I’ve tried to work out, in the last five posts, how it is that the most remarkable “Romance” narrative poems of the nineteenth century, by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Browning, and Rossetti, find their completion in falling short of completion in one way or another; they leave a space between consummation of experience and the achievement of the poetry. Something that is fulfilled in the poetry, by the poetry, is not correspondently fulfilled in the life that the poetry represents, whether that is Keats’ end-stopped feel, Coleridge’s forgiveness, Browning’s retrospective glance upon perfection, Wordsworth’s temporal closure, or the genre, and corresponding significance, of Rossetti’s tale. For each of these poets, expectation is fulfilled with a disappointment that is diagnostic rather than symptomatic; a disappointment that is felt as an insight into the value and nature of certain experiences of fulfillment. They come up short; they refuse to yield enough; and they ask us to look back in order to recover something that cannot make up the distance to the present. They represent, as do all consummate works of art, a mastery over expectation and fulfillment
We would expect any excellent poet to have such mastery; but those poets who are also able and willing, in criticism, to illuminate the poetry of others might plausibly be thought to not only have mastery over the elements of expectation and fulfillment (and all its varieties), but to have thought about them anew. And so it is with T.S. Eliot, whose The Waste Land I’d like to suggest can be read as continuous with, and also breaking from, the tradition of nineteenth-century narrative poems I’ve outlined; that Eliot signals his indebtedness to a book titled From Ritual to Romance indicates that the poem at least superficially owes something to the sources of Romance that also lie at the root of the 19th century tradition inaugurated in the early Romantic medieval forgeries and (serious) pastiches; its Arthurian focus suggests that William Morris, and Tennyson, rather than the figures I’ve looked at, would be a relevant locus, and no doubt that would be worth looking into, but I do not think it’s the particular myth so much as the story of what happened in the mid-length Romance narrative poems that I’ve examined that is helpful for thinking about The Waste Land.
Eliot’s poem is also, after all, very much about fulfillment: the wasteland of the Arthurian legend becoming his waste land, its infertile soil his own, and the quest for the grail, and the returned potency of the hero-king, his poem’s quest for a desire that can be consummated in fertile growth. Those rough terms of the poem show it to be very near indeed to those romances I’ve looked at, all the more since the poem refuses to close the gap between anticipation and fulfillment—its innovation lying here, perhaps chiefly, that it opens that gap in new directions and dimensions, and that it discovers, or is willing to imagine, more possibilities for what fulfillment might be, as well as more possible sources of our anticipation, than the poem’s I’ve considered. It is, in fact, the poem’s range, it’s establishing so many sorts of expectation that makes fulfillment impossible; it demands a totality that none of them could contain, and which is absent from the world, only rumbling in the thunder beyond it, the peace being an escape from not just desire, but desire for something to come about that would satisfy. This is historical, spiritual, mythic, personal, economic, sexual all at various moments, and sometimes violent, sometimes despairing, sometimes other things; what would consummation of any of these be? The poem, as it were, succeeds by asking the question more fully than it has been asked, and as a consequence by opening it beyond the cauterizing of a single answer. It can hear, and allows us to hear, the question being asked all around, in the poetry of the past, in the voices of the present, in different accents: he does the police in different voices, and what the police say to Jo is “move on, move on,” even though Jo has nowhere to move on to; there is no end, only homeless loitering. In Eliot’s poem, what action will bring an end to the quest, will enact the ritual, will ensure something is born or raised from the dead? The poem asks that question by invoking the range of attempts; it invents a new form of generality that lives in the accumulation and ordering of particulars. In this, it bears comparison with Pound’s Cantos but Pound has not, I think, either, in the early Cantos, as clear a feeling for the generality under which the details are gathered—though he could discern with his editorial cuts the generality that Eliot was bringing into being—and in the Pisan Cantos, where the generality is the drift towards a goodness, it is very much centered on the unity of a person, the vantage of the cage, as Eliot’s The Waste Land dissolves the personhood of the poet, to write about, as it were, a process or action in itself; he does in poetry what Aristotle says the tragic drama does: to represent action, rather than character, but it is action that is fulfilled only in the impossibility of fulfillment.
