Not Waving but Drowning: The Waste Land to Eliot’s Drama

  • Tony Pinkney
Part of the Macmillan Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature book series


As everyone now knows, The Waste Land was drafted in 1921 during Eliot’s convalescence from some kind of nervous breakdown due to overwork, financial worries, tension with his family back in America, and the prolonged strains of his disastrous marriage. This list could probably be extended, but will not in itself explain why the crisis should have occurred precisely when it did. Casting around for precipitating causes, one comes upon the inescapable fact that Eliot’s collapse immediately followed his mother’s first and long-awaited visit to England. How deeply that visit was necessary to him is suggested by a letter to his brother in 1920 (WLF, p. xviii) where Eliot’s heavy, repeated stress on seeing the mother has the resonant quality of Hegelian recognition rather than denoting mere visual proximity. That aspiration, I shall argue below, will be denied in The Waste Land itself by the sea-change that turns Phlebas’s eyes to pearl. Details of Mrs Eliot’s visit in 1921 are not available, yet it is nevertheless clear that Eliot had radically underestimated his mother’s strength and vitality. Since she was seventy-seven years old, he anticipated that physical frailty would render her visit more an anxiety than a joy to him.


Family Reunion Physical Frailty Violent Death Cocktail Party Dirty Hand 
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© Tony Pinkney 1984

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  • Tony Pinkney

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