What the Thunder Said

In the winter of 1921, T.S. Eliot was in bad health, something brought on not just by the pressures of his literary ambitions, but by the more prosaic pressures of marriage and work. His doctor recommended a lengthy sojourn abroad, as the doctors of the European middle classes were wont to do at the turn of the century. His employers, Lloyds bank of London, agreed to this, granting him three months sick leave and Eliot set of for treatment in the Swiss resort of Lausanne, with stops at Margate and Paris, where fellow American poet Ezra Pound was living.

It was probably on the way back from this trip, in January of 1922 that Eliot showed Pound the drafts of The Waste Land. This poem would become the defining poem of its era, granting enduring literary fame to its writer, Eliot, and even, to a lesser extent, to its editor, Pound. Those who have studied Eliot know, or think they know, that Pound made huge cuts to the poem, because Pound was the leader of the imagist movement, he liked to “make things new”, and generally to keep things brief . Naturally, there is speculation as to what a unedited version might look like.

For other writers, we needn’t speculate. One of the other famous writer/editor partnerships of the 20th century was that of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish. Lish took Carver’s stories and pared them down. Carver’s stories were already modern, but the way Chekhov’s stories were modern: they showed modern people, unheroic and uncertain. Lish made them Modernist: fragmentary, oblique and a little harsh. It was the stories edited by Lish that first won Carver literary success, but he became unhappy with them, and later had his own, uncut versions printed. Now I had read all of Carver’s stories before I ever heard of this editing business, and I had already decided on my favourites. It turned out that favourite Carver, was unedited Carver, the warmer, longer stories of Cathedral, and not the harsher Lish-ed Carver of earlier collections. In this case, for me at least, that ingrained prejudice we have that the original is always the best turned out to be correct.

With The Waste Land, however, there is no “original poem”. Eliot did not give Pound a long poem, which pound duly turned into a shorter poem; Eliot gave Pound a loose collection of drafted materials to work into an overall schema. This included not just drafts of each planned section of The Waste Land, but drafts of other shorter poems that Eliot planned to release in the same collection as The Waste Land, but which were instead mined for material to include in The Waste Land itself. Much of this material is available, and so it is at least possible to imagine a non-Ezra’d version, if not exactly an original. From the evidence available, I think such a poem would certainly have been longer, would certainly have maintained more traditional poetic elements, and may well have been, superficially at least, more beautiful. But it would not have been as good.

Here is one of those draft pieces, which eventually became the opening to the fifth and last part of The Waste Land, What the Thunder Said:

After the turning of the inspired days
After the praying and the silence and the crying
After the inevitable ending of a thousand ways

And frosty vigil kept in withered gardens
After the life and death of lonely places
After the judges and the advocates and wardens
And the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the turning of inspired nights
And the shaking spears and flickering lights –
After the living and the dying –

After the ending of this inspiration
And the torches and the faces and the shouting
The world seemed futile – like a Sunday outing

Repetitive, rhythmic, musical, melancholic and, in terms of poetic structure, fairly conventional. And rather nice, I think. There are echoes of Arnold’s Dover Beach, with the sense of an something passing – that is, the Christian era with its inspiration and passion – leaving something empty in its place. That last line seems to anticipate Larkin “futile – like a Sunday outing”, in the way it links the withdrawing roar (or murmur) of Christianity with the more prosaic disappointments of English life.

This made it into The Waste Land in the following form:

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

Shorter and repetitive, the rhythm broken, and in terms of poetic structure, oblique. It is easy to see what has been lost – or cut off, but what has been gained? The imagery is sharper, and most importantly the subject is clearer: this is about the crucifixion of Christ, and here it sounds much more like a drama of eternal significance, and less like an exciting but hollow day-trip to Brighton. Ezra Pound seems to have helped Eliot strip the passage to its core and bring out its true meaning. I think Eliot wanted to link the events of two thousand years past with life in England in the present: in the early passage he does this vaguely, and clumsily; in the final version, with economy and clarity.

