A broken-down bank clerk and a month in Margate – how TS Eliot wrote The Waste Land

It’s 1921, and in Margate the sunniest October on record is fading into a cool November. On a bench in a shelter down by the beach, a tired-looking man of 33 is trying very hard to do nothing. This does not come easily to him. He is, by temperament, a worker and a worrier, but he is under instructions from his doctor to do nothing. His employer, Lloyd’s bank, has given him three month’s paid leave for that very purpose. 

So he does nothing, or almost nothing. He sketches passers-by. He practices scales on a mandolin. And he writes the lines at the heart of what will become the most influential poem of the next hundred years:

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.

We think of The Waste Land as a poem of the metropolis, what T S Eliot calls the “unreal city” in all its guises: “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/ Vienna London…” But it’s also a poem of a small seaside town in Kent. It’s like an end-of-the-pier show: a whirl of popular songs and music-hall crosstalk, theatre and jazz, where Madame Sosostris – with her bad cold and “wicked pack of cards” – will read the tarot for any passing tourist. Eliot saw “fine art [as] the refinement, not the anti­thesis, of popular art”. In his ­journalism, he attacked the “staleness” of the middle-class literary scene, but celebrated “the culture of the people” expressed in music-hall, and its rhythms run through his verse. Eliot threw himself into “pop” art, and The Waste Land was the result.

Eliot arrived at the Albemarle Hotel in Margate that October with a few pages of fragments he’d been tinkering with for years. He wrote dozens of new lines, re-considered old ones, and left with a draft of a masterpiece that changed the shape of literature. He later revised it in the mountains of Lausanne, Switzerland, where he went the following month for psychiatric treatment, but “the Albemarle draft has a stronger autobiographical feeling,” according to the critic Lyndall Gordon. “It stresses a suffering individual rather than a culture.” Eliot once shrugged off the idea that The Waste Land offered “social criticism”. Perhaps only half-joking, he said: “To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life.” He believed poetry should aim to be “impersonal”, but the intensity of feeling in The Waste Land has its roots in his personal life.

In 1921, Tom Stearns Eliot was unhappy. He had left a promising academic career at Harvard (he wrote a PhD thesis in philosophy), settling in England against his family’s wishes, after what they saw as a bad marriage to the troubled daughter of an English painter, Vivien Haigh-Wood. He desperately wanted to convince his family “that I have not made a mess of my life, as they are inclined to believe”, he wrote in 1919. But his father died soon after he wrote those words, not before amending his will to ensure that – in the event of Eliot’s death – none of the poet’s inherited money would go to Vivien.

A family visit in the summer of 1921 was a chance to repair relations. Eliot’s brother, his sister and his “frighteningly energetic” 77-year-old mother all crossed the Atlantic to see him for the first time since 1915. But it was an exhausting disappointment; his mother, he realised, had not forgiven him. “I really feel very shaky, and seem to have gone down rapidly since my family left,” Eliot wrote on October 3. By the time he visited Margate, he had experienced what Vivien called a “serious breakdown”. His doctor placed him on strict instructions “not to exert [his] mind at all”.

The Waste Land manuscript isn’t a manuscript, not precisely. It’s mostly a typescript. “Composing on the typewriter, I find that I am sloughing off all my long sentences,” Eliot wrote; typing made his words “staccato”. But in the draft he gave his friend and editor Ezra Pound – republished this month as The Waste Land Facsimile – the lines about “Margate Sands” are handwritten. In the bundle of papers Eliot send Pound, along with the pages of poetry, he also included his Margate hotel-bill. The new edition reproduces these papers in colour for the first time, encouraging questions such as: why on earth did Pound insist on scribbling his notes in green crayon?

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