Poetry: Wandering Through The Waste Land, Or Immersed In Eliot, Chapter And Verse

October 4, 2014



Exactly 100 years ago, TS Eliot arrived in London to embark upon a momentous career in which he would rise to become possibly the leading literary figure of the 20th century.  It was inevitable that I felt a strong identification with Eliot when as a young man I too arrived in London to work on a Master’s thesis on his early work.  We had both come from the Continent. As an American, Eliot had been given safe passage from Germany after the outbreak of World War One in August 1914.   I arrived from the Barcelona Olympics. Eliot was approaching his 26th birthday.  I was halfway through my 26th year.

Full of the romantic yearning that marks Eliot’s early poetry, I arrived from Heathrow at the Russell Square Underground station on an August evening, with my preliminary work on Eliot.  This was a promising start for what in law is called an “inspection in loco”, a visit to the “scene of the crime”, where Eliot emerged as a poet, for it was at 24 Russell Square that he had installed himself as the world’s most influential man of letters by the 1950s – a director of Faber and Faber.

I promptly got myself completely lost.  I have always been something of a flaneur – an aimless wanderer of the streets – open to the fluid and unpredictable experiences afforded by a great metropolis.  Normally I would have welcomed roaming central London with its rich literary associations. But it was late, I had a heavy case, and I simply wanted to get to my destination.  I eventually found my bearings when I discovered myself outside the British Museum having set out in completely the wrong direction from Russell Square.

I had come to London from South Africa with the possibility of an academic career in mind and had been accepted into London House, a residence for postgraduate students on Mecklenburgh Square on the eastern fringe of Bloomsbury, to work on my Master’s thesis on Eliot.  My first exposure with Eliot’s poetry was Preludes, in a school anthology. As an adolescent with a strong sense of the futility of things, I was entranced by the Eliot’s cadences. The peculiarly Eliotic phenomenon of a highly aesthetic response to squalid urban scenes, which are at once an embodiment and metaphor of the degradation of modern existence, spoke powerfully to own sense of the world.  Later, as an undergraduate student at Wits University, I was entranced by the fractured forms and lyricism of Eliot’s masterwork, The Waste Land. Three decades since I first encountered the poem I think the critic Frank Kermode best expresses the rapture with which I greeted it: “having Eliot’s great poem in one’s life is a repeated but irrevocable act of love.”

In London I found myself, like Eliot, a child of the English diaspora returning to the source of a culture which I had encountered in an idealised and distant form in former British colony. Eliot’s forebears were New England puritans, though his parents had ventured deep into the American Midwest to St Louis, Missouri, where he was born in 1888.   In retracing Eliot’s steps I too found myself a figure from the cultural periphery trying to accommodate myself within English society.

My preliminary work at Wits had uncovered the incident in which a member of the London literary old guard, Sir Edmund Gosse, had sharply reprimanded Eliot for arriving late at a poetry reading in 1917.  I took this as a key moment in which the battle lines were drawn between the English literary establishment and Eliot, the epitome of the modernist outsider.

Like Eliot, I initially struggled to negotiate the attitude of cultural superiority exuded by the kind but stuffily conservative English institution in which I stayed. I made myself unpopular by undiplomatically criticising the tendency, at every official function, to harp on about the fact that FW de Klerk had been visiting a student to London House while egregiously failing to mention the recently released Nelson Mandela. Once I settled down, I started immersing myself in research and burying myself in the milieu in which Eliot encountered in his formative years in London.  As Eliot had done, I obtained a coveted readers’ ticket to the British Library. This enabled me to request any book published in English and access to the famous domed reading room located within the British Museum. The air of quiet contemplation in this inner sanctum of scholarship and the knowledge that Eliot and so many other intellectual giants had worked here made the many hours I spent here the greatest experience of all my years of study.

Shortly after arriving in London House, I spent half an hour in Mecklenburgh Square on a chilly autumn evening talking to a student working on a PhD on DH Lawrence, only to subsequently discover with delight that Lawrence had lived for three months in an apartment exactly adjacent to where we had stood in 1917. I read and ruminated extensively on Eliot, guided by Eliot’s best biographer, Peter Ackroyd, and the knowledge that I was walking the very streets Eliot had walked gave a powerful frisson to my research. I was intrigued by Eliot’s comment in his Collected Letters, in which he recounted visiting Mecklenburgh Square, finding it “delightfully seedy.”

As I became increasingly absorbed in my academic sleuthing, I began to believe that psychically I was closing the distance on my quarry, the elusive Tom Eliot. I read comments by Peter Ackroyd in The Times, regarding his 1984 biography of Eliot, that with sufficient attention a biographer can come to fully know his subject. I had also become involved in a destructive relationship with an alluring woman in London House, whose disturbing nervous instability made her a personal stand-in for Eliot’s first wife, Vivien. Less than a year after arriving in England Eliot hastily and disastrously married Englishwoman, Vivien Haigh-Wood. He later claimed such was his unhappiness in the marriage that it had brought about the state of mind that led to The Waste Land. I became convinced I knew exactly how Eliot had felt.

The most eerie of my experiences in my research occurred when following up a hunch on the background to Eliot’s famous theory of poetic impersonality. I hypothesised that the theory originated from the immediate literary politics surrounding the occasion of the celebrated essay in which the theory appeared, Tradition And The Individual Talent.  In particular, I was working on the premise that in the aftermath of World War One, Eliot wished to challenge the notion of poetic personality attaching to the leading literary personality of the day, Rupert Brooke.  The myth attaching to Brooke’s patriotic poetry and his death in the War inevitably detracted attention from the actual quality of his verse.

In the Birkbeck College Library, a stone’s throw from Eliot’s office at 24 Russell Square, I lifted a biography of Rupert Brook from a shelf only for the book to open uncannily on the very page which confirmed my hypothesis. Even if it was not the shades of Tom that intervened, I felt I had tapped into Bloomsbury’s celebrated occult energies. While scouring the bookshelves at London House, I also found that Eliot had “stolen” his theory of poetic development from no less a person than Edmund Gosse, where elements of his account of literary history had been usefully annotated by a previous student as “tradition” and the “individual talent” respectively.

After many “visions and revisions” I eventually finished my thesis two years after returning to Johannesburg.  Like Eliot, I had worked for a time in Lloyd’s Bank in London, and taking up a legal career I took on the buttoned-up respectability of the dark formal suits that were Eliot’s standard attire.

A review by Peter Ackroyd, which appeared just before I left London in which he made specific reference to Bloomsbury, resonated strongly with me: “Is it not possible that areas and territories – even a particular neighbourhood or street – can actively determine or influence the behaviour of people who dwell within them?”

Although I failed to pursue the academic career I had once planned, my two years of shadowing Eliot in London was enriching because he can be regarded as the 20th century’s most representative figure.   His personal journey from nihilism and despair to recovery and belief tracks twentieth century European history and is chronicled in some of the most evocative and haunting poetry ever written.

Visiting London recently, I made a pilgrimage to Eliot’s address when he composed The Waste Land.  What struck me was that 9 Clarence Gate Gardens is a very good address.  It had none of the urban squalor that is such a strong motif in the poem. It was also very close to Sherlock Holmes’s address, 221B Baker Street.  I was reminded that Eliot was fond of the detective genre.  It struck me that perhaps the greatness of The Waste Land lies in its multiple ambiguities and profusion of clues, leads and exhibits, which continually tantalise the reader with the possibility of an explanatory key to its broken images, while ultimately obdurately refusing to surrender the heart of its mystery.