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Significant Soil

Meditations on the Merger of T.S. Eliot’s “Waste” and “Land.”

“This is the land,” T. S. Eliot asserts in Ash-Wednesday.

Not the “wasteland,” but “the land.”

And yet, if you’ve happened upon any mention of Eliot’s most famous poem, more likely than not you’ve witnessed the title rendered as a single immutable unit: “The Wasteland.”

Over the years I’ve grown increasingly curious about this phenomenon, which made its debut as early as December 1922 (the year of the poem’s publication) in a notice in The Bookman, a Georgian magazine that published Walter Pater and Edward Thomas in its heyday. Since then, “The Wasteland” (in lieu of “The Waste Land”) has appeared in everything from the New York Times, The New Yorker, Salon, and the BBC Online to the library catalog of Eliot’s alma mater, Harvard University.

The penchant for this elision may simply be an inheritance of error: a typographical lapse or editorial blind spot that the Internet has only served to exacerbate. But I’d like to consider some cultural parallels to this occurrence, as well as social forces that might contribute to a phenomenon of this kind: perhaps the way in which difficulty or experimentalism is assimilated, or the way in which a symbol-making (and unmaking) entity—a poem—is itself made into a hard-and-fast symbol during the course of its collective reception.

While I don’t think a poet’s intentions require our protection, I do believe that for Eliot the separateness of “waste” and “land” was of supreme significance. And, given that the title of the poem “gave a heading to the time” (according to the New York Times) and, perhaps misguidedly, to our historical understanding of that era and its so-called “Wastelanders” (New York Review of Books, 1988), I believe that that significance warrants at least a momentary attention.

A Momentary Attention

Other than “In my beginning is my end. In my end is my beginning,” it’s possible that the greatest epitaphic language I have encountered is that of Sir Thomas Browne who, in the midst of a meditation on urn-burial, suddenly situates himself on the brink of death and declares himself: “Ready to be anything…. ” It’s a line that would make a breathtakingly bold and accurate sign-off for any of us whose molecules will become a little bit of everything. Or, at the very least, what Eliot would call “significant soil.”

The first time I read “The Waste Land,” I experienced the same elation that I felt on reading Browne’s epitaph—a conviction that the catalyzing proximity (and yet resilient apartness) of those two words was central to the recombinant possibilities of the poem.

In other words, it was because the “waste” was a temporal, impermanent modifier—and not an enduring quality of the land—that the land was redeemable and open to (what Eliot called in a different landscape, that of “Burnt Norton”) “perpetual possibility.” In this phrase, he was likely echoing St. Augustine’s concern about the ossification of certain written words into an orthodoxy: “I should write so that my words echo rather than to set down one true opinion that should exclude all other possibilities.”

In “The Waste Land,” Eliot is fastidious in keeping most of his adjectives and nouns apart, thereby perpetuating their other possibilities: “Unreal City,” “Hyacinth garden,” “red rock,” “brown fog,” “empty rooms,” and so on. This separation frequently allows for a different combination to occur later in the poem. For instance, “Unreal City” is resurrected as “O City city,” and “Hyacinth garden” sheds its specificity and becomes the plural and possessive: “your gardens.” And, perhaps most importantly, the “dead land” recurs as “brown land” and makes its culminating cameo in the plural and possessive incarnation: “my lands” (“Shall I at least set my lands in order?”).

Most of Eliot’s poem titles are characterized by this same simple and purposeful pattern, an adjective placed next to a noun: “Burnt Norton,” “Four Quartets,” “The Hollow Men.” But while I have never seen the latter rendered as “The Hollowmen,” “The Waste Land” is frequently inscribed in the aforementioned cultural shorthand. What is it about the poem (and its title) that inspires such a frequent and un-authored fusion, forcing the title to “rest in peace” instead of permitting it to exist on the verge of becoming anything?

Ready to Be Anything

"It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust."
William Carlos Williams on “The Waste Land”

I remember that shortly after September 11, 2001, many who endured that day up-close (including myself) were offended when media outlets began to call the complex events of that morning “9/11,” and I swore that I would never consent to so collapsed a term. And yet, now, it is the only one I use. I’m interested in that consent and that condensary, the welding of the term into a seemingly immutable unity.

What happens to a specific day, or to a work of art for that matter, when it is coded and condensed in this manner? Does it still retain the possibility of becoming anything, or is it destined to become the one thing? Do we (as a culture and as individual receivers and transmitters) deaden and flatten the dimensionality of our terms too soon?

