September 27, 2023 | Rome, Italy

“Probably over the mark”/”Make up yr. mind”

By |2018-03-21T18:54:37+01:00May 20th, 2013|Auld Lang Syne|
Pound would have none of the poem's original opening.

homas Stearns Eliot’s acclaimed 1922 poem “The Waste Land,” which opens with the famed line “April is the cruelest month” was originally preceded by a pen-and-ink dedication to fellow poet Ezra Pound, praising him as il miglio fabbro, “the best craftsman” or “smithy.” The dedication, dropped by publishers in the first edition, was restored in 1925, and remained as the poem gained fame and critics began acknowledging it as a major breakthrough.

The friendship between the two men was nearly a decade old when the 33-year-old T.S. Eliot sent the early manuscript to Pound, three his senior, in January 1922. On reading it, Pound told a friend in a letter that the poem was “about enough … to make the rest of us shut up shop…”

But the original manuscript rambled and Eliot asked Pound for advice and editing, a role his friend embraced. Eliot’s original poem was titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” which Pound vetoed as cumbersome. He also cut out the entire first section, which originally began: “First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place.” He suggested Eliot move his opening verse, “The Burial of the Dead,” and have it open the poem, yielding, “April is the cruelest month…”

The next section, originally titled “In the Cage,” Pound re-titled “A Game of Chess.” He edited, eliminated or recast countless other segments, occasionally penning editorial advice in the margins (“probably over the mark”/”make up yr. mind”).

The St. Louis-born Eliot, who had come to live in England and married an Englishwoman (much of the movement on Pound’s advice) was a chronic depressive, particularly early in life.

But once Eliot completed the poem’s first draft he knew he was onto something good — “I think it is the best I have ever done,” he wrote. At the same time, he also knew it needed focus, which Pound provided, trimming away much of its nagging long-windedness. All the editing was painstakingly accomplished by hand and typewriter, with the animated Pound scratching out sections with bold pencil strokes as if to ensure his pupil didn’t think twice.

Though Pound mostly removed, he also suggested substitutions, one of which revealed a difference in sensibility and directness of approach.

Eliot’s line, spoken by a woman at a cocktail party, “You want to keep him at home, I suppose,” Pound changed to the more jargony, “What you get married for if you don’t want to have children?” The Pound line appears in the poem’s final draft.

Pound’s little-know act of private editing, which came to light fully only the 1970s, when correspondence between the two men was published, stands out as among the more remarkable “help” efforts ever offered by writer to another. Eliot died in 1965 after an acclaimed career, and Pound seven years later, following a long and bitter life, much of it spent in a psychiatric institution.

Opening of the original poem, “He Do the Police In Different Voices”:

First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place

There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind

(Don’t you remember that time after a dance,

Top hats and all, we and Silk Hat Harry,

And old Tom took us behind, brought us a bottle of fizz…

Opening of the Pound-edited final version of “The Waste Land,” lines that introduced the original version’s second section:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring dull

Dull roots with spring rain.”

The entire “Tom” section, which ran 56 lines, went unpublished.

About the Author:

Handwritten and typed letters are disappearing. The "Auld Lang Syne" column is an effort to gather letters, notes, telegrams and other items sent via mail, most culled from the archives of the magazine's writers. These included personal and business correspondence and other tidbits that help reflect a time when nothing was instant, especially replies, and stamps mattered.