Issue 4: January - June 2005

Conchitina Cruz

T.S. Eliot's Notorious Notes and the Figure of the Reader in "The Wasteland"

Among the multitude of speakers that populate T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” there is one voice that asserts itself repeatedly and thus gains prominence: the voice of the poet himself, as embodied by the “Notes” section attached to the poem. The utterances of the imagined speakers—Marie, the hyacinth girl, Madame Sosostris, the affluent woman, the gossiping woman at the pub, Tiresias, the nightingale, the thunder, the various, anonymous “I”s—are confined to single sections and are therefore not as numerous. The reading practice imposed upon the reader by what Michael North describes as Eliot’s “notorious notes” allows the distinct voice of the poet to permeate all of the poem’s five sections. Attached to the end of the poem, the notes cannot be read on their own and become meaningful only when read in tandem with the poem itself; consequently, the reader who chooses to incorporate them into her reading must keep track of every line that has a note attached to it, shift constantly from the main text to the corresponding note, and deduce the significance of the additional information within the context of a given line. This reading practice permits Eliot to smuggle what he believes to be crucial supplementary knowledge into “The Waste Land” as the reader reads it. The notes emerge as a recurring, explicit, direct address of poet to reader.

C.K. Stead asserts that the inclusion of the notes was prompted by the difficult process of the poem’s composition (123-24) as well as Eliot’s own uncertainty over its innovations. In the course of writing “The Waste Land,” there was “no clear plan, no single model, only the feeling (encouraged by Pound) that one could spread beyond the confines of the well-made poem, the closed form, the defined structure, and in doing so get new life into poetry, reflecting ‘the new age’” (86). The notes, she suggests, became a means for Eliot to “convince his readers of what he was unconvinced himself, that it really was one poem, complete and coherent … it was in these notes that he invited his readers to discover in Jessie Weston’s book ‘not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem’” (124). Decades later, Eliot himself would remark that the notes “have had almost greater popularity than the poem itself” (North 113). Jo Ellen Green Kaiser observes that from Edmund Wilson and Cleanth Brooks to Calvin Bedient in 1986, critics have depended on the notes as a means to read the poem and establish its unity, even when such a use conflicted with their own theoretical methodology. Cleanth Brooks, for example, known for his description of poems as autonomous, organic wholes, admits in his essay on “The Waste Land” that he finds himself unable to resist [italics mine] using Eliot’s notes to construct what he acknowledges to be a ‘scaffolding’ of understanding around the poem. Although he realizes that he may ‘rely too much on Eliot’s note[s]”, he finds it impossible to understand the poem without them. (2)

What Stead so kindly refers to as Eliot’s ‘invitation’ amounts to a total of 50 endnotes (accompanied by a brief introduction to the “Notes” section as well as another introduction to the notes to Part V). In a poem of over 430 lines, Eliot interrupts the reader at roughly every ninth line. It is difficult enough to immerse oneself in the already fragmented world of “The Waste Land,” given the juxtaposition of multiple voices, languages, locations, and situations. The “Notes” section heightens the characteristically modernist disorientation of the reader who literally enacts the “violent yoking” of poetic and academic discourse, turning pages back and forth in order to juxtapose the utterances of various speakers with Eliot’s pedantic inventory of allusions and blatant interpretations of his own work. Through his notes, Eliot acquires omniscience, escaping the silence to which poets are often assigned once their poems are “finished” and circulated via publication. His invitation is not friendly; it is persistent, intrusive, relentless. The notes, through their mere presence and sheer volume, lend the poem the appearance of an academic document and exaggerate what Eliot himself calls “the difficulties” of the poem. It is understandable then, that like Brooks, readers and critics are “unable to resist” them.

Implicit in the attempt and consequent failure to resist the notes, it seems, is the reader’s discomfort over the way she is positioned as a participant in reading the poem. The notes seem to threaten the reader’s integrity and power; to rely on the notes is to forego one’s independence in navigating a text and to install the author as an indispensable presence in a poem’s interpretation. Certainly, in a poem populated by many voices, Eliot’s note to line 218 offers relief when it declares that “Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character,’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest… all the women [in the poem] are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.” The note conveniently provides us with a plan with which to approach the poem’s many speakers; however, it also prevents readers from arriving at the same or other conclusions on their own. It is as if Eliot “rule[s] out ‘emotional accidents’ by supplying his readers, in notes, with only those associations which are correct” (Aiken 151). It is through the notes that Eliot enumerates the “three themes” of the first part of “What the Thunder Said” and it is through the notes that he informs the reader of the personal associations he makes with certain members of the Tarot included in the poem.

