FBI helps to solve mystery of T S Eliot's masterpiece

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The Independent Online

For students who have struggled for years with T S Eliot's modernist masterpiece The Waste Land, the findings of a two-year study into its genesis will come as no surprise.

With the help of the FBI, an academic has discovered that the poet had no sense of purpose for the work, which he created retrospectively by stitching together 50 small drafts of the poem. The question of how The Waste Land, which charts the journey of the human soul as it seeks redemption, was put together has been a source of as much mystery in the 83 years since it was written as the 3,000-word epic itself.

In 1971, a sheaf of rough drafts for the poem was unearthed. But none of the papers was dated and, because Eliot used three typewriters, academics were unable to determine in what sequence he wrote the work.

Lawrence Rainey, York University's professor of English and related literature, compared the drafts with Eliot's letters and essays from before 1922 - the year The Waste Land was finished. He used copies of the transparent templates that FBI detectives in the United States use to identify makes of typewriters, and scientifically analysed and measured hundreds of pieces of paper. This enabled him to date and reconstruct the poem's composition.

Professor Rainey's work, which has taken him to libraries across Europe and the US, indicates that The Waste Land was not a pre-planned composition, but a melded together amalgam of the small, 13-line segments which Eliot managed at each sitting. Eliot stitched his drafts together with basic devices that he hoped - retrospectively - would give the poem a sense of unity, such as the use of the same image at the start and finish of a section, or the repetition of a literary device.