The title of this web site is drawn from Eliot’s working title for The Waste Land, He Do the Police in Different Voices, which appears at the head of certain pages of the poem’s typescript.
Eliot himself took this title from a passage in Charles Dickens’s last completed novel, Charles Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, from which Eliot took his working title for The Waste Land.Our Mutual Friend (1864-65). At one point in the narrative, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin—servants who have come into a significant fortune after their master dies and his rightful heir cannot be found—decide that they want to adopt a child. They are directed to Mrs. Betty Higden, an old woman who, despite her poverty, takes in orphaned children and cares for them. Mrs. Higden introduces one of her wards to the Boffinses as follows:
“[. . .] I aint, you must know,” said Betty, “much of a hand at reading writing-hand, though I can read my Bible and most print. And I do love a newspaper. You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.”
When Sloppy reads the newspaper to the semi-literate Mrs. Higden, in other words, he enlivens the performance by speaking each of the voices quoted in the newspaper articles—often, apparently, those of policemen—in distinctive voices, with individual accents. (Much of the plot of Our Mutual Friend turns on the question of literacy. The Boffinses are themselves illiterate, and hire a series of readers and secretaries—for reasons both of business and pleasure, and with important consequences for the narrative.)
In his commentary on the Waste Land iPad app, critic and poet Craig Raine likens Eliot’s poem to one of Sloppy’s newspaper readings. Eliot, he says, “is doing a whole load of different voices. It is this fantastic operatic selection of different things.”
He Do The Police in Different Voices was also the title of literary critic Calvin Bedient’s exploration of voices in The Waste Land. His book, subtitled The Waste Land and Its Protagonist, argued that “all the voices in the poem are performances of a single protagonist—not a Tiresias but a nameless stand-in for Eliot himself” (ix). This web site does not aim to make any such argument, but rather to provide you with the tools and resources for coming to your own reading of the poem.
Bedient, Calvin. He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its Protagonist. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1986.
Raine, Craig. "The Title." The Waste Land. iPad app. TouchPress, 2011.