In an essay,1 T.S. Eliot says “all first-rate poetry is occupied with morality” (qtd. in Rainey 144). Eliot uses this idea in The Waste Land, painting a dismal picture of the collapse and decay of urban Western civilization, from the masses of the dead floating in the river in “The Burial of the Dead” to the emptiness of the encounter between the typist and the “young man carbuncular” in “The Fire Sermon.” He infuses ancient myths, pop culture, Western religious beliefs, Eastern spirituality and various literary works into his “immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (qtd. in Greenblatt 2614). Among these literary inspirations is Charles Baudelaire, the 19th century French poet who was put on trial for obscenity after the publication of Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857.
Eliot makes only one direct reference to Baudelaire in The Waste Land: “You! Hypocrit Lecteur—mon semblable—mon frère!” (ln. 76). It comes from “Au Lecteur,” the preface to Les Fleurs du Mal. In it, Baudelaire explains that among the “infamous menagerie of our vices,” there is one “meaner, uglier, more vile!”—Ennui (32-3).2 Loosely translated, ennui means boredom, but in the Baudelairian sense, it takes on a much deeper meaning: disinterest in the world; boredom so great that it kills. “It dreams of gallows” (38)—it doesn’t lead people to the gallows; it doesn’t hang itself from the gallows. It dreams of them. Ennui is so vile because it does not act, and “Although it makes neither grand gestures nor great cries/ It gladly makes pieces of the earth/ And in a yawn would swallow the world.” This passivity is capable of as much destruction as, if not more than, any other vice. This concept of Ennui, as described in “Au Lecteur” lays the foundation for Eliot’s moral decay in The Waste Land. Moreover, Eliot mimics Baudelaire’s use of urban imagery to capture the state of humanity; from him Eliot draws the inspiration for the fragmented form of the poem and its subsequent impersonal effect. Finally, Eliot uses Baudelaire’s line “Hypocrit lecteur—mon semblable—mon frère!” to implicate the reader in The Waste Land, much as Baudelaire used it to implicate the reader in “Au Lecteur.”
Nicole Ward, in her essay “Fourmillante Cité,” argues that Eliot was not influenced by Baudelaire so much as he felt obligated to pay homage. “One or two memories of Baudelaire flit across the verbal landscape of The Waste Land. But their meaning is much distorted…” (88).3 I disagree. In an essay, Eliot says “Damnation itself is a form of salvation – of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living. It is this, I believe, that Baudelaire is trying to express.” (qtd. in Weinberg 57).4 The textual references and allusions to Baudelaire are few, but Ward overlooks the pervading force of Ennui in The Waste Land.
Some of Eliot’s characters have already succumbed to it; others are fighting against it. One of the unfortunates who has succumbed is the hyacinth girl, who “…could not/ Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/ Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,/ Looking into the heart of light, the silence” (38-42). The crowd flowing over London Bridge, an entire mass of people, has also succumbed to it. “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/ And each man fixed his eyes before his feet./ Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,/ To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours/ With a dead sound on the stroke of nine” (64-8). Eliot’s use of passive voice to describe the sighs is no doubt deliberate. This usage of passive voice is symbolic of the passivity, the inactivity, of Ennui.
The men have been “undone” by death—a reference to Dante’s Inferno, according to Eliot.5 Dante had just seen “the wretched souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise,” which bears a striking resemblance to another part of an Eliot essay6: “So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing” (qtd. in Weinberg 57). The men in this passage of The Waste Land have similarly been undone—Ennui has taken them, and they are neither damned nor saved.
The speaker in lines 111-26, possibly the Cleopatra-like figure7 in the preceding lines, fights against the Ennui that has taken her companion. She admits her nerves are “bad tonight” and asks her unidentified companion to stay with her. “Speak to me,” she says. “Why do you never speak. Speak.” (112). Her companion never answers her with words, though the reader sees the companion’s irrelevant thoughts about rats’ alleys and the wind under the door. The speaker asks, “Do/ You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember/ Nothing?” (121-3) But her companion, who has been taken by Ennui, can only remember that “those are pearls that were his eyes” (125). Ennui has destroyed the senses of her companion—has made broken pieces of the companion’s thoughts and words.
The scene between the typist and her lover in “The Fire Sermon” is another interlude between someone who has been overtaken by Ennui—the typist—and someone trying to fight it—her lover, the “young man carbuncular.” Her lover seeks to fight Ennui through sex: “Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;/ Exploring hands encounter no defence;/ His vanity requires no response,/And makes a welcome of indifference” (239-42). An act which typically symbolizes life has been tainted by the typist’s indifference, and her lover is losing the battle against Ennui—he welcomes her indifference, suggesting that perhaps the act will soon lose any real meaning for him as well.
