A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I could talk about the intertextuality, the themes of culture and civilisation in tatters after the first world war, the Fisher King, Philomela, its fragmented nature, its relation to Modernism and Ulysses.
I could talk about my dissertation that took the whole thing in relation to the Philomela myth where Philomela (raped by a king and whose tongue is cut out to keep her silence) begins to weave her story into a tapestry…the idea of a trauma being so huge to talk about, and how The Waste Land itself can be read like a huge tapestry – its famous fragments and snippets of dialogue, of parody, of other works over the centuries, of other voices from the history of literature itself, weaving together into its meaning. And the trauma behind it? The War? The breakdown and disintegration of culture and literature? Or the personal disintegration of the poet himself descending into mental breakdown and caught in a painfully unhappy marriage?
The Waste Land is like a giant crossword puzzle. You can read pretty much anything and everything into it and there are so many angles to take – personal, universal, political, mythological – take your pick.
But this isn’t a dissertation and I don’t have 10,000 words. And really, for all its fascination, is that stuff really THE POINT? It isn’t why I love The Waste Land. It may make it great academic fodder but it doesn’t make it the undoubtedly great poem that it is.
When I asked the foxes what they would want to see from a piece like this, many of them had the same request: they didn’t like the poem, they didn’t understand it. Its reputation for fearsome difficulty went before it. They wanted to know how the lay reader could find a way into it and why it was I loved it so much.
Perhaps the question to ask rather, is: why do people hate it so much?
For those used to picking apart poems to find their meaning The Waste Land offers the ultimate prize…and also the ultimate frustration. There have been accusations of elitism, of obscurity. What if you don’t know Tristan and Isolde, that section in Cleopatra, The Old Testament, or can’t speak German? How can you ever hope to grasp the meaning? It’s too much like hard work and why should you be bothered?
Well, I don’t think you necessarily should. I don’t know Tristan and Isolde either. I can’t speak German or understand the significance of all the fragments. I can’t tell you how The Fisher King relates to Tiresias or the deep significance (if there is any) of hyacinths.
Yet, still, I love the poem and always have. I never felt it was beyond me because, for me, it is like music. The meaning resonates almost like a feeling, and the feeling is communicated by the sounds of the words and the rhythms of the sections. Some of these sections are lyrical, some awkward, some are like monologue and some rhyming couplets – all working together like a strange collage to create something of the fast and slow movements of a symphony rather than a conventional poem.
Simply: the power of The Waste Land lies with the words.
Going back to the beginning of the poem for this post, I am struck all over again:
April is the cruelest 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.
Immediately, I get shivers down my spine. There is an intellectual inversion: spring (associated with life, renewal and hope) is associated with seediness, deadness and decay. Winter kept us “warm”. But it is through the sound that we feel the unrest. Those famous driving endings of “breeding” “mixing” “stirring” make the passage restless and uneasy. The idea of the lilacs being forced into existence, the rain stirring up the mud around the roots. Not exactly the usual idyllic, lovely invocation of spring. The idea that to be alive, to remember, to be woken is nothing but a torment. Spring, in this context, is not renewal, not hope – but unrest and pain and the pain of remembering.
Winter, we are told, was at least comfortable because we could forget. There is a comfort in hibernation.
Summer, when it is introduced, is in the past. It is a memory. And it is life pre-War and the language is German. A happy childhood voice from more innocent times? Before the terrible trauma that happened to Europe.
So, the poem starts with a cruel awakening and a cruel remembering. Of an individual? Of a society – an entire civilisation? Into this the voices of different individuals float, remembering happy times in childhood, speaking in different languages, remembering romances…before the ominous Old Testament-style warning to Son of Man with his heap of broken images. After the trauma, after the purge there is nothing but the desert and we are lost. We are nothing.
Eliot is writing post-World War 1. One of the most terrible wars there had ever been, that ripped Europe apart – literally – and redrew maps and boundaries, and cultures. Consciousness, in this context, is pain. Memory is a cruelty. New life brings not hope but the painful reminder of before.
To what extent it might be interpretted as the disintegration of an individual consciousness is also open to debate. It is well-known that Eliot himself suffered a personal breakdown whilst writing it – indeed, much of the later part of the writing process happened in Margate whilst he was recuperating.
I do not subscribe to the “personal” interpretation to the extent of seeing it as being directly about Eliot’s breakdown or even so far as seeing the narrator (if there is one) as Eliot himself or even as an actual character in the piece.
However, in a universal sense, the poem can contain both ideas. The fragmentation and disintegration of a culture – of Europe – and the fragmentation and disintegration of an individual mind or consciousness. Indeed, one may become a powerful symbol for the other.
Ok, I’ve only looked at a handful of lines, but the fact so few lines can contain so much is one of the reasons WHY this poem is so good. It condenses so much into so little. The images and ideas resonate out further and further like the ripples from a stone entering a pond. The meaning seems to resonate but when you look at it too closely it slips from your grasp and can’t really be put into any other words than the ones that are already there.
Isn’t this what great poetry should do? Capture the intangible and contain simultaneous ideas and interpretations in a single line or image?
