1923 - The Waste Land

The Waste Land by T S Eliot, Hogarth Press, 4s. 6d. Reviewed

Among the maggots that breed in the corruption of poetry one of the commonest is the bookworm. When Athens had decayed and Alexandria sprawled across the Egyptian sands, when the Greek world was filling with libraries and emptying of poets, then first appeared that Professorenpoesie which finds in literature the inspiration that life gives no more. The Alexandra of Lycophron, which its learned authors made so obscure that other learned authors could make fortunes explaining what it meant, survives as the first case of this disease and the first really bad poem in Greek. The malady reappears in Rome in the work of Cinna and Propertius; it has recurred at intervals ever since. Disconnected and ill-knit, loaded with echo and allusion, fantastic and crude - such is the typical style of Alexandrianism.

Readers of The Waste Land are referred at the outset to a work on the origins of the legends of the Holy Grail by Miss J L Weston, a disciple of Frazer, and to The Golden Bough itself. Those who conscientiously plunge into the former will learn that the basis of the Grail story is the restoration of the virility of a Fisher King and thereby of the fertility of a Waste Land, the Lance and the Grail being phallic symbols. While maintaining due caution and remembering how "Diodorus Siculus/ Made himself ridiculous/ By thinking thimbles/ Were phallic symbols", one may admit that Miss Weston makes a very good case. With that, however, neither she nor Mr Eliot can rest content. Miss Weston is clearly a theosophist, and Mr Eliot's poem might be a theosophical tract. The sick king and the waste land symbolise, we gather, the sick soul and the desolation of this material life.

It is hard not to regret the way in which modern writers of real creative power abandon themselves to the illusion that they have philosophical gifts and a weighty message to deliver. In all periods, creative artists have been apt to think they could think, though in all periods they have been frequently hare-brained and sometimes mad. Now, we have the spectacle of Mr Lawrence, Miss May Sinclair and Mr Eliot all sacrificing their artistic powers on the altar of some fantastic Mumbo-Jumbo.

Perhaps this unhappy composition should have been left to sink itself, but it is not easy to dismiss in three lines what is being written about as a masterpiece. For at present it is easy to win the applause of the blase and the young, of the coteries and the eccentricities. But a poem that has to be explained in notes is not unlike a picture with "This is a dog" inscribed beneath. Not, indeed, that Mr Eliot's notes succeed in explaining anything. The main function of the notes is to give the references to the innumerable authors whose lines the poet embodies, but the borrowed jewels he has set in its head do not make Mr Eliot's toad the more prepossessing.

In brief, in The Waste Land Mr Eliot has shown that he can at moments write real blank verse; but that is all. For the rest he has quoted a great deal, he has parodied and imitated. But the parodies are cheap and the imitations inferior. Among so many other sources Mr Eliot may have thought, as he wrote, of Rossetti's Card-Dealer, of Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, of the Vision of Sin. But the trouble is that for the reader who thinks of them the comparison is crushing; The Waste Land adds nothing to a literature which contains things like these.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.