When I encounter “The Wasteland” in its elided form, I see something shorn of its idiosyncrasies, facets, flaws, and contradictions and rendered knowable, containable, its dangerous elements stabilized. It reminds me of Miguel de Unamuno’s observation that “the mind seeks what is dead”—what is stable, unified, knowable—“…what is living escapes it.”

While it’s hard to imagine now, “The Waste Land” was dangerous and destabilizing at the time of its publication, at least to those who elected to see it that way. The earliest instances of the elision I’ve been discussing tend to occur on both sides of the pond in articles that are demonstratively against or antagonized by the poem—and also, in some cases, in publications that are simply poking fun at the poem’s unnerving effects. Though I wouldn’t suggest that the elision was directly related to resistance, I would say that a person is far more likely to misquote a piece that (s)he hasn’t fully fathomed or that (s)he has opposed emblematically instead of experientially.

As an example, shortly after The Dial selected Eliot’s poem for its annual prize, John Farrar (and/or his editors) repeated the 1922 typo in The Bookman in the following review:

It is only proper to mention “The Wasteland” by T. S. Eliot in The Dial. Mr. Eliot has received this year’s prize award from that magazine and is rapidly gaining what might almost be called a “cult” of adorers among the intellectuals. I hesitate to recommend any poem which I am incapable of understanding. In this class falls “The Wasteland.” (February 1923)

In those early years, the elision also appeared frequently in Life magazine (not to be confused with the later photojournalistic magazine), which was a popular Onion-like humor journal of the era. In its March 12, 1925, issue, Life awarded The Dial the “Brass Medal of Second Class” for honoring “The Wasteland”: “[in so doing] The Dial has succeeded in speeding up to mass production the synthetic prose decomposition that passes with the feeble-minded for poetry.”

In an effort to avoid fallacies, I should say that there are several articles by Eliot’s antagonists which correctly cite the poem and even emphasize the distinction between “waste” and the noun it modifies, such as Humbert Wolfe’s “Waste Land and Waste Paper” (Weekly Westminster, November 17, 1923) and H.P. Lovecraft’s sidesplitting anti-Eliot spoof, “Waste Paper.” But the first few incidents of the elision seem to fall on the side of those who perceived in the poem a threat.

Curiously, the poem was anathema not only to many who were striving to retain (or continue to evolve) a more Georgian poetics but also to those who had been looking forward to a distinctly different set of experimental possibilities. As William Carlos Williams famously observed in his 1948 autobiography:

I felt at once that it [“The Waste Land”] had set me back twenty years … at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit. I knew at once that in certain ways I was most defeated.… Eliot had turned his back on the possibility of reviving my world.

In other words, the poem (which many articles interpreted as reflecting “contemporary despair” over a lost world or, as Harriet Monroe writes of the poem in March 1923, “the malaise of our time … the world crumbling to pieces before our eyes”) was for Williams itself the source of that destruction, “wiping out our world.” For him, the publication and reception of “The Waste Land” were a catastrophe for American letters, creating an epicenter of attention around which all of the energy that ought to have been focused on evolving a distinctly American mode was expended on parading European erudition. Though Eliot’s poem did not emerge sui generis (the underlying aesthetics were evident in poetry that predated World War I), Williams found in it a useful and inciting symbol for his concerns. In many ways, I too am consenting to the same penchant: that of making “The Waste Land” into a symbol for my own preoccupations.

“This Land Is Your Land”

Walt Whitman, who passed away during Eliot’s first decade on earth, persisted throughout his lifetime in referring to his nation in the form of a tentative plural: “The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time,” he writes in his 1871 Democratic Vistas.

It turns out that Whitman was not alone. According to historian Shelby Foote, the singular (“The United States is …”) was not generally used until after the Civil War, and it took until 1902 for the House of Representative’s Committee on Revision of the Laws to officially rule that “the United States should be treated as singular, not plural.” It seems the federal government and the media were slow to impose a singularity on something that had not yet achieved that status.

But with the 20th century came a new rapidity in the construction and articulation of the present and recent past. And, I might add, aeronautical as well as photographic advances permitted the surveying and summarizing of vast tracts of land in a single shot—and not sequentially over time—offering a swift unity of viewpoint. In his superb book The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918, Stephen Kern documents how the sinking of the Titanic in 1912—ten years prior to the publication of “The Waste Land”—was the first collective, global catastrophe, one that almost the entire (technologically linked) world was able to experience, and in many cases respond to, at the same time. In the decades that followed, the time between an event (or an artistic creation) and the reaction to it (or assessment of it) was shortened: “The telephone … [allowed people] to respond at once without the time to reflect afforded by written communication.” In addition, “business and personal exchanges suddenly became instantaneous instead of protracted and sequential” and the new broadcast technologies enabled journalism to focus the “attention of the inhabitants of an entire city on a single experience.”