Lil, in “A Game of Chess” is also fighting the Ennui, and losing. Her friend urges her to make herself “a bit smart” (142), saying she ought to be ashamed “to look so antique” (156). But Lil says she can not help it—though her doctor promised her she would be alright, after five abortions, she has “never been the same” (162). Amid this conversation, the bartender keeps calling “Hurry up please it’s time,” and after her friend asks her why she got married if she didn’t want children, the scene degrades into Lil explaining how she was invited to dinner “that Sunday Albert was home” (166). Her story is lost amid a series of goodnights and last calls, which resembles lines 111-126, where the conversation jumps from the Cleopatra-woman’s question to “But/ O O O O that Shakespherian Rag—/ It’s so elegant/ So intelligent” (127-130). Both of these stories are lost amid images of the city—a bartender’s last call and an American ragtime song.8 They are just pieces of the world, destroyed by Ennui.
Weinberg says that this use of urban settings is “the lifeblood of both Baudelaire’s and Eliot’s imagery” (41). The scenes most connected to humanity and the decay of society are set in London, in places that Eliot himself spent time.9 His natural landscapes—the red rocks and shadows in lines 19-30, the dry rocky mountains in 331-59, the decayed hole in the mountains, the Ganga, and the limp leaves of the plants in 386-99, for example—are largely symbolic. These passages do not illustrate the state of human affairs; they serve as symbols of the Grail legend.10 They represent the need for rejuvenation and the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. In this respect, Eliot diverges from Baudelaire. Death is the only deliverance from the decrepit state of humanity according to Baudelaire (Weinberg 55); “What the Thunder said” offers the promise of life and redemption in The Waste Land. “There is a chapel, only the wind’s home./…In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust/ Bringing rain/ Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves/ Waited for rain, while the black clouds/ Gathered far distant, over Himavant” (389-98). Throughout the poem, there are passages speaking of dust, and the lack of rain. In this final part of The Waste Land, though the rain never actually comes, there is hope. It is uncertain, but not incomplete (Reeves 95).
In an essay titled “Reading Between Two Lives” Eric Sigg claims that Baudelaire practiced a dandysme moral11 that created an air of impersonality by putting extreme emphasis on personality. “This formula contributes to Eliot’s emphasis on craft and technique….Poetry did not explore and reveal the personality and emotions. Instead, it offered a respite from these burdensome aspects of the self” (198). Eliot uses this dandysme to hide his internal conflict and move focus to something external—in this case, the decay of society by Ennui in The Waste Land. The disconnect between different speakers and images in the text creates a feeling of detachment, by which the reader becomes an impartial observer. Only the poet and the reader can “apprehend all the fragments and discern their relation to one another” (Sigg 223). The speakers within the poem have no idea their relation to any others.
There remains one last thing to discuss: the significance of “Hypocrit lecteur—mon semblable—mon frère!” in The Waste Land. For this, one must turn back to its source, “Au Lecteur.” Throughout the poem, Baudelaire uses the pronoun nous—we. He describes the faults of a collective group of people: “And we feed our pleasant remorse” (3); “In repugnant objects we find charm/ Each day towards hell we descend a little further/ Without horror, traversing shadows that stink” (14-6); “We steal a clandestine pleasure” (19). This collective could include the reader, but Baudelaire does not implicate the reader in this collective until the last stanza: “You know it, reader, this delicate monster/ Hypocritical reader—my companion—my brother!” (39-40) He reminds the reader that they too have felt this emotion, thus attributing the same faults to the reader.
Eliot uses the line to the same effect. Gareth Reeves says in his book that “he implicates reader and poet in a conspiracy of self-conscious literariness that both confines and liberates” (9). Unlike Baudelaire, Eliot presents this knowledge—that both he and the reader are guilty of the same sins of the speakers in The Waste Land—early in the poem. It is confining because the reader is burdened with the knowledge of guilt, but liberating because Eliot, unlike Baudelaire, offers a chance for salvation. It is either hypocritical or paradoxical that Eliot tries to both distance the reader from and ascribe him or her to the same sins as the speakers in The Waste Land. I believe it is the former, because it makes for a delicious twist of irony that the poet is now guilty of hypocrisy: Like the reader, he feels the Ennui and yet tries to deny it by distancing himself, hence the words “my companion—my brother!”
Baudelaire’s influence on Eliot, however, was not static. Weinberg notes that Eliot’s later essays on Baudelaire’s works exhibited disillusionment with the French poet (ch. 8). However, the implication is not that Eliot realized some enormous fault of Baudelaire’s work so much as Eliot found it more and more incompatible with his own religious beliefs and philosophy. There had always been a slight divergence in their opinions on the state of humanity; they both show a “profound despair of contemporary society” (Weinberg 46) but Baudelaire saw no salvation save death (55). Eliot believed life was better in an earlier time (44). Though Eliot borrowed the concept of Ennui and the urban imagery from Baudelaire, echoes his dandysme moral, and accuses the reader of The Waste Land in the same way Baudelaire does in “Au Lecteur,” in later years Eliot would refine his world view and find that Baudelaire “let him down” by not developing those same beliefs (Weinberg 76). Sigg notes that in the manuscripts of The Waste Land there was a change of procedure, which is “a change of emphasis, and therefore of meaning” (194). The Waste Land is the crossroads for Eliot: To this point, he had followed Baudelaire’s example. Afterward, however, Eliot departs from Baudelaire.12The Waste Land is comprised of fragments and snippets that when combined paint a picture of the destructive power of Ennui. The Waste Land itself, however, is just another piece that paints a picture of Eliot’s poetic maturation.
Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs du Mal. Ed. Nancy Berger-Levrault. France: Jules Tallandier, 1967.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. Greenblatt: 2615-28.
Eliot, T.S. “The Lesson of Baudelaire.” Rainey: 144-5
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. B. New York: Norton, 2006.
Rainey, Lawrence, ed. The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Reeves, Gareth. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Critical Studies of Key Texts. Herfordshire, Great Britian: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.
Sigg, Eric. “Reading Between Two Lives: Reading The Waste Land” T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Ed. Harold Bloom. Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations. Updated ed. New York: Chelsea House, 2007.
Ward, Nicole. “‘Fourimillante Cité’: Baudelaire and The Waste Land.” The Waste Land in Different Voices. Ed. A.D. Moody. London: Edward Arnold, 1974.
Weinberg, Kerry. T.S. Eliot and Charles Baudelaire. Studies in Comparative and General Literature. Vol. 5. The Netherlands: Mouton, 1969.
La sottise, l'erreur, le péché, la lésine,
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps,
Et nous alimentons nos aimables remords,
Comme les mendiants nourrissent leur vermine. 4
Nos péchés sont têtus, nos repentirs sont lâches ;
Nous nous faisons payer grassement nos aveux,
Et nous rentrons gaiement dans le chemin bourbeux,
Croyant par de vils pleurs laver toutes nos taches. 8
Sur l'oreiller du mal c'est Satan Trismégiste
Qui berce longuement notre esprit enchanté,
Et le riche métal de notre volonté
Est tout vaporisé par ce savant chimiste. 12
C'est le Diable qui tient les fils qui nous remuent !
Aux objets répugnants nous trouvons des appas ;
Chaque jour vers l'Enfer nous descendons d'un pas,
Sans horreur, à travers des ténèbres qui puent. 16
Ainsi qu'un débauché pauvre qui baise et mange
Le sein martyrisé d'une antique catin,
Nous volons au passage un plaisir clandestin
Que nous pressons bien fort comme une vieille orange. 20
Serré, fourmillant, comme un million d'helminthes,
Dans nos cerveaux ribote un peuple de Démons,
Et, quand nous respirons, la Mort dans nos poumons
Descend, fleuve invisible, avec de sourdes plaintes. 24
Si le viol, le poison, le poignard, l'incendie,
N'ont pas encor brodé de leurs plaisants dessins
Le canevas banal de nos piteux destins,
C'est que notre âme, hélas ! n'est pas assez hardie. 28
Mais parmi les chacals, les panthères, les lices,
Les singes, les scorpions, les vautours, les serpents,
Les monstres glapissants, hurlants, grognants, rampants,
Dans la ménagerie infâme de nos vices, 32
Il en est un plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde !
Quoiqu'il ne pousse ni grands gestes ni grands cris,
Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris
Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde ; 36
C'est l'Ennui ! - l'oeil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère ! 40
Foolishness, mistakes, sin and selfishness
Occupy our spirits and work our bodies
And we feed our pleasant remorse
Like beggars feed their vermin 4
Our sins our stubborn and our repentances cowardly
We make ourselves pay greatly for our confessions
And we return gaily on the muddy road
Believing our vile mourning cleanses our blemishes 8
Though it can make neither grand gestures nor great cries
It gladly makes pieces of the earth
And in a yawn would swallow the world 36
It’s Ennui! The eye filled with a reluctant tear
It dreams of gallows and smokes its drugs
You know it, reader, this delicate monster
Hypocritical reader, my companion, my brother! 40
1 “The Lesson of Baudelaire”
2 Translated with the help of Bruce Hayes, Ph.D., assistant professor of French at the University of Kansas. For a full transcription, see appendix B.
3 Ward is referring to Baudelaire’s poems “Le Cygne,” and “Un Voyage à Cythere.” Another Baudelaire poem that vaguely echoes in the Waste Land is “Les Sept Veillards.”
4 “Baudelaire and the Symbolists”
5 See Greenblatt 2617
6 “Baudelaire and the Symbolists”
7 See Greenblatt 2618
8 See Greenblatt 2619
9 Lines 60-68: Eliot admits to having often observed the phenomenon at Saint Mary Woolnoth; lines 296-302: Moorgate is an Underground station that Eliot used daily while working as a banker. See Greenblatt 2617 and 2624.
10 Greenblatt says Eliot borrows the concept from Jessie Weston. See 2614.
11 Moral dandyism; See Sigg 220
12 Sigg argues that Eliot departs from Baudelaire’s dandysme onto the path of religious visionary, and explains the relationship as follows: they aspire to superiority, mastery and power, but the dominions they seek power over are different. The dandy looks to the social aspect of life, while the visionary moves to the metaphysical level. (220)