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A downed bank clerk and three months in Margate – how TS Eliot wrote The Waste Land

It’s 1921 and in Margate the sunniest October on record is turning into a cool November. On a bench in a beach hut, a tired-looking 33-year-old man struggles to do nothing. It doesn’t come easily to him. He is, by temperament, a worker and a worrier, but he is under orders from his doctor to do nothing. His employer, Lloyd’s Bank, granted him three months paid leave for this purpose.

So he does nothing, or almost nothing. He crunches passers-by. He practices scales on the 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 nails of dirty hands.
My people are a humble people who expect
Nothing.

We think of The Waste Land as a poem of the metropolis, what TS Eliot calls the “unreal city” in all its forms: “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/ Vienna London…” But it is also a poem of a small seaside town in the Kent. It’s like a show at the end of the quay: a whirlwind of popular songs and crosstalk of music hall, theater and jazz, where Madame Sosostris – with her bad cold and her “wicked deck of cards” – will read the tarot for any tourist passage. Eliot saw “the fine arts [as] the refinement, not the antithesis, of popular art”. In his journalism, he attacks the “old age” of the bourgeois literary scene, but celebrates “the culture of the people” expressed in the music hall, and his rhythms run through his verses. Eliot dabbled in “pop” art, and The Waste Land was the result.

Eliot arrived at the Albemarle Hotel in Margate in October with some pages of fragments he’s been tinkering with for years. He wrote dozens of new lines, reconsidered old ones, and came away with a sketch of a masterpiece that changed the shape of literature. He then revised it in the mountains of Lausanne, Switzerland, where he went the following month for psychiatric treatment, but “Albemarle’s draft has a stronger autobiographical feeling”, according to reviewer Lyndall Gordon. “It emphasizes a suffering individual rather than a culture.” Eliot once ignored the idea that The Waste Land offered “social criticism”. Perhaps half-jokingly, he said, “To me it was just the relief of a personal and utterly insignificant grouse against life.” He thought 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 Ph.D. thesis), moving to England against his family’s wishes, after what they considered a bad marriage to the troubled daughter of English painter, Vivien Haigh-Wood. He desperately wanted to convince his family “that I have not wasted my life, as they are apt to believe”, he wrote in 1919. But his father shortly after writing these words, not before changing his will to s ensure that – in the event of Eliot’s death – none of the money inherited from the poet would go to Vivien.

A family visit in the summer of 1921 provided an opportunity to restore relations. Eliot’s brother, sister and 77-year-old “terrifyingly energetic” mother all crossed the Atlantic to see him for the first time since 1915. But it was an exhausting disappointment; his mother, he realized, had not forgiven him. “I really feel very fragile and seem to have gone downhill fast since my family left,” Eliot wrote on Oct. 3. At the time of his visit to Margate, he had experienced what Vivien called a “serious depression”. His doctor gave him strict instructions “not to exercise [his] mind at all”.

The Waste Land manuscript is not a manuscript, not exactly. It’s mostly a typescript. “By composing on the typewriter, I find that I get rid of all my long sentences,” wrote Eliot; typing made his words “staccato”. But in the draft he gave to his friend and editor Ezra Pound – republished this month as The Waste Land Facsimile – the lines on “Margate Sands” are handwritten. In the bundle of papers Eliot sent to Pound, along with the pages of poetry, he also included his hotel bill in Margate. The new edition reproduces these papers in color for the first time, encouraging questions such as: why the hell did Pound insist on scribbling his notes in green pencil?