Approached from the direction of monumentality, The Waste Land calls for the literary historian: the poem is a post-Romantic attempt at a return to Classicism, in twentieth-century modernity in which the Classical is impossible. Rather than distinguish Classicism and Romanticism by way of the feelings, or a reading public, or a mature civilization, we might posit that with Wordsworth, English poetry works from the premise that “life is action” whereas prior to Wordsworth, the thought was instead that “action is life.” (George Eliot brings Wordsworth into the novel; James and Conrad evolve his presence into the twentieth century). The difference is between a sense that the actions we undertake define us, that morality and ethics should be accounted for in the discourse of virtue, and that poetry can shift between modes, pastoral, heroic, satirical, lyrical, or ode, that relate differently to action. Wordsworth turns that on its head: the question he asks the Leech-Gatherer is the essential crux of his poetry: the fact of this man’s being alive seems to testify to some essential value and to represent, in the act of enduring, an activity that is quintessentially human, even as it skirts, simultaneously, the divine and the animal. And we find something related in Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” in Keats’ Odes and late poetry, in Shelley, and in Byron, where the satire and comedy depends on the emptiness of the thought that action is life; life is action begs the question what action or activities it is, and that becomes the spring for the great poetry also of the later century. Tennyson is the obvious example, but even Browning’s dramatic monologues depend on the notion that the action of drama can be withheld for the action that is the life of the speaker and the speaker’s words; their living presence is the goal of the poem and a substitute for the actions we would find on a stage. It’s not difficult to see how the “life is action” formula requires a different exploration and presentation of feeling, since feeling and thought will not be unified by act, as Eliot discerned and confusingly expressed. Drama in England founders during this period, perhaps because of its earlier relation to verse; but the prose of the novel is liberated, and the scope of actions it represents widens accordingly. Then Eliot comes along and wants for action to be life again, but feels himself absolutely baffled by how it is possible to act anymore, and sees that the thwarting of the “action is life” formula is inseparable from the distortion of what people feel, of what they desire, towards an uncertain future, of how they can remember the past, and locate themselves in it. He gives us The Waste Land before the Church gives him action in rituals and movements that he believes to be alive and sustenance for life. Coriolan is the poem that might have taken him elsewhere, towards a contemplation of public action in an age of mass coordination and mob violence.
But that is only one direction and not necessarily the right or best one. For years, I mis-remembered the line of the poem that may be its most famous: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” I remembered it as being otherwise: “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.” It’s an enormous difference in meaning, since “ruin” means downfall, perdition, and self-loss, and I was adjusting the line to what I must have imagined to be the psychological drama of the poem. But I was also, in misremembering the line, imagining a very different sort of action: the poet drawing together the fragments of the past to oppose further erosion. That is not what the line says at all: “ruins” pose him no threat, and to shore the fragments against my ruins could mean dragging them alongside to hold the ruins in place, or gathering them together, with the ruins as a sort of storing house. And whereas the “fragments” are taken to be the bits that Eliot cobbles into the poem, “these” might refer to less all-encompassing a range, and the “ruins” themselves could be the poem, or parts of Eliot’s self, or whatever else. The next line, from The Spanish Tragedy, “Why then Ile fit you,” while “fit” means, per Eliot in a letter of 1932, “furnish,” and amounts to an agreement to provide the suitable conditions for a plot, suggests also a “fit” of ruin to fragments, or fragments to ruin, and an attempt to make a whole form out of parts. (It also tremors with sexual menace and with the possibility of mutual understanding, both recurrent in the poem). Whereas “my ruin” suggests Eliot’s final surrender to his own tragedy, in what would be exquisite self-dramatization, “my ruins” suggests instead a lord surveying his blighted estates, attempting to patch them up and redeem them from the waste—a potentially comic scene, tragicomic at least. We can hear Eliot approaching Beckett with the line.
