What Happened to the Original Version of The Waste Land?
On One of Literature's "Minor Mysteries"
On 20 Nov 1952, T.S. Eliot’s Harvard friend W.G. Tinckom-Fernandez wrote to Harford Powel: “I like to recall that I introduced him to the poetry of Ezra Pound in College.” TSE’s recollection in On a Recent Piece of Criticism (1938) confirms that he came across Pound’s work at that time:
Mr. [G. W.] Stonier is mistaken, both about my relations with Pound in the past, and about my valuation of the different periods of Pound’s poetry—if, that is, I have understood Mr. Stonier. (I have the impression that Mr. Stonier’s knowledge of literary events before 1918 or so is at secondhand, since he speaks of The Egoist as having succeeded Blast.) I was introduced to Personae and Exultations in 1910, while still an undergraduate at Harvard. The poems did not then excite me, any more than did the poetry of Yeats: I was too much engrossed in working out the implications of Laforgue. I considered them, however, the only interesting poems by a contemporary that I had found. My indebtedness to Pound is of two kinds: first, in my literary criticism (this debt has been pointed out by Mr. [Hugh Gordon] Porteus and Mr. Mario Praz); and second, in his criticism of my poetry in our talk, and his indications of desirable territories to explore. This indebtedness extends from 1915 to 1922, after which period Mr. Pound left England, and our meetings became infrequent. My greatest debt was for his improvement of The Waste Land. But as for the poetry of “the early Pound,” there are only three or four original pieces that have made any deep impression upon me; and the Pound whom I find congenial is the author of Mauberley, Propertius, and the Cantos.
The extent of Pound’s editorial work on The Waste Land had been made public when part of a letter from TSE to Ford Madox Ford (1 Dec 1932) appeared in a pamphlet, The Cantos of Ezra Pound: Some Testimonies, which Farrar & Rinehart used in 1933 as publicity for their American edition of A Draft of XXX Cantos: “I owe too much to Ezra to be a critic. (I wish that the manuscript of THE WASTELAND with Ezra’s criticisms and still more important, his excisions, thank God he reduced a mess of some eight hundred lines to about half its size, might some day be exhumed. John Quinn had it. As a masterpiece of critical literature.)”
TSE emphasized how dedicated Pound had been:
I think of a friend who, in the early days, was as much concerned with the encouragement and improvement of the work of unknown writers in whom he discerned talent, as with his own creative work; who formulated, for a generation of poets, the principles of good writing most needful for their time; who tried to bring these writers together for their reciprocal benefit; who, in the face of many obstacles, saw that their writings were published; saw that they were reviewed somewhere by critics who could appreciate them; organized or supported little magazines in which their work could appear—and incidentally, liked to give a good dinner to those who he thought could not afford it, and sometimes even supplied the more needy with articles of clothing out of his own meagre store. (Leadership and Letters, 1949).
I believe that I have in the past made clear enough my personal debt to Ezra Pound during the years 1915–22. I have also expressed in several ways my opinion of his rank as a poet, as a critic, an impresario of other writers, and as pioneer of metric and poetic language. His 70th birthday is not a moment for qualifying one’s praise, but merely for recognition of those services to literature for which he will deserve the gratitude of posterity, and for appreciation of those achievements which even his severest critics must acknowledge.” (Ezra Pound at Seventy 1956).
My criticism has this in common with that of Ezra Pound, that its merits and its limitations can be fully appreciated only when it is considered in relation to the poetry I have written myself. (The Frontiers of Criticism 1956).
When Leslie Paul asked about Pound’s revisions of The Waste Land, TSE explained: “He cut out a lot of dead matter. I think that the poem as originally written was about twice the length. It contained some stanzas in imitation of Pope, and Ezra said to me: ‘Pope’s done that so well that you’d better not try to compete with him.’ Which was sound advice. And there was also a long passage about a shipwreck which I think was inspired by the Ulysses canto in Dante’s Inferno. At any rate, he reduced it in length. Well, the fate of that manuscript or typescript with his blue-pencillings on it is one of the permanent—so far as I know—minor mysteries of literature.”
Asked by Donald Hall, “Did the excisions change the intellectual structure of the poem?” TSE replied: “No. I think it was just as structureless, only in a more futile way, in the longer version” (Paris Review, 1959). “No doubt my readers would be interested to see the original Version, but it is certain that Pound’s editing improved the poem and there is no ground for suggesting that it became more enigmatic” (Northrop Frye corrigenda, 1963).“I think that the poem as originally written was about twice the length. … And there was also a long passage about a shipwreck which I think was inspired by the Ulysses canto in Dante’s Inferno.”
To Daniel H. Woodward, 3 Apr 1964, on The Waste Land draft and then the March Hare Notebook: “I cannot feel altogether sorry that this and the notebook have disappeared. The unpublished poems in the notebook were not worth publishing, and there was a great deal of superfluous matter in The Waste Land which Pound very rightly deleted. Indeed, the poem in the form in which it finally appeared owes more to Pound’s surgery than anyone can realise” (Woodward, 268).
Despite such public and private tributes to him, Pound sent a message from Rapallo on 31 July 1959:
Forgive us our trespasses. Even you will forgive me when you realize the extent of my failure.
On 5 Aug, TSE replied: “I am distressed and alarmed by your laconic note of the 31st July. What on earth is the failure you are talking about, and I don’t like the insinuation that I have an unforgiving nature. Please reply quickly.”
Further anguished pages arrived from Pound, impossible to print except in facsimile, but including such phrases as “I am trying to repudiate 30 years of injustice to you, from time of Ash Wednesday,” “you doing real criticism and me playing a tin penny whistle” and “30 years of impertinence from me.” Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, also wrote, on 23 Oct 1959, wondering whether TSE might visit, and reporting: “he is so overwhelmed by fragments that he does not even believe in his Poetry any more & that’s the worst part of it all.” TSE sent a cable from the US, 30 Oct: “TWO LETTERS RECEIVED I NEVER FORGET MY OWN GREAT DEBT TO YOU TO WHOM ALL LIVING POETS ARE INDEBTED STOP YOUR CRITICISM HAS ALWAYS BEEN IMMENSELY HELPFUL STOP YOUR OWN ACHIEVEMENT EPOCH MAKING STOP NOW JUST GOING WEST BUT WILL WRITE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE LOVE POSSUM.” Then a letter, 11 Nov: “Damn it, you’re still the biggest man in the poetry world, and have had the greatest influence on poetry of anyone in this century.”
Once back in London, TSE wrote again, 28 Dec 1959:
I have known well enough states of mind similar to yours. To tell a man what he has achieved in the world, how big his own work is, all he has done for other people and for the world at large, civilisation, society, etc. etc. doesn’t reach to the heart of the doubt, disgust, despair, etc. from which the victim is suffering. He knows all that and yet feels himself an utter failure . . . Your achievement in poetry the greatest that has happened in my lifetime.
After letters from Pound of 22 and 30 Dec, and 16 Jan 1960, TSE wrote once more:
Still can’t understand why you have been so depressed about your work, or your life—trust you will get the right balance soon. Hell, there’s so much in my life I can’t bear to think about for long at a time. Still think Waste Land and three last quartets worth while. A lot of very silly stuff in my prose . . . Affectuous greetings, TP.
Excerpted from THE POEMS OF T. S. ELIOT: Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux December 4th, 2018. All writings by T. S. Eliot copyright © 2015 by Set Copyrights Limited. Introduction, commentary, and editorial material copyright © 2015 by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. All rights reserved.