Finding the third voice in T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’

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American-English poet and playwright, T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965). (GEORGE DOUGLAS/Getty Images)

I have muffled memories of reading T.S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Waste Land” last April, remembering only the beautiful temporal coincidence of its first several lines:

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”

The lulling rhyme and sonorous language drew me in, and I was prepared to experience a beautiful poem written in a singular, compelling voice. But instead, I soon found myself confused, if not repelled by odd interjections — voices, of various kinds, entering from stage left and right, with seemingly little relation to one another. Sudden swings between colloquial dialogue, lines in German, Italian, French, mythological referents, lengthy sections of dialogue, walled off by quotes — all made me feel as if I was overhearing a conversation which did not involve me. The sheer length of the poem, too, seemed to amplify this incoherence. Was he simply trying to swallow the world, whole? I had little patience for the poem, then.

It is now October, and I find myself reading an essay by Eliot entitled “The Three Voices of Poetry,” written for the National Book League Annual Lecture in 1953 — thirty-one years after the publication of the poem. It is an assignment for class; I approach it unassumingly.

In the essay, Eliot expounds three types of voice which he claims to be present in poetry: 1) The voice of the “poet talking to himself — or to nobody,” 2) The voice of “the poet addressing an audience, whether large or small” and 3) The voice of the poet who “attempts to create a dramatic character speaking in verse […] not what he would say in his own person, but only what he can say within the limits of one imaginary character addressing another imaginary character.”

Eliot goes on to ask how these different voices manifest in different types of poems — lyric and dramatic — bringing up examples from Browning and Shakespeare, among others. However, what seems, on a surface level, to be an exercise in conceptual categorization quickly becomes far more personal. Eliot describes his own trajectory in writing plays, which forced him to inhabit the ‘third voice’ — and to thus develop new forms of creative empathy. For instance, in writing women characters for his verse drama “Murder in the Cathedral,” Eliot writes that he “had to make some effort to identify myself with these women, instead of merely identifying them with myself.” The third voice is what allows Eliot feel expansive rather than self-indulgent, what allows him to inhabit and explore various worlds.

Reading this made me acutely aware of the degree to which I inhabit the first and second voices, not only in my writing, but in the way in which I communicate with others in the world. This is not at all shocking — I’d wager that most of us communicate from the point of view of a central referent — the self — expressing ideas either back to ourselves or to a concrete other. Yet Eliot’s description of the ways in which the third voice expanded his own poetic and empathetic possibilities makes me wonder whether experimenting with, or merely being more conscious of voice, might improve our sensitivity and openness to ideas and expressions that differ from our own.

It is, at very least, true that thinking about voice allowed me to approach Eliot’s own work with greater openness. As Eliot reminds us, “If you complain that a poet is obscure, and apparently ignoring you, the reader, or that he is speaking only to a limited circle of initiates from which you are excluded — remember that what he may have been trying to do, was to put something into words which could not be said in any other way, and therefore in a language which may be worth the trouble of learning.”

It is precisely this suggestion which caused me to revisit the poem which I felt had excluded me last April. In re-reading “The Waste Land” I realized, more so, that I had excluded it. By searching only for the ways in which it might cohere or converge with my own experience of the world, I had refused to perceive the colorful gradations in voice which make the poem so vibrant. And while I’ll admit that I still find “The Waste Land” a difficult poem to read, I can’t help but feel now an appreciation for Eliot’s early attempt to find his third voice, the openness to multiplicity and polyphony that the poem represents. It is certainly a long and complex poem, and Eliot is indeed attempting to swallow the world — but only because he is voraciously perceptive, curious, grasping.

Whether this grasping itself involves the subsumption of the world into one’s own subjectivity is another matter. Perhaps Eliot felt, for all of its vocal experimentation, that even “The Waste Land” had failed to break out of the second voice, that he was not fully able to write in the third voice without the construct of dramatic plot and characterization. Maybe even the dramatic construction, too, does not truly escape the writer’s point of view. All acts of writing, arguably, involve some form of self-directedness.

Regardless of whether one truly believes in the purported empathetic possibilities of Eliot’s third voice, it seems evident, at very least, that consciousness of poetic voice, and the development of a new voice, allowed Eliot to explore new ways of perceiving and expressing the world as he saw it. And this very possibility of a third voice — a voice which influences one’s capacity for world-building — is an incredibly exciting one.

Thus I urge a question: How might the third voice manifest for me, for you, for us — an “us” which includes not just writers, but students of all disciplines, people of all life trajectories? How will we break out of the bounds of self-containment, and leap into a world of difference, of possibility?

Contact Didi Chang-Park at didip ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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