Eliot's footnote scam was not without precedent. Edmund Spenser’s 1587 Shepheardes Calender features, amended to the main text, a series of introductions and footnotes by one “E.K.,” often considered to be a pseudonym for Spenser himself. E.K.’s gloss is inconsistent--sometimes it is insightful, sometimes ironic--but, as Theodore L. Steinberg points out, “the reader of the Calender can--and should--regard E.K.’s introductions and glosses as an integral part of the Calender, helping Spenser to develop his themes.”
As Steinberg points out, E.K. draws ironic attention toward Spenser’s ideas; when, for example, he disclaims the influence of John Skelton upon the name Colin Clout--an influence which Steinberg claims as “obvious"--the reader recognizes how far off the glosser must be and clings all the more strongly to Skeltonic influence. F.O. Matthiessen notes an additional motivation for the existence of E.K., Spenser’s “desire to have his poems rival the works of classical antiquity even to their appearance in a volume with annotations” by a third party, even if he had to invent that third party himself. The gloss on The Shepheardes Calender, therefore, ends up being ironic and fraudulent but still in the service of an important task.
Eliot was, of course, intimately acquainted with Spenser, as he appeared to be intimately acquainted with nearly every English poet. In his essay “What Is a Classic?” for example, he refers to “the genius of Spenser,” even if that genius seems to consist chiefly in preparing a way for John Milton. More to the point, Eliot quotes Spenser’s Prothalamion in line 176 of The Waste Land (“Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song”).
This awareness does not, of course, prove that Eliot was thinking specifically of the E.K. gloss when he was composing his notes for The Waste Land, but, in composing a semi-ironic commentary on his own text, The Shepheardes Calender must have at least crossed his mind. But that is not to say that he modeled his own footnotes on Spenser’s. Indeed, Matthiessen says that, since Eliot’s notes appear under his own name, they cannot be a cultivation of antiquity. Rather, Eliot’s notes “are simply a consequence of his desire to strip the form of his poem to its barest essentials in order to secure his concentrated effect.” In other words, the footnotes are an earnest attempt to nail down meaning, to direct readers to the sources for Eliot’s quotations and paraphrases.
Matthiessen’s explanation, however, ignores both Eliot’s wry sense of humor and the circumstances surrounding the creation of the notes. As Russell Elliott Murphy describes it, the monograph of The Waste Land would have had to include sixteen blank pages, due to the peculiarities of printing processes. So “Eliot was prevailed upon to provide some additional poetry to complete the volume. He opted, however, to provide the notes instead.” He thus--to some extent, anyway--included the notes under duress.
However, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser suggests that this story is at best only partially true (and perhaps a complete fiction), that in fact “Eliot had the notes in mind before he began serious negotiations with his eventual publisher . . . and that he had finished composing them several months before the poem first appeared in The Dial.” If Kaiser is correct, then the footnotes move from the earnest interpretation aid suggested by Matthiessen into a joke or hoax that “deflect[s] the cultural crisis represented in the poem onto the act of reading, suggesting that the disorder seemingly so evident in the poem is in fact the fault of the reader.” The notes, then, are meant to suggest a concrete meaning--or at least a structural order--that does not, strictly speaking, exist in the poem.
At any rate, the footnotes have to some extent benefited readers over the years, beginning with the Modernist critical powerhouse Edmund Wilson, who had access to the notes before their printing. Kaiser reports that “Before reading the notes . . . Wilson found the structurally fragmented poem representative of the ‘chaotic, irregular, fragmentary’ experiences that Eliot . . . had used to describe the ‘disassociated’ modern mind.”
But in a September 1922 letter to John Peale Bishop, Wilson says,
I am much excited about Eliot’s The Waste Land, which I have just read . . . it is certainly his masterpiece so far. He supplements it with a set of notes almost as long as the poem itself, explaining the literary, historic, anthropological, metaphysical, and religious significances to be found in it; but the poem, as it appears to me from two or three cursory readings, is nothing more or less than a most distressingly moving account of Eliot’s own agonized state of mind during the years which preceded his nervous breakdown.The footnotes to the poem thus allow Edmund Wilson--and the thousands of readers who followed in his wake once the notes were published with the monograph--to transform something disturbing and chaotic into something understandable, something with structure and meaning. Further, the notes--contra, perhaps, to Matthiessen--make the poem something historical, as opposed to the modernist whirlwind, unconnected with history—that “dissociated” sensibility Wilson initially detected in the poem.
All of this sounds very fine and good, as though the notes do exactly what Eliot intended for them to--that is, they make sense of a poem that is at times nonsensical. But Eliot himself disdained and dismissed the notes in his “The Frontiers of Criticism,” calling them a “remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship.” Eliot is penitent in this essay. “My notes stimulated the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources,” he says. “I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail.”
Eliot’s disavowal and repudiation of the notes thus makes any definitive remark on them difficult if not impossible, particularly since he propagates the old story that they were included because the poem was too short, which Kaiser disproves. But we can, perhaps, suggest that the notes were intended more or less as a hoax, but that they were received earnestly. And even after Eliot’s disavowal of them--even after the hoax was revealed as a hoax--the vast majority of readers (Kaiser and a few others excepted) continued to read them as an earnest and helpful addition to the poem. Eliot’s hoax on his readers, by the end of his lifetime, had been turned around and warped until it was a hoax on the poet himself, who is now destined to be (in his opinion) misread, his readers conducting “bogus scholarship” based on “the wrong kind of interest.” In the end, the footnotes to The Waste Land may be at their best a cautionary tale to authors who wish to pull a fast one on their readers.