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The Waste Land: a Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Faber & Faber)

The Waste Land: a Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Faber & Faber)

I love The Waste Land. My Dad, an engineer and aeronautical draughtsman who had retrained as a school teacher, was not a great reader of poetry, but he did like T.S. Eliot, and Eliot was one of the first poets I read for myself. I loved the incantatory nature of his writing, and the vivid imagery of the London, pub and river scenes in The Waste Land. Even studying the poem for English A Level didn’t put me off, although the pencilled translations and notes are still in the margins of my father’s copy of Eliot’s Collected Poems which I kept after he died.

Neither my own notes nor Eliot’s published ones do anything other than point elsewhere, offering a glossary of source materials, allusions and asides that doesn’t actually help understand or experience the poem, which I prefer to remain as a series of shifting scenes and episodes rooted in 20th Century London and Modernism. Others of Eliot’s poems work differently, and critical work that deconstructs or theologizes poems such as ‘Ash Wednesday’ or ‘The Four Quartets’ are more useful than those that impose a grand narrative on or reveal a hidden meaning in The Waste Land.

The title of Matthew Hollis’ book suggests that it offers a new approach to Eliot’s poem: I was intrigued by the notion of the biography of a poem rather than a poet. However, the subtitle is a misnomer; what we actually get is yet another sprawling biography of Ezra Pound, T.S. and Vivienne Eliot, and an account of their interactions with each other, publishers, writers, supporters, enemies and critics.

I’m really not sure what Hollis thinks his book is doing, or why he thinks Eliot’s interactions with the likes of the Bloomsbury Set are of particular interest. The book is often clunkily organised, with set scenes interspersed with both summative episodes and unwanted authorial commentary and scene setting. What are we to make of the fact that  ‘A hunter’s moon hung low over Margate’ (p. 290) or that ‘Pound took to life on the Left Bank’ (p. 278), or being told that ‘Something truly exceptional had taken place between Eliot, Pound and The Waste Land, something truly rare’ (p.362) ?

Pound’s editing and re-versioning of Eliot’s draft text is well-documented elsewhere, not least in the published volume of The Waste Land Facsimile, and much written about. I really don’t need Hollis to give me or the editing process his seal of approval! Better to look at versions of the text and think about how the language and form of the poems and overall sequence works, than offer banal context and vague approval.

There is, thankfully, some close reading and intelligent criticism on offer here, but not enough; time and time again we are returned to the geographical settings and (perceived or assumed) emotions of Eliot’s life, all too often in relationship to a revolving cast of characters whose biographical back stories are awkwardly dropped in for the reader before any action commences. The book made me dig out my copy of Kevin Jackson’s wonderful epistolic book Constellation of Genius, (Windmill Books, 2013) which wittily documents the international web of modernism, through the lives of artists, musicians, writers, thinkers, scientists and politicians throughout the year 1922.

I am glad The Waste Land continues to find readers and provoke new critical writing but, despite Hollis’ note that he has not drawn on previous biographies and has returned to original sources (and I am not accusing him of doing other than he claims), it mostly feels like an intelligent and thoughtful condensing and distillation of material that is already available. It’s engaging, mostly well-written stuff, but it needed to focus on the poem more, which surely is – along with other work by Eliot – what it’s all about? Pound gets it right in the 1966 quote which Hollis uses as one of the book’s epigraphs: ‘I can only repeat, but with the urgency of 50 years ago: READ HIM.’ 

Rupert Loydell 26th October 2022


Crimean Sonnets: Adam Mickiewicz A new version translated by Kevin Jackson (Worple Press)

Crimean Sonnets: Adam Mickiewicz A new version translated by Kevin Jackson (Worple Press)

In his introductory essay to this handsome little volume from Peter and Amanda Carpenter’s Worple Press, Kevin Jackson makes his credentials as a translator absolutely clear:

‘In my “imitations” of these short poems—they are by no means true translations, as my Polish is still at the toddler stage—I hope to have conveyed at least the substance of Mickiewicz’s intellectual range, though probably none of his lyrical grace’.

