The Letters of T. S. Eliot (Vol. 2, 1922-1925)

Michael Wood writes:

‘I think,’ T.S. Eliot wrote in February 1923, ‘it will take me a year or two to throw off The Waste Land and settle down and get at something better which is tormenting me by its elusiveness in my brain.’ The something better was probably the never finished ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, since ‘The Hollow Men’, the only other poem he worked on between 1923 and 1925, must surely have been less elusive. The Waste Land, he said, was ‘neither a success nor a failure – simply a struggle’, and he teased Ford Madox Ford by telling him he thought there were ‘about thirty good lines in The Waste Land, can you find them?’ The poem has 434 lines. Ford thought the question was cruel, and said he didn’t know the answer. Eliot’s response was predictably impatient: ‘As for the lines I mention, you need not scratch your head over them. They are the 29 lines of the water-dripping song in the last part.’ This is the passage that begins, ‘Here is no water but only rock/Rock and no water and the sandy road/The road winding above among the mountains’ and ends: ‘But there is no water.’ No water, and in a characteristic Eliot touch, not even the sound of water, not even the imitation of the sound of water by a bird, for example. Relief can’t even be faked.

(LRB 3 December 2009)

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