Now, I don’t want to blame the world for my own poor memory, but I do think there is pressure to read the line as meaning “ruin” even if it says “ruins,” and there are various consequences from this. On quite a large scale, with Eliot saying “these fragments I have shored against my ruin,” we are given the picture of the poet huddling in place, paralyzed as the thunder booms its Sanskrit. But with the actual line “these fragments I have shored against my ruins,” we can see someone prepared to weather an approaching storm, or someone bemoaning all that has been lost, thankful that he can savage anything at all, extending his possessions, or else we can hear someone who is done, who feels now a sense of relief and release, able to renounce what he has gathered together, tidying it as if to prepare himself for departure from life. And this mixture of feelings, a heroic resolution to look ahead, an accounting of the waste in all that has fallen apart, or a sudden release from all that has fallen away all co-exist in the poem. They are its constituent parts. The first of these does propose a new sort of action that makes for a meaningful life, a conservative stewardship and search-and-rescue; the second reckons with the limited scope for “action is life,” and the third admits that perhaps “life is action,” but finding action empty finds it possible to detach from life. (I think we should take seriously Eliot’s self-professed fascination with Buddhism at the time).
But then there is another way that the word “ruins” might prompt us to read the poetry: and that is to approach it as we would approach a pile of ruins, not only with an imagination for the entirety that is missing, but with a delight in what stands, in its own right; to invest creatively in the investigation of detail, trusting in it to lead us to a sense for the larger whole that we cannot perceive (and this is, without my meaning it, not so far from the Absolute of F.H. Bradley, on whom Eliot wrote his dissertation, and for whom the Absolute was inexhaustibly greater than what we can perceive, but present in traces to us nonetheless). We might flirt with the possibility that the “ruins” are not the ruins of modernity, or Eliot’s moment, but the ruins of reality; the ruins that we live among, in any time, the difference of one era and another being how we dwell among them, and what we let the ruins tell us of the greater whole that remains unseen. For being a poem with a remarkable number of memorable lines, it is also a poem with a remarkably discernible thematic progression and return; ruins, maybe, but ruins of a single entity, always, and so it feels as completed and perfect as any poem of the century, provided that the root of perfection is not confused; it is a complete instance of ruins, where ruins are by nature incomplete in relation to something else, but nonetheless can stand, as a category, “ruins,” complete in themselves.
And within those ruins, each detail, like the “s” on “ruins” itself, can be asked to help us know the whole that we cannot, could not, fully otherwise see.
At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
“Violet” breathes on “violent,” invokes Baudelaire, the Fauvistes, and the excessive makeup of streetwalkers; it is not a blush, of embarrassment or pink delight, or innocence; it is richer and more sensual red, but also not the red of blood. “The eyes” are the “I”s of the poem, with “I Tiresias” being the most relevant here, and “back” suggests eyes that see backwards from normal eyes—which is to say ahead in time, like Tiresias again. “Eyes and back” is uncanny, not only because of the two sides of the figure represented at once, like double-gendered Tiresias, but also because “eyes” that linger over a back are themselves threatening, lustful, and invasive, and because the eyes turn upward very differently from a back turning upward; the verb a zeuga; the poem is both proferring and rejecting a doubling, as it will when it disrupts Goldsmith’s couplet (“when lovely woman”) with the displaced “and.” And what else do the eyes and back have in common? They cannot be seen by the person who possesses them; they are two points of vulnerability to others, but different also in that one is a point of vulnerability to others one sees, the others to those one cannot see, with both sorts of vulnerability—deception and explicit violence—relevant in this section. The image of the eyes and desk both bound at once to the desk suggests profound torture, a figure from Dante bent back upon itself, the desk as a rack, both eyes and back attached to it, impossibly. If we are conveyed to the middle ages, then “engine” takes on the form of a military device, a catapult or something similar, and human engine is a human weapon poised for violence, so that the human in this line is both victim and oppressor. The three lines intimate a narrative that they