Among the medieval artifacts in the British Museum is an example of what’s called an acoustic pot. These earthenware vessels were placed in cavities in the chapel walls where monks and nuns would sing; they made the pitch more resonant. Lately, I’ve been thinking that poets do much the same thing when they quote or imbed allusions to other poems in their own art. When poets resonate together, especially across the divide between the living and the dead, it lends an eerie power to the work.

The Waste Land” has many such acoustic pots in its architecture. While it is many things—a response to the Great War and a bad marriage; a spiritual quest; a formal breakthrough that established the collage as the way forward for poetry in the twentieth century—it is as a vessel of historical voices that I return to it now, voices that emanate from the hives of cities: in this case, London. Eliot inherited a tradition of urban poetry that winds back through Charles Baudelaire and his Paris; Dante and his Florence; Virgil and his Rome (which succeeds Homer’s Troy via Carthage). That Eliot was actually born and bred in St. Louis only adds to the mystery of his creative self-fashioning. He gravitated to London as a poet, not as an heir to ancestral land. The English language was his legacy.

At the time “The Waste Land” was written, Eliot and his wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood, lived at 9 Clarence Gate Gardens “where the leaves meet in leafy Marylebone,” as one line from the original draft has it (struck from the final version by Ezra Pound’s severe pencil). He had met Pound—il miglior fabbro (“the better craftsman”), he wrote in his dedication, quoting Dante—in the city in 1914, where he had arrived as a graduate student working on a philosophy dissertation. In January 1922, Eliot gave the original manuscript of fifty-four pages to Pound to edit. Pound wrote to a patron, John Quinn: “About enough, Eliot’s poem, to make the rest of us shut up shop.”1

London’s neighborhoods and streets underlie the poem’s journey. The River Thames, once the main highway of the city, plays an especially prominent role, as in the first section, which ends with the river as a prototype of the River Styx in the Underworld:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

The Thames returns in “The Fire Sermon,” with a quotation from Edmund Spenser: “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, / Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.” As the river flows, so do the cabs in the road and the pedestrians on the sidewalk and the taps in “a public bar in Lower Thames Street.” The Isle of Dogs, Greenwich, Highbury, Richmond, Kew, Moorgate, and Margate (where Eliot sought treatment for his mental breakdown) map out the course of the river and correspond, as well, to a map of personal, psychic significance. It is as though Eliot is mapping out his own nervous system.

“To Carthage then I came,” the section ends. You can’t get to Carthage from London. Or can you? Throughout the poem, Eliot overlays other cities and civilizations—and even their languages, untranslated—atop the present-day city. On London Bridge, he meets a man who addresses him: “You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!” (Mylae was the site of a battle between Carthage and Rome in 260 BC.) In the earlier draft, a “Venus Anadyomene” steps from the Thames to become a famous actress on the London stage; he abandoned that image but kept the passage where he mourns the river’s departed nymphs. He metamorphoses into the Greek Tiresias; introduces characters named Phlebas the Phoenician and Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant; invokes “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna”; and, in the very end, coalesces the Thames and the Ganges, another sacred river that carries Hindu souls to Bardo.

This is only one aspect of the collisions and juxtapositions and overlays—as of transparencies—that make the poem a whirlwind, which the collage form expresses. “The Waste Land” is most famous as a poem of quotations: personages from Shakespeare to Dickens, Alexander Pope to Fulke Greville, the Bible to the Upanishads, Baudelaire to Wagner, are openly referenced. But it wasn’t all high art; he quoted popular songs of the day, too: “By the Watermelon Vine” (1904), “My Evaline” (1901), and “The Cubanola Glide” (1909). He repurposed real conversations he had had with the Countess Marie Larisch and a maid employed by the Eliots, Ellen Kellond.

Eliot could have made this formal breakthrough only in London. His most recent biographer, Robert Crawford, noted that when he first moved to an apartment in Bloomsbury, he could hear “English, American, French, Flemish, Russian, Spanish, Japanese being spoken. […] He found he could work among the din, and liked cosmopolitan, noisy London.” While Cubism and Dadaism led the way toward fragmentation and collage in the visual arts, the hidden link for poetry might have been the London stage (for which Eliot would also write plays). The expansion of poetry’s staid Victorian dramatic monologue into a kaleidoscope of voices overlapping and breaking off is the sound of voices in dialogue—a whole act rather than a single soliloquy.

That’s one theory. But here’s another: “The Waste Land” was only the latest in a line of poems originating in the British Museum, which opened to the public in London in 1759 and expanded for the next two centuries to house a vast collection of ancient plunder. Like John Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” and “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” or—especially—Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” “The Waste Land” considers the mythologies that have come down to us through the ages, depleted or in fragments. It takes the literary fragment—isolated, decontextualized, unknowable—and shows us its numinous appeal, its psychic depth charge. For those moments in which we are absorbed in the poem, time seems to stop, and even collapse, temporal distinctions. “All times,” Ezra Pound, the humanist, believed, “are contemporaneous in the mind.” Eliot, a religious Christian, believed it, too.

In a letter to Conrad Aiken, Eliot expressed his desire to stay in London “and work at the British Museum” rather than return to his PhD studies at Oxford. Scholarly work threatened his muse, but, nevertheless, he had a historical imagination that responded ecstatically to the past. “The Waste Land” is the ultimate museum of antiquities in English poetry—studded with acoustic pots that amplify its voices—and it leads us directly back to the source: London, the Thames, and through it to ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, and India. When we repatriate Eliot and his poem to our shores—and we can, because this is our English, too—we expand the possibilities of poetry to embrace and inhabit people of all times and places. 


This essay originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2022 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2022 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.

1The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, ed. Valerie Eliot, Faber, 2022, p. xxii