By James Matthew Wilson

One hundred years ago this past October, T.S. Eliot published his monumental poem, The Waste Land, in the pages of his journal, The Criterion. December 15th will mark the centenary of the poem’s first publication in book form with accompanying endnotes, to commemorate his reception of the Dial prize for service to letters. Eliot’s rationale for publishing a poem with his own pretension of scholarly notes, and the wisdom of doing so, remain somewhat disputed, but the appearance of that slender volume marked then and marks now a whole époque in modern poetry.

Eliot had written to his mother, as early as 1919, that he had become one of the most influential figures in contemporary letters among a small but distinguished circle. In his old age, as the poet and critic J.V. Cunningham once observed, Eliot’s voice was that “of an elderly revolutionary, of an usurper whose forces have long since conquered the kingdom of letters.” The Waste Land’s publication made Eliot’s small reputation a general one; the poem itself is the revolution in little to which all of Eliot’s other poems and literary criticism are no more than adjuncts.

The American poet Hart Crane, a romantic for the modern age if ever there was one, thought Eliot’s poem too morbid and spent the remainder of his short life trying to write a poem that would answer despair with jubilation. The Irish poet Thomas MacGreevy, the first person (of many hundreds) to publish a book on Eliot’s work, saw in The Waste Land a great cry of religious yearning that brought a new seriousness and honesty to modern poetry. As Evelyn Waugh suggests in the early pages of Brideshead Revisited, to know Eliot’s poem was to set oneself apart as an acolyte of a new age, and this was a feeling for which one could already be nostalgic in 1944. Waugh depicts the aesthete Anthony Blanche standing “on the balcony with a megaphone,” “and in languishing tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to the river” for rowing practice. “How I have surprised them!” he proclaims.

This is not to say that The Waste Land is Eliot’s greatest work. Russell Kirk, in his biography, Eliot and His Age, held that it certainly was his finest poem. The poet Adam Kirsch has come as close as possible to showing that the poem is compounded of a worn out “ideology” of the modern and also an “enduring newness” of “spiritual and musical” discoveries. We could say that the poem defined an age of civilization, that it is of great historical importance, without continuing on to the judgment that it is also of permanent literary value.

I have several times been tempted to stop short of such a judgment. Kirsch celebrates, and understandably, Eliot’s establishment of “the rhythm of a poem” as “just as important a tool of discovery as its diction and argument.” I would go further and propose that the fragmented rhythms of Eliot’s poem served as an early, influential example that led to the removal of poetic speech from the realm of properly grammatical, human speech. In succeeding decades, poetic speech would come to be known as poetry specifically because it eschewed the grammar, clarity, and organic transitions of sound prose.

While this development was contrary to Eliot’s purposes, it nonetheless came to pass. Poetry as it was practiced became increasingly constrained, first, in terms of the kind of language that counted; with the kind of language limited, the kinds of feeling that could be expressed were also increasingly constrained; and so, in turn, the kinds of subject, or rather, the idea of subject. In this Eliot was a cause of the decline that Etienne Gilson describes as a consequence of modern art’s liberation from knowledge to become pure making:

First poetry forbade itself to teach, then to say anything that might be said equally well in prose; in the process of eliminating all its non-poetic elements it has finally reached a point where it no longer says anything, but this is of little matter, for its essence is safeguarded, provided it attests to man’s power to create formally beautiful combinations of words; only the readers are missing.

There is in Eliot’s poem the possibility of a purely esoteric music, not the music of poetry as traditionally understood as words suitable for music, but for, as Kirsch suggests, a broken, rhythmic exploration of reality that is in some sense a blind exploration. The Waste Land in its formal aspects played a role in the progressive elimination of poetry from playing much of a role in our culture.

But this is not the whole story. Yes, Eliot’s poem appears like “A heap of broken images,” “a handful of dust,” intended to show that we “can connect / Nothing with nothing,” and therein suggests that the world can only be expressed in this manner unless we are to falsify it. But this narrowing, this near disarticulation-out-of-existence, of poetic speech as capacious, human speech, Eliot undertook chiefly so that his poem could reclaim that territory, metaphysical depth, and authority traditionally assigned to the poet.

Homer had demonstrated that the poet’s task was to bring to order and present a whole vision of reality, including the deep mysteries of the underworld. Horace and Virgil would later proclaim outright that poets, in composing verses (sentences measured by both grammar and meter), were the very founders of civilization and that religious rite, science, and law were begotten from the primordial rage for order of the poets.

