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.