Eliot, Voices, and Drama

The Waste Land confronts its reader with a multitude of voices—calm voices and agitated voices; formal voices and colloquial voices; voices speaking in German, in French, in Italian, Latin, Greek, even Sanskrit; voices with different accents; the voices of works of art both high and low. So why are there so many voices in The Waste Land? What is significant about the poem's vocal cacophony?

The Question of Genre: A Multi-voiced Poem?

When we think of poetry, we normally think of lyric poems—short utterances by a single speaker, speaking as “I,” pouring out his or her heart in solitude, and taking very little notice of anyone else. Dialogue, discussion, casts of characters—we usually think of these as belonging in novels and plays, not poems.

Indeed, critics have been thinking along these lines for centuries. Since Plato and Aristotle, they have divided literature into three main genres: lyric (where only one person speaks), narrative (where a narrator controls the proceedings, but also quotes the language of his or her characters), and drama (where there is no narrator, only many voices, each speaking for itself).

This tripartite division of genres remained very much alive in the modernist period. Stephen Dedalus, the hero of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist of a Young Man (1914-15), describes the same three kinds of art: “purely personal” lyric, half-personal narrative, and purely impersonal drama. He privileges the last, praising the way that in drama, “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” Poetry, by contrast, is condemned as primitive and simplistic, because composed of only one voice.

Another modernist literary critic, the Russian Mikhail Bakhtin, presented similar but even simpler picture of the generic universe: he divided it into poetry, which was single-voiced or “monologic,” and the novel, which was multi-voiced or “heteroglossic.” There was for Bakhtin no question that poetry could be multi-voiced. “The poet,” he wrote, “must assume a complete single-personed hegemony over his own language, he must assume equal responsibility for each one of its aspects and subordinate them to his own, and only his own, intentions” (“Discourse in the Novel,” 297).

The fact is that The Waste Land eludes any simple categorization according to its genre. Depending on how you read it, it might be a lyric (a sort of nightmare viewed from the perspective of a single speaker), or a narrative (a collection of quotations presented by a narrator), or a drama (a collection of voices, with no overarching consciousness holding them together.) And regardless of which way you see it, its generic complexity is such that you must acknowledge that someone else might see it differently.

Eliot and Drama

One of the reasons that The Waste Land doesn't fit neatly into any of the traditional categories of genre—lyric, narrative, or drama—is that its author was deeply uncomfortable with having his work pigeonholed, or with being himself pigeonholed.

Eliot is best remembered today for his poems—particularly for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1914) and for The Waste Land (which, as we’ve already seen, is not exactly “a poem”). But Eliot had a long career, and both these works are from the early part. Later in his career, beginning in the mid-1930s, Eliot wrote many plays, including Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1946), which won a Tony Award. (In 1939, Eliot published a book of light verse, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which became the basis of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Cats. This is probably more famous than The Waste Land, though few people associate it with Eliot.)

Long before he began writing plays, however, Eliot was planning his escape from poetry. In his 1920 essay “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,” Eliot wrote that “the majority, perhaps, certainly a large number, of poets hanker for the stage” (60). Eliot was undoubtedly among them. He was particularly fascinated not by “high” drama, however, but by music hall, a British form of popular entertainment similar to American vaudeville. He spoke of his desire to adapt music hall forms in several essays of the early 1920s: most notably, in “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,” “The Romantic Englishman” (both 1920) and “Marie Lloyd” (1922), dedicated to a recently deceased star of the music hall.

At the time he was completing The Waste Land, then, dramatic forms were very much on Eliot’s mind. And immediately after completing The Waste Land, he began a hybrid work combining poetry and music hall, whe he intially called Wanna Go Home, Baby. In a letter written to a fellow poet, Richard Aldington, on November 15th, 1922—only a month after the first appearance of the poem in the UK, and the same month that it appeared in the United States—Eliot said, “As for The Waste Land, that is a thing of the past so far as I am concerned and I am now feeling toward a new form and style” (Letters of T. S. Eliot, 596). Eliot never completed Wanna Go Home, Baby, but he later published some fragments under the less exciting title, Sweeney Agonistes. Some ten years later, he began his career as a playwright in earnest.

As the critic David Chinitz writes, “Eliot was preparing in the 1920s to rechannel his creative energies from the writing of poems to the writing of poetic drama” (107). But his increasing interest in dramatic forms and music hall are clearly visible in The Waste Land itself. An especially neat example comes in the passage where one of the voices cites the 1912 popular song “The Shakespearean Rag.” This is a good demonstration of the poem’s drama-like vocal complexity (one voice quoting another), and also provides an apt image of what the poem is doing more generally, through the image of the “rag” or “ragtime song”. Some critics speculate that the name “rag” comes from the method in which ragtime songs were composed, piecing together scraps of other songs and styles. Eric Sigg argues that The Waste Land does something very similar: it is itself, he argues, “a kind of rag, a rhythmical weaving of literary and musical scraps from many hands into a single composition” (21). Eliot’s working title, He Do the Police in Different Voices, certainly supports this reading.

