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Vivien Haigh-Wood Eliot, 1921. Photograph by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Fig. 1. Vivien Haigh-Wood Eliot, 1921. Photograph by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The keyword I have chosen is Boundaries. I am interested in boundaries as they relate in particular to the middle portion of “A Game of Chess,” which begins “My nerves are bad tonight.”[1] This section not only features annotations by Ezra Pound, but also it bears the mark of Eliot’s first wife, Vivien.[2] It demonstrates one of the most important and most difficult elements of #MeToo: the messiness of boundaries emotional, intellectual, physical, and, in this case, textual.

Recovering the Lost

Essential to my reading of the poem is the facsimile edition of “The Waste Land” manuscript, which was edited by Valerie Eliot, the poet’s second wife, and first published by Faber and Faber in 1971.[3] As many readers now recognize, this edition sent shock waves through the world of modernist poetics by forcing scholars to acknowledge, in Eliot’s own words, “the extent of my debt to Ezra [Pound].”[4] But as I’ve already suggested, the manuscript reveals another debt as well, Eliot’s debt to his first wife Vivien for her suggestions and revisions to “A Game of Chess,” contributions which Eliot himself acknowledged in letters to his brother Henry as well as to several friends during the period when he was writing the poem.[5] To be clear, I am not suggesting that Vivien’s contributions to “The Waste Land” should overshadow Pound’s. Her marks on the facsimile manuscript are confined to a few pages, and Pound’s marginalia is far more extensive. Nevertheless, despite the unevenness of such authorial terrain, mapping out these contributions reveals an interesting tension between the poem’s status as a material object and its thematic concerns, in particular the emphasis on isolation and alienation to which Ria Banerjee calls our attention in her piece, “Time.”

From the Imaginative to the Biographical

My fellow contributors have focused their remarks on Eliot’s representations of female characters in the poem from Philomel and Dido to the typist and the “hyacinth girl.” But here I want to complicate matters by adding a real woman into the mix. “A Game of Chess” features several different female voices: Cleopatra, Viv and her “friend” as well as the woman with the bad nerves. “The Waste Land,” however, also features material traces left by an actual female hand—Vivien Eliot’s, marks that offer comments and suggest emendations. In other words, while it’s important to think about the ways that representations of women circulate within the poem, it’s also crucial to attend to the real human beings for whom these representations are more than mere abstractions.[6]

“A Game of Chess,” as I have argued elsewhere, is a poem that is deeply concerned with heterosexual intimacy, both physical and emotional.[7] The section beginning “My nerves are bad tonight” has been read by both critics and those who knew the Eliots personally, as a portrait of the couple’s marriage. “Photography?” Pound inquires in his crayon scrawl. In her notes to the facsimile, Valerie Eliot interprets this comment as “[i]mplying . . . too realistic a reproduction of an actual conversation (The Waste Land, A Facsimile, 126). In her diary, Virginia Woolf remarked that Mary Hutchinson, close friend of the Eliots, “interprets [‘The Waste Land’] to be Tom’s autobiography—a melancholy one.”[8] If the poem presents a recognizable and realistic portrait of a marriage, whether the Eliots’ or someone else’s, what does that picture show us? What, in other words, is the poem’s vision of marital intercourse? Spoiler alert: it’s not good. In fact, it is nothing short of abhorrent. In an interview with Esquire, Valerie Eliot proclaimed, “[‘The Waste Land’ is] sheer concentrated hell, there’s no other word for it, and it was the sheer hell of being with [Vivien] that forced him to write it” (Wilson, “The Wife of the Father,” 44). For her part, Vivien seems to have recognized herself in the poem writing to friend Sydney Schiff, “Perhaps not even you can imagine with what emotions I saw “The Waste Land” go out into the world. It . . . has become a part of me (or I of it) this last year. It was a terrible thing, somehow, when the time came at last for it to be published” (Letters, 584). But how are we to understand this admission? Is it a confession of humiliation at the realization that her private life was to be made public? Or might it be the anxiety of a collaborator unsure of how the world might receive the poem?


The section begins thus:

‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.’ (line 111–114)

Anxiety. Desperation. Isolation. Neurosis. . . . And that’s just the first few lines. The poem continues: “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones” (line 115–116).

This portrait is not a vision of marital bliss—not even close. The female speaker (Vivien Eliot?) desperately longs for companionship and sympathy from her partner (our poet, her husband?); he quite obviously wants to have nothing to do with her but is unable to escape the sound of her voice. Despite the fact that he never speaks—there are no quotation marks around his side of the discourse—she seems to be intuiting his thoughts and repeating key words and phrases back to him. The couple thus presents us with a nightmarish version of intimacy: all boundaries between the man and woman have disintegrated. Even the unspoken thoughts of one find their way into the psyche of the other. There is no such thing as privacy—even inside one’s own head.

Perhaps, as Janine Utell has suggested, silence is a function of trauma. Without question, the episode echoes the discomfort to which Sumita Chakraborty has asked us to attend. How are these elements of silence, of trauma, of discomfort reframed when they become attached to actual actors, real people? Put another way, how do the valences of #MeToo shift when we reorient them away from poetic representations to actual embodied subjects?