Furthermore, when Eliot is not tyrannical in his interpretation of the poem, he is cryptic. Michael North says “some of these notes, including the one accounting for the dead sound of the bell of Saint Mary Woolnoth, are so blandly pointless as to suggest a hoax, and others, particularly those citing classical quotations in the original languages, seem determined to establish mysteries rather than dispel them” (ix). The only time Eliot uses the notes to translate is when he quotes from the Upanishads and translates the Sanskrit into English in the notes to lines 401 and 403. The notes specify allusions only to withhold the reader’s access to such sources by citing them in their original and least accessible form, once again emphasizing the reader’s ignorance and powerlessness as well as sustaining the notion of the author as the site of privileged and exclusive knowledge. Unable to fulfill the purpose of illumination, the notes become the equivalent of clutter, of junk—useless to the reader and therefore disposable.

While it seems evident that there are ways in which Eliot’s flawed, heavy-handed notes render the reader powerless, the notes may, on the other hand, operate as a source of power once considered in relation to the figure of the reader as imagined in “The Waste Land” itself. The direct address to the reader may be most explicit in the “Notes” section, yet there is one moment in the actual poem where the reader is addressed, thus converting both poet and reader into characters in the poem. This moment complicates the position of the reader in relation to the text by figuring her as both outsider and insider, both a consciousness that exists outside the world of the poem and a character inside it. Once the reader assumes this dual role that the poem calls for, the notes are transformed from an extraneous to an integral supplement. Gerard Genette, in discussing the authorial note, suggests that it makes possible “a second level of discourse, one that sometimes contributes to textual depth… it brings about local effects of nuance, or sourdine, or as they also say in music, of register… if the note is a disorder of the text, it is a disorder that, like some others, may have its proper use” (328). Although they may be perceived as “clutter” by the reader who is unaware of the part she is asked to play in the poem, the notes, by virtue of the allusions that they make visible, become not only useful but also crucial to the reader who is also a character in “The Waste Land.” Outside the context of this dual role, the notes seem oppressive to the reader, yet their value in relation to the reader as a particular member of the waste land transforms the notes into a complicated, unusual form of power.

In Part I, the last stanza, which begins with a reference to an “Unreal City,” is gradually revealed to be an address to the reader, thereby positioning the unnamed speaker as the poet himself:

There I saw one I knew and stopped him, crying, “Stetson!

“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!

                “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

                “Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

                “Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

                “Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,

                “Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

“You! Hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frere!”[1] (lines 69-76)

The moment is not immediately noticeable: it is one among many fluctuating moments in the poem and the address to the reader is in another language, making it doubly hard to access. Nevertheless, once recognized, the reader and the poet no longer hover above the page and struggle with each other over authority in reading the poem in the battlefield of the notes. Instead, they enter the imagined waste land that is the landscape of the poem and become members of its cast of characters, with the reader “as a fellow war veteran and hypocrite lecteur in this resoundingly ironic and bitter address” (Froula 276). As Stan Smith explains, “ostensibly fixed in a subject-position here, the reader is then at once dispossessed as the narrative shifts, plunged into the same volatility as all the other ‘personages’ in the poem’ (132). In this passage, the “hypocrite reader” has no memory and is unable to recognize a comrade in war while the comrade is the poet himself, who reminds the reader of who he is (“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!”). In a desperate attempt to spark recognition as Stetson, the reader, goes about his own business without any indication of a response to his comrade, the poet calls out to the reader as “my likeness, my brother.” Christine Froula further complicates the reader’s forgetfulness by suggesting the preference for amnesia that results in the inability to remember, recognize, and consequently, memorialize. She describes this scene as a provocative adjuration [that] takes us to the very wellsprings of the poem’s emotion, the site of shared knowledge, only to mock us there. Even as it alludes to common memories of corpses, war dead, lost companions, it savagely parodies our collusion in repressing the truth about those memories; in denying death, feigning not to see what we see or know what we know. The scandal of the corpse buried in “your,’ that is, our garden—a garden both ours and the poem’s, a fertile shared unconscious, locus of unbearable, hence buried, knowledge—is less its death than the pretense that we have not buried but euphemistically “planted” it… (277)

If, in the imagined world of the poem, the reader thrives in amnesia, refusing to acknowledge a comrade or bury a corpse, and if the poet, even as he calls out to the reader in a futile attempt at recognition, equally desires and ultimately succumbs to the affliction of the reader himself, the horrible amnesia, then this is disconnection at its tragic, poignant best. As characters, both reader and poet are veterans of war, yet they are perfect likenesses in their isolation. They are “each in his prison” (line 413); their devastation is not shared and has torn them apart, leaving them both alone in their grief.