You really have to give Pound credit as an editor here. I don’t think Pound shared Eliot’s religious leanings. Pound has one poem about Christ in which he presents his as a “goodly fere”, a hard-drinking, swash-buckling comrade to men, and one supposes this is the kind of Christ he would prefer, if any. He probably had very little truck with Eliot’s nascent Anglo-Catholicism, and may well have actively disliked it. But he saw what was good in this passage, and helped to bring it out (if the fragment here sounds a little too pessimistic from a Christain point of view, read the rest of the poem – “he who is living is now dead” is not quite the last word on the issue). Pound cut off what was mere atmosphere, or mere music…

But in the process, he conspired to make the poem’s dynamics, and, in its influence, a lot of subsequent Western poetry a much more difficult thing. Whatever you think of the earlier passage, it is much easier to analyse- one can say what is poetic in it – the rhymes, the rhythm, the abundant alliteration. But the final passage has much less of this. One can say it is beautiful, why it is poetic, even, but it is a much harder thing to explain what makes it poetry. The techniques are subtle, and harder to pin down, harder to describe, harder for most people – myself included – to see. It is easy – though mistaken – to gather that there is no technique in such poetry at all, that it is just a matter of words well put.

I should note I found the old Eliot fragment, and much of the biographical details in the essay “The Waste Land: Paris 1922” by Helen Gardner, an interesting read for those who want to know more about the genesis of the poem.

As promised, I’m currently alternating Eliot poems with some comparable poems from other poets. Next post, we’ll look at a section of another of the long poems of the Twentieth Century, by another poet touched by the influence of Ezra Pound…



Filed under Literature, Poetry

7 responses to “What the Thunder Said

  1. Once again, thanks for a fascinating post. The comparison of the two texts is so instructive. It seems that in the published version we can enjoy a far more varied language and a text that’s richer in allusions but, as I think you show, one that is more opaque. I almost wish there had been a third stage – a chief editor – bringing some of the earlier clarity back, completing the dialectic process!

  2. The published version is so far finer, in my view, than the earlier draft–a triumph of lean, mean parataxis. I always wonder how much was Eliot’s and how much Pound’s. I don’t guess Ezra sat around with a blue pencil tied to his hands, but that they had general “discussions” and then Eliot went home and did most of what Pound suggested. The latter was more truly a poet, in my estimation, than the former.(might have something to do with a preference for the unconventional ). Pound was so g good, in so many ways to his fellow writers–people so differing as W.C. Williams, Frost, Hemingway, and Joyce. I’m glad you are featuring him.

  3. I agree that the final version is much the better, but like John I have a soft spot for the older fragment too, with its music. It is interesting that you rate Pound higher than Eliot – there is a startling line in that Gardner essay, about how Eliot was very interested in Gray’s Elegy written in a country church yard especially because it was written by a man who was making the most of his moderate poetical talents – Eliot thought that The Waste Land would be the best way to make the most of his…

  4. So interesting, that bit about Gray’s Elegy. Tempts me to go and read Gardner, only….I had Guru Eliot up to my eyeballs in college and am still getting over my negative over-reaction to that.. ( Would you believe I played the role of Lavinia in a stage production of Eliot’s “Cocktail Party” in my thirties?) It’s nice to hear that he himself was modest about his powers….brings him down from Parnassus and likely off my bookshelf for a more friendly visit one of these days….

  5. Thanks for the brilliant analysis and the reminder of why it’s so important to pay attention to great literature, whether in the form of fiction or poetry. I hadn’t known that about Carver’s stories (“Cathedral” was the first collection of his I read; now I’ll have to go back and give it a second look). I also hadn’t known of the close working relationship between Pound and Eliot. Thanks to a shaman-like professor of Modern British Literature in college, I was able to appreciate the wonders contained in Eliot’s “Four Quartets” much more than I would have had I tried to read it on my own.

  6. Pingback: The Child on the Cliffs | sweettenorbull

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