27 February 2024
  • 27 February 2024

The Waste Land, A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis

on 2 April 2023 0

Brian Hannan from Abbey Books in Paisley reviews The Waste Land, A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis

Except for the late burst of popularity afforded W.H. Auden’s Stop the Clocks after inclusion in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, published in 1922, would have reigned supreme as the twentieth century’s most famous poem. Setting aside the populist fervour for Auden, Matthew Hollis, on the centenary (just about) of its publication, sets about reclaiming the top spot. 

Probably like everyone else, I came across this initially as a baffling set text in school or university. I haven’t read it in all that time and was surprised to find – it’s printed here – that it remained as baffling and I’m pretty grateful for the explanations by the author as to what the hell it all means.


A previous Hollis book Now All Roads Lead To France, The Last Years of Edward Thomas had been named The Sunday Times Biography of the Year. I knew Edward Thomas from his poem Adlestrop since the first lines (“Yes, I remember Adlestrop/The name, because one afternoon/Of heat the express train drew up there/Unwontedly. It was late June”) were imprinted on my brain after being taught that in secondary school and because they are so memorable. So I came to this unusual work with high hopes.



It’s possibly a first for a book, other than a dry academic tome, to be devoted to a poem. And to Hollis’s credit, it’s a riveting read, far more about the poet than the poem and, unlike other biographies of Eliot, focusing on the post-World War One period of its creation. Part of the poem’s power, of course, lay in its allusions to that war which crippled a generation. But it also shattered ideas about what a poem should contain – content, style, rhythm, the whole damn thing. 

Eliot moved in fascinating circles, including his literary champion Ezra Pound, and rising stars like James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf and Picasso. Not all were supportive, much of literary London being engaged in feuds of one kind or another or embarking on illicit relationships. This is the period of Ulysses and Sylvia Beach launching her bookshop-come-lending-library Shakespeare and Company in Paris. 

At the time, Eliot was no literary star. His previous notable effort, the more accessible The Love Song of J. Alfred Pufrock (“The women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo”), had been published to no acclaim. Reviews were few and far between and with the exception of Pound were mostly dismissive. His work had been rejected by major publishers. It certainly didn’t provide him with an income. Eliot was a working man rather than a working poet. He made his living as a banker’s clerk for Lloyds and wrote in the evenings. Often that was not poetry, rather editing small journals and writing articles and criticism that brought in much-needed extra cash and, as importantly, introduced him to a wider readership of the kind deemed to appreciate avant-garde poetry (although initially not his). In fact poetry was so low on his list of priorities that in 1921 he described himself as “banker, critic, poet” in that order.

While not poverty-stricken – he earned more than the ordinary joe – budding authors will sympathise with his battle to find the time to concentrate on creative writing, what with the emotional strain of looking after his demanding and often ill wife Vivien. She exacerbated their marriage by responding to inappropriate interest from other men. Nervous exhaustion was his key complaint, incapacitated so badly that at one point during the composition of The Waste Land he had been granted three months leave (which also shows how little he was an ordinary joe) from the bank. He underwent a course of treatment that improved what he termed his “mental hgygiene.”

But there is no sense of living in an ivory tower. There is constant reference to public unrest, the threat of general strikes, and fears that the financial retribution visited on Germany was not a sensible approach. Although aware that reparations were set a high bar for the losing side in the war, I had not realized how over-reaching the punitive exercise was. Control of its great rivers was taken away as well as other moves which demoralised the inhabitants.  

“April is the cruellest month” is the famous opening line of The Waste Land. But it wasn’t the initial opening line. It didn’t come close. Fifty-four other lines preceding it had to be cleared away before it took its place as one of the most celebrated opening lines of any poem. In case you are interested the original opening line was “First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place,” – feelers being slang for drink – and the poem started off in a completely different vein. For that matter, it came close to having a different title – He do the Police with Different Voices.


Hollis confesses nobody quite knows when Eliot started the poem and it’s a guesstimate that it was February 1921. It would be another year before the last of the 434 lines was complete. Eliot was unusual for the times of often composing directly onto the typewriter. But he never seemed to stick to one methodology, writing in pencil before switching to typewriter and vice-versa. Of course, there were umpteen corrections before arriving at a final version.  It was a cosmopolitan effort, parts written in London, others in Margate and Lausanne and elsewhere. Ezra Pound’s contribution to the editing process is covered in detail, so much so that Hollis claims it belonged to both of them, that it was not turned into the poem we all remember without Pound’s intervention.

Before the poem was complete, Pound secured him a deal with New York publishers Boni & Liveright, who then permitted small magazine Dial to publish it first in America if they would agree to buy 360 copies. However, it made its debut in October 1922 in The Criterion, a magazine incidentally that Eliot edited, prior to American publication. Subsequently, The Hogarth Press, run by Virginia Woolf and her husband, published 450 copies in book form in the UK the following year. Reviews, it has to be said, were decidedly mixed, but at least it was covered by all the major newspapers and magazine. Combined revenue from all four publications brought Eliot more than his annual salary at the bank.

Hollis does an admirable job in explaining not just the various references within the poem and the poetic methodology but also why this work was so revolutionary and why it is generally considered the century’s greatest work. As well as the opening line, many of its lines have passed into literary myth. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” (the last four words later appropriated as a title by Evelyn Waugh) one of the many most people can recite without realizing their origin.

The Waste Land, A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis is published by Faber and Faber. 

Brian Hannan, author and manager of Abbey Books in Paisley has launched hi own readers club, for more information, please click here.

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