TS Eliot, Wilfred Owen and the journey towards poetry

Everyone needs an editor, commented a friend the other day, having read my first couple of posts to this blog. I am used to candour from this particular individual, but I must admit, his comment took me down a peg or two.

And there was I, an experienced sub-editor, thinking I didn’t have much to learn after all those years of structuring and enlivening the woefully turgid efforts of many a hack writer.

He was right, annoyingly.

I remember reading some years ago a reported comment from someone who had been involved with the publication of Jeffrey Archer’s thrillers. The anonymous publishing bod had commented that taking Archer’s stories from manuscript into a form truly fit for public consumption was a long journey towards literacy, or some such words. I remember chuckling to myself, in a slightly snobby way.

Yet the greatest writers have been helped by a second pair of eyes cast over their work. The best example I can immediately think of is also one of the most celebrated.

Ezra Pound’s editorial efforts so transformed TS Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922), the most famous piece of 20th century poetry in English, to the extent that Eliot dedicated the poem to his fellow poet, referring to him as “il miglior fabbro” (the better craftsman).

You can see this for yourself if you purchase Faber’s remarkable new Waste Land App – as good a reason as any to own an iPad – which contains facsimiles of Eliot’s manuscript with Pound’s handwritten edits.

The App brings TS Eliot’s famously baffling poem into the 21st century, so to speak, with interactive notes, interviews, commentary and a number of readings.

With its myriad allusions to everything from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde to Spenser’s Prothalamion, The Waste Land is ripe for digital treatment, and sure enough there are plenty of hyperlinked annotations to the poem’s often-obscure language and references.

You can watch a filmed performance of the entire poem by Fiona Shaw (not my cup of tea – why won’t actors just let the words speak for themselves?), as well as TS Eliot himself reading the first section (an acquired taste, perhaps; isn’t he a bit, well, monotonous?), plus recitations by Ted Hughes, Viggo Mortensen and Alec Guinness. For me, Guinness has the edge. He brings The Waste Land alive with the force of revelation.

It sells for under a tenner. That feels like great value for money.

I studied The Waste Land at school. I remember our young English teacher, Sidney Child, humorously chiding my classmate, Hugh McLachlan, for forever being on the hunt for “the meaning” of the poem (it seemed a reasonable aspiration to me at the time).

Sid, I seem to remember, encouraged us not to try to discover some pre-existing kernel of meaning at the centre of the work, not to try to “decode” the poem, but to see our exploration of its qualities more as a process of unravelling, like peeling away layers of an onion (the analogy was meant to be taken with a pinch of salt). Do not expect to unravel the meaning in the middle.

Not bad advice. I think it was TS Eliot himself who said that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

Reading a great poem such as The Waste Land puts one in mind of Walter Pater’s famous saying that all art aspires towards the condition of music.

The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a simple little definition of poetry as the “best words in their best order“.

To see that process in action, look at Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth, mentioned in my last post.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

The genesis of this poem is another example of a great poetic partnership.

War poet Wilfred Owen

The poem took shape while Owen was convalescing at Craiglockhart war hospital near Edinburgh in 1917. He had been sent there from the Western Front after he had begun to show signs of shellshock. He had seen plenty of action, which apparently included three days stuck in a shellhole with the dismembered remains of a fellow officer for company.

At Craiglockhart, Owen was encouraged to write poetry by his forward-thinking doctor. By good fortune, his fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon had also had been been sent to Craiglockhart after publicly protesting that the country’s war aims had become those of “aggression and conquest”.

Sending Sassoon to Craiglockhart is generally viewed as the authorities’ way of getting him out of the way.

Sassoon was already known as a poet (unlike Owen) and showed a keen interest in Owen’s poems.

Owen showed Sassoon the drafts of Anthem for Doomed Youth. These drafts are held today by the British Library in London. Click here for an example.

Sassoon helped Owen mould the poem into its finished form. It was Sassoon who provided the word ‘Anthem’ for the title, according to Owen “just what I meant it to be”.

Besides Sassoon’s suggestions, one can also see how Owen gradually felt his way towards finding the “best words in their best order”.

Just take the first line, one of the great opening lines in British poetry:

What passing bells for these who die as cattle

This opening line started out as:

What minute-bells for these who die so fast?

Then he changed it to:

What passing-bells for these who die so fast?

Then he changed it to:

What passing-bells for you who die in herds?

Then he changed it to:

What passing-bells for these dumb-dying cattle?

And finally, he arrived at:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Anthem is a poem written in iambic pentameter, which is to say that the lines have five pairs of syllables: the first syllable is stressed, the second unstressed: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM. Each of these pairs is a unit known as an iamb, a particular type of metrical foot.

Iambic pentameter is sometimes referred to as the rhythm of English speech, a kind of heartbeat rhythm. The rhythm of life itself, you might argue.

Bearing this in mind, it is interesting to look at the evolution of the first line of Anthem for Doomed Youth.

Take the first three drafts of this line.

Each conforms to the heartbeat rhythm of iambic pentameter: five sets of iambs.

Da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.

Draft 1: What PASS ing BELLS for THESE who DIE in HERDS
Draft 2: What PASS ing BELLS for YOU who DIE so FAST
Draft 3: WHAT PASS ing BELLS for YOU who DIE in HERDS

But then in the fourth draft comes that word CATTLE.

“What passing-bells for these dumb-dying cattle?”

It’s the word that sounds right, that feels right in the poet’s mind as he feels towards the best words in the best order.

The fourth draft of this opening line introduces another change: the phrase “DUMB-DYING”.

But Owen rejects this phrase. It tries to pack too much in; it sounds rather clunky.

He loses the phrase and reintroduces the words “who die as” in the fifth and final draft:

“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”

For me, the c of cattle is one of the hardest c’s in English poetry. It is deployed with maximum, jolting effect at the very end of the line.

You can hear anger in that word.

In doing so, Owen departs from the standard ten-syllable flow of iambic pentameter. This line now has eleven syllables:

What PASS ing BELLS for THESE who DIE as CAT tle?

In this line reflecting on mass slaughter, he arrests the steady heartbeat of the metre.

How much was this thought through, how much poetic instinct, I wonder.

Hear Kenneth Branagh reading the poem on this YouTube clip.

3 thoughts on “TS Eliot, Wilfred Owen and the journey towards poetry”

  1. Don’t see nuthin that needs much editing here!

    And you bring out what I guess Sid was driving at – that poetry is something visceral and energetic, something that sends out waves through language – waves that rock the buoys of the linguistic seascape.

  2. What are your ‘great’ thoughts on Wilfred Owen’s poem, “The Sentry” (1917-18) then? I’d like to be enlightened further by your perspicuity in relation to Owen’s poetry.

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