We are invited, in and by Eliot’s poem, to see this impossibility as being of a time, of a place, situated not in an eternal human condition, but depending on a vantage point that, though not bound up in the poet’s character, is historical, and accepts its situated outlook; the remnants of the past press upon that moment, but also are pressed upon by that moment, selected, received, so to yield up what they reveal about not yielding anything up. And to do so with a modulation of suggestions and tones, not to generate—as in “Prufrock”—irony but, as expansive and even magnanimous as that irony was—something that lives not in contrast but in a continuity and unity of experience that depends on Eliot’s perfect ear for phrases, their potential to be one thing as well as another, and to be both at once, holding the poem together:
After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
“With a little patience” is the voice of homespun, even smug, pride in the small virtues, startling after the solemn biblical service of the previous lines; but “with a little patience” is also meek, not groveling, but humble, perhaps falsely humble; and finally it is determined, the worth of its determination not negated by smugness or humility or meekness. Earlier, “frosty silence” is the silence of frost on the ground but also the frosty silence of one refusing to speak to another; the “gardens” is civilized, the lawns of Tennyson, set between the sexual, animal, bestial “torchlight red on sweaty faces,” where the sweaty faces might be read from the flame, or red from pursuit, and where the red is both in the firelight and in the exertion of faces; but that possibility is tempered by “gardens,” situating the faces out of the wilderness, only to see them returned there again with “agony in stony places,” where the missing “the” cooperates with “stony” and “places” to dislocate the scene, only to locate it again, superficially, in “Prison and palace and reverberation,” the latter an engine of destruction thrumming before it resolves into the thunder. “Prison and palace” gives us the scene of court intrigue, a sacrifice to propitiate gods perhaps, but gods propitiated on behalf of those in power, which is one reason that “reverberation” is conjoined, because it is, from the perspective of the priest-kings, a part of their power no less than prison and palace; that is to say, Eliot places the word so that it enforces an expectation about where we are, even though the matter can never be settled, as “reverberation” also serves to dissolve prison and palace into something greater, if we read the line as not conjoining but stepping past, exceeding the location of prison and palace, in the second “and.” It exceeds also the paralleled “the shouting and the crying,” which already contains the ambivalence of “shouting” in delight or anger or riot and crying in sorrow or exclamation or delight; the words need to be read for the range they open as well as delimit and define; the fecundity of the language is its opening so many vistas onto frustrated or unconsummated possibilities, and finding, in this continual insistence on the multiplicity of things, the generative potential of the world, the grounds for its despair; it testifies to both senses of “waste” as abundance and desiccation. “Reverberation” is exactly the word to describe what the language does, though it has become hackneyed these days to speak of words that “resonate.” But the fatigue of the latter should alert us to what is alive in Eliot’s word, since “reverberate” contains within itself not just the sonorous implication of “sonate” but the activity of a verb, something happening again, or happening at all, but also, when we consider the sense of the word, dissolving into air, melting away, portending, but not always, and not in the case of this poem, bringing with it rain. After all of that, “he who was living is now dead” and the agency of the death is left unanswered: sacrifice, or famine, or war or? And “We who were living are now dying.” The “now” recalls us to the sense of time, to the imminence of an end without fulfillment, but also the momentum of the moment: “now” would be implied, and the word effects several things: a declaration, a truth-telling that makes the truth real, like an official performative sanction, the voice of the priest; a reminder that there is a now, that this now is itself a culmination, an end, and yet represents an end that is only an ending, a long ending that must itself be filled with an activity of dying; a ground for hope not realized, that the “now” might be a different “then,” that there might be, if not resurrection or rebirth, then at least a difference in the future; and finally, it is marks the latter side of the chasm that was opened with “after”: how long after? How long or far after all of those things is this “now”? The past is alive everywhere in the poem, even as the poem never ceases to register how it is coming after the past, how it relies on the yield of the past to harvest its infertile crop. But the distance from the past is not precise; the division of pastness and present is maintained along a simple boundary, and the whole poem is felt as an “after” and a “now,” so that some of its generality depends on its not announcing a narrative of history, literary or otherwise, embracing history, but embracing it as a hoard of incompletion, on the same level; among the sorts of fulfillment it denies is that of a history that is one thing yielding another in any teleological direction, which includes cycles of history. “With a little patience” does look ahead though, but only a little; it cannot afford, that word “little” admits, to look ahead much. The poem is bound within, creatively constrained by, the “now” that requires “a little patience,” at least the patience of the five parts of the poem. But what does such patience entail? Opening oneself to all that is not coming to being in all that has been, enduring the prospect of disappointment and the expectation of expectations unfulfilled? Yes, but also patiently attending, patiently receiving the world so that the poem itself becomes an end that the world otherwise denies.
