The shock and aftershocks of “The Waste Land”
And then this:
By closing the book, you move on. The whispers, however, as well as the chirping of birds, ring in your mind’s ear. This loud and peculiar work, like a snippet of a song you overheard, or a nocturnal stab of shame at the thought of someone you’ve wronged, won’t leave you alone.
There is no doubt that, of these first two readers, the learned and the uninformed, Eliot would lean towards the second. “Authentic poetry can communicate before it is understood,” he wrote in an essay on Dante. “It is better to be incited to acquire scholarship because you like poetry, than to assume that you like poetry because you have acquired scholarship.” What he was looking for, both as a writer and a reader, was “a direct shock of poetic intensity”. True to this quest, “The Waste Land” is a symphony of shocks and, like other masterpieces of early modernism, it refuses to die down. (Go to MOMA and let your gaze wander through Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, from west to east. If you don’t flinch when you reach the right faces, bladed and skinned like shovels, see your optician.) The shocks have triggered aftershocks, and Eliot’s readers are trapped in the quake. Leaking is useless:
I happen to think, for what it’s worth, that those lines, which come near the end of “The Waste Land,” are the greatest Eliot has ever written. They cast a shadow of doubt on everything we believe about ourselves, at different stages of our lives; about the stories of ourselves that we tell others; and what they say about us in turn. As always with Eliot, the abstraction is offset by the tense particularity of physical things: the spider, the wax seals and the quivering blood, ending in the long, mournful double ‘o’ of ‘parts’. And the word “surrender” could apply to so many daring souls: a lover in the moment of ecstasy, a religious devotee, a hunted warrior, a corruptible politician, a rushing suitor, like Eliot, in a marriage proposal, or a Dostoevskian gambler, with the family jewels in his pocket. All will be faced with this overwhelming question: “What have we given?” This is something each of us must ask for on our deathbed, although no one wants to die in shame.
Like the Book of Psalms, “King Lear” and Nadal versus Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2018, “The Waste Land” is divided into five parts. Each game has a title: ‘The Burial of the Dead’, ‘A Game of Chess’, ‘The Sermon on Fire’, ‘Death by Water’ and ‘What the Thunder Said’. What about the title of the poem itself? “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal,” wrote Eliot, and, as with Macavity, the master criminal in his “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” (1937), you cannot always tell where the poet has been. It could be, in this case, that he stole Tennyson’s “The Passing of Arthur” and its undulating mood – “as if it were one voice, one agony / Of lamentation, like a wind that cries / All the night in a wasteland, where no one has come, / Or has come, since the creation of the world.
But Tennyson unfolds one story, while Eliot has many stories to tell, some of which overlap, or start as soon as they stop, and, for anyone familiar with Tennysonian euphony, “The Waste Land” can seem like a disconcerting Babel. You might as well rummage through international newspapers or turn the dial of a radio. Listen to the shreds of languages other than English—Italian, French, German, Latin, Sanskrit—that litter the poem, and the profusion of people speaking. A woman named Marie, of aristocratic origin, remembers an episode from her youth; someone else is chatting with friends in a pub. The pub owner also chimes in: “PLEASE HURRY IT’S TIME.” There is a seer, Madame Sosostris, and another seer, the blind Tiresias, with whom Odysseus once conversed in the underworld, and who now watches two loveless townspeople make love. Elsewhere, another woman brushes her hair and complains of bad nerves, while a third records, without anger or animation, a sexual act (“After the event / He cried”), which took place in Richmond, in the south -West London. She claims her humble origins:
Wait, what? In three lines we have jumped not only from Britain to Carthage, and from modern to ancient, but from woman to man: the last line is taken from the “Confessions” of Saint Augustine. Continue the quote and you will find that immediately before it comes the clause “I have become barren ground.” Ah.
Trying to sort out who’s saying what, at any time, in “The Waste Land” is far from a silly race, but it’s a difficult task nonetheless. (Anyone attempting to do so should arm themselves with “The Poems of TS Eliot,” edited into two fearsome volumes by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue.) Augustine is not the only source whose words Eliot, always the ventriloquist, throws in the mix. Others include Dante, Milton, Marvell, Spenser, Baudelaire, explorer Ernest Shackleton and a host of English playwrights: John Webster, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Kyd and pack leader Shakespeare, who is never silent for long. “The Tempest”, in particular, rumbles through the poem:
Catch the echo here, in the last line, and you want to ask what the hell Shakespeare’s Ferdinand is doing behind a gas stove. Isn’t he supposed to be shipwrecked on Prospero Island? The whole passage, collapsing the story on itself, is startling even now, so imagine how it baffled readers in 1922. The parody wasn’t far behind; in a 1925 tale, P. G. Wodehouse poked fun at “the kind of happy, wholesome poetry that boys produce these days” – in particular, “good, honest stuff about sin, gasworks and rotting corpses “.
In the meantime, for readers who doesn’t catch the echo, Eliot offered his help. Appended to “The Waste Land”, when it appeared in book form, in late 1922, was a section entitled “Notes on the Waste Land”. This provided references for the litany of quotes that peppered the poem: “The Tempest, I, ii”, “Ezekiel, II, i”, “Paradise Lost, IV, 140”. There is no disguise of a practical joke aroma; Eliot regales us with nineteen lines of Ovid, untranslated, and solemnly informs us that when “The Waste Land” mentions a Hermit Thrush, the bird in question is Turdus aonalaschkae pallasii. Good to have that sorted out. “It was found that the poem was too short”, he later explained, “so I set to work extending the notes, to provide a few more pages of print, with the result that they are became the remarkable exhibition of fake scholarship that is still visible today. If the notes were fake, however, why did Eliot include them in later collections of his verses, where length was no longer an issue? Forget hermit thrushes, what is the Latin name for a wild goose?