A short introduction to a classic poem in the form of five facts
1. T. S. Eliot’s working title for The Waste Land was ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’, which he took from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. The modernist poet T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) is probably best-known for his 1922 poem The Waste Land, but if things had been a little different, the poem might have been published with the less catchy title ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’, a line spoken by Betty Higden about the character Sloppy in Charles Dickens‘s 1865 novel. The eventual title is a nod to myth, and particularly the story of the Fisher King, the Arthurian figure whose land has been laid waste – hence The Waste Land, a metaphor for modern-day Europe in the wake of the First World War and the Spanish flu that killed millions of people.
2. Similarly, the original opening line of The Waste Land was not ‘April is the cruellest month’. It ranks as one of the most famous opening lines in all of English poetry, but Eliot’s original drafts had a very different beginning. A whole early passage, which begins ‘First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place’, describes a drunken conversation, while a passage describing a woman, Fresca, going to the toilet, also never made the final edit.
3. Indeed, much of the eventual poem as it is now known and read was a result of Ezra Pound’s editing of the drafts. The early drafts of The Waste Land were subjected to the brutal but brilliant red pen of Eliot’s friend and fellow modernist poet, Ezra Pound, who cut the original draft of nearly 1,000 lines down to the 434 lines that make up the final version of the poem. Much of this only came to light in 1971, when Eliot’s widow, Valerie, edited and published The Waste Land Facsimile. This volume revealed the evolution of the poem and Pound’s role in helping to knock it into shape. (It also includes the passages involving Fresca on the lavatory and the other excised early drafts.) The earliest known use of the word ‘moan’ to mean ‘grumble or complain’ is found in Eliot’s original drafts of The Waste Land.
4. The Pet Shop Boys’ song ‘West End Girls’ was partly inspired by The Waste Land. The poem has continued to speak to each successive generation of artists, writers, and musicians. Harold Acton, an undergraduate at Oxford, famously recited The Waste Land through a megaphone across Christ Church meadow. (Evelyn Waugh dramatises this scene in his 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited.) And the Pet Shop Boys’ number one debut hit single took its cue from The Waste Land for the telegrammatic style of its lyrics and its focus on urban alienation.
5. When T. S. Eliot gave a reading of The Waste Land at Windsor Castle, the Queen Mother was unimpressed. Afterwards, she misremembered his poem’s title as ‘The Desert’. Well, you can’t please everyone – and Eliot’s poem continues to divide readers. Those in search of a good edition of the poem can do worse than get hold of The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions), which contains a helpful introduction to Eliot’s poem as well as extensive contextual and critical material, including initial reviews of The Waste Land when it was first published in 1922. You can also hear Eliot reading The Waste Land here.
Enjoyed this interesting introduction to The Waste Land? You might also enjoy our interesting T. S. Eliot facts, and our facts about Eliot’s classic poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’. And you might also enjoy the short documentary below, produced by Loughborough University and presented by our founder, Dr Oliver Tearle:
The best student edition of Eliot’s poem is The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions), which comes with a very helpful introduction, as well as contextual information and major critical responses to The Waste Land. Continue to explore Eliot’s masterpiece with our thoughts on the poem’s resonance in the time of Brexit.
If you enjoyed this literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.
Image: T. S. Eliot (picture credit: Ellie Koczela), Wikimedia Commons.