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Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker describes a spate of current essays by men disgraced by #MeToo, essays that speak of what these men have lost personally and professionally and their quest for redemption, as bearing “the gravitational pull of male power . . . exerting itself, turning our attention back to the place where it has been trained to linger: the hero’s journey of men.”

Those of us who study modernism have also been, perhaps, trained to linger on the hero’s journey of men. The contours of the field early on, indeed, were shaped by such hero’s journeys. Paul Saint-Amour, in the introduction to the special issue of Modernism/modernity on “weak theory,” casts these contours as explicitly masculinist, writing that we have “equated” modernism with “warrior masculinity” and that the “heroic ‘men of 1914’ script likely compounded baseline cultural and institutional prejudices in effacing” women writers and others. Recovery work has raised up silenced or unheard voices, even as the value placed on those voices and that work by the structures of prestige and power that define academia is sometimes measured in coffeespoons. Rai Peterson, in arguing that we should attend to how women modernists like Nancy Cunard and Hope Mirrlees speak back to T. S. Eliot, has pointed out that “[r]eaders . . . [still] believe that Eliot’s work speaks definitively for its age.”[1] It matters who gets to speak and who does not, and for whom, and how we hear what they say. In engaging the topic of this roundtable, I’m coming from the perspective of someone who has devoted her career to undergraduate teaching, and who has thought a lot about feminist pedagogy and gender and sexuality in the classroom and in academe. In reading “The Waste Land” in the context of #MeToo, what space might students as well as emerging critics find for their own voices? Can they speak back to certain voices—and thus ways of reading—that dominate? Or are those voices—and ways of reading—silencing in their very volume?

Photograph of hyacinths by Annie Spratt. Image courtesy Unsplash.
Fig. 1. Photograph of hyacinths by Annie Spratt. Image courtesy Unsplash.

I’d like to call our attention to the interplay of voices, of speech and silence, in the “hyacinth girl” fragment, and thus attend to ways of reading voice in the poem as a whole that have come to dominate the critical discourse, and to what goes unsaid in both the criticism and the classroom in consequence. The “hyacinth girl” fragment is worth considering anew in the context of #MeToo because it is often a starting point for reading the representation of women over the entirety of “The Waste Land”—or, as I hope to show, misreading the representation of gendered experiences, particularly as sites and instances of sexual violence and trauma.

The “hyacinth girl,” as a poetic fragment—as a fragmented figure and subject herself—has been taken up by scholars and teachers of Eliot as emblematic of how we might approach the representation of women in the poem. In discussions of teaching “The Waste Land,” like those found in the MLA “approaches” volume, readers of Eliot direct us to show students the resonance of themes of love and loss.[2] Elsewhere, Eliot’s depictions of women are read within the context of their relationships with and to men, even when those readers are attempting to recuperate the poem from patriarchy and misogyny.[3] Women’s experiences as read via these approaches are engendered with meaning only in the context of their relationships with men, only in how they are perceived as objects in relation to men, even as one makes the ostensibly celebratory move of characterizing female sexuality as being “strong” or “transgressive.” The stories of women, in these readings, are reified as part of the “hero’s journey of men.”

In many readings of the “hyacinth girl” passage, intimacy fails. The hyacinth garden is, then, in these readings, what Cyrena Pondrom has characterized as a “founding site” of “the wastage of human erotic love”; her characterization, it should be noted, comes by way of critiquing such interpretations.[4] The lines subsequent to the quoted speech (“‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / They called me the hyacinth girl’”), after the shift marked by “yet” and the em-dash, are interior monologue: “—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden.”[5] We find here a mind transparent to us but not necessarily, in these readings, to the girl, especially if they are read as spoken by a man, a move engendered, as Pondrom suggests, by “expectation[s]” of “masculine dominance” (“T. S. Eliot,” 428). There are no quotation marks, but there is an addressee: “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not” (Eliot, “The Waste Land,” line 38). Considering these lines alongside the allusions to Tristan und Isolde that enclose the “hyacinth girl” episode often instantiates these “expectations.” The first set of lines from the opera are spoken by a sailor bringing Isolde to King Mark; the second set comes from the shepherd watching for the return of Isolde to Tristan after he has been mortally wounded. Readers who see the “hyacinth girl” lines as an instance of interior monologue inspired by these allusions and spoken by a bereft male lover similar to Tristan wind up performing an interpretation that further appropriates the voice and story of the girl and resituates it within male agency and masculinist myth.

