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9 Things You Didn't Know You Wanted To Know About The Waste Land

"Hey I've got an idea for a hit poem called 'He Do the Police in Different Voices.'" - No one, ever

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1. The original title of The Waste Land was He Do the Police in Different Voices:

The line is a from a scene in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, where the widow Betty Hidgen refers proudly to the reading abilities of her son Sloppy: "You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices."

This working title is evidence for a theory that the voice of The Waste Land is a singular one (perhaps that of Tiresias) even though it feels disparate. The choice of The Waste Land as a title instead emphasizes the theme of sterility in the poem, with an obscure nod to the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, who is later referred to in the line:

"I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall I at least set my lands in order?"

2. The epigraph was originally going to be a quote from Heart of Darkness:

The original epigraph to The Waste Land was from Conrad:

"Mistah Kurtz, he dead. The horror, the horror."

But Ezra Pound felt that Conrad wasn't "weighty enough to withstand the citation," so Eliot went with an obscure section of the Roman novelist Petronius's Satyricon, which conveys similar sentiments about death and horror.


3. The Petronius epigraph is totally out of context from the rest of The Satyricon:

The Petronius quote translates as "So I went to see the Sibyl at Cumae with my own eyes hanging in a cage and the young boys said to her, "Sibyl, what do you want?" and she responded, "I want to die."

It's actually a throwaway line that is completely out of context from the rest of the Satyricon, which is very humorous and slapstick in its tone.

4. The famous line "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" also refers to the Sibyl:

When granted one wish, The Sibyl wished to live as many years as there were grains in a handful of sand - but she neglected to stipulate that she stay young. Hence the cage and the death wish.

5. The "Game of Chess" section has a missing line:

The line "The ivory men make company between us," was removed from the draft by Eliot's then-wife Vivienne, doubtless because it was too close to the bone of their loveless marriage.

But Eliot was clearly attached to the line, as he would often reinsert it when he was giving readings of The Waste Land from memory.

6. There's actually a precedent for nightingales' saying "Jug Jug":

There is a line in a mostly forgotten poem by John Lyly called Spring's Welcome about the nightingale:

O 'tis the ravish'd nightingale.

Jug, jug, jug, jug, tereu! she cries,

And still her woes at midnight rise.

The "tereu" in both Lyly and Eliot's poem (as well as the ravishing) refer to the story in Ovid's Metamorphoses in which the wicked king Tereus raped his wife's sister Philomela, who was later turned into a nightingale by the gods. Tereus was turned into a hoopoe bird himself, and apparently still chases her, which seems unfair.

7. Footsteps shuffling on the stair in Eliot's poems often signal a sexual liaison:

The line "Foosteps shuffled on the stair" in "A Game of Chess" is adapted from an (at the time unpublished) autobiographical work by Eliot called Death of the Duchess, which may refer to an alleged affair between Eliot's wife Vivienne and the philosopher Bertrand Russell.

When people descend staircases in Eliot's poems (notably in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock), it tends to signal a sexual liaison, though not usually a particularly fun or satisfying one.

8. The notes at the end of the poem are (probably) an elaborate joke.

Much has been made of the many pages of footnotes at the end of The Waste Land, which "explain" some of the references in the poem but by no means all of them.

In The Frontiers of Criticism, Eliot explains: "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."

9. "April is the cruelest month" is an allusion to Chaucer: / Via

Geoffrey Chaucer opens The Canterbury Tales with the following lines:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licóur,

Of which vertú engendred is the flour…

(When April with his showers sweet

The drought of March has pierced unto the root

And bathed every vein with such liquor

Of which virtue engendered is the flower…)

Eliot's opening is an inversion of that sentiment and also, quite literally an "opening," since April comes from the Latin word aperire, which means "To open."