Monday, October 17, 2022

The Welcome of Plurality in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land 100 Years On


The Welcome of Plurality in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land 100 Years On

By Michael Todd Steffen

One hundred years after its first publication, in 1922, the title of T.S. Eliot’s great theatrical poem, The Waste Land, appears as a resilient messenger bearing the bad news of our own times, with our greatest challenges of waste management and climate change threatening ecological detriment on a global scale. Plastics in landfills and in stadium-sized rafts in the ocean, melting mountain glaciers (Which are mountains of rock without water…) and rising sea levels make the mind and stomach spin, worrying coastal cities around the planet, giving rise to lists—Venice, Marseilles, San Francisco, Miami, Shanghai, Kolkata, Dhaka, Osaka, Guangzhou—reminiscent of Eliot’s shorthand for the far-reaching anxiety expressed in his day between two world wars:

Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria,

Vienna, London


If this weren’t bad enough, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, begun on February 24, politically the world again is sitting as it were under the title of Section II of The Waste Land and pre-World War II Europe at A Game of Chess, with the international focus of America once again turned to Europe and the question of the degree of our involvement against an aggressive, murderous autocracy. With witness of civilian torture and mass graves across Ukraine, the term “genocide” is in the air. Thanks to the Internet, we identify as readily with the Ukrainian people and their dilemma as France and England identified with Poland after September 1938.

By then Eliot’s opus poem was already over a decade and a half in print. Yet if you were in London or in the smaller southern English coastal towns with an airfield nearby, terrorized under the dives of the screaming engines of the Luftwaffe, you could take a glimpse at a passage from Section V and pause at the premonitory symbolism:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight

And fiddled whisper music on those strings

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

Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours

The assimilation of Baudelaire would strike the reader as strange and new as jazz in its early days then. The French symbolists had also pointed Eliot to the modernity of squalid contemporary scenes and their correlative uncomfortable feelings in images of rats, brown fog, a dug-up garden, the pollution of summer nights in the testimony of river flotsam, empty bottles, sandwich papers, Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends.

Eliot witnesses other observations whose significance would take yet decades, to the 1970s clean-air and clean-water movements, to fully realize. The poem represents an oppressive day of no respiratory progress from Section I Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, to Section III’s midday tryst Under the brown fog of a winter noon. Outside with a glimpse at the Thames, The river sweats Oil and tar…The barges drift…The barges wash Drifting logs. There are Trams and dusty trees.

From one end of the poem to the other, we hear an ominous prophecy to Fear death by water. We view that prophecy fulfilled with Phlebas the Phoenician in A current under sea [that] Picked his bones in whispers. And are led to the opposite extreme of drought in Section V’s prolonged meditation on thirst and this simplest requisite for water turned into visionary desire:

If there were water we should stop and drink

Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think

Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand…

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit

There is not even silence in the mountains

But dry sterile thunder without rain…

While the poem’s title, The Waste Land, is a lure to herald the work’s central literary theme of the Grail legend and the Fisher Kind, it surely as much derived from the vast tracts of devastated land composing the trenches of the major battles of World War I.

This No-man’s land stretched in barrenness and charred tree trunks, brambles and barbed wire from the North Sea coast of Belgium southward all through France. It was a waste land indeed where corpses and fragments of corpses were everywhere to be found, half buried, blown into trees and trench walls. Many “waste land” passages in the poem, including the drawn-out deprivation in the dry mountains leading up to the articulate thunder passages in Section V were haunted into Eliot’s psyche from still fresh memories, related and photographed, of the preceding war. Their persistence in being processed led to another foreboding passage about holocaust with its vestigial catacombs imagery:

A rat crept softly through the vegetation

Dragging its slimy belly on the bank

While I was fishing in the dull canal

On a winter evening round behind the gashouse

Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck

And on the king my father’s death before him.

White bodies naked on the low damp ground

And bones cast in a little low dry garret,

Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.

As durably relevant as the poem has proven, its method and unity were scrutinized in the initial days of its publication. The thing is a mad medley, announced Charles Powell in an early 1923 review in The Manchester Guardian, as he bluntly built to the conclusive swipe that if Mr. Eliot had been pleased to write in demotic (everyday) English The Waste Land might not have been, as it just is to all but anthropologists and literati, so much waste paper.

