Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Disciplining 'The Waste Land', or How to Lead Critics into Temptation

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Disciplining 'The Waste Land', or How to Lead Critics into Temptation

Article excerpt

I must admit that I am, on one conspicuous occasion, not guiltless of having led critics into temptation.

- T. S. Eliot, "The Frontiers of Criticism"

In what is still the best-known review of The Waste Land, Edmund Wilson in 1922 assured readers of The Dial that they would find T. S. Eliot's long poem "intelligible at first reading." Yet, in the course of arguing for the poem's intelligibility, Wilson used Eliot's own as yet unpublished notes to The Waste Land to explain the poem's "complicated correspondences." Wilson may have been the first to use the notes to negotiate his way through the poem, but he certainly has not been the last critic to have been "led into temptation." As Eliot acknowledged in "The Frontiers of Criticism," his 1956 essay from which my epigraph and title are taken, his notes "have had almost greater popularity than the poem itself," such that "now they can never be unstuck" (110).

Eliot's own explanation in "The Frontiers of Criticism" of his notes' genesis and influence must be taken with a large grain of salt, but it is worth reviewing nonetheless:

The notes to The Waste Land! I had at first intended only to put down all the references for my quotations, with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism. Then, when it came time to print The Waste Land as a little book - for the poem on its first appearance in The Dial and in The Criterion had no notes whatever - it was discovered that the poem was inconveniently short, so I set to work to expand the notes, in order to provide a few more pages of printed matter, with the result that they became the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view to-day. (109)

Eliot's contention that the notes were added only because his poem "was inconveniently short" has been disproved. We now know that Eliot had the notes in mind before he began serious negotiations with his eventual publisher, Liveright, and that he had finished composing them several months before the poem first appeared in The Dial.(1) Eliot's description of the notes as a "remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship," however, should be taken more seriously. As Peter Middleton stated so concisely almost a decade ago, "academic interpretation of The Waste Land has gone straight along the paths laid out by those footnotes" because "The Waste Land is a ready-made academic poem with interpretations already included" (175, 176). The notes not only introduce a specifically academic discourse to the poem, but, at least until recently, they have also had the effect of encouraging professional literary critics to unify the poem's fragments along interpretive lines the notes themselves suggest.

What interests me, however, is how, when, and why the notes stopped being so effective at convincing critics that the poem is unified.(2) Unlike Middleton, who tends to view academic discourse as an unchanging instance of an ever more stable institution, I will argue that readings of the notes - and of the poem - have changed precisely because the notes represent a particular conflict in professional literary critical discourse in the 1920s. Beginning with Wilson's review, I argue that the notes have been successful in producing ordered readings of The Waste Land because they deflect the cultural crisis represented in the poem onto the act of reading, suggesting that the disorder seemingly so evident in the poem is in fact the fault of the reader. The notes particularly emphasize the readerly role of the professional literary critic, parodying the two theories of reading then dominant in the professional literary field, philology and impressionism. At the same time, however, the notes hold out the possibility that professional literary critics may be able to resolve the conflicts within their own discursive field and in so doing achieve the unified sensibility necessary for reconstructing the order apparently absent in the poem. …

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