Notes on T.S. Eliot

Fall 2001 – English 385

Amardeep Singh





Webster: the act or result of placing or arranging together; specifically : a noticeable arrangement or conjoining of linguistic elements (as words)

OED : 1. a. The action of setting in a place or position, esp. of placing together with, or side by side with, something else; disposition or arrangement with, or in relation to, others; the state of being so placed. Frequently applied to the arrangement of words in a sentence, of sounds, etc.


SYNONYMS : collage, pastiche, bricolage


Polyphony: Presence of multiple voices within a given text

Heteroglossia: Presence of multiple, possibly divergent discourses within a given language – such as the collision of high & low cultures in a single text (popularized by Mikhail Bakhtin)

Polyglossia: Presence of multiple languages within a given text (popularized by Mikhail Bakhtin)




T.S. Eliot background


--He was born in St. Louis in 1889. Died in England in 1965. Nobel Prize 1948.

--He went to Harvard, where he studied Latin and Greek, as well as Sanskrit.

--He moved to England in 1914 and became a British naturalized subject in 1927.

--He became an Anglo-Catholic in 1927.

--Between 1917 and 1925 he worked as a banker in a major London bank. IMPORTANT, partly for the level of access it afforded him to different people of different nationalities, though he never went to either Africa or India.

In a letter to his sister: "Lloyd's is one of the banks with largest foreign connections, and I am busy tabulating balance-sheets of foreign banks to see how they are prospeing. . . . You will be surprised to hear of me in this capacity, but I enjoy it. Incidentally, I shall pick up scraps of the Spanish and Portuguese, Danish, Sedish, and Norweigian languages. Russians, fortunately, manage to produce their reports in English or French."

--He had a break down (from “exhaustion”) in 1921, and went to recover in Geneva. This is referenced in The Waste Land at one point (183): "By the waters of the Leman I sat down and wept." "Leman" is a local name for the Geneva Lake, where the asylum Eliot went to was located. Another reference to his recovery time is located at line 301.



Background on The Waste Land


--A poem written in 1921-22. The early draft of it was severely edited by Eliot's friend, the poet (who was at that time much better known) Ezra Pound. The original title was a line from Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, "He do the Police in Different Voices," seemingly a reference to the multiple voices speaking in the text.

--The original also began with a different epigram. Rather than the line from the Sibyl in the Satyricon, it was a line from Conrad's Heart of Darkness: "Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath -- "The Horror, the Horror!"

--Eliot often complained about the attention given by readers of the poem to his footnotes.

--Eliot also at later moments in his life distanced himself from the poem, describing it at one point as a “personal and insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling”


Indian/Oriental issues in the poem


--A multitude of spaces are described in the poem, but the most conspicuous of them is London itself. At times (for instance, in the Fire Sermon 275-6), we get images of the Thames (rather like Heart of Darkness): "By Richmond I raised my knees/ Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe." Or 187-89: "A rat crept softly through the vegetation/ Dragging its slimy belly on the bank/ While I was fishing in the dull canal."

--"Jungle": from Hindi. It first entered the English language in 1776, meaning “land that has gone uncultivated for five years.” Over time the word (in English usage) has come to refer to land that is primordially wild (never domesticated).


            Lines 396-400: "Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves

            Waited for rain, while the black clouds

            Gathered far distant, over Himavant.

            The jungle crouched, humped in silence.

            Then spoke the thunder


Ideas to discuss:


            One voice or many?

            A "global" poem?

            Christianity/religion? A deeply biblical poem with numerous non-Christian references, including Buddhism and Hinduism. Both of them, however, may be assimilated into Christian tradition…