Literary critic, I. A. Richards wrote that T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, ‘The Waste Land’ described the state of modern, post-war life as one that was suffering from a
‘sense of desolation, of uncertainty, of futility, of the groundlessness of aspirations, of the vanity of endeavor, and a thirst for life-giving water which seems suddenly to have failed’.
Eliot denounced readings of this nature, deeming them ‘nonsense’. ‘I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned’, Eliot disclosed, ‘but that did not form part of my intention’. I’m not suggesting, here, that Eliot’s renunciation of the idea that ‘The Waste Land’ is ‘about’ a hopeless generation is the key to ‘understanding’ the infamous poem, if such a thing is even possible, but I do want to suggest that the rejection of such readings make way for an interesting way of reading Eliot’s great poem, one that I hope to lay out for you here.
Of course, Richards, and the many critics like him, were by no means wrong to perceive a certain sense of deprivation in ‘The Waste Land’ and this feeling does lend itself perfectly to a reading such as Richards’. In ‘The Fire Sermon’, for example, Eliot writes,
‘Trams and dusty trees.
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew
Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.’
The vague image of a body, ‘undone’ on the floor of a canoe is surely an image of ‘desolation, of uncertainty, of futility’, and a closer look at these lines allows us to both further understand Richard’s idea that ‘The Waste Land’ is a poem about a generation suffering from lacking and a profound sense of hopelessness, and to see why this is not necessarily the case.
The endnotes, added by Eliot himself in December 1922, two months after the initial publication of the poem in the October of the same year, tell us that the image of the body lying ‘on the floor of a narrow canoe’ is a reference to a moment in Canto V of ‘Purgatorio’, the second canticle in Dante’s The Divine Comedy. In Canto V, Dante and Virgil find themselves in ante-purgatory, among the late repentant. Specifically, in this moment in The Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil, on their journey through Hell, find themselves amongst those who had died violent deaths before they were given their last rites. The ‘Notes on The Waste Land’ refer the reader to two lines within ‘Purgatorio V’, translated in English (by Robert and Jean Hollander) as
‘please remember me, who am La Pia.
Siena made me, in Maremma I was undone.’
Eliot quotes these lines from The Comedy only in Italian, without giving any further information as to why he may have employed these lines in ‘The Waste Land’. Eliot takes the Dantean line ‘Siena made me, / In Maremma I was undone’ and reworks it into a new context; one of modern, suburban London, ‘baring’ his speaker in Highbury, and ‘undoing’ her — if we are to assume that Eliot is transposing Dante’s La Pia into his own poem — in a canoe on the Thames, somewhere between Richmond and Kew. This is something that Eliot does often in his poetry, taking moments from highbrow, long-established literature and imposing modern day London upon those moments to expose the harmful nature of modernity. Richard’s reading of ‘The Waste Land’ is therefore intelligible; it does make sense that this image may be one of a generation, both desolate and devastated. When we read ‘The Waste Land’ with Eliot’s refutation of this idea in mind, however, we are forced to look for something else in his lines and this opens up worlds of possibility for the poem.
The modernisation of context is not the only change that Eliot makes to Dante’s lines; he also makes much more subtle, although by no means less impactful, alterations in ‘The Waste Land’. Where Dante writes, ‘Siena made me’, Eliot writes, ‘Highbury bore me’. Dante’s verb choice in his claim that Sienna ‘made’ La Pia suggests that she was shaped, formed, in Siena. Eliot’s slight modification, however, suggests that his re-rendering of La Pia, is much more intrinsically connected with Highbury than Dante’s speaker is with Sienna; it ‘bore her’, it brought her into being. Eliot, too, adapts Dante’s relation of the ‘undoing’ of La Pia. Dante writes, ‘in Maremma, I was undone’, which Eliot transposes as ‘Richmond and Kew undid me’. It is noteworthy that Dante uses the passive voice in his revealing of La Pia’s story, where Eliot uses the active voice. Whatever Eliot’s reason for making this change may have been, the switch to the active voice has the effect of making the ‘undoing’ seem much more powerful. Eliot’s La Pia is clearly a victim at the hands of Richmond and Kew; the crisis belonging to Dante’s La Pia, however, is much more vague. Not only do we not know who, specifically, ‘did’ the undoing, the phasing of the proclamation is much less impactful than Eliot’s, particularly when placed alongside the active ‘Siena made me’. Eliot’s invocation of La Pia’s undoing and his alterations that make both the baring and the undoing much more powerful than in Dante’s own work, produces a feeling of profound despair. The speaker, lying in the canoe is bore, both by Highbury and by Eliot, and then, so quickly, so harshly, disgraced as she is undone.
But, of course, we can only ‘undo’ something if it is a whole in the first place; La Pia could not have been undone if she hadn’t, first, been ‘made’, or, ‘bore’. There is, undeniably, a profound sense of lacking throughout ‘The Waste Land’ — a lack of life, a lack of passion — but this can more precisely be pinned down as loss; it is not absent altogether, it is briefly present and then swiftly taken away. At the very beginning of ‘The Fire Sermon’, Eliot writes,
‘The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.’
With this description of the River Thames, abundant with these ‘testimon[ies] of summer nights’, Eliot’s speaker paints a picture of a river filled with signs of human life in London — remnants of nights spent drinking and the following day’s waste — yet informs us that this picture is non-existent within the realm of the poem; ‘the river bears no empty bottles’, there is, in fact, no sign of human life present on the Thames at all. Eliot presents his reader with an image of a lived-in, enjoyed London, and undoes it in the same way that he bares his speaker in the aforementioned lines and swiftly undoes her. Rather than omitting any mention of bottles, handkerchiefs, cigarette ends or nymphs, the speaker projects an image of them and leaves the reader to linger on the final word: ‘departed’; they have left the scene, the image of them is undone just as La Pia had been.
It is upon understanding this sense of undoing within Eliot’s poem that the reader can begin to see that ‘The Waste Land’ is much less desolate that it may, at first, have seemed. Eliot’s La Pia and his ‘testimon[ies] of summer nights’ may be undone, but they are nonetheless present and not only this, they are made important, impressive. In ‘Purgatorio V’, Dante’s La Pia beseeches Dante, ‘please remember me, who am La Pia’, and unlike the souls that we meet in ‘Inferno III’, we hear her story; La Pia has a name, a homeland and a death place. Dante remembers her and Eliot, in ‘The Waste Land’, remembers her, too. Not only does Eliot remember her, he also reproduces her as a ‘Thames-daughter’. The endnotes to ‘The Waste Land’ tells us: ‘From line 292 to 306 inclusive [the Thames-daughters] speak in turn […] i: the Rhine-daughters’. The Thames-daughters are a re-rendering of Richard Wagner’s Rhine-daughters, or, Rhine-maidens, who inhabit his music drama, Der Ring des Nibelungen. Eliot allows his version of La Pia’s story to, not only be told, but to be told by a figure with a huge amount of cultural weight. The story told by La Pia in The Comedy in such an economical way; so briefly, so graciously, consuming only seven lines in comparison to Buonconte’s speech, placed just before La Pia’s own, which employs no less than forty-five lines, suddenly becomes vastly important. Eliot’s speaker is ‘bore’, and quickly ‘undone’, but she is also remembered, and in a very impressive way.
Eliot’s undoing in ‘The Waste Land’ can certainly have the effect of eliciting an intense feeling of lacking, but what is important is that the whole things, the woman lying in the canoe and the ‘testimon[ies] of summer nights’ may be undone, but they are nonetheless present within the poem; they are remembered, and that, in itself, is a kind of ‘doing’.