In 1924 the original ms. of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound’s handwritten editorial comments, mysteriously disappeared and did not resurface until 1968. Most of the facts of what happened to the ms. are now known. But here, for the first time, Patrick J. Keane pulls the story together with personal information gleaned from Eliot’s widow that sheds a poignant light on the story of the ms. and Ezra Pound’s last years. Part-literary detective story, part-memoir, part-homage to a glittering past, “Convergences” is a brilliant and highly entertaining excursus on the vagaries of fate and literary genius. Pat Keane is a prolific scholar and a gifted raconteur. Don’t miss his sidelight on Northrop Frye, the story of the beautiful Rosamund and the mischievous trick Pat plays on a nuisance colleague named ______.
Because of an odd convergence of circumstances, I have, on several brief occasions, been privy to “inside” information regarding modern literature’s most notorious “missing manuscript.” I refer to the sheaf of papers—T. S. Eliot’s original drafts, edited by Ezra Pound—revealing the genesis of The Waste Land, the single most famous poem of the twentieth century. Perhaps, before memory fades altogether, I should record, not for posterity but for a few friends, the various contexts of my personal relationship, however indirect and peripheral, to that celebrated “missing manuscript.”
The “manuscript” consists of a packet of handwritten and typed pages, drafted by Eliot and sculpted by his friend, who found the shape the poem had been struggling for, and then pronounced it “the justification of our modern experiment.” Pound had from the outset recognized in the pages he had been given an embryonic work of genius—though, even at the 434 lines to which he reduced it, he still thought it, in terms of its density of allusion and demands on the reader, “the longest poem in the English langwidge.”
The poem, pruned by Pound but still uniquely Eliot’s, was published in that annus mirabilis of modernism, 1922, the year which also saw the appearance of Joyce’s Ulysses and Rilke’s Duino Elegies. A week after it was first printed—in mid-October, in both the Criterion and the Dial—the original manuscript and related papers were sent by Eliot as a gift to John Quinn, the wealthy New York attorney, collector, and patron of, among other modernist writers, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and W. B. Yeats. He thought the manuscript “worth preserving in its present form solely,” Eliot wrote Quinn, for the evidence it offered of “the difference” Pound’s criticism had made to the poem. John Quinn died in 1924, and the manuscript, unmentioned in his will, was long presumed to be lost. Like countless others over the years, Eliot himself always wondered what had become of it. Its location, its very existence, was still a mystery when the poet died, in January 1965.
In fact, however, a few people were aware that the manuscript had survived. As the world learned in 1968, the pivotal year in the personal memories recounted here, Quinn had bequeathed it to his sister, Julia Anderson. When she died, in 1934, it had passed to Mrs. Anderson’s daughter, Mary. Though the papers, in storage, were misplaced for some years, Mary and her husband, Thomas Conroy, found them after a prolonged search in the early 1950s. In April 1958, they sold the manuscript, for $18,000, to the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. For a decade the acquisition remained private, a secret rigorously kept from the public until October 25, 1968, when the news was released simultaneously with, and to draw attention to, the publication of B. L. Reid’s authorized biography of John Quinn.
A brief advance notice of the revelation had been given to Eliot’s second wife, Valerie. It must have been assumed that she would be delighted by the unexpected news. Instead, the poet’s widow was infuriated to learn that the whereabouts of the “missing” manuscript were known while Eliot was still alive, and, in particular, that the Berg had maintained a Cistercian silence for a decade. Obviously, at some point during the first half of that decade, the author of The Waste Land could and should have been informed, if only to dispel the mystery. As Pound observed in his Preface to the facsimile/transcript edition, edited by Valerie Eliot in 1969, the “occultation” of The Waste Land manuscript, which he aptly described as “pure Henry James,” had been “exasperating to its author.”
Out of belated courtesy, or perhaps to stave off a potential public relations fiasco, John Henderson, Chief of the Research Libraries of the New York Public Library, sent Valerie Eliot a microfilm of the Waste Land papers in the summer of 1968. Apparently, he also arranged to have the manuscript itself (boxed in protective material that would preserve it even if the plane went down in the Atlantic) flown to her in London as a kind of peace offering.
