Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

“I saw him creep head downward down a wall …”: T S Eliot and Dracula

Dracula is a big book. I managed to read it in three days flat in the summer of 1972. But then, I had little else to do, being employed at the time as a casual summer labourer at Appleby Frodingham steel works in Scunthorpe. My job was to sit in a vertiginous little cabin atop the screen house tower by the coke ovens, from where my companion and I would descend during the very infrequent pauses in the passage of the belts carrying the coke, to change the worn out metal screens – the job of a minute or two. For the rest of our working hours, we were required to do nothing. My companion, an ashen faced man a few weeks short of retirement, did nothing and said little, except occasionally to voice his grievance at the boredom of the job that had kept him for many years on a moderately decent wage in exchange for remarkably little effort. I nodded my sympathies and carried on reading. He sat, still as a corpse, and glared at the wooden floor. There was something oddly gothic about the situation.

The recent repeat on Sky Arts 2 of Neil Jordan’s workmanlike bio-doc Dracula’s Bram Stoker reminded me that Valerie Eliot’s 1971 edition of the original drafts of The Waste Land revealed T S Eliot’s debt to Stoker’s famous novel. In particular, this bit, from “What the Thunder Said” –

And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers …

– had started life as this:

The Shrill bats quivered through the violet air
Sobbing, and beating wings.
A man, one withered by some mental blight
Yet of abnormal powers
I saw him creep head downward down a wall
And upside down in air were towers …

… A man lay flat upon his back, and said
“It seems that I have been a long time dead:
Do not report me to the established world.
The world has seen strange revolutions since I died.”

How Dracula is that? In the next draft the dead man’s speech, along with his mental blight and abnormal powers, has been trimmed to leave this:

And bats with baby faces, in the violet light,
Whistled, and beat their wings
A man crawled downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers …

Eliot quickly altered “a man crawled downward” to “a form crawled downward”. But if “man” was too strong, “form” was certainly too weak, and in the next draft its crawling was handed over to the baby faced bats of the previous line.

The original image is derived directly from Jonathan Harker’s memorable sighting of the Count on his nocturnal creepings:

“I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.”

So strikingly “wrong” is this image that it was visualised on the covers of early editions of the novel. I prefer the version on the first paperback edition of 1901. (Available at the best online antiquarian booksellers, though a copy will set you back £10,000.) There can be no doubt that Eliot at least saw one of the cover designs.

Some Eliot commentators have merely given a non-specific nod in passing to the Dracula influence, but the crawling-down-the-wall bit is properly, if briefly, covered in the section “The Waste Land: Dracula’s Shadow” in the chapter by Vincent Sherry in A Companion to T S Eliot. Sherry suggests plausibly that Eliot’s doubling emphasis of “downward down” knowingly recaptures the italicised horror of Stoker’s “face down”. Which would mean that Eliot had indeed read the whole thing, rather than just glanced at the cover.

And there are other shades of Dracula in The Waste Land. Consider Mina Harker’s journal description of Whitby:

“Right over the town is the ruin of the Abbey, a noble ruin of immense size …  Between it and the town is another church, the Parish one, round which is a big graveyard, all full of tombstones.  It descends so steeply over the harbour that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed.”

The abbey and churchyard, conflated, feed directly into Eliot’s image of the Chapel Perilous in the stanza that follows the bat bit:

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.

The Chapel Perilous may be in Whitby, but it is a mountainous and Transylvanian Whitby. Curious that in his remarkably unhelpful “Editorial Notes” to the poem, Eliot stated that this section employed as one of its themes “the present decay of eastern Europe”.

For that matter, it’s worth remembering that The Waste Land, voiced by a shifting collage of different speakers (“multi-POV” as they say these days) had been provisionally titled “He do the police in different voices”. But Dracula is precisely a proto-modernist assemblage of different voices or texts – journals by Jonathan and Mina Harker, various letters, a newspaper cutting, Mina’s journal, Lucy Westenra’s and Dr Seward’s diaries – with no central narrator. Stoker did the Count entirely in different voices. Eliot and Pound must have approved!

Stepping outside the texts, it’s also curious that the first book edition of The Waste Land was published in 1922 by Horace Liveright of Boni and Liveright, New York, who went on to produce the 1927 Broadway stage version of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi (and who also cheated Stoker’s widow out of the royalties).

A spooky echo, of which good old Google can also throw up a few: in his Washington Post write-up of Tom & Viv, the 1994 film about Eliot’s tragic first marriage, reviewer Hal Hinson found it “a sort of ‘Interview With the Vampire’ for the Bloomsbury set”. Of lead actor Willem Dafoe, he observed: “Tom begins to come across as something of a bloodsucker too … As Eliot, Dafoe certainly looks the part of a vampire”. T S Eliot as a vampire? But then, how about this blog page for a striking piece of synchronicity – or “confirmation bias”?


The blog title has no particular connection to Eliot, whose “Quote of the Week” beneath is not from The Waste Land. But even so … Oo-er. Creepy!

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