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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Daily Diary: The Waste Land Transcripts

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Again, today I have virtually no time to do reading. I mark essays until midday, and then have to head over to Stockton, for meetings and a library shift from 2.00 to 8.00.

I manage to snatch an hour, though, to spill lunchtime lettuce onto the pages of Valerie Eliot's introduction to the facsimile edition of The Waste Land, featuring Ezra Pound's substantial annotations. The introduction is told largely through Eliot's letters, and the impression that comes across is of how difficult Eliot, now one of the most revered figures in twentieth-century letters, found it to make either a name or a living for himself, and of how tenderly he felt towards his first wife, Vivien.

The mentoring of Pound was vital to Eliot's ambition, as was the financial sponsorship of wealthy philanthropist John Quinn, although Pound's letter of introduction to the latter is hardly flattering. Eliot, Pound writes, "has more entrails than might appear from his quiet exterior." Although Eliot's reputation became more secure with the publication of "Prufrock," he remained itinerant, flitting around England (and disappointing his American parents in the process) in the hunt for a job that would sustain him financially whilst allowing him time to lecture and write.

Eventually, he settled at Lloyd's Bank (one wonders if, today, the taxpayer-owned Lloyd's might be forced to become a sponsor of unsettled academics and literary genuises by way of remittance for the bail-out). Whilst he enjoyed the bank work, having published The Waste Land in The Dial in 1922, one might have expected Eliot to be able to turn now to writing full time. Behind the scenes, indeed Pound developed a scheme known as the Bel Esprit, where he tried to persuade thirty guarantors to sponsor Eliot for £10 a year. Eventually, Quinn pledged £300 a year, but Eliot remarkably turned down this generous offer, in favour of keeping his £500 a year salary at the bank. Later the next year, Quinn offered an alternative, with Eliot becoming editor of Nation for $600 annually, paid by himself and Otto Kahn. Again, Eliot rejected this "extraordinarily generous offer."

The reason, touchingly, appears to have been the ill health of his first wife, Vivien. Thomas wrote to Quinn explaining that:
The Nation did not want to give more than six months’ guarantee and they wanted me at once if at all. I pointed out that this might be allright for a man who was already in journalism, but that it is quite different for a man who had to give up a secure post. I don’t know whether I have ever explained this to you, but the Bank is a secure job for life, with a pension at 60, and a year’s salary and a pension for my wife in the event of my death. The main point, in any question of leaving the Bank, is (as I explained to Pound) the security for my wife. She will never be strong enough to shift for herself, or to endure great privation, she will inherit very little...and I must make reasonable provision for her before undertaking any adventures. I have gone into these details, for the first time, because it might appear, and I daresay has appeared to people who do not know my circumstances, that I am either very cowardly or very grasping. If I appear in this light to you, please let me know.

I do regard it as a disaster that I could not come to an arrangement with the Nation, and if the same post, or any similar post, should be open to me in the future, I should take it. I mean to leave the bank, and I must leave the bank, but I cannot say how soon or in what way.

Eliot seems trapped between conflicting interests, his desire to leave the bank to take up an editorship, but his awareness that such a post would allow him neither time nor security to care for his wife. What is remarkable in the tone of these letters is that Eliot does not seem at all resentful. Elsewhere, to his brother Henry, he writes of a strict regime intended to get her well that she possesses "infinite tenacity of purpose...I have never known anybody stick to a thing with such persistence and courage." Eliot appears to have recognised that both himself and Vivien were victims of her illness; but not to have turned inward and started to blame her for restricting his own career shows remarkable dedication and tenderness. The relationship between Thomas and Vivien Eliot seems wholly different to that of the infamous episode in The Waste Land, where the "young man carbuncular" finds his caresses met with "indifference" by the typist.

Likewise, of his mother - left alone in America after the death of his father - he writes that "I am thinking all the time of my desire to see her. I cannot get away from it. Unless I can really see her again I shall never be happy." The Waste Land presents a devastating picture of solipsism, of humans disconnected emotionally and spiritually from each other:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
Yet what emerges from the letters is an Eliot who is intimately caring, and at the centre of a circle of acquaintances who clearly feel genuinely for his situation, beyond their admiration for his art.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:26 pm


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