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  • Does The Waste Land Have a Politics?
  • Michael Levenson (bio)


Does it have a politics? Wouldn’t we all like to know, more than seventy-five years later? But we have little chance unless we give up the pleasures of the heavy club and the coarse concept: running dog/subversive cat—reaction/revolution. The pre-Waste Land Eliot knew the difficulty well, writing with wry self-irony that he found himself a Conservative in the United States but a Labourite in London. 1

What happened back there was a poetic improvisation within a social convulsion, and my aim is to restore The Waste Land to a distinctive conjuncture that we have casually let dissolve. It has been too tempting for too long to assimilate the poem to the events that came later in the decade, even shortly later, to see it as safely predicting the dispositions of the mid and late twenties: the poem as proto-Anglican, crypto-classical, or neo-monarchist. Eliot himself uttered the best warning when he wrote:

Only from about 1926 did the features of the post-war world begin to emerge—and not only in the sphere of politics. From that date one began slowly to realize that the intellectual and artistic output of the previous seven years had been rather the last efforts of an old world, than the first struggles of the new. 2

Whether or not he meant to be writing of himself, we can certainly say that the features of his own postwar world only emerged “from about 1926” and that the immediate period [End Page 1] after the war marked a epoch in its own right—the years 1919 to 1921 or 1922 have a density more often found in decades. Accordingly, to put the question of politics to The Waste Land must be to put it to this brief but decisive historical moment.

When Eliot settled in London, he moved steadily into an infatuation with his new home. “I like London better than before”—“I like London very well”—“I have been to a cubist tea”—“I want to live in London”—“I love to be in London” (LOTSE, 55, 57, 77, 107, 122). Still, within the chanting, crooning enthusiasm, he remained acutely conscious of the strains on a foreigner. It’s no surprise that his affection for the city grew in proportion to the successful spinning of a social web. He repeatedly counts the number of friends in those early months; he needs those friends because, as he later put it, “getting recognized in English letters is like breaking open a safe—for an American” (LOTSE, 392).

By 1919 Eliot can boast that he has “more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had, unless it be Henry James. I know a great many people, but there are many more who would like to know me . . .” The possibility of returning to the United States lingers: Charles W. Eliot, the ex-President of Harvard, asks how his kinsman “can forego the privilege of living in the genuine American atmosphere—a bright atmosphere of freedom and hope” (LOTSE, 323). But whatever the attractions of freedom, London has the allure of power: “if one is to do anything in literature this is the best place to be,” and this because “London imposes her acceptance of a man’s work on all the English speaking world and . . . accepts no other standard than her own” (LOTSE, 107, 102). On this point Eliot is clear, convinced, and self-delighted: London is the imperial capital of culture, and to break open its safe is to uncover riches that can be redeemed in any literary market.

The “safe” is, of course, a resonant figure of speech for a young banker, resonant but not suprising, because we certainly misread both Eliot’s modernity and his urbanity if we ignore his role as a practitioner of economics, working amid various subtle currencies. 3 What appears in one guise as the question of war reparations, shows itself in another as a problem in the economies of literary reputation. From the start of his London life he understands and accepts the material conditions of success, the...

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