I learned all this years later, from Valerie Eliot herself. But to return to the summer of 1968: That August, I was in Sligo, Ireland, a student at the Yeats International Summer School. Along with my enthusiasm for Yeats, I bore greetings from one great scholar of Romanticism to another: from one of my current teachers, David Erdman, author of Blake: Prophet Against Empire, to the keynote lecturer at that year’s Yeats gathering, Northrop Frye, at the time the most celebrated literary critic in the world, and the author of an equally formidable study of Blake, Fearful Symmetry. After Frye delivered his magisterial lecture on the imagery of Yeats, entitled “The Top of the Tower,” I was one of those who flocked to the podium. But I stayed at the periphery, too shy to approach the great man. Later that evening, when Frye, followed by a small entourage, entered the dining room of the Imperial Hotel, he noticed me at a table and walked over.
“You wanted to ask me a question this afternoon,” he said. A fundamentally shy man himself, he had been sensitive enough to spot me on the fringe of the crowd after his lecture, and gracious enough to follow up. I stammered out my greeting from Professor Erdman. “How is David?” Frye asked. I assured him he was well, and was amused when Northrop Frye made a comment symmetrical to that of David Erdman. Each declared the other’s Blake study indispensable and each said he would not have been capable of writing the other’s book. Later that evening, Frye’s shyness was confirmed when I noticed him tenderly holding his wife’s hand under the table during a dramatic performance, in a pub, of Brian Merriman’s bawdy 18th-century poem, The Midnight Court. And five years later, he would confirm his graciousness by allowing me to print “The Top of the Tower,” free of any permissions charge, in a collection of criticism on Yeats I edited for a volume in McGraw-Hill’s Contemporary Studies in Literature series.
One other dignitary had noticed me hanging on the periphery following Frye’s lecture. This was Thomas Rice Henn, the Sligo-born author of The Lonely Tower, and at that time the Director of the Yeats Summer School. He asked me about my response to the lecture—“wonderful,” I said—and inquired as to what if anything I had written on Yeats. The next morning I gave him a copy of a paper I was working on for another favorite NYU professor, M. L. Rosenthal. It was on “Her Vision in the Wood,” a rather brutal mythological poem in Yeats’s late sequence, A Woman Young and Old.
That afternoon, he returned the essay to me; said he liked it; and asked if by any chance I was going to Dublin now that the Yeats events had concluded. My original plan had been to return to New York after Sligo, but I’d met Rosamund, a pre-Raphaelite beauty with flaming red hair, who had invited me to Dublin and then to Edinburgh for the International Festival. I had already decided that New York University could wait a week. When I told Dr. Henn that I was going to Dublin, he handed me an envelope. It contained, along with a few hints on protocol, a letter of introduction to Mrs. Yeats.
The following morning, Rosamund and I were on a train headed from Sligo to Dublin. I was reading about a bicycle race in the sports section when Rosamund said, “O my God, Pat. Look at the front page.” The headline was indeed a shocker: the former Georgie Hyde-Lees, the widow of William Butler Yeats, had died! After a moment of frustration that I would now never get to ask the five questions I had prepared, my humanity re-emerged, and I silently wished his widow a happier Afterlife than any her husband had concocted from the spiritual communications they had shared.
We became friendly with others on the train, also going to the Festival. So Rosamund and I gave up our initial thought of attending, or intruding on, the funeral, and went directly to Scotland so as not to miss the Tom Courtenay Hamlet and the fireworks display over Edinburgh Castle. Only many years later would I learn, at first hand, that the death and funeral of Mrs. Yeats also figured in the story of The Waste Land manuscript.
After the fireworks of Edinburgh and Rosamund, I returned to New York and resumed my graduate school regimen. The yearlong seminar with David Erdman, who had taken over a course that was to have been taught by the ailing E. P. Thompson, was held at the One Fifth Avenue offices of Conor Cruise O’Brien, then the Schweitzer Professor of Humanities at NYU. It was a high-powered affair, with distinguished visitors ranging from O’Brien, to Carl Woodring, to Thompson, who made a two-week visit, italicized in my memory by his moving recitation of lines from Wordsworth’s Prelude. I had become close to Erdman, who, on one occasion that September, took me to the J. P. Morgan Library, where he had arranged with the curator for me to be left alone in a room with the manuscript of Keats’s Endymion, complete with a sealed lock of the poet’s chestnut hair. On a small scale, it was a thoughtful surprise not unrelated to the one that had been presented, as we shall see, by Valerie Eliot to Ezra Pound a month earlier.