Powell’s two major points of critique are abiding: that the poem is confusing, hard to follow, a mad medley; and that it is recondite, meant for an exclusive readership of anthropologists and literati. That second point would hardly be refuted by Virginia Woolf’s reaching estimation of Eliot’s poem, after a private recitation in November 1922, noting in her diary the great beauty & force of phrase; & tensity…One was left…with some strong emotion.

Yet even the taciturn plain American speaking poet William Carlos Williams would come to acknowledge the poem and its powerful impact, commenting it wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it.

That is a quote used by essayist and poet Mary Karr in her insightful introduction to the poem, tracing its popular influence, far beyond anthropologists and literati, into the late 20th century:

Its publication in 1922 killed off the last limping, rickets-ridden vestiges of the old era and raised the flag of Modernism, under whose flapping shadow we still live…be it David Letterman’s hipper-than-thou sarcasm or the erotic self-mockery of Cindy Sherman’s photographs. Quentin Tarantino’s nonlinear jumps between scenes in Pulp Fiction partly derive from it; as does the oracular, disaffected voice of Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian or the dreamy surface of Toni Morrison’s Beloved

Karr’s comments tap the younger readers on the shoulder and tell them how stunningly and resoundingly The Waste Land has affected Western culture.

The poem was issued in book form in December 1922, with extensive notes written by Eliot, who explained the addition:

I had at first intended only to put down all the references for my quotations, with a view of spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism. Then, when it came to printing The Waste Land as a little book—for the poem on its first appearance in The Dial and in The Criterion had no notes whatever—it was discovered that the poem was inconveniently short, so I set to work to expand the notes, in order to provide a few more pages of printed matter.

The famous notes have encouraged and given way to an abundance of academic and critical writings about The Waste Land, underscoring the work’s referential elements. Yet to get too fixity in the margins of the poem, its poet and its historical moment, often leads to overlooking important keys to Eliot’s invention, which are hidden in plain sight.

In the decade prior to The Waste Land Eliot was theorizing upstream against Romantic and Victorian tradition, prodigal still to the assertions of Whitman’s Song of Myself. He advanced notions of escape from personality, and emulated Robert Browning, working to develop a dramatic voice for verse. The product of that labor became “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem that induces us to sympathy while making rather exaggerated—ironic?—pronouncements of senescence from the 26-year-old Harvard graduate:

I grow old…I grow old…

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me…

The dramatic method of “Prufrock” and The Waste Land are nearly identical, while the welcome of a plurality into a unity (as American coins bear the motto e pluribus unum) is not an easy welcome—politically, psychologically or aesthetically. It requires courage, tolerance, consideration, and a good deal of compositional curiosity.

Eliot discovered the collage manner by looking at Cubist art, as well as by watching those early, bizarrely sequenced movies and newsreels. Also, importantly, he was drawn to dramatic contrast by his love of Elizabethan drama and its staging of popular/secular characters along with characters of “higher” orders, royalty, financiers, academics and religious figures. That is one way he conceived of a major poem that featured the dramatic by opening the instances of the monologue’s “I” to a multiplicity of “characters” and setting in the poem: the educated tourist/diarist of entries visiting the Hofgarten, drinking coffee; an arch-duke’s cousin revisiting an exhilarating memory of winter sledding; the Preacher with his sermon on “stony rubbish”; the hyacinth girl; Wagnerian opera; the spurious clairvoyant Madame Sosostris; the office clerk under the burden of work hours and the work week. This is a partial list of the voices that succeed one another merely in the 76 lines of the first section of the poem.

The method of juxtaposing different speaker with different speaker has its radical illustration in the inclusion of different languages:

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch…

Lines from French and Italian, mostly literary references, find their way into the poem also, along with utterances of Sanskrit from the Upanishads at the end of the poem.

Yet language interruptions in the poem are not confined to English vs. foreign. Modulations demarking social registers of language are also staged. This is notably the case in Section II in the transition from a dialogue between a couple of privilege coping (or not) with their sheltered, hypersensitive life of ease, to a pub scene monologue with interjections from the barkeep announcing closing time:

“What shall we do tomorrow?

“What shall we ever do?”

The hot water at ten.

