A Red Herring
Few readers of modern poetry in English have not read T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. Few who have read the poem have understood it outright, and few would understand it to this day had not many decades of scholarship shed light on its many mysterious allusions. Eliot himself provided footnotes to the poem, a controversial move, quite unprecedented. Indeed, many of Eliot's notes are helpful to the reader attempting to figure out the poem's puzzling landscape. After all, the author's commentary upon his own intentions should be helpful… and yet, to one intimately familiar with Eliot's poetry in general, his influences and intentions, the notes, at times, seem to have been written by Eliot's critical alter-ego, a perspective only marginally more privileged than the reader's. At times, Eliot's notes seem deliberately calculated to deceive.
Why would a poet provide misleading notes to his own poem? Why has he provided notes to some allusions, but suppressed others? One recalls the idea that a composer or poet may not necessarily be the best interpreter/ conductor of his own work. Let us look at an example from Eliot's notes on The Waste Land. In part V of the poem, lines 357-363, we read:
…where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
but there is no water
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you…
What notes does Eliot offer the reader? Regarding the hermit-thrush he quotes from Chapman's Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, saying, "its 'water-dripping song' is justly celebrated." The following lines, about a mysterious third party, he states, were "stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton's)…" Shackleton (he thinks)… Shackleton died in the year of the poem's publication. To anyone familiar with the real allusions Eliot is making in these lines, the notes seem almost laughable, with their dead pan literalism and obfuscation. They are utterly misleading. The allusions he protects from detection by this red herring, this deadpan reference to a bird book and an Antarctic explorer's journey, are to Eliot's most relevant American precursor, Walt Whitman, and his most relevant poem, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, a spring elegy for the fallen Abe Lincoln. It is the hermit-thrush and its "song of the bleeding throat, / Death's outlet song of life" that is central to that poem. And at line 120 we find the source of the allusion Eliot would have us believe referred to an Antarctic explorer:
Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.
And the singer so shy to the rest receiv'd me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv'd us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.
Why would a poet deliberately obfuscate? In this case Eliot makes the notes part of the substance of the poem, so that anyone hoping to understand the author's intent must take the notes seriously. This gives Eliot the liberty to be rather playful in his notes. If we are to know with relative certainty what allusions the poem makes, what texts of the past it is echoing, we must know those texts. Once the ideas and texts upon which the poem has been founded are identified, then it is up to the reader to explore the connections. Knowing that the labyrinth of notes and allusions would keep the reader occupied, Eliot also tried to mislead his readers, if in a gentle way. The reader cannot take the author's reliability for granted. Eliot would prefer that allusions to Whitman be suppressed, not stated outright, for he was writing a European poem. Of course reading Eliot's work with a healthy skepticism we see he is an American poet from St. Louis. He chose to put the emphasis elsewhere, while his roots remain inescapable. One might say the same for "The Fire Sermon" and "What the Thunder Said." He might have stated that ideas within these sections run from old Boston sources, like Cotton Mather. But stating it outright was out of the question, and unnecessary. If the poet were to tell us everything about his poem, we would still have to investigate for ourselves to confirm whether or not he is being truthful.