On October 24, the seminar participants were invited to spend the next day at David and Virgie Erdman’s house. His permanent position was at SUNY, Stony Brook, and the house was situated at Setauket Point, on a cliff overlooking Long Island Sound. That evening, when I phoned to confirm the directions, David mentioned, in passing, the “exciting news about The Waste Land manuscript.” It was all news to me. Erdman, who was also the Director of Publications at the New York Public Library, had jumped the gun. It would not be until the next morning that a startled literary world would be officially informed in a New York Times headline and lead story that the manuscript of Eliot’s poem, a “lost” manuscript almost as famous as the poem itself, was in fact safely ensconced in the Berg Collection. After we hung up, I spent several minutes in excited reverie. What a secret! Even if it was a secret that, as Horatio reminds Hamlet, “must be shortly known.”
I was mulling over that line, when the phone rang. It was another student in the seminar. ________was a brilliant but arrogant fellow who considered us rivals and who I found rudely condescending toward a re-entry woman in the group, who was not as “up” on theory as he thought she should be. Ostensibly phoning to get directions to the Erdmans’ house, he was mostly curious as to why I had missed a recent seminar meeting. I’d simply been ill, but the imp of the perverse took over. I recalled Hamlet’s response to his friend’s warning that his secret (that he had sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the death intended for him) must be shortly known: “The interim’s mine,” says Hamlet.
And so, with feigned reticence, I remarked to my curious classmate that Erdman had excused me in order to complete a certain task. Careerist alarm bells ringing, he wanted to know what “task.” I really “wasn’t at liberty” to say, I said. This—of course and as intended—piqued his interest. Finally, I let him drag it out of me. “David,” I told him, had asked me to “write an introduction, and supply notes” to the manuscript of The Waste Land, which, I grandly announced, had been in the Berg Collection lo these many years. But I “had to hang up”; I was troubled that I had “already divulged too much,” though I guessed “it was okay” since it was all going to come out the next morning on the front page of the New York Times. As, of course, it did, seeming to confirm my fabrication. Eventually I had pity on him, but I let _________, almost visibly writhing in envy, believe this nonsense for about a week. Best of all, I shared the joke with the woman he had repeatedly made uncomfortable during class discussions.
By the time of this little hoax, and of the rather more momentous announcement of the survival of the manuscript of The Waste Land, that packet of papers was back from its trans-Atlantic flight to Valerie Eliot. But it had been in her hands in August, when, as earlier mentioned, Mrs.Yeats had died. Learning that Ezra Pound and his long-time companion, Olga Rudge, would be making the difficult trip from Italy to Dublin to attend the funeral of his old friend’s widow, Valerie Eliot had the happy thought of inviting them to London, to her hotel, where she would have a surprise for the man who had served as the midwife to Eliot’s masterpiece. What happened next I learned some thirty years later—from Mrs. Eliot herself, who told the story to several of us (including, as I recall, Ron Schuchard and Jon Stallworthy) over drinks one evening following lectures at the Yeats Summer School.
After serving tea (Valerie Eliot told us) she had gently led Pound, now 83 and feeble, to a table she’d prepared near a window. On the table lay THE MANUSCRIPT. Mrs. Eliot rejoined Olga Rudge, and the women retreated to a neutral corner, leaving Pound alone with pages he had not laid eyes on since 1922. Looking at them, the old man must have been overwhelmed by memories of that time, and of what had followed….
Back then, 46 years ago, his life had not yet been devastated by the consequences of his monetarily-obsessed, anti-Semitic wartime rants supporting Mussolini and Fascism: radio broadcasts that, monitored by American Military Intelligence, had landed him in a postwar detention camp in Pisa. There he had been, at first, caged—exposed to the elements, but also to the Muse that inspired what became the Pisan Cantos, some of its earliest drafts scribbled on toilet paper by the memory-haunted sixty-year-old prisoner. Transferred to his native country, he had remained locked up, not in a military prison as a traitor, but in Washington D.C.’s St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital, as a madman. In 1948, twenty years prior to the scene in Valerie Eliot’s hotel room, amid fierce political controversy, but strenuously supported by T. S. Eliot, the “lunatic in St. Elizabeth’s” had been awarded the first Bollingen Prize for the Pisan Cantos. His response—“No comment from the bughouse”—would come to seem, in retrospect, prophetic of the public silence that descended on his final decade. Pound would spend a dozen years in St. Elizabeth’s, less despondent than active, and less a help than a hindrance to the family and friends seeking his release. But that release had finally come, the result of a protracted campaign waged by his daughter and by such literary friends as Eliot, Allen Tate, Hemingway, Robert Frost, and Archibald MacLeish, both a poet and former Assistant Director of War Information in the Roosevelt administration.