And my point is, that you can get all that – or at least a sense of all that – without knowing very much at all. Whether we decide it’s about the disintegration of culture, of Europe, of literature or of one individual consciousness: or all of the above…the underlying feeling is the same: strange, fragmented, angry and elegiac. A sense of being alone. Desolation and emptiness. And this is all communicated through the words themselves.
The Allusions (a red herring, perhaps)
One of the reasons that The Waste Land is considered to be so difficult is because of the literary allusions. It’s an element that can put a lot of people off.
I believe too much is made of the allusions, and indeed Eliot himself said he regretted sending everyone off on such a wild goose chase.
We do not need to know the following is referencing Dante to feel the power of it and get a sense of its desolation:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
We don’t need to know the exact lines of The Old Testament to feel the awe-inspiring grandeur and the terror and fear communicated through this section:
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
We don’t need to know the precise reference or ragtime tune to hear the jingle of the ordinary surface of life with:
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag–
It’s so elegant
And we don’t need to know Spenser to hear the lyricism of the following, undercut by the seedy reality of modern life:
The river’s tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
Whilst you can chart line by line what is happening and the imagery and allusions, the power of the images is enough to give a sense of mood, and the sound and rhythm is enough to give a sense of cynical lyricism, of undercut romance, of desolation and despair – or a tone of irony, cynicism and spikiness of certain passages: even if you don’t know the original works referred to.
Don’t let the allusions put you off. Unless you are spectacularly well-educated in the old-fashioned sense of the word, you are not going to get a lot of them. They will not be lines knocking about in your head as naturally as they knocked about in Eliot’s. For some, this can be alienating or irritating, or – as in the case of many of the students in my year at university – proof that Eliot was elitist (hence bad).
In fact, it was interesting to write this post just as an illustration of how times have changed. At the time of my much-mentioned dissertation, there was no such as thing as wikipedia. You could not google your way through the poem…
Today, as I paused over one I couldn’t remember and pumped it into a search engine, I thought how strangely fitting this poem is for the internet generation. The internet – full of fragments and images that we juxtapose crazily, crankily together, but taken as a horrible messy collage-like whole give us some picture of society. Eliot can no longer be “elitist” with all the knowledge required so handily available at the click of a mouse.
But, the fact I can spend a morning happily googling Eliot’s allusions and references has only served to convince me more strongly than ever that going too far down that line is missing the point.
The allusions are an interesting addition to the poem, but they are not the poem itself.
It is a similar case with the voices. For me, the multiple voices (whether they be people: modern, ancient, mythical, aristocratic or working-class; whether they be the voices of literature in the past) are essentially a chorus.
It is a mistake to read them too much as characters within some kind of forced narrative and I don’t believe this was the intention. (Some interpreters even manage to unite the various nebulous“I”s and link them all up to create a single character or one narrator. I have even seen it interpreted as one character with some childhood in pre-War Germany, who then sets off and thinks about this and that, has a sexual experience with a typist, pretends to be Tiresias and ends up lamenting with the Fisher King. This – to me – is far too literal an interpretation and nonsensical in every way.)
Rather acting within a narrative – the chorus of many voices lend their fragmented songs and memories to the overall sense of the piece. Like a tapestry, yes. Like Philomela’s tapestry. A tapestry woven because a tongue has been ripped out. A tongue that has been ripped out because there has been a terrible trauma. An immeasurable trauma. So that nothing makes sense anymore and all we can do is pick through the rubble that is left – the fragments – and try and remember.
For me, this form makes total sense in the aftermath of something as ruinous and destructive as the first world war. But I’m not convinced that ruin Eliot feels so keenly is the same kind of straightforward ruin we are used to hearing about - created by bombs and death, the destruction of cities and nearly a whole generation of young men wiped out…It seems to this interpreter that it is something underpinning all the masonry – the buildings, the art, the human cost in lives. And that thing is culture itself. Eliot seems to lament culture – and particularly literary culture. The fragments left after the trauma (with its associations with a godlike purge and a sexual wound) are from Shakespeare, Dante, the bible, ditties from the music hall, ancient myths and ragtime tunes – the many voices of our culture past and present.
Just as you don’t need to know the Old Testament to know a passage sounds biblical and you don’t need to understand German to know it is German, so you don’t need a particular character to hear that it is a working class voice or that of a child before the war.
You don’t need a classical education or traditional characters within a narrative to get a sense of a miasma of voices from our literary and cultural past and (1920s) present.
How to Love The Waste Land (if you don’t already)
My advice to anyone wanting to engage with and enjoy The Waste Land is to not expect to understand it in the usual sense. You may read this poem for many years and still not understand it. And if you think you do it’s probably because you have come up with some sterile crossword puzzle-style answers that don’t mean that much.
Investigate the quotes and references and the original works they are taken from if you want – it can make a fascinating piece of detective work, but only in addition to the sense you can already get from the words themselves.
Because it is the words that make this poem great. Listen to the words, the voices – like a chorus. Let it wash over you – like music…
…And let the meaning come.