‘APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.’
So begins ‘The Burial of the Dead’, the first part of The Waste Land, and so too begin thousands of books, essays, and articles on T. S. Eliot’s infamous poem. The Waste Land (1922) may well be the most quoted and least understood poem in English literature. Admitting that you understand it even seems to be a weakness. Here’s what some critics have to say:
‘We should not impose a rational narrative on the poem, for it should be considered as an arrangement of words in its own right, impossible to paraphrase’. ~~ C. B. Cox, ‘T.S. Eliot: The Opening Lines of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ from The Waste Land‘ (1973)
‘Imaginatively disencumbered of whatever it still contains that parodies its own best implication, The Waste Land could then be read as demonstrating the absolute untrustworthiness of human language in all its modes. It would thus become a poem “about” the end of poetry — including therefore all the other poems which have been written since in imitation of or reaction to it.’ ~~ Jonathan Bishop, ‘A Handful of Words: The Credibility of Language in The Waste Land‘ (1985)
‘The poem, it is generally agreed, is about crisis, dislocation, fragmentation, chaos. But just whose crisis does it evoke and enact?’ ~~Tony Pinkney, ‘The aristocracy in The Waste Land‘ (1988)
‘The cognitive threshold for accommodating opacity […] is as mutable and changeable as (let us say) our threshold for velocity (we chuckle condescendingly at the accounts of travelers who experienced vertigo when speeding along at ten miles per hour on early railroads).’ ~~ Lawrence Rainey, Revisiting ‘The Waste Land’ (2005)
Few claim to have found the key to the poem, and those who have are usually those who have the least of worth to say. The version of The Waste Land that we deal with was a collaboration between Eliot, the Anglo-American who wrote it, and Ezra Pound, the poetic mad scientist who edited it. Before Pound’s surgery, it was almost twice the length. The fact that so much material could be so carefully cut away by a different author is not encouraging for those who want to discover any deeper intent peculiar to Eliot. In fact, Eliot can be found on many occasions denying critical readings and claiming that even he doesn’t know what it means.
Yet, The Waste Land is considered one of the most important works of English literature and a mandatory entry on any undergraduate English literature curriculum. Maybe they teach it in some sixth forms too, although I don’t envy them, and showing it to GCSE students just seems like cruel and unusual punishment. It’s a 434-line Modernist poem with no apparent protagonist or narrative action, frequently interrupted by quotations in other languages from the likes of Dante, Wagner, and the Shanti Mantras, as well as classical authors. The bits that aren’t in other languages are often quotations and references to Renaissance dramatists or contemporary music hall. Eliot’s subsequent notes claim that Tiresias is very important, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a load of Wallala. A student’s first reading of The Waste Land probably makes less sense than anything they’ve ever been told to study. It has a similar effect to alternating your tabs briskly between Project Gutenberg and Youtube.
Am I questioning its status as literary royalty? I’m not, actually, because I’m lost in The Waste Land too. It’s a bit like being sent out into the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, and then coming back to the city only to find that while you were away a wilderness rejuvenation scheme was carried out and the city has been paved over by more wilderness. I can’t get this poem out of my head. It doesn’t matter what T.S. Eliot said, or thought, or did, and that’s what a lot of other readers seem to think too. Everyone gets their own meaning from this poem. Talk about an authorial carte blanche.
This might seem a bit like a simpering adherence to the established canon: lots of people say The Waste Land is a masterpiece ergo everyone else reads The Waste Land and agree that it is a masterpiece, whether they understand it or not. It’s easy to see why Othello is a masterpiece. It’s easy to see why Pride and Prejudice is a masterpiece. It’s easy to see why Middlemarch is a masterpiece. But this…
All I can contribute are my impressions, and The Waste Land doesn’t fill me with total bafflement or bemusement. I find it to be utterly chilling. It generates an effect in me like Shrek 4-D: every sense is profaned. A crepuscular rubbish tip appears before my eyes. A dying radio squeals in my ears. Everything is rough, or rotten, or brittle. I don’t understand what’s going on, but I know it’s not good. Perhaps its greatest achievement is recreating the cold sweat of finding ourselves sitting before an exam paper that we haven’t studied for. But enough about Shrek 4-D.
It’s likely apparent that this is a subject of interest to me. If anyone wants to contibute their own reactions to The Waste Land, or canonicity in general, please do. If I can’t get this poem out of my head soon then that means yet another trip to the exorcist.