The MacLamity

The News That Stays News, Reported Live

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


Does it make a difference if T.S. Eliot wrote the thematically related fragments of "The Waste Land" as fragments or as part of a pre-planned whole? Apparently, scholars had always assumed the latter, while FBI technology proves the latter. Is Eliot any help? I realize, to my horror, that one of my favorite lines of the Waste Land -- "These fragments I have shored against my ruins" -- is of less help than I thought it would be in answering this question.

It depends on what "shored against" means. I had imagined the floating debris of modern life swirling around the ruins of Eliot's consciousness, which, like the Tower of Refuge, was a collection of decaying masonry on a rock in a rough sea. Through the poem, Eliot had gathered the debris to shore, rescuing them, making sense of them, supporting Rainey's discovery that Eliot just wrote over two years some mad fragments and then tried to make sense of them as a whole. In the last nine-line outburst of quotes from everywhere, it's the only line of Eliot's, the only thing he's saying.

The hypertext version of The Waste Land that Google prefers points to a now-defunct essay on Marshall McLuhan and T.S. Eliot seems to support my gut instinct with the following passage:
Eliot, Pound, Yeats, Joyce, and Percy Wyndham Lewis were Marshall McLuhan's beacons in the dark confusion of the modern technological explosion. Focusing on their aesthetics provides clues to interpret the miasma of modern experience. The guiding principle behind the use of these clues is enunciated in Marshall's favorite story by Poe, "The Maelstrom". A victim caught in a whirlpool notices that certain hollow objects are ejected by the vortex. He grabs on to one such object and is saved ("McLuhan: What If He Was Right?"). These objects are the fragments of cultural vitality that manifest themselves at random, like the fragments of "The Waste Land." They are part of a process of transformation which takes the cliche, the empty and used up garbage of communication, and renders it an elemental constituent of cou- sciousuess.
And yet, does "shore against" actually mean anything like grabbing at things as they fly by in a maelstrom?

The OED has "to shore up" as "to prop up, support with a prop" as when a boat's being worked on on land. But shore up isn't the same as shore against, surely. It also has "to lean" (intransitively and obsoletely, eg. "That side of the Country vpward, that lieth shoaring vnto the top." from 1610). But that "against" argues against that interpretation. To make matters worse, I can't find any reference to the phrasal verb "shored against" in the OED or Webster's.

The best option from the OED I can find is that "shored" is a "ppl a." Eliot hasn't shored these fragments. He has fragments that are shored against him, as in they're propped up against him. The two and only sixteenth-century citations the OED has for this are pleasingly Eliot-esque:
1563 Mirr. Mag., Dk. Somerset xv, Shored houses can not long continue.
a1600 Battle of Flodden 510 Saint Andrew with his shored cross.
Of course, anality like this doesn't work very well with a poet who had an uncanny knack of writing what could be easily understood, but barely defined.

My favorite example of this knack are the lines from East Coker:
In a dark wood, in a bramble,
On the edge of a grimpen, where is no secure foothold.
No problem there, is there? Except that no one knows what a grimpen is. The OED can only find this
Life has become like that great Grimpen Mire, with little green patches everywhere into which one may sink and with no guide to point the track.
And that's from The hound of the Baskervilles.

Another example is how "I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floor of silent seas" divides its readers of it into those who are convinced that it's lobster claws scuttling, and those who are convinced that it's crab claws scuttling:Louis Menand "definitely lobster;" Marjorie Perloff: "lobsters don't scuttle across the floors of silent seas do they? I'm very bad on crustaceans;" Nicholas Jenkins: "I'd call that a red herring." In fact let's quote Jenkins in full, as a final concluding argument against panicking over the meaning of "against":
It's always good to see poetry inspiring passion, even if the passion here seems as much for the academic equivalent of arm wrestling or distance spitting as literary hermeneutics. In other circumstances, I feel sure that these two wonderful and athletic readers would clasp hands and agree that poetic language doesn't really operate at this literalistic level and that the fascination of these lines by Eliot has to do with the linguistic energies contained in words like 'ragged' and 'scuttling,' with the question of why 'across' here is infinitely richer than 'on' or 'over' would have been, with the relation of 'claws' to Prufrock's evident sexual obsession with fingers, sleeves, and arms and to Eliot's own lifelong obsession with drowning and the unknowable nature of the undersea world. In some ways, it's extremely important for the reader to be capable, in Keats's phrase, of 'being in uncertainties...without reaching after fact,' of not getting distracted, of not bothering with what mysterious submarine creature it is exactly or even to think that one can, or ought, to say, Is it a crab? Or a lobster? I'd call that a red herring