- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005


Yale, $35, 205 pages


Edited with annotations and introduction by Lawrence Rainey Yale,

$35, 208 pages


What more, at this late date, is there to be said about T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the mostfamous poem of the last century and only 17 years short of celebrating its 100th birthday? An English scholar of modernism, Lawrence Rainey, has brought out not one, but two books that aim to help us put Eliot’s creation more clearly in our sights.

But who are “we” — how many are there likely to sit down and read once more this monumental example of modernist difficulty and controversy? Mr. Rainey rightly suggests, in his preface to “Revisiting The Waste Land,” that most readers will have been first exposed to the poem “in a classroom setting that sometimes encourages a style of reading inimical to [its] grotesque and grim extremism.” The name for that style of reading is interpretation, as demonstrated and practiced in the scores of books, essays, and classrooms devoted to explaining what this or that passage or line or word really means. But it is inimical to the poem’s ferocity, a word that Eliot used more than once as a term of praise at the time he was composing “The Waste Land.”

Interpretation treats the poem as a puzzle to be understood and solved, rather than as a strange performance not to be reduced to orderly codes of meaning. For Mr. Rainey the starting and maybe the ending place for a true experience of “The Waste Land” is to respond to that ferocity; to find, as one of its first readers, John Peale Bishop, found it, in capital letters — “IMMENSE. MAGNIFICENT. TERRIBLE.”

In other words, Mr. Rainey is adversely critical of the many attempts to find continuities and repetitions in the poem’s five parts that somehow make it cohere into narrative order. The notes Eliot himself wrote to the poem (in part, he later admitted, because his publisher Liveright worried it was too short to constitute a published volume) suggested that it exhibited unity if readers followed up on the hints tossed out in the notes.

For example, Eliot claimed in them that Jessie Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance” was instrumental to the anthropological and mythic structure of the narrative; or that the seemingly disembodied voices emerging in different places in the poem could be thought of as emanating from a single unifying presence — the Tiresias who comes front and center in “The Fire Sermon” (Part 3 of the poem).

Mr. Rainey, I think rightly, refuses to take these assertions of unity and coherence as solemnly as did many of Eliot’s critics; while not denying the assertions of connectedness made by the poem, he says that though they are “remarkably insistent … the connectedness itself isn’t very vivid; it remains inert and extraneous, like so much scaffolding erected around a building that remains obstinately and mysteriously invisible.”

It’s no accident that the allusion to scaffolding refers to a highly influential essay the New Critic Cleanth Brooks published in the 1930s, in which Brooks laid out an interpretive “scaffolding” for the poem. Many readers, more interested in reading through the eye and the mind rather than listening with the ear, were happy to confuse the scaffolding with the poem itself whose “real reckoning with the world” (in Mr. Rainey’s words) occurs elsewhere.

The two books aspire to address a double audience — “Not just scholars of Eliot’s work but also that large body of nonspecialists who continue to take an intelligent interest in understanding a poem that has been so central to the culture of the twentieth century.”

Well and good, if possible; yet it must be wondered how many nonspecialists are going to work through these almost 500 pages, most of them concerned with matters ancillary to and other than any “real reckoning” that must be happening, mysteriously and powerfully in lines of verse.

“Revisiting The Waste Land” consists of three substantial essays: “With Automatic Hand” gives an exhaustive account of the poem’s composition, going into matters like the dating of different sections of the manuscript before it was trimmed down by Ezra Pound. This manuscript first became available in 1972 when the poet’s wife, Valerie Eliot, published facsimiles of it.

Mr. Rainey has worked with the manuscripts themselves, taking up the problem of Eliot’s use of different typewriters and grades of paper to see what they tell us about the poem’s order of composition.

The second essay, “The Price of Modernism” (published some years back) is about the poem as a modernist cultural production that some editors were ready to publish before they’d even read it, such was the reputation it had taken on as the latest and most extreme example of “difficult” new writing. (Pound’s efforts were instrumental in contributing to this reputation.)

The third essay, “IMMENSE, MAGNIFICENT, TERRIBLE,” is an account of some responses to “The Waste Land” by its first readers. The book concludes with 50 pages titles “Synoptic Bibliographical Descriptions of Eliot’s Writings, 1898-1922,” in which letters, student papers, and related poems and prose are documented.

“The Annotated Waste Land” is similarly crammed with more material than most readers could possibly want to deal with: a long introduction that considers many of the matters treated in “Revisiting The Waste Land;” the finished poem itself; Eliot’s notes to the poem; then, after some interesting photographs of London monuments — churches, hotels and business places alluded to in the poem — 50 pages of editorial annotation to Eliot’s notes. (For example, if Eliot alludes to a poem in “The Waste Land,” Mr. Rainey produces that poem in full).

Then comes a large section of prose pieces Eliot published in 1921, the year of the poem’s composition; then another 50 pages of editorial notes to those prose pieces, going into extensive and often, it seems to me, needless detail by way of identifying names, places, and forgotten, evanescent matters Eliot once briefly attended to.

As evinced in these two books, the scholar’s determined labor leads finally to something like a paradox, perhaps a dilemma. On one hand Mr. Rainey demonstrates admirably that whatever “order” the poem can be said to have is not one that was achieved by “the realization of a plan or program, dictated by some predetermined notion of mythic structure or ritual pattern.”

On the contrary, what could be called the poem’s substance (“the real reckoning”) is not only beyond systematic explanation but perhaps resists any explanation at all. Or at least the good reader-critic must sense something incommensurate between what “happens” in the poem and an attempt to account for it through the language of criticism.

At one point in his exposition Mr. Rainey focuses on the line from “The Fire Sermon” (“By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept … .”). He doesn’t mention the ellipsis but seems to be responding to its suggestion of the unsayable when he writes “The ineffable is that sense of immense commiseration, at once a profound pity at the lacerating horrors of modernity and an unspeakable sorrow that there is no language, whether in narrative or lyric … adequate to the terror which the poem wishes to account for.”

So the language of annotation and commentary that fills these two books will not encompass, may even push us further away from endorsing his conclusion that the annotator believes “only speechless weeping, a wild pathos at once unutterable and irredeemable … .”

The more criticism attempts to tame this wildness the more it must ultimately have recourse to adjectives like ineffable, unspeakable, unutterable. There may be nothing for it but to read “The Waste Land” yet once more.

William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College, and is the author most recently of “Shelf Life: Literary Essays and Reviews.”

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