Eliot Through The Looking Glass

by | Jun 21, 2005

Guardian Unlimited: Faced with that literary troublemaker TS Eliot, a York University academic called in the FBI and now claims to have cracked the case of how The Waste Land was written.

Lawrence Rainey, of the university’s English department, spent two years travelling across Europe and the US to sort out the sequence in which Eliot wrote the poem.


A sheaf of rough drafts for the poem surfaced in 1971 and Prof Rainey compared them with the letters and other writing that Eliot was producing in the years before its publication in 1922 – a task calling for forensic as much as literary investigation. He examined more than 1,200 leaves of paper, including 638 pages of letters, Eliot had written between 1912 and 1922, visiting 22 international libraries and several private collections in his two-year journey.

“When The Waste Land was published, its defenders insisted that the poem was planned from the beginning and that it was a poem of extraordinary unity. Now that we can trace the processes and the choices that Eliot is making, the poem turns out to be something quite different,” Prof Rainey said.

“The Waste Land was not a seamless whole, but something more radical. It is, at once, wild and unruly, violent and shocking and yet deeply compassionate,” he added.