On its appearance in 1922, TS Eliot’s modernist poem was hailed as a work of great importance. It took the magazine a few months before it turned its attention to the verses and, when FL Lucas did so, his judgement was damning. After an opening salvo on the aridity of poetic obscurantism, Lucas noted that “To attempt here an interpretation, even an intelligible summary of the poem, is to risk making oneself ridiculous”. He went on to say that squalor “seems perpetually to obsess Mr Eliot with mixed fascination and repulsion”, that his explanatory notes were useless, and that Eliot was one of those writers who thought themselves a philosopher, “sacrificing their artistic powers on the altar of some fantastic Mumbo-Jumbo”. He concluded that “Perhaps this unhappy composition should have been left to sink itself”, but decided nevertheless to help scuttle it. What Lucas didn’t know was how the poem would prove to be unsinkable.
“Solitudenem faciunt, poema appellant”
Among the maggots that breed in the corruption of poetry one of the commonest is the bookworm. When Athens had decayed and Alexandria sprawled, the new giant-city, across the Egyptian sands; when the Greek world was filling with libraries and emptying of poets, growing in erudition as its genius expired, then first appeared, as pompous as Herod and as worm-eaten, that Professorenpoesie which finds in literature the inspiration that life gives no more, which replaces depth by muddiness, beauty by echoes, passion by necrophily. The fashionable verse of Alexandria grew out of the polite leisure of its librarians, its Homeric scholars, its literary critics. Indeed, the learned of that age had solved the economic problem of living by taking in each others’ dirty washing, and the Alexandria of Lycophron, which its learned author made so obscure that other learned authors could make their fortunes by explaining what it meant, still survives for the curious as the first case of this disease and the first really bad poem in Greek. The malady reappears at Rome in the work of Catullus’s friend Cinna (the same whom with a justice doubly poetic the crowd in Julius Caesar “tears for his bad verses”), and in the gloomy pedantry that roars so much of Propertius; it has recurred at intervals ever since. Disconnected and ill-knit, loaded with echo and allusion, fantastic and crude, obscure and obscurantist, such is the typical style of Alexandrianism.
Readers of “The Waste Land” are referred at the outset, if they wish to understand the poem or even its title, to a work on the ritual origins of the legends of the Holy Grail by Miss JL Weston, a disciple of Frazer, and to the Golden Bough itself. Those who conscientiously plunge into the two hundred pages of the former interesting, though credulous, work, will learn that the basis of the Grail story is the restoration of the virility of a Fisher King (who is an incarnation, like so many others in Frazer, of the Life-spirit), and thereby of the fertility of a Waste Land, the Lance and the Grail itself being phallic symbols. While maintaining due caution and remembering how
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, and they must needs discover an esoteric meaning under the rags of superstitious Adam. 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.
But even when thus instructed and with a feeling of virtuous research the reader returns to the attack, the difficulties are but begun. To attempt here an interpretation, even an intelligible summary of the poem, is to risk making oneself ridiculous; but those who lack the common modern gift of judging poetry without knowing what it means, must risk that. “The Waste Land” is headed by an allusion from Petronius to the Sibyl at Cumae, shrunk so small by her incredible age that she was hung up in a bottle and could only squeak, “I want to die.” She typifies, I suppose, the timeworn soul’s desire to escape from the “Wheel” of things. The first of the five sections opens in spring with one of the snatches of poetry that occur scattered about the poem:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
The next moment comes a spasm of futile, society conversation from a Swiss resort, followed by a passionate outburst at the sterile barrenness of life, though not without hope of its redemption. This is far the best passage in the book:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Then, suddenly, a verse of Tristan und Isolde and an echo of Sappho (the vanity of human love?). Next instant there appears a clairvoyante, and in the mystic “Tarot” cards of her fortune-telling are revealed those mysterious figures that flit through the poem, melting into each other in a way that recalls Emerson’s “Brahma” – the Phoenician sailor, who “Is not wholly distinct from Prince Ferdinand of Naples” and seems to be reincarnate in the Smyrna currant-merchant; the Fisher King; and the Frazerite Hanged Man or sacrificed priest who merges later into the Christ of the walk to Emmaus.