And if it rains, a closed car at four.

And we shall play a game of chess,

Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—

I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,


Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.

He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you

To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,

He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.

And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert…

Henry James, Edith Wharton and Stephen Crane among others were highly influential distinctive American authors preceding Eliot, who made their homes on the other side of the Atlantic. These precedents make it difficult to disentangle Eliot and his works from his homeland. America sent over 4 million military personnel to England and Europe during World War I. We lost more than 53,000 in battle. Beyond soliciting our support, in pre-engagement times awaiting our involvement in both wars, England and Europe dominated the American psyche and it politics, with the question of neutrality and saving American soldiers’ lives vs. losing cultural and economic alliances to totalitarian regimes over there.

Despite its daunting textual and referential difficulties, which brings it the feeling of a “major work,” The Waste Land’s relative brevity of 434 lines is reader-friendly compared to the more than 300 pages of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson and the nearly 800 pages of Pound’s Cantos. The poem’s economy (I speak not loud or long) also makes a quiet statement of difference from the literally wasteful lives suggested by the poem’s title.

With Eliot’s invention of an interior drama inclusive of different voices or personae, another wonder of the poem derives from a sense of dispensing with the painstaking burden of imposing linear, developed scenarios and characters. As an early holiday voice in the poem significantly utters, In the mountains, there you feel free.

Paradoxically the poem’s shiftiness gives way to the very source of the reader’s potential anxiety about the lack of a consistent, controlling voice to help guide the reader. Unable to associate the different appearances (I can connect Nothing with nothing) in the sequences of the poem as one underlying flow of consciousness with a knack for disguises and drama (impersonation), we wince at being reduced to the simplemindedness of wondering, What happens to Marie in the mountains? Where did Phlebus come from? And how did he get there?

Eliot’s economy with the length of The Waste Land curates the fragments as digestible example. A sense or meaning—even of going astray, into meaninglessness, squandering and offending sensibility—illustrate both the ease and unease which the poem’s procedure imparts to us. That stranding and helpless aspect becomes conspicuous in the rapid shifts of voices as the work dissolves, rather than resolved, in its conclusion:

I sat upon the shore

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me

Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina…

The year 1922 stands out for book lovers, publishers, writers and readers, as being a golden year for major literary works. James Joyce’s Ulysses was published that year, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned. Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, and Willa Cather’s One of Ours, winner of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize. Cather’s novel is about a young man from the Midwest farmland, Claude Wheeler, whose complex coming to age between rural simplicity and social sophistication finds its purpose and tragic resolution as a soldier in the great war. The narrative evokes the trajectory of Eliot’s young life and its culmination in his major poem, in its general passage from April’s innocence through the typist and clerk’s sexual experience to acceptance in the deprivations and revelations of the Thunder in the passages of Section V.

Without the controlling narrative voice of the novelist, and without the character names and stage directions of a play’s script, for all the unusual sophistication and elaboration of a poem, The Waste Land surges and veers with surprise, pleasure, humor, darkness and sorrow, with the freshness and weirdness we associate with high poetry.

With the humility of self-deprecation, or from exhaustion of the burden of the poem’s inspiration, Eliot called his great poem only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.

More aerially, much read and appreciated British poet Wendy Cope entertains memorable elements of The Waste Land in surprisingly irreverent, tongue-in-cheek limericks:

The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;

Tiresias fancies a peep—

A typist gets laid,

A record is played—

Wei la la. After this it gets deep.


Ackroyd, Peter. T.S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984.

Cope, Wendy. Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979-2006, London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2008.

Karr, Mary. “HOW T O READ ‘The Waste Land’ SO THAT IT ALTERS YOUR SOUL RATHER THAN JUST ADDLING YOUR HEAD,” in The Waste Land and Other Writings: T.S. Eliot. New York: Random House, 2001.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkley and Long Angeles: University of California Press, 1971.

Poetry of the First World War, An Anthology, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, edited by Tim Kendall.

Soupalt, Philippe. Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, DADA, and Surrealism. San Francisco: City Light Books, 2016, translated by Alan Bernheimer, with an Introduction by Mark Polizzotti and an Afterward by Ron Padgett.

The Waste Land T.S. Eliot, A Norton Critical Edition. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001, edited by Michael North.

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