On his return to Italy in 1958, Pound exhibited his old arrogant recklessness in word and gesture (including a Fascist salute at Naples, caught in a widely-distributed photograph). But there were also deep misgivings. In a telegrammed response to a despairing letter, reassuring his friend that the best of his work would survive, Eliot placed him among “the immortals.” Still, Pound came to doubt the value of everything he had ever done or said. Though that was a depressed man’s excessive judgment, it was one recorded both privately and publicly. His 1966 remark to Daniel Cory, philosopher George Santayana’s former assistant, that he had “botched” The Cantos (“jumbling this and that…into a bag” was “not the way” to make “a work of art”), was transformed into a permanent verdict, registered in the final complete Canto: “the beauty is not the madness/ ‘Tho my errors and wrecks lie about me./ And I am not a demigod,/ I cannot make it cohere.” And yet that Canto (CXVI), confessing “wrong without losing rightness,” and acknowledging that “I cannot make it flow thro’,” ends with one of Pound’s characteristically beautiful invocations of luminous energy: “A little light, like a rushlight/ To lead back to splendour.”
As the Pisan Cantos confirm, Pound never forgot Yeats’s Beardsleyan axiom, “Beauty is difficult.” But beyond aesthetics, Pound’s suffering and repentance were hardly undeserved. In M. L. Rosenthal’s summary: “it was as if” in Ezra Pound “all the beautiful vitality and all the rottenness of our heritage were both at once made manifest.” By 1961, Pound had stopped speaking to outsiders. In 1967, breaking his public silence, Pound repudiated some of the “rottenness,” telling poet Allen Ginsberg that his life and work had ended up a “mess,” and singling out, as his “worst mistake,” the “stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice.” It had been far worse than that,but he said no more. Indeed, in general, he became almost mute: a prolific poet who had paradoxically lost faith in words, especially spoken words. Two years before the Paris Review interview with Ginsberg, he had remarked, “I did not enter into silence, silence captured me.” When he sat down at that table in Valerie Eliot’s hotel room in August 1968, Ezra Pound was famous in literary circles: a pivotal, indispensable figure in the birth of modernism and the author of an enormous, ongoing epic, The Cantos. But in the larger world, beyond literature, he was an object of puzzled curiosity, attributable less to his political notoriety or mental instability than to his later sphinx-like, rarely penetrable public silence….
Now, too, gazing at the modern world’s most celebrated “lost manuscript,” miraculously restored, he remained silent. The pages before him were filled with his old editorial slashings (the whole 54-line opening section, parts of “The Fire Sermon”), marginal notes, and suggested revisions—except when it came to the fifth and unimprovable final section, which he had marked, “OK from here on I think.” Though its cadences, texture, tics, tonal shifts, and deployment of “different voices” make The Waste Land indisputably the achievement of T. S. Eliot, the author, in grateful tribute to Pound’s skill in liberating the poem from its surrounding husk, had (in 1925) dedicated it to him: il miglior fabbro, “to the finer craftsman.” And there on the table were the very pages that craftsman had read, cut, and annotated all those decades ago. In the intervening years, his friend Yeats had died and, a quarter-century later, his friend Eliot. He had come to London for Eliot’s memorial service that cold January in 1965, and had made a nostalgic side-trip, traveling to Dublin to visit Yeats’s widow (he had been best man at their 1917 wedding). Now, having just come from her graveside, he was confronted even more palpably with his own past, in the form of the graphic proof of his critical role in delivering to the modern world one of its transformative works of art.
The light had grown dimmer in the room. Pound’s face was half turned toward the window. What little the women could see of it seemed expressionless. Finally, after much hesitation, they walked over to him. One laid an affectionate hand on his shoulder, the other asked, “Are you alright, Ezra?” When the old man looked up, they saw them—the tears, streaming from those eyes that had seen so much.
