The 100 best nonfiction books
The Waste Land
by TS Eliot
TS Eliot’s long poem, written in extremis, came to embody the spirit of the years following the first world war
Monday 12 December 2016 05.45 GMT
he Great War was a mass slaughter. It also became the catalyst for a social and cultural earthquake. But not until a young American poet began, in 1919, to address the desolate aftermath of this Armageddon did the interwar years begin to acquire the character we now associate with the 1920s, and also become explicable to the survivors of an apocalypse.
The Waste Land has attracted many labels, from the quintessential work of “modernism” to the “poetical equivalent to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring”. It was also one of those very rare works that both embody and articulate the spirit of the age. As such, it would be adored, vilified, parodied, disparaged, obsessed over, canonised and endlessly recited.
A generation after its publication, Evelyn Waugh would conjure the mood of interwar Oxford, and Charles Ryder’s initiation into university life in Brideshead Revisited, by having Anthony Blanche declaim The Waste Land at the top of his voice from Sebastian Flyte’s balcony.
TS Eliot first announced “a long poem I have had in my mind for a long time” in a letter to his mother at the end of 1919. Actually, its origins can be traced to 1914, the year the young poet finally left Harvard and crossed to Europe, settling first in Oxford, as the first world war began.
Eliot’s “Oxford year” (1914-15) was decisive. It was then that he encountered Ezra Pound. Soon after, perhaps betrayed by his “genius for dancing”, he met and married his first wife, Vivien(ne) Haigh-Wood. This self-inflicted wound, by many accounts, holds the key to The Waste Land, which became a mirror to all his most acute marital difficulties. “All I wanted of Vivien,” he later wrote, cruelly, of this relationship, “was a flirtation.” He had persuaded himself he was in love, “because I wanted to burn my boats” and stay in England with Pound. This instinct was correct. Eventually, Pound would play a decisive editorial role in the making of the poem.
Eliot’s 1920 New Year resolution, to “get started” on his “long poem”, came after some very difficult months. His marriage to Vivien (who was also sleeping with Bertrand Russell) was going from bad to worse, and he was struggling to make ends meet professionally. In extremis, Eliot began to compose the lines that would morph into a new poem, much longer than anything he had written before, with the working title He Do the Police in Different Voices.
In The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, Eliot had perfected a radical modernist kind of dramatic monologue, given in a single voice. Now, he was experimenting with a cubist narrative and “different voices”: a famous clairvoyant (Madame Sosostris), a neurotic wife (“My nerves are bad tonight”), two cockneys yakking in a pub (“if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said”), another distracted woman “the hyacinth girl”, a wandering poet (“I had not thought death had undone so many”) and a ragtime singer (“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag…”) to identify some of the most famous.
Intercut quasi-cinematically with these vernacular scraps are Eliot’s other “fragments … shored against my ruins”. These include half-stated Christian and Buddhist themes, mixed with Arthurian legend and classical mythology. In the final section “the Thunder” delivers some sonorous commands, until the crisis of the poem is brilliantly resolved with “Shantih shantih shantih”.
In Eliot’s own life, there were no commensurate reconciliations, just the daily torment of his marriage to Vivien, who suffered equally from her life with “Tom”. At the end of 1919, she wrote: “Glad this awful year is over … Next probably worse.” Eliot, almost as fragile as his wife, took himself off to Lausanne to consult a therapist. It was here that he wrote the haunting last verses of his work-in-progress as if “in a trance”.
By January 1922, The Waste Land was ready for submission to the Dial and, more importantly, Ezra Pound’s maieutic brilliance. Pound had no doubt of its genius. “About enough, Eliot’s poem,” he wrote, “to make the rest of us shut up shop.”
For Eliot, meanwhile, 1922 was almost as troubled as 1919. While he wrestled with the final draft of The Waste Land, his distracted wife Vivien was undergoing a new treatment, Ovarian Opocaps, distilled from “the glands of animals”, plus a starvation diet. The result was colitis, high temperatures, insomnia and migraine. Rarely had life and art been so inextricably braided together.
The Waste Land is a poem of its time, and for all time. It is about ghosts and heroes, civilians and veterans, and recently mobilised wartime women exposed to predatory young men; it is about loss and despair, sex and madness, seduction and grief, and the poet’s own anguished quest for meaning in a shattered and desolate world.
Ezra Pound would play the role of the midwife in delivering this disturbing and extraordinary new voice to the poetry-reading public and ultimately the canon, but crucial though his intervention undoubtedly was in focusing the text, his editor’s scissors hardly touched the basic structure of Eliot’s vision. The five parts of The Waste Land are: The Burial of the Dead; A Game of Chess; The Fire Sermon; Death by Water; What the Thunder Said.
The sections that Eliot (and Pound) agreed to drop include: Song. For the Opherion, The Death of the Duchess, Elegy and Dirge. Published in 1971, the facsimile and original transcript edition, edited by Valerie Eliot, the poet’s widow, gives a remarkable insight into the process by which The Waste Land achieved its final form. For the critic Cyril Connolly, who came of age during the years of The Waste Land, this is the essential version: it was, he wrote, “indispensable for all lovers of poetry, students of the early 20th century, and survivors like myself”.
In 1922, the original edition, a text of 434 lines, was followed by several pages of notes, which were requested by the New York publisher Horace Liveright, to justify publishing the work as a book.
Eliot himself affected a certain unease at the claims made for The Waste Land. He told one American literary friend that “various critics have done me the honour to interpret the poem in terms of criticism of the contemporary world, have considered it, indeed, as an important bit of social criticism. To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”
A signature sentence
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
Three to compare
JG Frazer: The Golden Bough (1890)
Jessie Weston: From Ritual to Romance (1920)
Robert Graves: The White Goddess (1948)
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