Such an idea was renewed in the poetic theory of the romantics, especially of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Even Lord Tennyson, after the publication of his great In Memoriam, half-seriously complained that his readers parsed every verse in search of wisdom as if they were scripture and he their prophet. Those great poets however failed to take the measure of the whole of history, the whole of civilization, the whole of human experience. The romantics sought rather to step away from all that and to offer to modern man a consolation set apart from everyday life. If the city was bad, the country was refuge. If factories reduced men to machines, river valleys super-elevated them to spirits. If the captains of industry were banal and bourgeois, then perhaps one could still admire their ambition if it were dressed up in the apparel of Ulysses or King Arthur.

The Waste Land is full of tattered costumes and hints of consolation, too, but it also attempts to represent the world as it is and why one might wish to escape it. Moreover, it attempts to depict the present moment, the modern world, without sublimation but nonetheless in relation to that which transcends it: the archetypes of myth, the cyclical movements of history. If the fragmentation of poetic language found in Eliot’s poem would lead poetry in a direction from which all clear speech and substantial insights were to be excluded, the poem itself remains one of the most ambitious and strangely successful efforts in our literature to comprehend the vast horizons of history and spirit. In brief, it is a poem of great substance.

The poem’s five parts are dramatic after the fashion of the five-act tragedy of Shakespeare. In the first part, “The Burial of the Dead,” we are presented with a series of verses and tableaux that suggest the pathos of the modern age. It is a time of change akin to the change of seasons; a new world is coming to birth “out of the dead land.” But, “April is the cruelest month,” such that all we feel of this change is the weight of the ruins of the past, which is dead, and the pain of labor with uncertain issue. In such circumstances, persons indulge whatever passions will give to lives a scintilla of meaning, whether the memory of summers in the mountains or winters “at the archduke’s, / My cousin’s.”

The age has begotten a spiritual desert. Some rightly cling to moments of emotional intensity, such as a liaison in a “hyacinth garden” that induces for a moment the mystical vision of “Looking into the heart of light.” But others will try to gin up consolation for their spiritual acedia with visits to the local psychic, Madame Sosostris, or with a knowing vision of the “Unreal City,” where the living dead tramp to work. These are reminded of the memory of another, superior mode of life only by the tolling of the hour by a church bell in its tower. The sound of that bell, Eliot suggests, stirs one to glimpse the empty present within the scheme of historical memory, where death in battle and the death and resurrection of Christ both promise that even this present death of civilization is but a prelude to a fuller reality beyond it.

In Part II, “A Game of Chess,” Eliot presents contemporary London life as if indeed it were a Shakespearean tragedy. He follows Shakespeare in the use of the “double plot,” one telling us of characters of rank and the other of the low born. In the first, a woman is depicted before her vanity, full of cosmetics and scents, as if she were Shakespeare’s Cleopatra on her barge. Her setting is one of decadence, nausea at our animal condition, and fear that human sexuality is best summed up not in the giving of new life but the violence of rape. She speaks to her husband, trying to gain his attention and affection. The husband proves incapable of responding except in silent thought. He escapes into memories of lines from Shakespeare and then recollects a passage from “that Shakespeherian Rag.” She threatens to make a scene to force him to notice her. She speaks; he thinks; they cannot commune. The only escapes from solitude are violent ones, but violence cannot bring about emotional union. They are alone together.

In the next scene, a woman recounts the story of Lil and her husband. The man is now home from the Great War; the wife has borne him five children, but tacitly aborted a sixth, from which her health and appearance have never recovered. The great and the small alike live out decadence and decay, solitude and spiritual impoverishment. Civilization’s “good night” is likened to the suicide of Ophelia in Hamlet: rejection, solitude, madness, and death.

“The Fire Sermon,” Part III, dilates these private tragedies until we see them as expressing an entire civilization. All of London appears as a windblown trash heap, a place of wreckage as was England before the coming of Arthur. When we meet a listless typist, returned in her small apartment for dinner, and then “the young man carbuncular,” a hustler on the make who drops by only long enough to fornicate with his passionless and indifferent companion, we are prepared to receive them as representatives of an entire civilization. Squalid and fallen humanity, in the Elizabethan age and the present one, are sunk in the flesh, and yet yearn, like that more ancient sensualist, St. Augustine, to be plucked out of the fire of sin, and like the Buddha to transcend the illusions of the world.