do not substantiate: a person leaving work in a taxi. But there is no departure; the engine waits to exercise its force on another, or to return life to the clerk at the desk, before the next scene of violence. At the same time, it might be the typist who is returning home, and she herself the human engine, deprived of feeling or will or desire, or else no different from others, “the human engine” being the species, or else “the human engine” being a part of her, and not her entire self. The line would do less if it made out more what it is that the human engine does; but “waits” is weighted with both suspense and with a dull inconsequence, since it depends on something else, either another, or something more human—but an action that is not present. “Like a taxi throbbing waiting” because the taxi serves, is at the call of another, moves but without self-determination, and with “throbbing” giving the sense that “human engine” is sexual libido, but also throbbing pain, a heart waiting to feel, and “waiting” both delaying progress in the poem, but building towards action as the verb takes the continuous form. We might hear the “like” looking both ways, as Tiresias can look in two directions, and think Tiresias is himself like the “taxi throbbing waiting,” for where the punctuation links the “like a taxi throbbing” to “human engine,” the repeated “throbbing” involves Tiresias. “Throbbing between two lives” is almost parodic; the notes point to Whitman’s use of “throbbing” and this feels like an exaggeration of Whitman’s exaggerated sympathy; it is grotesque, not because Tiresias is between, but because he is throbbing between: is it a motion or is he a vessel or conduit pulsing with energy, and is the throbbing passion or pain? “Female” is right because old men do have wrinkled breasts that sag. “Can see” introduces the prophecy but also recommences the verse, the time doubling back to the start, “At the violet hour,” the self-narration of when Tiresias sees collapsing into the future that he sees, so that future is the present, and has already, in his already seeing it, happened; this is in small form the poem’s dissolution of temporal layers, and one reason why Tiresias is the key to the poem. The evening hour alone “strives,” so that there is willing and perseverance here, but it is not heroic, since time cannot heroically strive—and that time strives at all implies an argument about the inseparability of thought and temporality, of time and action, where striving is always time striving, if we were to look at it differently. This might be thought foolishly literal: that it strives “homeward” tells us that it is the sailors striving, rhetorically displaced; but why displace them? Time has no home, though people do, and yet people are not equally at home in time; the Waste Land is homeless in time, or time is homeless in the poem. “Sea” and “see” the poem once again failing to move on, turning back onto itself, until it breaks into the time of mundane routine, the typist at “teatime.” “Lights” at the line-ending is not the light of sight, and seeing, but is the first decisive act of the poem: let there be light, or let the stove be lit. “Tins” is not “sins,” but the scene is a fall, and “perilously” asks for whom—for her? For the clothes that themselves might fall?—and there is Milton everywhere, not least in the “touched by the sun’s last rays” which makes of “lights” something grander, again in the context of Milton’s blindness against Tiresias’; but if that was a heroic fall, or a happy fall, this is neither. Whether Miltonic or not, it looks to epic, and mock-epic, which depends anyways on the health of epic conventions. “Drying combinations” is euphemistic for her clothing, but “combinations” does more than capture the phrases of the department shop advertisement; by removing the word from the department store it suggests an air of art and mystery, combinations being in insolation a term of technique, and this as the combinations of rhyme lock into place. It is not just mock epic. And in what follows, the parenthetical “at night her bed,” the poem shares in her modesty and gives shape to her cramped quarters in the curved brackets (lunulae) themselves. “Stays” is clothing, but also, crucially, a verb: to “stay,” to restrain, but also to be restrained and held in place, ominously for what will follow.
Symbolist principles denied such exegeses had place or purpose; but The Waste Land instead responds to Eliot’s whimsically excessive thought that critics squeeze and refine each drop of feeling from a poem’s language and techniques. We cannot be left with a whole as a consequence, but that is not what criticism provides with any text; criticism, more often, reveals texts to be ruins that are, at their best, complete as ruins, and that, as complete ruins, are valued for all that they help us conceive of life beyond what they are.