In the barren, sterile world of “The Waste Land,” a poem that is also traditionally read as “an elegiac monument of a traumatized European sensibility in the aftermath of the First World War” (Froula 276), this moment aligns itself with many other moments in the poem, where despair, agitation, and suffering are experienced by those in the waste land in isolation. Despite the numerous speakers, no camaraderie exists in the poem; the speakers do not interact. Although Madame Sosostris, the gossiping woman in the pub, and the poet himself in the encounter with Stetson (the reader) speak within the context of a conversation, nobody responds to what they say, reducing their words to chatter. The only speakers who explicitly address each other are the affluent woman and her partner in “A Game of Chess” (lines 111-138), yet their conversation displays utter disconnection between them, emphasized by the woman’s desperate plea to her partner to “‘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.’” (lines 111-114). When the pronoun “you” surfaces in the utterances of certain speakers, positioning readers as addressees, we are perfect Stetsons, not knowing or remembering what the hyacinth girl alludes to when she says “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago” (line 35), not knowing or remembering who we are in the context of the command “O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,/Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you” (lines 320-21). Even the stories told by other speakers portray characters in a state of utter disconnection: the gossiping woman at the pub talks about Lil and her recently demobbed husband, Albert, yet the reunion of husband and wife is besieged by issues of ugliness, abortion, and potential abandonment; Tiresias speaks of a passionless sexual encounter between a carbuncular house agent’s clerk and a typist, where “he assaults at once;/Exploring hands encounter no defence;/His vanity requires no response,/And makes a welcome of indifference” (lines 239-42).

Amid a plethora of isolated speakers, addressees, and characters that populate the poem, it is only the reader-as-Stetson who has the potential to diminish her sense of isolation as she inhabits the waste land. Without the notes, the reader-as-Stetson remains forever “memory-less,” imprisoned in the state of “un-recognition,” and like the rest of the characters in the poem, eternally alone; however, because the reader, while a character in the waste land, is also the one who is holding the page and reading the poem, she escapes the condition to which all other members of the poem are condemned and assumes a state of flux. From the convergence of Stetson and the reader arises a dynamic character, one who is able to emerge from her own, private isolation by entering, in brief periods of time, the “Notes” section that is the poem’s paratext. Given her dual role, the notes prohibit the reader-as-Stetson from remaining for too long in a waste land, providing a constant alternative to its desolate landscape.

Granted, what the notes offer is an alternative that is unfamiliar to the reader. The

“Notes” section may provide relief from a landscape where desperation makes one settle for a pittance of comfort, reducing one’s desire to have water to having, at the very least, its sound—“If there were rock/And also water/And water/A spring/A pool among the rock/If there were the sound of water only” (lines 348-52)—yet it also provides mysteries, utterances in foreign tongues, new names. The notes certainly do not permit the reader-as-Stetson to break free from the waste land, since what they contain is utterly dependent on the world of the poem itself. What they offer is a palliative to the isolation the waste land provokes tailored specifically to the only character in possession of a “double consciousness.” Through confirming and illuminating allusion, a device directly addressed to the reader, they reveal something about the character of the waste land that may be of value to those who seem doomed to eternal isolation. But since the notes are ultimately accessible only to the reader-as-Stetson, they turn her into the most powerful and privileged character in the poem.

As a literary device, allusion operates on the premise that a reader knows and will therefore recognize a reference when made. In discussing the characters in the poem, Smith catalogues the knowledge that is unreliable, unavailable, or useless to them, explaining that everywhere the concept of knowing is called in question. Madame Sosostris may be ‘known’ to be the wisest woman in Europe’, but the text treats the claim with ironic disdain. Stetson is ‘one I knew’. The woman in ‘A Game of Chess’ claims ‘I never know what you are thinking’. Albert will ‘want to know what you done with that money he gave you’; and Lil will ‘know who to thank’ should Albert desert her. The speaker in ‘What the Thunder said’ does ‘not know whether a man or a woman’. The reader is interpellated to an ignorance like that of Oedipus who exclaims in Murray’s 1911 translation, ‘Oh, riddles everywhere and words of doubt!’ (132-33)

What differentiates the reader-as-character from the rest of the population of “The Waste Land” is a growing revision of her understanding of her predicament through the allusion that becomes visible to her through the notes. Because of the knowledge the notes provide and the subsequent fulfillment of allusion, the reader who is also a character is coaxed out of her otherwise “memory-less” state and becomes privy to what is invisible to the rest of the cast: every isolated member in the poem is in possession of a companion, a voice from the literature, a voice from the past that utters the same words in chorus with them. Thus, when an unnamed speaker in the poem utters: “you know only/A heap of broken images, where the sun beats/And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief” (lines 21-23), not only the speaker is speaking, but also Ecclesiastes. When an unnamed “I” hums “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song” (lines 176 and 183), he echoes the refrain from Edmund Spenser’s “Prothalamion.” When the first speaker in “The Fire Sermon” utters “But at my back from time to time I hear,” he speaks in tandem with Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” When another unnamed speaker chants “Shantih “ (line 433) at the end of the poem, the speaker repeats what has already been said many times at the end of every Upanishad. The reader-as-Stetson is one who knows of such deep-seated companionship: she hears the echoes to which all other characters are deaf.

