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"Eliot Without Tears"

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 13, Number 1, January 2006
pp. 917-924 | 10.1353/mod.2006.0008

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Modernism/modernity 13.1 (2006) 917-924

Jason Harding

Åbo Akademi University
Revisiting The Waste Land. Lawrence Rainey. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. xiv + 205. $35.00 (cloth).
The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose. Lawrence Rainey, ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. vi + 270. $35.00 (cloth).
Modernism: An Anthology. Lawrence Rainey, ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Pp. xxxii + 1180. $44.95 (cloth).

The publication in 1971 of Valerie Eliot's facsimile edition of The Waste Land manuscripts inaugurated a new era in Eliot studies. The poet's widow shaped the initial critical response to these "lost" documents. Her valuable introduction and explanatory notes highlighted the collaborative role of Ezra Pound, allowing scholars to appreciate for the first time the full force of Eliot's dedication to il miglior fabbro. It became clear that Pound's excisions had creatively liberated the final five-part structure from the chaotic jumble of poems Eliot had written. More than that, as Pound remarked in the preface to the 1971 facsimile: "The more we know of Eliot, the better." Indeed, the biographical dimension of these pre-publication manuscripts was welcomed by reviewers who used them to ponder Eliot's authorial intentions. These documents, then, challenged the stale New Critical dogma that The Waste Land was a self-sufficient verbal icon. Some critics claimed to have discerned Eliot's original conception from the facsimiles. Hugh Kenner and Grover Smith speculated that "The Fire Sermon" had been the first part to be written. However, in 1977 Lyndall Gordon conceded that the precise dating of The Waste Land manuscripts was still "unresolved," permitting only tentative hypotheses based upon "circumstantial evidence." Before long, critics were complacently referring to the Ur-Waste Land as "the 1921 text." The corpus of some twenty-six distinct pre-publication documents—manuscripts and typescripts of the published work, together with rejected miscellaneous poems and autograph drafts—had become, as Eliot himself might have said, an "indiscriminate bolus." After Anthony Julius attacked the anti-Semitism of "Dirge," it appeared as if a discarded lyric fragment was in danger of occluding the poem Eliot had published in 1922 to critical acclaim.

Lawrence Rainey's meticulous research into the writing, the publishing history, and the critical reception of The Waste Land has breathed new life into debates about the modernist poem par excellence. Rainey's procedure endorses Ronald Schuchard's claim, advanced in Eliot's Dark Angel, that it is in the unread archives and in the unexamined histories of modernist texts that scholars will recover the riches of modernist literature. Valerie Eliot's edition of The Waste Land manuscripts was undeniably a boon to critics, but as David Moody correctly remarked: "For accurate scholarship of course there can be no substitute for the originals; and criticism based upon facsimiles should in any case be cautious." Rainey has gone back to the originals, collating the different typewriters and batches of paper used for The Waste Land manuscripts with some 1,200 leaves of Eliot's letters, student papers, essays, and poems from the period 1913–22, seeking to establish a definitive chronology of the poem's composition. Revisiting "The Waste Land" presents the fruits of his scrupulous attempt to solve the following questions:

Did one passage or fragment antedate the others and preserve the trace of an original program which had later dissolved? Were specific passages composed all at once or in discrete and discontinuous moments? Were the ancillary poems conceived as independent works or meant to form part of the poem's texture? Was the poem's composition a straightforward progress or did it entail more entangled loopings?
(2)

The study is a remarkable piece of textual detective-work, hinging upon the illumination of watermarks and the crucial realization that in August 1921 Eliot was left a typewriter by his brother Henry, producing expansive "f" characters clearly distinguishable from those of the old typewriter he had been using since his Harvard days. Revisiting "The Waste Land" reads at times like a roman à clef: it certainly unfolds the most convincing account of the poem's composition we have to date, although not quite the "unequivocal story" Rainey's...



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