I have mentioned the Keynote Speech given by J.H. Prynne at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in Shijazhuang in April 2008 on a previous occasion and I go back now to that intricate talk about the difficulties of translating poetry. In terms of a translation the problems are first of all lexical, the tracing of semantic equivalences, idioms, registers:

‘If the vocabulary is rich in shades of alternative meaning, sometimes bringing in different fields of specialised usage and also historical or textual allusion in several different directions, the reader/translator pauses to consider the choice to be made. Which of the many pathways to follow?’

By terming his version of the Crimean Sonnets ‘imitations’ Kevin Jackson has released himself from a close study of the original Polish and has produced something new. It is on that ground that these eighteen sonnets stand or fall and, for me as a reader, they certainly stand. It is here that the short introductory essay is also of great value since we are given the background to Mickiewicz’s exile in Russia between 1824 and 1829. It was not a term of physical hardship and we are not looking at the world of Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn; however much the young Polish poet’s ‘soul might have been racked with unappeasable nostalgia and melancholy’ he had little to complain about ‘in material terms’. The food was good and the company seductive leading Jackson to suggest that ‘Mickiewicz’s exile was probably the cushiest and sexiest in literary history’. There is, of course, a wide range of poetry written in exile and Ovid’s enforced residence on the edge of the Black Sea in A.D. 8 was one of the most celebrated. As with the nineteenth-century Polish poet’s exile storms at sea, whether real or metaphoric, are central and the fourth section of Book I of Ovid’s Tristia opens with the poet ‘constrained, not by my will, to plough the Adriatic’ whilst facing waves which are ‘mountain-high, on prow and curving stern-post’. In 1825 when Mickiewicz travelled to the Crimea he seems to have revelled in voyaging through a massive storm and Kevin Jackson tells us ‘he had himself lashed to the mast like Ulysses to relish the spectacle while his shipmates languished below deck.’ The image is, of course, an interesting one for a poet and the Odyssean ability to be privileged to hear what the Sirens sing is perhaps part of what prompted Prynne, in his role as Late-Modernist poet, not only to title one of his poems from The White Stones ‘Lashed to the Mast’ but also to paste into the opening page of his copy of Ezra Pound’s Cantos a reproduction of a third-century B.C. Greek vase showing the exile on his way home listening to words that are for his ears only.
The first of the Crimean Sonnets opens on a landscape which reaches back to the traditional picture of the exile’s voyage by sea:

‘This steppe is like an ocean that’s run dry,
My wagon’s like a ship that ploughs the sea,
The flowers and the grasses seem to me
Like brightly-coloured waves as I pass by.
Night’s falling.’

I like the way that these opening lines move from the inherited image of the sea voyage to the more resisting flatlands of monotony. The simile of the first line rolls off the tongue so easily while the second has a sense of clog: the simile seems to move slower and slower with the repetition of ‘p’ sounds between ‘ship’ and ‘plough’. The sense of isolation and loss is finely caught with the image of flowers and grasses being associated with the pun on the word ‘waves’: we are no longer in the Romantic inheritance of exile but are confronted with a gesture of loss that will culminate in the falling of night.
One of the significant qualities of these ‘imitations’ is their simplicity and this could not be made clearer than by looking at the closing lines of the fourteenth sonnet, ‘The Pilgrim’:

‘O Lithuania! I throb with pain!
I miss your marshes where I used to roam,
I love them more than all this fertile loam
Which teems with luscious fruit and ripened grain.
I am so far away from my dear land!
So far away from her, my one sweetheart –
We’d walk all night together, hand in hand:
I broke my promise that we’d never part.
Does she still pace the paths we used to tread?
Does she still think of me, in her soft bed?’

There is a tone here of that late-Medieval song ‘Western Wind’:

‘Westron wynde when wyll thow blow,
The smalle rayne downe can rayne –
Cryst, yf my love were in my armys
And I yn my bed agayne!’

The simplicity of Kevin Jackson’s new poem goes some way towards giving an account of those concluding lines to Fulke Greville’s ‘Absence and Presence’:

‘For thought is not the weapon,
Wherewith thought’s ease men cheapen,
Absence is pain.’

Ian Brinton 2nd April 2016

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