This section of the poem highlights the dark side of intimacy and the troubling side of marriage. Marriage in the world of the poem seems to be ill-advised for all sorts of reasons. It is exploitation, invasion, suffocation—even harmful to one’s health, we find, if we keep reading a few lines further to Lil’s story of the physical damage caused by “them pills [she] took, to bring it off” (line 159). These pills, as Megan Quigley reminds us, are intended to abort Lil’s sixth pregnancy, but they also cause her teeth to rot and wreak other havoc on her body. And yet, at the most elemental level of textual production, the facsimile edition points to a successful and positive marital collaboration. That is, the poem’s depiction of marriage in its thematic sense is fundamentally incompatible with its status as a material artifact.


Put another way: on a textual level, at the exact moment that Eliot’s speaker is desperately trying to shut out the female voice of his companion, Eliot the poet is gladly letting her in by incorporating her suggestions written in the margins of the manuscript into the body of the text. And she, for her part, is applauding Eliot’s depiction of what seems to be a truly wretched relationship, which may well be a vision of their own marriage, by proclaiming WONDERFUL!—not merely once or twice but three times alongside these lines of the poem.[9] The poem says one thing and does another. But in both cases, at issue is the line which divides one individual from another, both the literal poetic line of syllables and feet and the figurative lines that differentiate the self from the other.


In one sense, this section of “The Waste Land” is all about the problems that come from a lack of boundaries: what happens when we don’t see them, don’t observe them, don’t respect them, maybe don’t actually have them at all. Eliot stages a terrifying vision of post-war mind-meld where anxiety and neurosis travel freely from one psyche to the other.[10] And yet on a textual level, the poem enacts the productive possibilities of such border crossings: they can result in a valuable authorial collaboration.

Tending to these material particulars brings me, I hope, back around again to #MeToo. In this piece, I am not advocating for the dismissal of boundaries. Not at all. If anything, this section of “A Game of Chess” highlights the need for clear and legible lines. When we have them and can read them, they can facilitate powerful collaborative exchanges, such as the ones that we see in the manuscript of the poem. But the passage should serve to underline another keyword prominent in the #MeToo discussions: consent. Violating boundaries, crossing them without sanction, results in appropriation, encroachment, harassment, or worse. The poem contains a myriad of such examples—from Philomel, and the typist and her young man carbuncular, to the horrific “bats with baby faces” and even “[t]he awful daring of a moment’s surrender” (line 380, 404). If, however, we can observe boundaries and negotiate their various characteristics, the result can enable rich authorial partnerships such as the one between T. S. and Vivien Eliot.



[1] T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land,” in The Waste Land, A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, ed. Valerie Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 133–49, 138, line 111.

[2] Though the proper spelling of her name is “Vivienne,” Eliot’s first wife seemed to prefer the shortened form, “Vivien.” She used this abbreviated spelling to sign all of her personal papers and correspondence.

[3] See T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, A Facsimile.

[4] Eliot is quoted by Valerie Eliot in Timothy Wilson, “The Wife of the Father of The Waste Land,” Esquire (May 1972), 44–50, 44.

[5] See, for example, a letter from July 2, 1919, where Eliot remarks to Henry Eliot, “[W]hat has preserved me . . . is something which has nothing to do with my conscious character . . . but is either a very hidden deep force, or just luck, or Vivien’s assistance, in large part” (The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1, 1898–1922, ed. Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011], 371).

[6] The publication of the manuscript edition prompted a flurry of articles in the popular press. See Timothy Wilson, “The Wife of the Father,”; Roberts W. French, “The Invisible Poet,” review of T. S. Eliot: A Memoir, by Robert Sencourt and Donald Adamson, and The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot and Valerie Eliot, The Nation, November 8, 1971, 470–72; Hugh Kenner, “Where the Penty Went,” review of The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot and Valerie Eliot, New Republic, November 13, 1971, 25–26; George Steiner, “The Cruellest Months,” review of The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot and Valerie Eliot, New Yorker, April 22, 1972,  134–40; Walter Clemons, “The Great Edit,” review of The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot and Valerie Eliot, Newsweek, November 15, 1971, 122–122D; Benjamin DeMott , “Modeling a New Mind from a Brain-Breaking Vision,” review of The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot and Valerie Eliot, and T. S. Eliot: A Memoir, by Robert Sencourt and Donald Adamson, The Saturday Review, November 27, 1971), 35–37; “Old Possum Revisited,” review of T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land, ed. Valerie Eliot, Time, December 6, 1971, 111–12. All of these essays discuss the Eliots’ unhappy marriage but only four of the seven (New Republic, New Yorker, Saturday Review, and Time) even mention Vivien Eliot’s hand on the manuscript.

[7] Erin E. Templeton, “‘Who Is the Third Who Walks Always Beside You?’: Complexities of Authorship in The Waste Land,” paper presented at Modernist Studies Association, Columbus, OH, November 2018.

[8] Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 2, 1920–1924 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1978), 178.

[9] See Eliot, The Waste Land, A Facsimile, 10–14.

[10] We might also think of the way that Virginia Woolf deployed stream-of-consciousness narration to reflect a similar mysterious psychological connection between various Londoners in Mrs. Dalloway, which she was writing at the same time that Eliot was drafting “The Waste Land.”