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100 Years of 'The Waste Land'

T.S. Eliot 1956
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T.S. Eliot, author and playwright, pictured in London on January 19, 1956. (AP Photo)

One hundred years ago this December, "The Waste Land" was first published.  T.S. Eliot’s famous poem has been described as highly influential, irregular, and innovative.  Its theme — the spiritual and cultural decay of — well just about everything.   WSHU’s Culture Critic, Joan Baum, took a deep dive into Eliot’s enigmatic work with book artist Barry McCallion.  Here’s their conversation. 

JB: What's remarkable about this poem, Eliot himself once referred to as just a piece of rhythmical grumbling is that it has become the touchstone of modern poetry. A meme of the last generation, and one of the best-known, but least fully understood literary publications of all time. Even the copious footnotes and translations, Eliot later provided only added to its mystique and still drives academics and the general public wild.

I'm delighted at this opportunity, however, to talk about "The Waste Land" with Barry McCallion, an artist whose work often combines literary texts with visual expression. Welcome, Barry. 

BM: Thank you. Thank you.

JB: Before we begin, however, I'd like to play for our audience, a few lines of Eliot himself reading 11 of the opening lines of the 434-line poem, a section he called the BURIAL OF THE DEAD.

April is the cruellest month, breeding 

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring 

Dull roots with spring rain. 

Winter kept us warm, covering 

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding 

A little life with dried tubers. 

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, 

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

JB: So Barry after that sparkling recitation, how would you explain this incredible phenomenon that a work many have heard about, few have read, and few have read all the way through or understand, got to be so famous?

BM: Large question, we have to wait until the sound of feet running for the exits calms down a bit. Poor Eliot. In a sense, he's making a wonderful job of creating a dirge. However, he's making a wonderful job of it because the name of the poem is "The Waste Land", and you wouldn't expect him to be tap dancing toward his audience.

JB: Indeed, but does "The Waste Land" reflect a particular wasteland that he was reacting to in 1921?

BM: You bet. Europe was devastated by the First World War, we had 40 million killed between soldiers and civilians. The Spanish flu came in as a coup de gras afterward and killed off another 20 million people, preposterous numbers. So what he was looking at was a world turned upside down.

JB: I mentioned earlier that the poem is 434 lines. It was originally even longer, maybe a third more cut by Eliot's friend and great admirer, Ezra Pound.

So we're still back to my original question. Ezra Pound loved it. T.S. Eliot obviously was pleased, and a lot of other academics and intellectuals responded to it favorably. But it is difficult, it is dense. And I'd like you to tell the audience why. And then let's go back to that challenge. How come something so unintelligible so hard to understand, become so famous?

BM: Now, I love it that you actually think that I might be able to answer a question like that.

JB: I don't think Eliot could have answered it.

BM: It's a little bit tricky. In the most peculiar way, I think it would have been inconsistent with the nature of the poem if Eliot had given us a clear direction, line after line, clear exposition. What he's done instead is to create literarily or stylistically, the kind of confusion and jumble that in fact, is permeating the culture of the time.

JB: Good use of the word jumble because in addition to all the opaque and arch references that many people will not understand from history, from philosophy, from scripture, he also uses some pretty low-down words, slang.

BM: He does, he does because you have a cross-section of the culture of the population involved. This is like a crowded room of voices. And many times they're all talking at once, or they're intercutting around each other as if it's just an open mic in a crowded space.

JB: We perhaps don't remember that in 1948, Eliot got the Nobel Prize for literature and he got it for poetry. This is what the committee said, “He was given the prize for his outstanding pioneer contribution to present-day poetry,” even though he's also revered as a critic, a playwright, a lecturer. So what do you think was outstanding, pioneering, experimental, about what this poem did, that really, as many people say, started modern poetry?

BM: We're looking at something that, as you said, is so difficult, inaccessible to the normal reader, to me for sure. And yet, something tells me that what he's done stylistically, that the form that he's created, and the form that he uses to express this catastrophe of a culture is consistent with the function of the poem itself. So that the style and the content are a single unit. It doesn't clarify anything, but there's a kind of brilliant consistency to it.

JB: Indeed, and people memorize lines that don't even know what the context is.

BM:  Sure. Why not.

JB: And some of them are wild. Can you think of any particular ones that kind of stand out for you?

BM: Another one of those put me on-the-spot questions. Of course not, except the first lines that we've heard, as your listeners have heard. It's, it's dreadful, and it's underground. And the entire landscape is devoid of life. There's nothing to revitalize the culture. So to say, April is the cruelest month breeding, is devastating.

JB: Even though we're talking about a poem that has a 100-year publishing history, there's something timely about Eliot. Letters that he wrote to someone he had been courting, in a way for many years have just been made available. And in these letters, his biases, his prejudices, his cruelties are very clearly revealed.

Today, probably among the best-selling genres are biographies. Everyone wants to know the fatal flaws in everyone, particularly in writers such as Joyce, who are writers we associate with great humanity. And there is humanity in "The Waste Land." There is a terrific care, as you pointed out, of all kinds of people. And yet, these letters particularly reinforced the anti-semitism, and the cruelty, perhaps to women that were attributed to him. Probably by ex-wives and ex-lovers. Picasso too, it's not just peculiar to poetry, but all the arts. Do we need any biographical information to appreciate a great work of art?

BM: Biographical information, I don't think so. Unless, unless the prejudices invade and infect the work of art itself. Ad Reinhardt an American painter notably said, "Art is art and everything else is everything else," which is someplace you can hang your hat on at least. But to undercut or to begin to judge a work of art on the basis of somebody's foibles I think is unfair.

JB:  And on that note, I want to conclude by asking you a really loaded question.

BM: Thank goodness.

JB: Given the country's diverse demographic, downward trending, reading and literary skills, and politically charged atmosphere, surrounding curricula, is there any hope that "The Waste Land" already unintelligible, can make it through education and be appreciated by new generations?

BM: For all the reasons that you just described, the present circumstances, I think it's a perfect poem to be interpreted by a good teacher, teacher…

JB:  Ah, a good teacher.

BM:  …good teacher qualification that'll save me. We've had 100 years of slaughter since World War I, since 1914. And I think that it's the same picture currently, perhaps not by degree but in kind, as we have now. Again, with a proper interpretation, that the world is in crisis, and something should be done about it, which is what the foundation of "The Waste Land" is, certainly that, and books like "The Things They Carried", which is a novel about the Vietnamese War, should remain in the curriculum for sure.

JB: The last words of "The Waste Land" are Shantih Shantih Shantih, which Eliot translates, he says, loosely, as “peace, that passeth understanding.”

Let us hope that this poem, which for many people, “passive understanding”, keeps another 100 years, its presence felt for the very humane and civilized reasons you gave.

BM: Here, here.

JB:  Thank you so much for talking with me.

BM: Thanks.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.