Eliot and (Joseph) Conrad

Heart of Darkness is my favorite novel of all time, so I find it interesting that Eliot tried so hard to incorporate it into the first drafts of The Waste Land, as Hugh Kenner points out (2). The epigraph for the poem was originally Kurtz’s famous last words, “The horror! The horror!” and imagery of the boats on the Thames that appear early in Conrad’s work were to be incorporated into the poem. These allusions were eventually edited out by Pound’s insistence, but a Heart of Darkness reference does appear in Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men. (Kenner 4).

Why Eliot’s fixation on Heart of Darkness, and why did it have such a major influence on early drafts of The Waste Land? I think the answer may at least partially lie in Eliot’s previous philosophy work. Eliot wrote of “mad and strange” experiences which are private and incommunicable, in the words of Ackroyd (70). Eliot’s view of the isolation of man within himself brings to my mind a passage in Heart of Darkness: “… No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence—that which makes its truth, its meaning—its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream—alone….”  (Conrad 18). Conrad explores the same idea about psychological isolation that so intellectually interests and personally tortures Eliot, and I believe that is the principle reason it is included in early drafts of his poem. Conrad’s novel is much more known for its anti-imperialistic message, however, and I believe this could also play a role in Eliot’s early decision to include it, as World War One was at it’s core an imperial venture; The Waste Land of course, is partially about the war.

Why Pound insisted on cutting it and why Eliot acquiesced, however, are much more open questions.

An Artist’s Struggle

Although Eliot’s work cannot be oversimplified into two main themes or ideas, there is a sort of duality and contrast that has faced in The Waste Land, the more that we read through it and about it. It is definitely making the bigger statement related to the world and the bigger intellectual/literary world in a sort of parable-like manner, or a warning, if you will. On top of that, there are definitely snippets and an overall undertone or a serious personal level from Eliot’s point of view that he has splattered on to the piece. Through the readings for today, we see how his transition into the UK and through people like Pound, how he has come to experience and greatly impact the literary scene during the war as an intellectual and an integral part of the world of literature. However, as the ending notes of Chapter 4 states, although him meeting his wife, Vivienne was a great thing, their relationship and Eliot’s mental breakdown as a writer makes The Waste Land both interesting, autobiographical, and just utterly confusing. When is he talking to a larger us? When is he just meditating through his lines? When is he trying to outreach to the society he has ascribed to in the UK? The world may never know. After all, we don’t know if he was entirely sure of anything.

Taking a Step Back From Historicizing

I’m not usually one to read too much of the author’s biography into his work; however, upon reading Akroyd’s sketch of Eliot, I definitely see parallels between the poet’s personal demons and his treatment of emotional and physical sterility in “The Waste Land.”  In “Game of Chess,” Eliot explores marital breakdown, mental illness, and sexual incompatibility, issues he personally suffered through during his relationship with Vivien Haigh-Wood.  Before reading Eliot’s biography, it was easier to historicize the poet’s treatment of sterility as a reaction to the war’s aftermath, yet now the topic becomes more complex and intrapersonal.  I wonder whether the shell-shocked soldier bears any semblance to Vivien in the sense that both are neurotic and disengaged from their spouses (Vivien- sexually and the soldier-emotionally) and Eliot subsumes the wife’s role of the frazzled yet more stable marital partner.  We obviously will never know Eliot’s true intentions; however, recognizing the parallels that can be drawn between Eliot’s personal life and the poem adds a greater sense of depth to the work.

On a completely unrelated side note, I would like to know more about Eliot’s intentions for “The Descent of the Cross” since it thematically seems to share several parallels with “The Waste Land.”  Akroyd mentions that the work never came to fruition due to Eliot’s lack of inspiration.  If this was truly the case, does the poet ever claim to have achieved a necessary level of inspiration for creating “The Waste Land”?

Sexuality in The Waste Land

All of the instances sex and sexual relationships in The Waste Land are dysfunctional, dispassionate, unnatural, and often times violent. From the horrific story of Philomela, to the two women in the pub, to the typist and young man, carbuncular, it is clear that The Waste Land trying to express that something is wrong or broken concerning the sexual act an physical passion. I believe that this was, at least partially, inspired by the sexual issues in the Eliots’ marriage. Both Eliot and Vivien had health problems that put strain on their sexual relationship. Vivian had “menstrual problems” and Eliot had “thin blood.” (66) However this issues were compounded by psychological problems. Ackroyd states that the Eliots both were “Ill at ease or unenergetic in sexual relations.” (66)

I would hesitate to make too direct of comparison between the Eliots and the sexual characters of The Waste Land. I believe the more important and appropriate parallel is upon the idea of unnaturalness that resonates in each story. Both the physical and mental issues that the Eliots faced involving sex would likely have caused anxiety about being abnormal or unnatural. The section between the typist and the young man express this anxiety the most directly. The interaction is passionless and meaningless as if the two were mechanized and unnatural. This is what Eliot feared his marriage would become.