Pound insisted that Eliot retain what is now “Death by Water,” the account of Phlebas, whom he felt was “integral” the whole poem. It is has the distinction also, among the poem’s five parts, of possessing an integrity that is not broken: its unity of occasion and form, of perspective and voice, all make it feel, within its place in the poem, a complete section. One reason it is “integral” might be because it offers a glimpse of what it is for a poem to be integral—which allows Eliot then to place within his poem not only fragments of the past, but also the unity of a lyric, and to suggest that the unity of a lyric is no guarantor against the incompletion, that it neither transcends the lack of fulfillment nor can, on its own, fully register it. Put another way, the Phlebas section is complete in itself, but not self-sufficient; it is a small whole that cannot stand apart from the larger whole, which is itself marked by incompletion, by gaping unfulfillment. It creates a relation of part to whole, and whole to greater whole, that is integral to Eliot’s design. And of course it is a memorial, an epitaph, testifying to a loss that cannot be recovered by belief, cannot be redeemed in uncertainty; and so, in a different direction, its integral form and unity are made possible by the prospect of nothingness.
But if, as I’ve suggested, the section is not self-sufficient, though it feels somehow to be at one in itself, it is also not the case that it is at one with itself: it is no good saying that it is not self-sufficient because Eliot plops it into a larger poem, as if the presence of the other parts of the poem would be enough to make the Phlebas epitaph inadequate on its own terms. Many people depending on me might mean that I relate to them, but it does not make me depend on them. Its possessing unity but not self-sufficiency has to come about by something in the section itself, by its not being settled despite having a settled shape, and this is possible by way of the language. This matters because Eliot’s method, and the achievement the poem, depends not only on its having a simultaneous unity and disunity across all of its parts, as a whole, or even within each section, as one register or part yields to another, but within each line. In my reading of the passage at the start of section V, I tried to show how this simultaneous unity and disunity is made possible; the formal coherence of the line or phrase is set against the indeterminate interruption of registers within the line and phrase. In this way, we are made to feel always that the poem has come into itself, has fulfilled as it were the expectation of what it ought to be, and also eludes it; the unaccountable residual which precludes fulfillment, and also presents the conditions that obviate fulfillment, operate at the level of register and diction, as well as larger line-units, rhymes, rhetorical contrasts, linguistic interruptions, and design.