Four years after Valerie Eliot had reunited him with The Waste Land manuscript (which he looked at again, with Valerie Eliot, in the Berg Collection, in June 1969), Ezra Pound would join his old friends and fellow-poets in death. Though intricately and profoundly related personally and poetically, with Pound as the connection, these three major figures of twentieth-century literature were, of course, very different men: differences reflected in their graves and epitaphs.
In “Little Gidding,” the last and best of Four Quartets, and his crowning achievement, Eliot encounters, in a magnificent passage emulating Dante’s terza rima, the Swiftian ghost of W. B. Yeats. The actual Yeats—whose last great poem, completed on his deathbed, is also a Dantesque terza rima evocation of a formidable ghost, that of the epic Irish hero Cuchulain—died in France on the eve of the Second World War. What are believed to be his reinterred bones are buried, under bare Ben Bulben’s head, in the Protestant churchyard in Drumcliff, County Sligo, where an ancestor had once been rector. The imperious epitaph on the poet’s gravestone, “carved at his command,” is famously enigmatic but unmistakably in the heroic mode, at once stoically yet passionately pagan: “Cast a Cold Eye/ On Life, on Death./ Horseman, pass by!”
The ashes of Thomas Stearns Eliot—who shook many of his fellow-modernists by famously and devoutly pronouncing himself “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”—rest in the Parish Church of St. Michael, East Coker, in Somerset, England, the place of origin from which, centuries earlier, his ancestors had emigrated to America. His memorial tablet, petitioning prayer for the repose of his soul, is circumscribed by hopeful words from “East Coker,” the second of Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end…in my end is my beginning.”
In the San Michelle Cemetery on the island of San Giorgio Maggiori, across the water from St. Mark’s Square in Venice, lie the remains of the most deracinated, flamboyant, and certainly the most voluble of the three great poets. Ezra Pound’s end was not at all in his beginning. In his early years of London fame, and again in Paris in the Twenties, the magnanimous Pound was always expansive, both in helping fellow artists and in disseminating his ideas and opinions, whether insightful, idiosyncratic, or “rotten.” In Gertrude Stein’s witty 1933 characterization, Pound was “a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” In his later, chastened years, the pontificator and wartime anti-Semitic propagandist became a reclusive man, penitent and, to repeat the point, almost monastically silent. Appropriately, given his latter distrust of words, his plain headstone is laconically inscribed simply EZRA POUND.
Among those remembered here, there have of course been other deaths. David Erdman and Northrop Frye are gone, as are Mack Rosenthal and Edward Thompson and Conor Cruise O’Brien and T. R. Henn. I have no specific reason to fear that the life of someone who in my memory is forever young has been disrupted by the discourtesy of death, but I have often wondered what became of the flame-haired Rosamund.
As for Valerie Eliot: having rejuvenated T. S. Eliot in life, and later serving as editor of the published version of The Waste Land manuscript and of other posthumous Eliot texts, Mrs. Eliot, now 85, remains as sweet-natured as ever, though her memory has begun to fail. She attended the first two receptions of the Eliot International Summer School, founded in 2009, and modeled on the Yeats Summer School. And she continues to donate, as she has since 1993, ₤15,000 for the annual T. S. Eliot Prize. She can afford to. Eliot’s widow is a wealthy woman thanks to her share of the royalties from Cats, the longest-running musical in theater history. The inspiration for the Trevor Nunn-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. But, beyond being her husband’s beneficiary, Valerie Eliot deserves her share of the considerable profits.
It was she who provided what Nunn called the “fulcrum moment.” With the collaborators at a creative impasse, Valerie Eliot handed them a crumpled sheet of paper on which her late husband had typed eight lines about “Grizzabella, the Glamour Cat,” a fragment that had never made it into Eliot’s published text. These lines—another lost-and-found Eliot manuscript—became, as it were, the catalyst Nunn and Webber were seeking. For what, above all, made Cats the worldwide phenomenon it eventually became was Webber’s composition, on the final night of rehearsals, of the beautiful melody—the “theme” for Grizzabella—that integrates the work. Fused with Nunn’s lyrics, which echo, along with the Grizzabella lines, images from Eliot’s early poems, “Preludes” and “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” it became a nocturne so haunting that it has since been recorded hundreds of times. The title of that evocation of the past—germane to my own reminiscences and, more poignantly, to Ezra Pound at that table in 1968, as well as to Valerie Eliot’s present condition—is, of course, Memory.
—Patrick J. Keane
Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).