Eliot and Vorticism

Vorticism was a concept that was introduced to the class at the beginning of the semester and was introduced to me in several earlier classes. This movement strikes me as particularly relevant to The Waste Land because of the concept of the reversal of history through destruction. Earlier the class was presented an almost linear graph of a timeline and then shown how a vortex derives from one point and then collapses and reverses itself. This reversal of natural time and law through the destruction of the past is a heavy aspect of The Waste Land. Ackroyd sets the scene of Pound’s “small triangular flat” where Pound introduced Lewis to Eliot. As Ackroyd points out this placed Eliot in “the centre of the really interesting cultural activities in London” at the time (56). This introduction of modernist characters along with the inner turmoil of Eliot’s life is abundantly evident in The Waste Land. As Ackroyd puts it Eliot “found himself in an environment in which art and literature were taken seriously as a living force” (57). This is the thriving culture that eventually nurtured–though maybe that is too comfortable a word– Eliot to write The Waste Land.

It humors me that Ackroyd accounts that at first, Eliot was hesitant about his relationship with Pound. That is in stark contrast to the man who eventually sought out the advice of Pound and praised Pound as the better artist in Eliot’s most powerful work. Eliot’s relationship to others and his contrast to Pound fascinates me as a source of development in Eliot’s life. His relationship with women in general and later his toxic relationship with his wife have clear resonance in The Waste Land. His relationship with others, such as Pound, Lewis, and Vivienne, along with his dark psychic visions–as described by other biographers of Eliot– led to his gloomy prophecy.

That Damn Gramophone

“She liked to go to plays and to dance to the music on the phonograph” (61). If that doesn’t place the presence of Vivien starkly within the world of the “The Waste Land” then I don’t know what would. The influence of Vivien on Eliot’s ideals and morality is stark and becomes incarnate in the plot of “The Waste Land.” His marriage to Vivien began a “lifetime of misery,” and her youthful identity and sexuality become adversarial within the poem (64). Her presence is obvious in “The Fire Sermon” where a young woman insipidly accepts sexual attention and then dances to the gramaphone. Vivien “possess[ed] mental passion but not physical passion” and her own difficulties compounded Eliot’s already tense and morally anxious relationship with sexuality (66). She possessed the freneticism of the post-war generation and all the instability that came with it, which first attracted then repelled Eliot. It is fascinating to see how deeply Eliot’s personal life influenced his poetry and how he utilized classism to explore his own relationship and to put his own suffering into a broader context.

Private Truths

What interests me from our reading of Ackroyd is Eliot’s studies on epistemology and the philosophy of F. H. Bradley. Bradley’s metaphysical idealism – his view that “lived truths,” albeit “partial and fragmentary,” are “all that can be known to be real” – seems of consequence in regards to both Eliot’s personal life and his work (Ackroyd 69). Ackroyd notes Eliot’s “inability to express himself conversationally, to enter into personal relationships” (70). The difficulty both of self-expression and of truly “knowing” someone is apparent in Eliot’s relationship with his wife, as “from the beginning, they quite misunderstood each other’s characters” (Ackroyd 63). There is a breakdown of communication, an isolation. Tellingly, sex for Eliot is not intimate; rather, it is “impersonal” and rooted in “an awareness of sterility” (Ackroyd 66). Knowing someone is, at best, difficult; at worst, it’s impossible.

It’s easy to see, then, why order is so important for Eliot. Order and dogma point to something that transcends the “miasma of private experience,” something that exists outside of one’s own knowledge. However, as Ackroyd notes, the foundation of Eliot’s philosophy is precarious, based entirely on “an act of faith” (Ackroyd 70). In The Waste Land, we see a breakdown of this faith  We see a world devoid of intimacy and of connection. Man only knows “a heap of broken images,” his “mad and strange” private truths (Eliot 22, Ackroyd 70). What results is anticipation, either for a savior figure who can unite the survivors and restore order or for destruction.