In the brief, in “Death by Water,” Eliot suggests that there shall be no plucking. The movements of civilization are equivalent to the movements of a drowned sailor’s corpse, who circles endlessly round in the current of a whirlpool. History is a circle from which there is no escape. If we rise today, we shall fall tomorrow, as Fortune’s wheel teaches. There is no significance to the appearance of flourishing, and history is relative, but only in the sense that it is pointless.

The poem, even Part IV, does not leave us with just this thought, however. We recall the opening lines about the pain of rebirth in the cruel month of April, when a little life stirs in the dead land. We recall Madame Sosostris, who, also in Part I, has read her tarot cards and warned us to fear “death by water.” And here we find Phlebas, dead by water indeed. If there is no natural way out of the whirlpool, if there is no natural means of escaping the endless cycles of birth and death within history, there may still be a supernatural means. The death to the old self by water, the painful rebirth as a new creation, the supernatural grace of baptism may free us from the poem’s display of anarchy and futility. The dead body adrift in the whirlpool may be the perfect image of futility, but he may also be a tarot-card symbol of another level of being and meaning altogether: supernatural revelation and the spiritual significant of things, where what seems disconnected and meaningless bears within it those secret connections that make a heap of fragments to cohere as a single poem and the events of history to play a subordinate role in the direction of divine providence.

We see several fragments begin to cohere, if we look close enough. We also see apertures, however small, open up within history to speak of what is beyond it. In at least four places, Eliot has hinted at a reality beyond the whirlpool. We noted the vision in the garden and the tolling of the church bell, in Part I. In Part III, we hear however briefly of the unselfconscious cheer of “fishmen” lounging over their lunches at noon, and the “inexplicable splendor of Ionian white and gold” of a second church, that of Magnus Martyr. If these seem fleeting signs of hope, Eliot’s notes on the poem refer us to a booklet, The Proposed Demotion of Nineteen City Churches. Eliot the London banker himself wrote in protest of the proposal. He sensed something “inexplicable” in the churches that amounted to more than being “one of the finest among” the architect Christopher Wren’s interiors. The churches are temples, places apart, where heaven opens up upon earth—or where one at least may hope for such an opening.

And thus, in the last act of the poem, “What the Thunder Said,” Eliot presents a fantastical landscape of despair but also more than an intimation of a transcendence of history by spiritual and religious rebirth. The scriptural language of water and rock, which repeats for lines, is one of them. A “flash of lighting” and rain from the east is another. Judaism and Indic religion appear as ur-religions, the resources of West and East. This is to be expected; Eliot had studied at Harvard with Irving Babbitt, who treated the great books East and West as sources for a new humanism. But Christ appears, or seems to, a fleeting figure, on the road to Emmaus. Amid the desert appears an “empty chapel,” reminding us of Parsifal’s quest for the Holy Grail.

When thunder cracks, again out of the East, its speech is Indic, but the allusion is to Revelation 10:1-7, where thunder represents the voice of God. In Datta, Dayahvam, Damyata (Give, Sympathize, Control), Eliot outlines the capacities or virtues that would be necessary for modern man to escape its bourgeois listlessness, its mechanistic habits, its solipsism and craving of distracting stimulants, and its incapacity for self-mastery and holiness.

But Eliot was writing the great modernist poem. He could not let the thing end with simple affirmation of this rather Victorian syncretistic spirituality. After such suffering as the poem shows, there can be no easy forgiveness. And so he heaps fragment on fragment, hints that history’s end may be the revenge of a man soon to bite out his own tongue and die (Hieronymo, from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy), such that the final words are the Indic ones repeated, but this time without explanation. And then one more, fragmentary, set off line. There appears still another Indic word, “Shantih,” peace, repeated three times. It’s a prayer or a plea, but not a promise.

When I first read this poem, I did not understand a word of it. My jaw dropped simply at the bewildering panoptic montage and the overwhelming feeling that Eliot’s music conveyed. I thought it was the greatest poem I had ever read. I am very far from that perspective now. But I do think Eliot made use of the poetics of fragmentation in the finest way possible, and in a manner far superior to anyone who followed him. And I also think that the historical drama that unfolds in the poem is not only ambitious in scope but genuinely perceptive. He saw the age correctly and he spoke—tersely and cannily—of the possibility of its redemption. If poets came to speak less clearly in consequence of Eliot’s great reputation, Eliot also reestablished poetry as a way of coming to know reality and to perceive the order of being even amid the wreckage of history. If he staged a revolution, he also made possible a restoration.

James Matthew Wilson is Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and the Founding Director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. He is a poet and is the author of twelve books.

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