Arion Lyre

79. The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, with art by R. B. Kitaj

About The Waste Land and the Arion Press edition

Helen Vendler writes that The Waste Land “reached so far beyond its origins in both life and literature that it revolutionized modern verse”. This long poem, published in 1922, was immediately recognized as a masterpiece, and it remains an icon of English literature. T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), born in St. Louis, Missouri, settled in London in 1914, became a British citizen in 1927, and remained in England the rest of his life. By mid-century Eliot was regarded on both sides of the Atlantic as the greatest living poet and The Waste Land as the most important contemporary poem. Since his death and the emergence of other major poets, reverence for Eliot has shifted to respect, but the poem is still seen as a signal work of art and continues to challenge readers with its complexity, reward with its brilliance, and surprise by its freshness. The Waste Land is, as Eliot’s friend and editor Ezra Pound said of the best literature, “news that stays news”.

Eliot was 34 when The Waste Land was published, first in the magazines The Criterion in England and The Dial in the United States and then in book form by Boni and Liveright in New York. The earliest writings incorporated into the poem date from 1914, but it was not until 1920 that Eliot wrote to his mother that he was engaged on a work under this title. His job at Lloyds Bank left him little time for creative, as opposed to critical, writing. In 1921 he was granted a three-month leave from the bank for psychiatric treatment in Switzerland and there was able to complete the poem in draft form. In early 1922 he and Pound edited the manuscript, cutting the poem significantly, to 434 lines.

The extent of Pound’s involvement was not known publicly until 1968, when the existence of the manuscript was revealed by the New York Public Library. It had been sent by Eliot to his patron, the New York lawyer and collector John Quinn, arriving at Quinn’s office in January 1923. Quinn died in July 1924, and the manuscript passed to his sister Julia Anderson. After her death in 1934 it went to her daughter Mary. In the early 1950s, she and her husband Thomas F. Conroy were living in Hillsborough, California, just south of San Francisco. By then the manuscript was presumed to be lost. Conroy loved to tell the story of how he and his wife had gone on vacation, leaving guests with instructions to take special care of his model trains. When the couple returned, the house sitters asked why they hadn’t also been told to look after the manuscript of The Waste Land, which they had noticed on the shelves. In 1958 the manuscript was sold by the Conroys to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library for $18,000. The acquisition was kept secret for a decade, until October 1968, when it was announced on the day of publication of a biography of John Quinn.

Eliot was introduced to Quinn by Pound in 1915. John Quinn was a key figure in the modernist movement, befriending Pound and Yeats, defending Joyce, and helping to organize the Armory Show of 1913. Eliot was deeply grateful to Quinn for his encouragement, financial support, and legal help with publishers. Eliot was also grateful to Ezra Pound for advice on and promotion of his work. Pound’s editing of The Waste Land earned him Eliot’s dedication, to “the better craftsman”. But, as Helen Vendler has written: “it must be remembered that it was Eliot himself who wrote the marvelous lines of the poem, with their nervous rhythms, their musical counterpointing of voices, their religious yearnings and their satiric abysses, their imperious forays into other languages, their montage of social scenes, and their departures into eerie sexual surrealism.”

Vendler in her introduction calls The Waste Land “the replication on the page of postwar modernity itself”. She is saying, in part, that Eliot used devices of modern art for literary purposes. Assemblage and collage, cutting-and-pasting images from various sources, were established means for artists in 1921 when Eliot wrote the drafts for the poem. He and Pound were familiar with the latest art and applied techniques from it to poetry in the juxtaposition of voices, subjects, and borrowings from other writings. The list of allusions in The Waste Land is long. Those wishing a fuller treatment of references should consult the Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land, edited by Michael North, published in 2001.

While contemplating a special edition of The Waste Land, I recalled our request in the late 1980s to publish Eliot’s Four Quartets with abstract prints and being turned down by the widow Valerie Eliot, who would not allow illustrations for the poetry. Now that The Waste Land has entered the public domain this restriction no longer applies.

This is the first illustrated edition of Eliot’s most important work. However, the illustrations do not actually illustrate the poem. Instead they form an alliance with it, rather like two conveyances with different cargo converging, going parallel for a distance, then diverging. Peter Howard, of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, suggested to us the painting If Not, Not by R. B. Kitaj as the perfect accompaniment to The Waste Land. I knew the artist (he has contributed prints to three previous Arion publications) and had long admired the painting. The coincidence that T. S. Eliot and R. B. Kitaj have the same number of letters in their initials and surnames and that both were Midwestern expatriates in London seemed apt. Then there is a similarity to their attitudes. Eliot called his effort “only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling”, while Kitaj is famously grouchy about the art world, his own aging, etc.

Most important, Kitaj’s masterpiece of 1975-76 takes inspiration from Eliot’s poem. Kitaj has stated that his picture bears “a certain allegiance to Eliot’s Waste Land and its (largely unexplained) family of loose assemblage”. Like the poem, the painting can be taken apart, yet both of these works of art are far greater than the sums of their parts. Throughout this edition of the poem, fourteen pages of details from the painting occur at regular intervals. The entire painting is reproduced at the end of the poem. The first thirteen illustration pages each isolate a detail of Kitaj’s picture that can stand alone as a discrete image. The fourteenth has four elements, the left-over bits, intriguing in their own right. The details occupy positions on their pages corresponding to their places in the painting when shown whole. The partitioning was done by the publishers, with the artist approving the concept but not seeing the cut-up of his composition in advance of publication. The sequence of imagery was governed by aesthetic choices that are unrelated, except by chance, to themes in the poetry on the facing pages. You the reader and viewer should regard the pages of poetry as partitions of the poem, just as the pages of details are partitions of the painting.

The title “If Not, Not” comes from a remark by Gertrude Stein about Ezra Pound, characterizing him as “a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not”. The painting, five feet square, is in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. It also exists as a magnificent tapestry (1999) commissioned for the opening of the new British Library in London, where it hangs near the entrance.

If Not, Not, by R. B. Kitaj

The relationship of the painting and the poem is the subject of the essay by the art critic Marco Livingstone that follows Eliot’s text in this edition. Some of Kitaj’s images are identified by Livingstone. Others have been identified by the painter himself in writings and interviews over the past thirty years. Still, Kitaj’s work remains wide open to diverse interpretations. As Livingstone concludes: “By linking Germany’s defeat in 1918 to the rise of the Nazis and the victimization and eventual extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust, Kitaj extends Eliot’s despairing vision into a visual parable of a diseased and tragic century, and reinvents his still reverberating lines into a richly evocative, never exhausted, poetics of painting.”

The Arion Press Waste Land follows upon two earlier limited editions: those printed by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at Hogarth Press, of 460 copies in 1923, and by Giovanni Mardersteig at the Officina Bodoni for Faber & Faber, of 300 copies in 1961.

This is the first time that the poem has been presented with the luxury of its natural divisions assigned separate pages. The pagination of the poem was our editorial decision, intended to let the sections and subsections of the poem occupy their own spaces. In this edition, Eliot’s structure is reinforced by our typography and page design. The text of the poem was produced by comparing facsimiles of the manuscripts (1921-22) with the Boni and Liveright first edition (1922) and the Norton Critical Edition, and regularizing the punctuation according to our house style. A few minor inconsistencies that went unchanged despite Eliot’s double authority as author and editor at Faber have been silently corrected.

—Andrew Hoyem

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