I suggest that the voice of the hyacinth girl is half-heard, attempting as it does to assert the singularity of women’s experiences, experiences often shaped by trauma and “sticky,” to call up Sara Ahmed, with the bad affects of shame and anger.[6] Pondrom observes that in this fragment “not once does Eliot use the masculine pronoun to refer to the narrator” (“T. S. Eliot,” 429). We read a man there because we think we hear one—we see the girl there as an object of desire and longing because we think we see her being seen that way—and these shape (distort? warp?) our understanding of what happens in the garden. Here I propose we read the episode, refracted through sexual violence (through, as well perhaps, the annihilation of consent so brilliantly discussed in this cluster by Sumita Chakraborty), as enacting the interplay between voice and silence, among accusation, shame, and witness resulting from relational trauma.

The girl situates the encounter in a past separate from the narrative present of the poem, speaking it into being, one where she is named—shamed?—by others, “they,” as “the hyacinth girl.” They called her that then; must she remain so in the present of the poem? She returns to that past, to that scene, to a scene we do not see except in hints: “we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden”—what occurred to prompt the appositive, “late,” tucked grammatically and narratively as it is into the telling of the actions of the “we,” a hint easy to slide over or elide (Eliot, “The Waste Land,” line 37)? She remembers the moment; does he? Why has her narrative been truncated, her voice cut off? I read these lines following “yet” as the continuation of the narrative by the girl, internally, as possibly bearing an attempt at accusation and witness. Yet the telling must take the shift to interior monologue, because it is unsayable. The trauma is partially and incompletely voiced; the confrontation plays out in the mind. The girl at the end of the second verse paragraph becomes an acousmêtre:  a voice with no seeable source.

And then she becomes silence, a fragment. She cannot continue. Were she to continue, would she be believed? “[C]ould not / speak,” “neither / [l]iving nor dead . . . I knew nothing”:  these phrases speak to me of trauma (line 38–39, 39–40). Whoever this girl was before, whatever her name might have been, she can now only ever be “the hyacinth girl,” looking into the silence. The voices of #MeToo call upon us—teach us—to hear in Eliot’s poem not the failure of erotic union or thwarted intimacy and longing in the hyacinth girl’s voice, but the trauma of violence and its affects. She is transformed—no longer pitiable but a figure of women’s anger.


[1] Rai Peterson, “Parallax: Nancy Cunard’s Knowing Response to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land,” Studies in the Humanities 41, no. 1–2 (2015): 100–19, 100. Emphasis added.

[2] See Jewel Spears Brooker, “When Love Fails: Reading The Waste Land with Undergraduates,” in Approaches to Teaching Eliot’s Poetry and Plays, ed. Jewel Spears Brooker (New York: MLA, 1988), 103–08; Armin Paul Frank, “Structural Similarities in The Waste Land and Early Film,” in Approaches to Teaching, 115–20.

[3] See Joseph Bentley, “Some Notes on Eliot’s Gallery of Women,” in Approaches to Teaching, 39–45, and Marc Hewson, “‘Her Style Is Quite Her Own’: Recovering the Feminine in The Waste Land,” Yeats Eliot Review 18, no. 4 (2002): 14–23.

[4] Cyrena N. Pondrom, “T. S. Eliot:  The Performativity of Gender in The Waste Land,” Modernism/modernity 12, no. 3 (2005): 425–41, 429.

[5] T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 37–55, lines 35–36, 37.

[6] Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 40.