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
“Fortnight” measures by the standard of London society; it is the marker in a daily diary, so that the distance of past and present is either shrunk, or made irrelevant, or translated into terms that could be understood, the death by drowning, for instance, of sailors during the Great War. “Forgot” is wrong in the right ways: because dying might entail forgetting of a sort, if one believes in the afterlife and immortality of the soul, as in Dante, where the dead forget some of what it means to live—but which nonetheless is not what we would think of as the first or most important change of dying; with Lethe, it is the dead who are made to forget before returning to the world, and Dante’s dead are better are remembering than living; but then the word testifies to what memory is and does, this being a poem about memory and desire, this being a section of the poem that is an epitaph to remember, and an epitaph that depends on historical memory of a lost civilization, and this word now suggesting that the end of life is forgetting, that forgetting is a release and relief—though then we might wonder what he did remember, if he forgot all this, the word “forgot” suggesting some ground of memory remains. But “forgot” after “fortnight” invites us to ask also “when”: was the forgetting only after a fortnight, some mysterious purgatorial fire burning away the memory of the man? The obtuseness of the word sets before us the obtuseness of the perspective on the dead, against the dignity of what the lines say, mean, intend. But then we might ask in turn what would be better? “No longer thinks of”? “Is beyond”? They all imply as much, and even more, than “forgot,” which happily also contains within it the sight of “forgo.” “Forgot” in its human simplicity, its being a defining experience for all people at any time, makes death both simpler and more mysterious, since why we forget and what we forget, and whether we can care if we have forgotten truly, are themselves mysteries. It is a release from certain obligations of expectancy, which are formed first in the sense and senses of place (“the cry of gulls”) and movement (passive but present in “the deep sea swell”), and of course our sense of what is gained and lost, in terms that are (suitably for a Phoenician) economic but not solely economic, “the profit and loss.” Had the line been “the profit and the loss,” how different the effect, balancing the one against the other as if to intimate a calculation, which has now been lost, dissolved into the sea swell and the cry of gulls, dissolved syntactically by yet another sequence of “and,” and all alike “forgot.” Though this is, importantly, a different sequence of “and” from that later one, with a comma after “cry of gulls” but not after “swell” where instead of a comma, we have only the blank of the line-ending and page, so that the presence of division is itself dissolved into the whole of forgetting.
“Current under sea” is a sea current, but the possibility of an electrical current running in a telegraph line is not irrelevant; it would not have been a telephone wire, but the voices over a telegraph could pick the bones, discussing his death in whispers, or running aside them, disturbing the dead by electrical currents, the currents of a world’s nerves in a poem much preoccupied with nervous signals, with words that portend and join but cannot consummate. The possibility of seeing telegraph wires in this line is to suggest that the thought of self-sufficiency is unsettled, because the past refuses to be buried as the past, becoming, in the poem, something potentially present, asking to be understood on terms that exceed the reach of this section. Eliot also invites the sinister and predatory: “picked his bones in whispers,” both the cannibalistic but also the cannibalism of gossip about the dead; “picked his bones” might make music, too. “As he rose and fell” gives us the image of a corpse afloat in the waves, or perhaps the depths; it does not seem a body entering a whirlpool, unless just as it crossed the threshold, or else if the whirlpool were much larger, more slow moving and powerful, than we might have thought possible. “He passed the stages of his age and youth” reverses time, though, and the whirlpool can be felt as a temporal undoing, or disordering. It is not “passed through” or even “passed by,” though either, and especially the latter, is possible as a suggestion: after all, in the whirlpool he, now dead, passes by the stages of his age and youth, the seven stages of man or what have you, though he has not lived through all of them. But the other possibility is that he “passed” them, going further than them, and going further by no longer moving ahead, but by entering the inescapable, centrifugal whirlpool, in which he rises and falls, a motion of double futility, to which the “stages of his age and youth” no longer matter. It would be wrong to say that in these lines, which can be resolved physically and metaphysically, and which need to be resolved by physical and metaphysically at once, in so many ways, the poem lacks self-sufficiency, such vagueness being the muscle of many lyrics; but the vagueness here, the indefinite shape of the whirlpool and time, the determinate movement to a center that is defined by motion downward into an absence, presents the absence of a center to this lyric also, showing it to possess an integrity without a foundation. “The whirlpool” offers an article that is no help: “the” as opposed to “an,” as if there were a whirlpool that we all knew, that is the one which we must all face, or at least those who drown will enter.
