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'The Waste Land' is widely viewed as the twentieth century's most important English language poem, so it's no surprise that 'The Waste Land' manuscripts are some of the most fussed-about pieces of artistic construction in modern times. The poem is a short but dizzying string of images that needs every bit of clarification available.
'The Waste Land' manuscripts, which consist of fifty-four leaves, three hotel receipts, and a mailing label, were sold by T. S. Eliot to John Quinn, a New York attorney who served as his agent, in 1923. Quinn died the following year and Eliot's manuscripts were inherited by Julia Quinn Anderson, his sister. Mrs. Anderson died in 1934, after which the manuscripts were put in storage. Her daughter, Mary Anderson Conroy, recovered them and made a final sale in 1958 to the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, where they currently reside. Eliot never knew about the sale and his estate was not informed until 1968, upon publication of a Quinn biography by Professor B. L. Reid.
'The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript' is largely a collaboration between Valerie Eliot, T. S. Eliot's second wife, and poet Ezra Pound, who is credited with massaging 'The Waste Land' into its published form. Using the original manuscripts, correspondence, and research on literary workings of the poem, Mrs. Eliot and Mr. Pound have done much to elucidate where The Waste Land's ideas originally came from and how its manuscripts created issues over the poem's 'official' appearance.
The book, first published as a large-size hardcover by Harcourt Brace & Company in 1971, gives itself little fanfare and dives right into the poem's lengthy history. Pound chimes in with a short preface that acknowledges Mrs. Eliot's devotion, followed by a twenty-page introduction that charts the events in Eliot's personal and creative lives from 1915 to 1924. Mrs. Eliot bases the introduction primarily on letters written between Eliot, his family, Pound, and Quinn. It is soundly arranged, listing every step towards making 'The Waste Land' a published item.
The manuscript's fifty-four leaves are offered in facsimile, with each page transcripted to its right. The transcriptions reflect any changes or notations made by Eliot, Pound, and Eliot's first wife, Vivienne, who provided feedback intermittently. Pound's corrections are transcripted in red ink, Vivienne Eliot's in black ink with dotted lines. The leaves are arranged in sections corresponding to those of the final poem. Remarkable is how much verse was left on the cutting floor: 'The Burial of the Dead' stems from a long narrative poem, the infamous 'He Do the Police in Different Voices.' Its entire first part, a trite urban episode, went completely unused. The tiny section 'Death by Water' originated from a narrative of sea fishers, running over four hand-written pages.
To clarify ambiguous information such as titles, literary references, and Pound's codified markings, Mrs. Eliot has supplied editorial notes that are located after the facsimiles. The book's remaining pages contain 'The Waste Land' as published by Boni and Liveright in 1922, including Eliot's after-the-fact notes that were used as a critical reference for years, but which Eliot later called 'bogus scholarship.' These notes were originally written by Eliot to point out various sources, but he later expanded them needlessly to fill blank pages resulting from the poem's appearance as a book.
Mrs. Eliot's volume is highly informative and well-organized. It does much to elucidate the poem's inner workings and we learn a great deal about Eliot personally, something that he largely considered taboo. We see clearly how the poem took shape, with much-needed help from Pound and Vivienne Eliot. There are no longer any mysteries about how Eliot could piece together such contradictory material; whatever material did not reach publication gives added meaning to what the public eventually saw.
How literary sources relate to the poem is a different story, however. 'The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript' does nothing to clarify what the poem actually means and, to be fair, Mrs. Eliot did not set out to do this. If a reader wants to find out the significance of Hindu Upanishads or what 'Tristan and Isolde' is about, there are plenty of good references, such as the Norton Critical Edition. 'A Facsimile and Transcipt' bases itself on the writing process, not on literary interpretation.
While a moot point, it's unfortunate that Vivienne Eliot was never consulted about the poem. The first Mrs. Eliot spent her remaining years in a sanatorium (she died in 1947), having been committed for mental problems. A great deal of knowledge about the poem died with her, especially since 'The Waste Land' is discreetly autobiographical. Despite her intimate knowledge of the writer, Valerie Eliot has assembled this book while at a sizeable distance from the poem's origins.
Regardless, 'The Waste Land' is a stunning collage of imagery whose deeper meanings were carried by T. S. Eliot to his grave and, if his beliefs are true, to the world beyond. Certain mysteries surrounding this poem will never be clarified; but this facsimile edition at least offers some hope of uncovering whatever meanings the poem contains. It is essential reading for admirers of Eliot's poetry and a wealth of information for scholars, who should already know about it by now.