I sometimes think that T. S. Eliot’s infamous displeasure over his “Waste Land” fame was less about being identified with a particular aesthetics of fragmentation or neo-barbarism than about a frustration with the way that critics, readers, and the general public used the poem to swiftly generalize for a generation and conflate the text’s complexities and “innumerable sources” (as Mark Twain writes of the Mississippi) into a single, convening truth. It strikes me as a great irony that a poem composed of a series of recombinant symbols and phonemes should itself have become a hard-and-fast symbol—as if to say, “‘The Waste Land’ was written; therefore, we must be in ‘the wasteland.’” Case closed.

In later conversations and writings, Eliot often attempted to downplay the dominion of the poem over the literary and cultural landscape by inserting an indefinite article into his discussions (“a poem called ‘The Waste Land’”)—as if to say it was just “a poem,” just “a way of putting it—not very satisfactory.” I don’t think this was false humility; I believe it was a genuine attempt to assert the poem’s temporariness—to return it (and him) to its (and his, and perhaps even our) possibilities. As critic Eloise Knapp Hay writes, the poem

expressed Eliot’s own “way” at the time, it was not intended to lay down a way for others to follow. “I dislike the word generation [he said in “Thoughts after Lambeth” in 1931], which has been a talisman for the last ten years; when I wrote a poem called “The Waste Land” some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the “disillusionment of a generation,” which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention. (T. S. Eliot’s Negative Way, 1982)

“Generation” itself was a collective moniker that disheartened Eliot: a way of grouping the past, of consolidating recent history into a convenient narrative unit. That the very poem that had experimented with perceiving “the past in a new pattern,” a “new way” of writing which Eliot called “not destructive, but re-creative” should be frozen into a single pattern, into a single despairing way of seeing it, a “talisman” of its times, was (and remains) a profound irony. It was an experiment that ossified into an orthodoxy: poetry’s own personal leopards-in-the-temple.

“The Future Is a Faded Song”

I think poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain, rather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain.… [P]oems can, in a small way, remind the world of what’s still possible.
Dorothea Lasky

Almost 20 years after the publication of “The Waste Land,” as Eliot was penning the distinct poems that were later unified into “Four Quartets,” poet and musician Woody Guthrie was composing a piece of music in opposition to Irving Berlin’s ubiquitous and bravado, “God Bless America.”

The song he wrote, “This Land Is Your Land,” was edgy and communist-inclined; and in its original refrain, “God blessed America for me,” it came off sounding a lot more like Bob Dylan’s spitfire protest tune “With God on Our Side” than its current, calming Dan Zanes incarnation. The song included references to deserts and fog and cities of hungry people—sound familiar?—and its culminating verse expressed doubt that this land was “made for you and me,” since it seemed everywhere to prevent its people from receiving “relief.”

Though recording history has tended to unify the tune into a single rousing and patriotic rendering, Guthrie frequently varied its units, at times infusing it with fierce political activism and in other contexts removing the provocative verses altogether. Which version is the actual “This Land Is Your Land”? I’d say, it is all of them. Or, as Jorge Luis Borges has written: “No one is the homeland—it is all of us.”

We have lived (for better or worse) with the properties of Eliot’s poem for almost 100 years. Its unsettling presence has tested our capacity to perpetuate the unknown and not to foreclose—out of resistance, fear, or uncertainty—our multitudinous experiences of it (and of the earth it observes) into a single order of understanding.

In my reading of the end of “The Waste Land,” the poem perpetuates the possibilities of three different interpretations and recombinations of the Brahmanic “Da”—permitting these particulates to coexist with and catalyze one another instead of settling into a single immutable unit.

“This is the land”—not the fenceable, knowable, ownable, but the as yet unknown—waste and vast at the moment of creation. And, as René Char has asked: What would we do without the Unknown in front of us?


  • Christina Davis is the author of two collections of poetry: An Ethic (Nightboat Books, 2013) and Forth A Raven (Alice James Books, 2006). She currently serves as curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Significant Soil

Meditations on the Merger of T.S. Eliot’s “Waste” and “Land.”


  • Christina Davis is the author of two collections of poetry: An Ethic (Nightboat Books, 2013) and Forth A Raven (Alice James Books, 2006). She currently serves as curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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