned from Lausanne in early January 1922. Pound then made detailed editorial comments and significant cuts to the manuscript. Eliot would later dedicate the poem to Pound.

Manuscript drafts

Eliot sent the manuscript drafts of the poem to John Quinn in October 1922; they reached Quinn in New York in January 1923.[D] Upon Quinn's death they were inherited by his sister, Julia Anderson. Years later, in the early 1950s, Mrs Anderson's daughter, Mary Conroy, found the documents in storage. In 1958 she sold them privately to the New York Public Library.

It was not until April 1968 that the existence and whereabouts of the manuscript drafts were made known to Valerie Eliot, the poet's second wife and widow.[8] In 1971, Faber and Faber published a "facsimile and transcript" of the original drafts, edited and annotated by Valerie Eliot. The full poem prior to the Pound editorial changes is contained in the facsimile.


The drafts of the poem reveal that it originally contained almost twice as much material as the final published version. The significant cuts are in part due to Ezra Pound's suggested changes, although Eliot himself is also responsible for removing large sections.

The now famous opening lines of the poem—'April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, ...'—did not appear until the top of the second page of the typescript. The first page of the typescript contained 54 lines in the sort of street voice that we hear again at the end of the second section, A Game of Chess. This page appears to have been lightly crossed out in pencil by Eliot himself.

Although there are several signs of similar adjustments made by Eliot, and a number of significant comments by Vivienne, the most significant editorial input is clearly that of Pound, who recommended many cuts to the poem.

'The typist home at teatime' section was originally in entirely regular stanzas of iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of abab—the same form as Gray's Elegy, which was in Eliot's thoughts around this time. Pound's note against this section of the draft is "verse not interesting enough as verse to warrant so much of it". In the end, the regularity of the four-line stanzas was abandoned.

At the beginning of 'The Fire Sermon' in one version, there was a lengthy section in heroic couplets, in imitation of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. It described one lady Fresca (who appeared in the earlier poem "Gerontion"). As Richard Ellmann describes it, "Instead of making her toilet like Pope's Belinda, Fresca is going to it, like Joyce's Bloom." The lines read:

Leaving the bubbling beverage to cool,
Fresca slips softly to the needful stool,
Where the pathetic tale of Richardson
Eases her labour till the deed is done . . .

Ellmann notes: "Pound warned Eliot that since Pope had done the couplets better, and Joyce the defecation, there was no point in another round."

Pound also excised some shorter poems that Eliot wanted to insert between the five sections. One of these, that Eliot had entitled 'Dirge', begins

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies[I]
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves' disease in a dead Jew's eyes!
Where the crabs have eat the lids
. . .

At the request of Eliot's wife, Vivienne, a line in the A Game of Chess section was removed from the poem: "And we shall play a game of chess/The ivory men make company between us / Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door". This section is apparently based on their marital life, and she may have felt these lines too revealing. However, the "ivory men" line may have meant something to Eliot: in 1960, thirteen years after Vivienne's death, he inserted the line in a copy made for sale to aid the London Library, of which he was President at the time; it fetched £2,800.[9] Rupert Hart-Davis had requested the original manuscript for the auction, but Eliot had lost it long ago (though it was found in America years later).[10]

In a late December 1921 letter to Eliot to celebrate the "birth" of the poem, Pound wrote a bawdy poem of 48 lines titled "Sage Homme" in which he identified Eliot as the mother of the poem but compared himself to the midwife.[11] The first lines are:

These are the poems of Eliot
By the Uranian Muse begot;
A Man their Mother was,
A Muse their Sire.
How did the printed Infancies result
From Nuptials thus doubly difficult?
If you must needs enquire
Know diligent Reader
That on each Occasion
Ezra performed the Caesarean Operation.

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