Literature05 Aug 2008 01:35 pm
In 1913, T.S. Eliot was a student at Harvard University who had just been awarded a scholarship to study at Oxford. He hoped to establish himself there as a poet and a thinker, and he knew that one of the most influential people in the field was Ezra Pound. Pound, who would soon take up Eliot’s cause, was the overseas editor of a Chicago magazine named Poetry, to which he would submit Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the January 1913 edition, Pound published an essay about the best new poets in London (a list that Eliot would soon strive to make). That issue, which Eliot is likely to have read, also contained a poem by the Kentucky writer Malcolm Cawein. The title of the poem was “Waste Land.”
Skeletons gaunt that gnarled the place,
Twisted and torn they rose–
The tortured bones of a perished race
Of monsters no mortal knows,
They startled the mind’s repose.
I looked at the man; I saw him plain;
Like a dead weed, gray and wan,
Or a breath of dust. I looked again–
And man and dog were gone,
Like wisps of the graying dawn.
As Robert Ian Scott first pointed out in the Times Literary Supplement in 1995, Cawein’s poem (which preceded Eliot’s by eight years) has more than its title in common with Eliot’s far more famous work. The tone and sensibility are very much like Eliot’s, as are many of the images, from the “skeletons gaunt” to the “breath of dust” that Eliot would transform into a “handful.” At the end of his poem, Eliot famously listed his sources, but not all of them. He was happy to put himself in the same company as Chaucer and Shakespeare, Dante and the Bhagavad Gita, but did not condescend to mention the forgotten poet from Kentucky who influenced him more than anyone else.
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