Breaking the Mold

I’m interested in the publication history and reception of Eliot’s poetry — as presented by Ackryod. To have the support of minds such as Bertrand Russell and Ezra Pound shows the early promise Eliot had, but it seems that during the period of chapters 3 and 4, the public wasn’t fully convinced of Eliot’s modernist poems. I wonder if the same is still true for The Waste Land today? I meet a lot of people who don’t ‘get’ poetry, whether traditional or modernist, and I know a lot of poets who don’t desire to understand or like The Waste Land. Ackryod points out in ch. 3, “The little volume provoked such a [little] response in part because of its unappealing or at least ‘unpoetic’ subject matter, but also because the poetry had no identifiable single voice behind it. […]  [I]n late nineteen- and early-twentieth-century English poetry the idea of a sustained ‘tone’ was still central. That is precisely the reason why the poetry of the years before Eliot seem so unsubstantial or simply decorative” (79). Though Ackryod is discussing Eliot’s first volume of poems — Prufrock — the same lack of a singular voice and sustained tone is true of The Waste Land.

Ezra Pound notes that Eliot’s development as a modern poet was individualistic, and though his first volume was published under Pound’s supervision, as The Waste Land would later be edited by him as well, Eliot broke from traditional English poetics on his own. Pound recounts: “‘He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own’” (56). I wonder if Pound’s influence on Eliot accounts for some of the aspects many dislike about The Waste Land, such as the classicist elements. Eliot was never a true imagist or vorticist, so I question if Pound and Wyndham Lewis fully convinced him that modern literature needed to be reimbued with classical Europe ideals — though these aspects are certainly present in The Waste Land. It’s certainly clear now that Eliot’s sexual frustration, over intellectualization, and unhappiness shaped his writing. I find it interesting that once he settled at the bank he found creative freedom. It also seems he might have not made it without Pound. He was a truly individual man in his ideas and writing, and I’d bet that’s why his work not only survives, but stands out among the other modernist poems.

Dysfunctional Relationships in The Waste Land

Ackroyd’s Chapter 3 reveals a great deal about the impulsive and disordered union of T.S. Eliot and Vivien Haigh-Wood. Reading about their marriage, it is almost difficult not to make connections to The Waste Land. The passionless sexual encounter between the typist and the young man carbuncular seems inspired by Eliot’s and Vivien’s relationship: “Vivien wrote Bertrand Russell a despairing letter which sounded to him not far from suicide […] Russell does not dwell upon the nature of Vivien’s ‘despair’ but all the evidence suggests that it was of a sexual nature” (Ackroyd 66). Later, Vivien’s complex illness comes to affect her teeth and “on at least one occasion the dentist seemed to think that Eliot needed to be calmed down more than” Vivien did (Ackroyd 68). This hearkens back to the conversation overheard in the bar during ‘A Game of Chess’ and the emphasis placed on Lil’s losing her teeth and looking ancient.

Ackroyd also discusses the general malaise that defined the marriage of T.S. and Vivien. Ackroyd asserts that in their whirlwind haste to get married, “from the beginning, they quite misunderstood each other’s characters” (63). From Ackroyd’s description, it is easy to imagine that the dysfunctional and incomplete conversation between the soldier and his wife in Part II was not solely the product of Eliot’s imagination. The many dysfunctional relationships reflected in The Waste Land speak volumes about World War I and its aftermath, but they also speak volumes about Eliot and Vivien’s difficulties.


The first thing that I noticed about That Shakespearian Rag is that it uses the same technique that Eliot is very fond of: melding the ancient with the modern.  In the case of the song, Shakespeare’s tales are applied to a modern form of music (ragtime).  The song  transfers the great passions of the ancients into cheap entertainment.Though I could not find That Shakespearian Rag online, I listened to some other ragtime songs to get a better idea of where Gene Buck and Herman Ruby were coming from.  I liked that the song referred to itself in the lyrics (“That Shakespearian rag, most intelligent, very elegant, that old classical drag” (52)), words that Eliot later uses in The Waste Land.  It is very interesting to me that Eliot used the song in the conversation between the shell-shocked man and his wife.  Though the book does not say when the song was first published, I am assuming that it was popular in the post-war era that most people would have known it.  Therefore, the use of the song essentially implies that the couple can stand for any other couple suffering from PTSD.

Also, the man is obsessed with noise.  He repeatedly asks, “what is that noise?” (9), and after many responses of “nothing” (9) eventually, the song serves as something to fill the emptiness in his mind. After he sings the song, he is at least able to speak in complete sentences, even if they don’t quite make sense.