Widely regarded as a central landmark in modernist poetry, The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) was published in the U.K. exactly 100 years ago, in late October 1922. It was published in the U.S. a month later, and then finally in December in book form with several pages of scholarly notes attached, references to serve as clues to the poem’s interpretation. (To mark this momentous centennial, Ralph Fiennes will be reading The Waste Land at New York’s 92nd Street Y on December 5.)
Born into an upper-class, American Unitarian family, Eliot moved to Britain in (of all years) 1914, ostensibly to go to Oxford but quickly falling in with London’s literary and artistic life. Eventually Eliot became a British citizen. So, although he started writing Prufrock while a student a Harvard, he is rightly regarded as a British poet. More importantly he is an English « modernist » poet. The « modernist » movement in English poetry started out as a reaction against Georgian and Victorian poetic styles and literary conventions, and later came to be seen as one more expression of post-war disillusionment. Eliot’s The Waste Land was widely received as representative of such modernism, with its disjointed anti-narrative formed from fragmented imagery. According to the contemporary English poet Craig Raine, « everything in 20th-century poetry is founded on Eliot. »
I was first exposed to The Waste Land in high school. I can’t really remember what I made of it, but I recall that I liked it enough to try to imitate it in my own personal poetic efforts. (Future traumas in my life disabused me of such personal literary pretensions. I wrote my last poem in 1969, at the age of 21.)
It appears that Eliot began The Waste Land in London during the Great War. He worked on his poem in 1921 while on leave from the bank, where he had been working, in order to convalesce from what was then labeled a « nervous breakdown. » The poem presumably reflected Eliot’s personal difficulties (including marital) at the time and somehow signified the apocalyptic condition of the age as seen through his own personal gloom.
(I am on the whole very grateful for my parochial school education, both elementary and high school. But one of the odder things we learned was that for religious reasons we were never supposed to have a « nervous breakdown. » Since the possibility was thus a priori precluded, one was not well prepared for what to do, if and when one actually had one!)
It also appears that the original, unpublished versions of the poem may have been as much as twice as long as the final, published version, and that the American expatriate poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) played a major part in the editing process. Eliot dedicated the poem to Pound, whom he called il miglior fabbro, « the better craftsman. » Himself also a major figure in the « modernist » movement, Pound is unfortunately also famous for his fascist sympathies and his active collaboration with fascist Italy at war with the United States, which got him tried for treason and confined to a mental hospital after the Second World War.
As for The Waste Land itself, the poem still amazes and perplexes me, as perhaps it was intended to do. In that, I am not the first. When Eliot read the poem to Virginian Wolfe in June 1922, she noted, « What connects it together, I’m not so sure. »
Its fragmentary style still makes it a challenge, as do its wealth of literary allusions, likely increasingly unfamiliar to a modern audience. There is, for example, the very sad Greek myth of Philomela, cruelly raped and mutilated by her brother-in-law Tereus, who got her revenge by being turned into a song-singing nightingale. And, according to the notes Eliot attached to the poem’s text, the character he considered « the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest, » was yet another figure from Greek mythology, the sexually ambiguous, blind prophet Tiresias, who « perceived the scene and foretold the rest. »
Recently, I have been listening to recordings of it, read in part by Eliot himself (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqvhMeZ2PlY). It is quite an experience! A despairing, gloomy poem, as expressive of 21st as well as of 20th-century anxiety, The Waste Land seems to me to be clearly crying out for some sort of mythic or religious solution.
Five years after publishing The Waste Land, Eliot was welcomed into the Church of England, and he remained a faithful Anglican for the remainder of his life. (In 1928, he described himself as « classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion. ») In a letter to Geoffrey Faber, he wrote, « The love of God takes the place of the cynicism which otherwise is inevitable in every rational person. » He made a notable contribution to more traditional religious literature in 1935 with his play Murder in the Cathedral, recalling the medieval martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. And, on the eve of World War II, he gave three lectures at Oxford which became The Idea of a Christian Society.