Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 28 Aug 2023

The Wasteland: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis

What does T.S. Eliot’s long poem, The Wasteland, have in common with James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses? Well, both of them are commonly acknowledged to have changed the nature and scope of twentieth century literature and, I strongly suspect, both are more often name-checked than actually read. That shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise because both are dense and demanding pieces of literature that require the reader to do almost as much work as the authors themselves if their treasures are to be fully uncovered.

As a result, both Eliot and Joyce have generated their own critical appreciation ‘industries’ with any number of doctoral theses, radical critical appraisals and mainstream ‘study aids’ cluttering up the literary criticism shelves of bookshops and libraries. As a result, if you’re going to add to the already overloaded ark, you really have to do something different or better than the rest.

Matthew Hollis’ The Wasteland: A Biography of a Poem scores on both of these fronts. What we have is a 400 page dissection, not just of Eliot’s great poem but of a literary epoch that created the conditions in which a writer as unlikely as Eliot could do what had never been done before. What I think Hollis does wonderfully is to show how the creation of The Wasteland wasn’t an act of solitary genius as poetry is often thought to be created but something approaching a collaboration – an orchestra of people conducted and marshalled by the poet. Here was a poem that had almost as much to do with Eliot’s great friend and editor, Ezra Pound, and which lent on the insights of the poet’s wife, Vivian. But also in the mix, helping provide the fertile soil in which The Wasteland could flourish, were Wyndham Lewis, Virginia and Leonard Woolf and James Joyce – with walk on parts from Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Richard Aldington.

So, you could argue that Hollis’ narrative is really a book about a literary milieu at a time of change and flux in which The Wasteland stands as the towering pinnacle, the achievement of the age.

Hollis, a poet himself, is clearly excited by his subject and that’s a great asset in keeping you reading because this is a remarkably detailed study. We get lots of biographical background of both Eliot, his wife and of Ezra Pound, who merits almost a shared headline status with his great friend and there’s real poignancy in the way Hollis handles Pound’s diminishing status, his terrible mistakes, his making of enemies and his slide in unforgivable antisemitism. The vilifying and debasement of Jews was, of course, a common besetting sin of many in the upper and middle classes in the Western Europe of the 1920s and writers and artists were not immune to jumping on that particular bandwagon but Pound did it with a truly unpleasant gusto, expecting his much wider xenophobia to somehow excuse or dilute his hatred of Jews.

I was struck by how much I ended up disliking, as people, the cast of characters that appear here. Their sense of entitlement, their constant moaning, their self-obsessions, their constant minor illnesses, the way ordinary life ‘exhausts’ them are enough to test anyone’s patience. But then again, there’s always the poetry and that poem in particular which Hollis does a marvellous job of making you see again (and in some parts, for the first time). This is why we need to be interested in these people – forget the whining, they are capable of great art.

To be honest, you really do have to be interested in Eliot, Modernism and The Wasteland to get the most from this book – it’s not the place to go for a basic introduction because you’ll founder on the detail. If you want an easy way into Eliot and Pound, go elsewhere but if you already know what treats lie in store, Hollis’ book will be an added revelation.

The added bonus is that the full text of The Wasteland is included at the end as an addendum.

Currently only available in hardback at £25, you’ll need to wait a while for the paperback.


Terry Potter

August 2023