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"A Heap of Broken Images": The Waste Land
Ezra Pound met T.S. Eliot in London in 1914, some time after he asked Conrad Aiken to recommend a poet who was doing modern, different work. Eliot was recently graduated from Harvard, doing post-graduate work in philosophy at Oxford University and struggling with the conflicting ideas of becoming a professor or dedicating himself to poetry. Pound read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” immediately deeming it “the best poem I have yet had or seen from an American,” and took the young poet under his wing. Harriet Monroe published “Prufrock” in the June 1915 issue of Poetry on Pound’s strenuous recommendation, and several more Eliot poems later that year. Pound included two poems of Eliot’s in the second issue of BLAST, published in July 1915. Eliot’s first book, Prufrock and Other Observations, was published in June 1917, by the Egoist Press, although Pound had fronted the printing costs. Poems was published by the Hogarth Press in 1919, followed the next year by Poems, published by Alfred Knopf. Eliot also authored, anonymously, a brief monograph on Pound’s work which was published by Knopf in 1917.
Eliot had secured a position in Lloyd’s Bank in 1917, but the pay was meager, even supplemented by Eliot’s occasional reviews. Pound had earlier attempted to raise funds so that Eliot could leave the bank’s employ to write full-time, but nothing came of it; in 1922 Pound tried again with a plan called “Bel Esprit.” The printer John Rodker produced a printed missive, but Eliot’s innate uneasiness about the endeavor and other events eventually caused its foundering.
The pressures of work and finances and Eliot’s strained marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood culminated in a nervous breakdown. He was ordered by a specialist to take a three-month leave of absence from the bank; it was during his recuperation at Margate and Lausanne in late 1921 that he applied himself in earnest to a “sprawling chaotic poem” he had been considering for several years. En route to Switzerland, he visited Pound in Paris in November and showed him the poem, originally entitled “He Do the Police in Different Voices” (Betty Higden’s comment on the foundling Sloppy’s oral reading of the newspaper in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend), but soon titled The Waste Land. Pound edited the poem substantially, deleting entire sections and calling for Eliot to tighten and rearrange others. The final product reflects almost as much Pound’s vision of Eliot’s poem as of Eliot’s himself; Eliot’s dedication of the poem to Pound as il miglior fabbro (“the better craftsman,” and itself an allusion to Pound’s work, as it was the phrase Dante had used to praise the troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel, whose work Pound had translated) reflected his thought that Pound had “done so much to turn The Waste Land from a jumble of good and bad passages into a poem.”
The poem was published in October 1922 in the Dial (where it received the $2000 Dial Award, as payment for the poem due to intense negotiations by both Pound and Eliot with the Dial editors) and the Criterion, a new magazine edited by Eliot. It was published in book form in December by Boni & Liveright; this edition marked the first appearance of Eliot’s notes to the poem. A later edition was published the following year by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. The poem had great impact from the moment of its publication; the critic Lawrence Rainey has said, “the publication of The Waste Land marked the crucial moment in the transition of modernism from a minority culture to one supported by an important institutional and financial apparatus.” It could be added that this was the vindication of everything Pound had been promoting for the past fifteen years, and marks the moment of his greatest triumph—the justification of “our modern experiment.”
The relationship between Pound and Eliot, although it continued primarily in correspondence, was never the same after 1922. Both wrote regular criticism of the other’s work, and Eliot played a role in securing Pound’s release from St. Elizabeths in 1958. Pound attended Eliot’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey in 1965, and wrote of him, “His was the true Dantescan voice—not honoured enough, and deserving more than I ever gave him.”
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