Why So Many Voices?

But the questions remain: why was Eliot so interested in dramatic forms? Why did he want to introduce so many voices into The Waste Land?

It may have had something to do with the question of “impersonality” discussed above. Just as Stephen Dedalus praised dramatic artists for removing themselves from their works and leaving only a tangle of competing voices, Eliot was attracted to the idea of removing himself—his lyrical “I”—from his poems. In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1918), published four years after the first appearance of Joyce’s Portrait, Eliot wrote, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (40). While Eliot's striving for “impersonality” is often seen as a kind of aloofness—a desire to remove oneself from life, to bury one's head in the sand—it makes more sense to see it here as a strategy for avoiding selfishness and one-sidedness. Later in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot describes “The poet’s mind” as “a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together” (41). The Waste Land seems to take this a step further: it takes “numberless feelings, phrases, images” but presents them in their own voices, without trying to “unite” them into a single voice. Like Stephen Dedalus’s dramatist, it lets its voices speak for themselves.

Eliot gave many other reasons for wishing to write in dramatic forms. The most important of them was the desire to reach and engage a wider audience than he could with poetry. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)—written just before Eliot completed his first play, The Rock—Eliot wrote, “the poet naturally prefers to write for as large and miscellaneous an audience as possible” (31). “The ideal medium for poetry,” he added, “and the most direct means of social ‘usefulness’ for poetry, is the theatre” (152-3). Drama didn’t just reach wide audiences, but also engaged them in a kind of collaboration. In his 1922 essay “Marie Lloyd,” Eliot praised the way that the audience member at a music hall performance “was himself performing part of the act”—was “engaged in that collaboration of the audience with the artist which is necessary in all art and most obviously in dramatic art” (174). In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Eliot returned again to the music hall, writing that the playwright “could at least have the satisfaction of having a part to play in society as worthy as that of the music-hall comedian” (154). 

Critics have provided numberless reasons for the polyvocality—the many-voicedness—of The Waste Land. These explanations have ranged from the abstract to the eminently practical. Jewel Spears Brooker sees it as part of Eliot’s philosophical objection to black-and-white, right-and-wrong ways of thinking, and to the idea that there can be a single, absolute truth. “In The Waste Land,” she writes, Eliot’s “refusal of omniscience admits multiple voices and incorporates jarring angles, each present and each transcended in the poem as a whole.” This is, she says, proof of Eliot’s “resistance to binary thinking” (53). The author Jeanette Winterson, in her commentary in the Waste Land iPad app, provides a more grounded explanation, attributing it to Eliot’s interest in technology. Winterson says that reading the Waste Land—with its multilayered, overlapping voices—is like having a conversation in a crowded room, surrounded by other conversations, and also hearing radio playing in the background, which is itself being tuned in and out of different stations, each with its own way of thinking and speaking. “It’s the beginning of us being in a very noisy world,” Winterson says, “where there are always at least six conversations happening, and you’re eavesdropping on them. This is new because it’s the modern world, and the technology isn’t there before. And we hear that in The Waste Land.

It is this noisiness, this multilayered-ness, this many-voicedness that we invite you to explore in He Do the Police in Different Voices. We see our site as a venue for facilitating the sort of collaboration Eliot sought with his audience and his readers—as a tool for interacting with, toying with, messing with, reshaping, Eliot’s most famous work. In a truly Eliotic spirit, we invite you to reach your own conclusions.

—Adam Hammond

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse in the Novel." 1933-34. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Chinitz, David E. T. S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2003.

Eliot, T. S. The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Valerie Eliot. Vol. 1. London: Faber, 1988.

—. "Marie Lloyd." 1922. The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Farrar, 1975. 172-174.

—. "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama." The Sacred Wood. 1920. London: Methuen, 1980. 60-70.

—. "The Romantic Englishman, The Comic Spirit, and the Function of Criticism." The Tyro: A Review of the Arts of Painting, Sculpture and Design 1. Ed. Wyndham Lewis. London: Egoist Press, 1921. 4.

—. "Tradition and the Individual Talent." 1918. The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Farrar, 1975. 37-44.

—. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. London: Faber, 1933.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. Project Gutenberg. 2 July 2009. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

Sigg, Eric. “Eliot as a Product of America.” The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Ed. A. David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 14-30.

Spears Brooker, Jewel. “Yes and No: Eliot and Western Philosophy.” A Companion to T. S. Eliot. Ed. David Chinitz. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 53-65.

Winterson, Jeanette. "Eliot and Technology." The Waste Land. iPad app. TouchPress, 2011.