Then we are thrust into the squalid, “unreal” Inferno of London Bridge.
The second section contains a dialogue between two jaded lovers in luxury, an interlude about the rape of Philomela the nightingale (spiritual beauty violated by the world?), and a pothouse story of a wrangle between two women about the husband of one of them. In the third part the Fisher King appears fishing in the first person behind the gashouse, and there recur the motifs of the nightingale and of unreal London, also:
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants
But before the reader has time to breathe, “I, Tiresias” is watching the seduction of a tired typist after tea by a “young man carbuncular” – a typical instance of that squalor which seems perpetually to obsess Mr Eliot with mixed fascination and repulsion. A note explains that Tiresias, being a person of double sex, unites in some way all the other persons in the poem. There is more suburban sordidness, and the section ends gasping half a sentence from St Augustine and another half from Buddha.
[see also: From the NS archive: Mr Eliot’s poems]
In “IV – Death by Water” (one of the stock ways, in Frazer, of killing the vegetation king and ensuring rain by sympathetic magic) the Phoenician sailor is duly drowned. Section V, which brings the rain of deliverance to the Waste Land, is, by the author’s account, a mixture of the Walk to Emmaus, of the approach to the Chapel Perilous in Arthurian Legend (taken by Miss Weston to signify initiation into the mysteries of physical and spiritual union), and of the state of Eastern Europe! Deliverance comes with the magic formula; “Datta, dayadhvam, damyata – give, sympathise, control”, and the poem ends:
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon – O swallow, swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe
Datta. Dayadbvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
(The punctuation largely disappears in the latter part of the poem – whether this be subtlety or accident, it is impossible to say. “Shantih” is equivalent to the “Peace that passeth understanding” – which in this case it certainly does.)
All this is very difficult; as Dr Johnson said under similar circumstances, “I would it were impossible.” But the gist of the poem is apparently a wild revolt from the abomination of desolation which is human life, combined with a belief in salvation by the usual catchwords of renunciation – this salvation being also the esoteric significance of the savage fertility rituals found in the Golden Bough, a watering, as it were, of the desert of the suffering soul.
About the philosophy of the poem, if such it be, it would be vain to argue; but it is hard not to regret the way in which modern writers of real creative power abandon themselves to the fond illusion that they have philosophic gifts and a weighty message to deliver to the world, as well. In all periods creative artists have been apt to think they could think, though in all periods they have been frequently harebrained and sometimes mad; just as great rulers and warriors have cared only to be flattered for the way they fiddled or their flatulent tragedies. But now, in particular, 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, all trying to get children on mandrake roots instead of bearing their natural offspring.
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 new masterpiece. For at present it is particularly easy to win the applause of the blasé and the young, of the coteries and the eccentricities. The Victorian “Spasmodics” likewise had their day. But a poem that has to be explained in notes is not like a picture with “This is a dog” inscribed beneath. Not, indeed, that Mr Eliot’s notes succeed in explaining anything, being as muddled as incomplete. What is the use of explaining “laquearia” by quoting two lines of Latin containing the word, which will convey nothing to those who do not know that language, and nothing new to those who do? What is the use of giving a quotation from Ovid which begins in the middle of a sentence, without either subject or verb, and fails to add even the reference? And when one person hails another on London Bridge as having been with him “at Mylae”, how is the non-classical reader to guess that this is the name of a Punic sea-fight in which as Phoenician sailor, presumably, the speaker had taken part? The main function of the notes is, indeed, to give the references to the innumerable authors whose lines the poet embodies, like a medieval writer making a life of Christ out of lines of Virgil. 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 Harold to the Dark Tower Came”, of the “Vision of Sin” with its same question:
To which an answer peal’d from that high land,
But in a tongue no man could understand.
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. And in our own day, though Professor Santayana be an inferior poet, no one has better reaffirmed the everlasting “No” of criticism to this recurrent malady of tired ages, “the fantastic and lacking in sanity”:
Never will they dig deep or build for time
Who of unreason weave a maze of rhyme,
Worship a weakness, nurse a whim, and bind
Wreaths about temples tenantless of mind,
Forsake the path the seeing Muses trod,
And shatter Nature to discover God.
Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)