With six notes in the span of 17 lines, the moment the reader is explicitly addressed in the poem brims with this knowledge. James Longenbach enumerates the allusions at work and further explains why the knowledge of their presence is valuable: in the “Unreal City” passage which concludes the first part of The Waste Land (lines 60-76), for instance, Eliot begins by alluding to Baudelaire’s “Les sept Vieillards,” moves on the the Inferno (“I had not thought death had undone so many”), then to the hour of Christ’s crucifixion (“a dead sound on the final stroke of nine”), to the Punic Wars (“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!”), to Webster’s White Devil (“Oh keep the Dog far hence that’s friend to men”), and finally back to Baudelaire’s preface to the Fleurs du Mal (“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,--mon frere!”)… The allusions, by relating modern London to medieval Florence, ancient Greece, and nineteenth-century Paris, suggest that this condition is neither unique nor insurmountable… the wide field of references are folded into the present to remind us of historical continuity and show us the way out of our predicament. (183)

In snatches of time, the notes provide the isolated reader-as-Stetson with the companionship of Ovid and Shakespeare, Dante and Milton, Webster and Huxley, the Bible and the Upanishads—the literature of the east and west, the remote and recent past. The embodiment of two subject-positions elevates the reader to a knowledgeable member of the waste land, attuned to the connections even among the disconnected speeches of others, recognizing that the words “I can connect/Nothing with nothing” (line 301) are false, for even they have an echo in the affluent lady’s lament: “Do/“You know nothing?/Do you see nothing? Do you remember/“Nothing?” (lines 121-23). The reader recognizes not only the falseness of isolation, but also what Longenbach describes as the “historical continuity [that] show[s] us the way out of our predicament,” breaking the delusion that such despair is original. To be aware of such “historical continuity” is to be unlike the Sibyl in the epigraph, who can only age and deteriorate and decay yet never die. The notes educate the reader in the knowledge that the current waste land they inhabit is only part of a larger cycle that is in place.

Toward the end of “The Waste Land,” a speaker utters: “Who is the third who walks always beside you?/When I count, there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road/There is always another one walking beside you/Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded/I do not know whether a man or a woman/—But who is that on the other side of you?” (lines 359-365). The persistence in the questioning once again suggests the isolation of the speaker, who remains, in the world of the poem, eternally unanswered. But the use of the second person positions the reader, who leads a double life inside and outside the poem, as its addressee, and implicit in the question is the belief that the other can provide an answer. As Smith explains, “by the time of ‘What the Thunder Said’ it is the reader/addressee who has become the subject-supposed-to-know ‘Who is the third who walks beside you?” (132) From an outsider who seems ignorant and powerless in navigating the intimidating text of the poem to an insider, a character residing in the waste land who assumes a dual role and acquires privileged knowledge through the notes, the reader emerges as the most dynamic, intriguing participant in the poem. Though she remains silent when asked about the hooded image, among the speakers, addressees, and characters of “The Waste Land,” it is certain that what the answer is, the reader has the power to know.



Works Cited


Aiken, Conrad. “An Anatomy of Melancholy.” North. 148-152.


Froula, Christine. “Corpse, Monument, Hypocrite Lecteur: Text and Transference in the

                Reception of The Waste Land.” North. 275-85.


Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land.” North. 5-26.


Genette, Gerard. Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Trans. Jane E. Lewin.

                Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.


Kaiser, Jo Ellen Green. “Disciplining ‘The Waste Land’, or how to lead critics into

temptation.” Twentieth Century Literature 44.1 (1998): 82-99. 31 August 2004


Longenbach, James. “Mature poets steal”: Eliot’s allusive practice.” The Cambridge

Companion to T.S. Eliot. Ed. A. David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,

1994. 176-88.


North, Michael, ed. The waste land: authoritative text, contexts, criticism. New York:

                Norton, 2001.


Smith, Stan. The Origins of Modernism: Eliot, Pound, Yeats and the Rhetorics of

                Renewal. New York : Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.


Stead, C.K. Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement. London: Macmillan, 1986.


[1] North translates this as “Hypocrite reader!—my likeness,—my brother!”