Various poets, from Claude McKay to Ezra Pound, had already paved the way, and T.S. Eliot himself had written significant modernist poems before he published ‘The Waste Land’ in October 1922. But, in ways that are still difficult to pin down, ‘The Waste Land’ had an effect that can be considered revolutionary.
What is it that happened, and continues to happen, in ‘The Waste Land?’ Why did it have such an impact? Why has it survived to the extent that in 2022, to mark its centenary, 22 churches in London will be filled with artistic, literary and musical responses to Eliot’s masterpiece? One of the responses, appropriately for a poem that ends with ‘shantih’, will be offered by the British-Indian pianist Rekesh Chauhan, drawing upon classical ragas.
The sheer musicality of ‘The Waste Land’ cannot be doubted: it applies to Anglophone poetry the lessons of jazz, though perhaps not consciously, as was being done around the same time by poets such as Langston Hughes. Robert Nicolosi notes that Eliot was born in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri, which thrived with jazz in the 1890s and early 1900s, but, unlike his obvious references to classical music, Eliot does not consciously index jazz in his writings. Yet, the music one hears even in his early poems, like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), is heavily influenced by jazz. In that sense, ‘The Waste Land’ was a poem of its moment.
Its struggle with despair and hope also belonged to the moment: the years between the First World War and the Second World War, situated in the last decades of European colonisation, when the ghosts of empire had already been haunting Europe for some time. These ghosts are present in ‘The Waste Land’, not just in references to Buddhism, the Upanishads, or “the hermit-thrush of Quebec Province”, but also in its acknowledged indebtedness to James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, arguably the first major European study of religion that treated Christianity as just another faith among faiths.
But to understand the context of the writing of ‘The Waste Land’ is not the same as understanding its text. In short, the question arises: What is the poem about? It is a question that we ask about all works of literature, but that I, for one, specifically warn my students against answering reductively. Because if you can paraphrase a great work of literature, then what was the point of its author writing that work in so many words, and exactly those hard-wrought words? ‘The Waste Land’ consists of 433 lines, each carefully crafted and stuffed—some would say stuffed too full—with allusions and references. It is surely a joke to say that it is about modern despair or civilisational fears or some such matter, individual or general. What one needs to do is engage with the text of the poem, not reduce it to a summary of the kind we find on Amazon.
But the text of ‘The Waste Land’ is demanding and confusing. In an essay in Poetry Magazine, Lesley Wheeler states that, for many writers, “‘The Waste Land’ is an emblem of obscurity, communicating mainly the impossibility of communication…. Sound is how Eliot expresses personal despair and social critique most forcefully, and also how he survives the apocalypse.”
This is no doubt a large part of the story, but there are other elements too. For instance, ‘The Waste Land’ is considered a major landmark of modernism not just because of its sounds—jazz in poetry, as Wheeler rightly suggests—but because of what it does to certain traditions and features of mainstream poetry until then. Eliot does not just move away from fixed metrical patterns and rhyming schemes—a movement also detected in the war poets, such as Wilfred Owens, who had often perished in the First World War, and for similar reasons: because the new world of a global war seemed to them to be betrayed when forced into measured Tennysonian stanzas. That bit has to do largely with sound, the jazz parallel that I have highlighted. But Eliot also does something to words and ideas: his poem is full of fragments, and the fragments are from everywhere. The mundane jostles with the classical, the profane with the sacred, East with West, German with English. If we have to look for critical terms to describe what is happening in ‘The Waste Land’, we would do worse than replicate this list from an online article: randomness, playfulness, fragmentation, metafiction, intertextuality.
But I am being dishonest: In the respectable source from which I have drawn these five words, they are presented as a list of the characteristics of postmodernism, not of modernism. So is ‘The Waste Land’, which some consider the greatest modernist poem in English, actually a postmodern work? What is even more interesting is the fact that these characteristics of postmodernism also apply to other seminal modernist works by Eliot, Ezra Pound, and so on.
I have not made this point to argue that there is no difference between modernism and postmodernism. I have made it to try to highlight the significance of ‘The Waste Land’, and understand the oeuvre of Eliot, and his continued appeal to us. ‘The Waste Land’, divided into five parts, takes us on a turgid ride through modernity, which includes looking again at the world, past and present. Hence, the very first two lines—“April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land…”—turn the coming of Spring into something else. It is no longer a joyous season of birth, but what birth also involves: pain, loss, death.
We are taken through a series of broken images and incomplete stories, through the “Unreal City”, where London Bridge is crowded with the living dead, to a mundane conversation in a pub, which is about to close for the night, to the pointlessness of modern love, poised against the echo of an older text: “When lovely woman stoops to folly and/Paces about her room again, alone,/She smoothes her hair with automatic hand/and puts a record on the gramophone.” Then, after a cryptic ‘tarot card’ image in Part IV, the poem turns to a larger existential bleakness in the final part—“If there were rock/and also water…/Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop/But there is no water”—before trying to suggest hope through, to my mind, a vague use of the Upanishads. If there is hope in the last two lines—“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.//Shantih shantih shantih”—then it is hidden, cryptic and uncertain.
This, however, is the reason why Eliot appeals. Unlike postmodern writers who have merrily given up on a world of shape, coherence and hope, Eliot shores up his fragments “against ruin”. There is always something out there and behind him: it is broken, it might always have been broken, but some shards and sounds still survive. Eliot uses them to write about the human condition, which remains our condition—or at least my condition, for I lack the postmodern ability, which I consider class-based, to neither weep nor hope. ‘The Waste Land’ weeps and hopes, no matter how vaguely, for all of us.