The alienation of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ at 100, has come to really feel like dwelling
(RNS) — Some years in the past, I used to be instructing T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” in a literature survey class, as I at all times do. On today, college students appeared much more befuddled by this notoriously tough poem than typical. After greater than an hour of energetic and typically heated dialogue, class ended, and college students trickled out. One scholar who’d been quiet all through the dialogue approached my lectern and stated quietly, “I actually preferred it.”
Shocked (and cheered), I stated, “You probably did?”
“Sure,” he stated. “I learn it thrice.”
This humble sophomore had found the requirement and reward of studying this poem nicely. Printed 100 years in the past this month, “The Waste Land” stays worthy, maybe worthier than ever, of being learn, reread and reread once more.
To make certain, the work is erudite, advanced and dense. Eliot included 433 footnotes for a poem that’s 434 strains lengthy. The poem alludes to dozens of different writers, literary works, myths, legends and biblical texts. It has snippets written in Latin, Greek, Italian and Sanskrit. “The Waste Land” just isn’t a poem one reads to be lulled to sleep earlier than mattress or to really feel cozy on a wet day.
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It’s a dazzling, dancing textual content glimmering with genius and fact which, as soon as glimpsed, modifications a reader as a result of the phrases, just like the aurora borealis, reveal one thing in regards to the world in any other case unseen.
One by no means sees the month of April the identical manner after studying:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the useless land, mixing
Reminiscence and want, stirring
Uninteresting roots with spring rain.
And who right now on this polarized, divided, seemingly decaying world wouldn’t really feel seen when the poet tells us this “heap of damaged pictures” and “these fragments I’ve shored towards my ruins”?
Certainly, the poem’s fragmented, disunified, chaotic construction — complicated to so many readers — is its very level. The very title expresses the fashionable situation, wrought by the horrors of World Battle I, its aftermath marked by infertility, abortion, dryness, famine, rape, loveless relationships, failed communication and, in fact, loss of life: “I had not thought loss of life had undone so many.”
A modernist poem, “The Waste Land” just isn’t structured the best way many people have been taught to count on in poetry. Certainly, the early twentieth century’s modernist motion rejected conventional creative kinds and institutional authorities in favor of innovation, uncertainty and self-conscious experimentation. Written in free verse, the poem lacks regularity in line lengths, stanzas and rhyme. Relatively than talking in a singular, unified voice, the poem options many voices from a variety of social situations and private conditions.
But, regardless of the desolation and decay laid naked in picture after picture — “beneath the brown fog of a winter daybreak” the place “loss of life had undone so many,” “in rats’ alley” the place “the useless males misplaced their bones,” and the “damaged fingernails of soiled palms” — “reminiscence and want” nonetheless exist. So, too, does the “sound of water over a rock,” and an echo of thunder, the foretelling of rain and new life.
The fifth (and closing) part of the poem, titled “What the Thunder Stated,” hauntingly alludes to Christ’s post-resurrection look on the highway to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel, questioning, “Who’s the third who at all times walks beside you?”
“The Waste Land” was revealed 5 years earlier than Eliot transformed from the Unitarian faith of his household to trinitarian Christianity. His baptism and affirmation within the Anglican church on the age of 37 shocked many. Fellow modernist and member of the Bloomsbury Group of artists and intellectuals Virginia Woolf, an atheist, was appalled, writing:
I’ve had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor expensive Tom Eliot, who could also be referred to as useless to us all from today ahead. He has turn into an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I used to be actually shocked. A corpse would appear to me extra credible than he’s. I imply, there’s one thing obscene in a residing individual sitting by the hearth and believing in God.
But, to learn “The Waste Land” is to come across a soul in quest of which means, a thoughts greedy the implications of a world with no God. Like different intellectuals on the time, Eliot had thought that artwork and tradition would possibly take God’s place in creating which means. However he ultimately noticed the futility of this hope, a recognition powerfully portrayed in “The Waste Land.”
In its end-of-year, end-of-century subject reviewing the twentieth century, Time named “The Waste Land” the best poem of the century, describing the work this manner: “Full of post-World Battle I disillusionment and despair, this allusive, fragmented epic grew to become a touchstone of recent sensibility, and its haunting, haunted language sang the passing of outdated certainties in a century adrift.”
100 years after its publication, Eliot’s description of us late moderns is as apt right now because it was then: Our communities are fractured, fragmented and overwhelmed, in some ways, together with by loss of life (as pandemic statistics bear out). In his reflection on the poem’s centennial anniversary, The Atlantic’s James Parker writes, “The poem’s discontinuities now not startle us. Relatively, they really feel like dwelling.”
But even earlier than professing religion in Christ, Eliot appeared to understand intuitively that this world just isn’t our dwelling. “The Waste Land” reminds believers right now that this world ought to not really feel like dwelling.
Within the part of the poem titled “The Burial of the Lifeless,” one speaker asks,
“‘That corpse you planted final yr in your backyard,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this yr?”
As Eliot would come to know, as do all Christians, the corpse that was Christ has risen. Christ has overcome all loss of life rendered by each waste land. The December birthday “The Waste Land” shares with Christmas foreshadows the Easter that’s to return.