February 21, 2018

He Do the Police in Different Voices

On this day in 1922 T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land was published -- making something of a benchmark for modern literature, given that Joyce's Ulysses and Woolf's Jacob's Room were also published that year. The Waste Land had in fact appeared in two literary magazines in the previous two months (first Criterion and then The Dial), but this Boni & Liveright publication was the first in book form, and the first with Eliot's famous "Explanatory Notes" included to help out.

Even before book publication Eliot said that he had grown beyond The Waste Land; when everyone began calling it and him the voice of a generation, or of the Age, he began to regard the poem as an albatross. But running from the label and the attention was to no avail, and as the poem and the poet were placed on an ever-higher pedestal, so each became a larger target for gossip and parody.

The consensus among Eliot's contemporaries seems to be that he was an odd case -- certainly Conrad Aiken was referring not to the poetry but the man when he said, "Eliot cries out for analysis." Siegfried Sassoon thought he had "cold-storaged humanity," and Ottoline Morrell called him "the undertaker." Virginia Woolf, one familiar with the type, saw a nervous neurotic; nor was she the only acquaintance to notice Eliot's use of pale green face powder, sometimes with lipstick. But she has also written in her diary of listening rapt to Eliot's after-dinner reading of The Waste Land: "He sang it & chanted it & rhymed it. It has great beauty and force of phrase; symmetry; & tensity. What connects it together, I'm not so sure...." One modern biographer, getting to the bottom of things, finds nascent or latent homosexuality in Eliot; this caused not only his breakdown in 1921, while writing The Waste Land, but a lifelong "aboulie and emotional derangement."

More helpful might be V. S. Pritchett's description of Eliot as "a company of actors inside one suit, each twitting the others." Eliot's manuscript title for the poem was "He Do the Police in Different Voices," taken from Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, where the orphan Sloppy is so praised for his dramatic abilities when reading out the crime news. When the book publication included Eliot's "Explanatory Notes," adding the voice of the pedant-critic to the voices in the poem, it was all too much for Robert Frost: he subtitled his New Hampshire poems, published in 1923, "A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes," and then merely listed as his "notes" for the long title-poem all the titles of the other "explanatory poems" in the colleciton.

James Joyce seems to have had more fun with his shot at The Waste Land. These are the beginning lines of a poem he included in a letter written in 1925, after spending a rainy few days at a Rouen hotel:
    Rouen is the rainiest place getting
    Inside all impermeables, wetting
    Damp marrow in drenched bones.
    Midwinter soused us coming over Le Mans
    Our inn at Niort was the Grape of Burgundy

    But the winepress of the Lord thundered over that
    grape of Burgundy
    And we left in a hurgundy.
    (Hurry up, Joyce, it's time!)....

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