“Gentile or Jew” sets Phlebas as a pagan, presumably; or makes belief irrelevant. “You” here is as direct as any in the poem, but also as pointed, so that it opens itself to any reader, any visitor, only to make them wish that it did not. “You who turn the wheel and look windward” is a sailor, but the implication is that everyone is a sailor, written in the Tarot deck. The vatic utterance could be out of Dante, a metaphor so general as to serve to describe any person taking hold of fortune, fate, life, and looking out. The temptation for the last line must have been to write “Remember,” but that would have been too much with “forgot” earlier: “Consider” is itself considered, and suggests, as “remember” does not, that the thought is not enough. To say “remember X,” suggests that the memory offers self-evident, or self-sufficient, explanatory power, but “consider” suggests there is something to be gleaned, but only if the bones are picked over; and what’s more it suggests that there is another side, “consider” as one possibility among many. It is coy in its mixture of caution and menace, with the ultimate coyness being the suggestion that whether he is considered or not will make no difference. But that notion that he ought to be considered at all, and this appeal to the reader, demands a response “considered against what,” and the poem announces that something more is needed—to which the rest of The Waste Land could be heard as a reply: but it does not matter, there is nothing that will help you turn the consideration to good end. Had the section ended “who once was handsome” it would have struck the note of “once” quite differently, on an unstressed syllable, whereas “who was once,” gives a stress to “once,” the passage of time to the point. “Handsome” is an appeal to vanity, to the vanity of the self that resides in looks, but handsomeness passes with age and not just death; but what it really does is accuses, like the end of Baudelaire’s poem that Eliot quotes, the reader of hypocrisy—your beliefs are not what you cling to, it’s your vanity in your appearance that you care about. It shrinks the concerns of the living to the superficial concerns of an ephemeral present, and it does so in a context that renders those concerns entirely superfluous, not because people ought not to care about appearance, but because the sea undoes handsome features in the most grotesque way, as well as undoing the desire for desire that underlies handsomeness; the word suggests that the reader is ill-suited to consider adequately what Phlebas has undergone, as if the joke were on them, or us, whomever the “you,” having read the poem to be as distant from it as if we had not. The oddest word in “And tall as you” is “as” because reading it we realize the comparative partner is missing from earlier in the phrase: “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall” would suggest that we recall the vanity of life before death, but in what I’ve been saying, I’ve been really making hay of the comparison “as you.” But the difference of “who was once as handsome and as tall as you” or “who was once as handsome and tall as you” and “who was once handsome and tall as you” is that of expectation finally surprised, the poem settling, in its last moment, on a curled sneer, turning to an attack with some pettiness rather than a solemn cautioning against a life dominated by petty self-regard. This final curdling of the tone is not like the spoiling of a Donne poem by a final misogynistic couplet, a lame joke that feels a disappointment of poetry but not a shocking deviation from sense or character; the tonal shift with “as you” is different. And we might capture that difference with one more possibility: “who was once handsome and tall like you.” In that case, the comparison would have been broader, a measure of similarity, but the word “as” sets the “you” back to back and face to face with Phlebas, a measure of competition and outranking, as if this is what “you” really cared about, and as if the poem takes delight in rubbing “your” nose in this (“you” are his “semblable”). But also because he is not just like, but is exactly commensurate to the aspects of yourself you care about, you should not feel superior to his face. “Consider” that about him, it says. Nonetheless, it does no resolve with what the poem has been or done until now; it breaks with its tone, it breaks into another sort of poem, and it does so at the end, so that even as it comes to a rest with a formal unity of “you” rhyming with “Jew,” this formal unity is made unresolved by the shift of tone and intent (and we might ask also about the resolution or irresolution Eliot felt in “you” and “Jew” as a rhyme). It ends then with a close that does not bring closure; it throws us into another game of chess, without, as is the case in the poem everywhere, any successful mating. (As a final note of spite, your being tall and handsome might help with women now, but even that won’t matter in the end.)
In every moment of the present, we can feel the impossibility of completing what has come before, and the impossibility of fulfilling what the present ought to hold; we are left with abortive, aborted promises and hopes; the prospect of fulfillment is inseparable from the expectation of waste and disappointment, with pain and violence the cost; but then in that, when we inhabit that reality, receive it with a little patience, as The Waste Land does, something does happen, and is complete—the poem. This is not new to Eliot, but is what unites him with the Romances of the nineteenth-century; what is new to Eliot is the denial that fulfillment, anticipation, desire, promise or the means by which they are enacted and lived out are individual, or any one thing, or even possessed by and through a whole that is itself knowable as a complete entity greater; they are individual and social, historical and mythic, economic and religious, alternately, simultaneously, irrelevantly; they are, because they the stuff of expectation, the stuff of language and poetry, and poetry can order them but not realize their potential beyond itself.