T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” documentary (1987)
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T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” documentary (1987)


April is the cruelest month,
breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and
desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding a little life
with dried tubers. Summer surprised us, coming over
the Starnbergersee with a shower of rain; we stopped in
the colonnade, and went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
and drank coffee, and talked for an hour. [SPEAKING GERMAN] And when we were children,
staying at the archduke’s, my cousin’s, he took me out on a
sled, and I was frightened. He said, Marie, Marie,
hold on tight. And down we went. In the mountains– In the mountains, there
you feel free. I read, much of the night, and
go South in the winter. What are the roots the 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 gives no shelter, the cricket
no relief, and the dry stone no sound of water. Only, there is shadow
under this red rock. Come in under the shadow
of this red rock. And I will show you something
different from either your shadow at morning, striding
behind you, or your shadow at evening rising to meet you. I will show you fear in
a handful of dust. Eliot once wrote to me that he
was greatly influenced by Beethoven’s late quartets. That he’d play them on the
gramophone again and again. And I can remember what he
said in his letter– “I wish that I could attain
in poetry the same kind of suffering as Beethoven
expresses in his last quartets.” T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”
is the most famous poem written this century, and the
high point of the modern movement in poetry. On the strength of it, Eliot
was to become the most respected poet of his age, a
cultural guru, who in later life could attract audiences
several thousand strong to his lectures. And though Eliot was to
have several careers– as dramatist, critic, publisher,
and editor– it was as the author of “The
Waste Land” that he was always primarily known. I can’t think of any poem really
as great as “The Waste Land.” It probably remains the
most important poem certainly of the early part of
the 20th century and the English language. I think his role in 20th century
poetry is absolutely towering over everyone else. He’s much better than Yeats,
much, much, more inventive, much more brilliant, newer,
simply newer. I mean everything in
20th century poetry is founded on Eliot. Thomas Stearns Eliot
was born in Saint Louis, Missouri in 1888. He was a frail child. And from an early age,
he was cosseted and protected from the world. The dominant influence of his
childhood was his grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, a
Unitarian minister who instilled in the young Eliot a
sense of moral propriety and public service. He had a happy childhood, and
yet by the time he went to Harvard University, he found a
deep and unsettling need to break out of the provincial
structures of his upbringing. His family, the Eliots, were the
aristocrats of that time in American life. Eliot, as he grew up in this
rather large but closely-knit family was aware that
his duties– which would devolve upon him–
were those of commitment, public service, public law. These were commitments he
never actually eschewed. And throughout his life, you see
manifestations of them in his various roles he
chose to play. In terms of his actual poetry,
what you find in the years of St. Louis and the years when he
was at Harvard, is a poetry which is primarily concerned
with gloom, with solitariness, with sexual unease. He’s obviously a young man who
wants to break out of the very close family situation, which
was the condition of his life at that time but didn’t
know how to do so. When he was at Harvard, for
example, he would go on long lonely walks through the
slums of Cambridge, which was close by. But all the time, you feel that
he’s on a lead, and that he’s going to be dragged
back at any moment– back to the family life, back
to the university life, back to all the ambitions his
parents had for him. So you get the sense of a
very civilized, elegant, aristocratic young man. But one who was trying,
awkwardly sometimes, unsuccessfully sometimes, to
rebel against that background. Let us go then you and I, when
the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table. Let us go through certain
half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats of restless
nights in one-night, cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants
with oyster shells. Street that follow like a
tedious argument of insidious intent to lead you to an
overwhelming question. Oh, do not ask what is it, let
us go and make our visit. “The Love Song of J. Alfred
Prufrock” was Eliot’s first major poem. He wrote it when he was
23, while still a student at Harvard. And it immediately marked him
out as a poet of unique originality. What Eliot gave them was irony
and pathos and anti-climax, and also this extraordinary use
of imagery in his poetry. If you take the beginning, what
you have is the first of the modernist trumps. “Let us go then you and I, when
the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient
etherized upon a table.” What Eliot is doing here
is taking an old cliche, “the red sky at night is a
sheperd’s delight,” and turning it through 75, 130
degrees something like that. I mean, just swiveling it
so you didn’t see it in quite the same way. You have here a recognizable
voice, but quite an unusual one that’s never been heard
before, certainly not in English poetry. Where his contemporaries in
England, and to a certain extent in America, were still
lost in a kind of late romantic twilight– where expressions of public
disorder were matched only by expressions of private
disorder. There’s a certain breakdown in
the value system, so the language seems thin and
etiolated as a result. Here you have a poet and a
poem seems very sure of himself, very sure of what he’s
trying to do, and very sure he’s got his act together,
as they say. And this came as a
profound shock. When Howard Monroe was shown the
poem by Conrad Aiken, he said it was “absolutely insane.”
Now what he meant by that was that it didn’t conform
either melodically or thematically with anything
he was used to reading. There will be time, there will
be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet. There will be time to murder and
create, and time for all the works and days of hands that
lift and drop a question on your plate, time for you, and
time for me, and time yet for a hundred indecisions and
for a hundred visions and revisions before the taking
of a toast and tea. In the room, the women come
and go talking of Michelangelo. And indeed there will be
time to wonder, do I dare, and do I dare? Time to turn back and descend
the stair with a bald spot in the middle of my hair. They will say, how his
hair is growing thin. My morning coat, my collar
mounting firmly to the chin, my necktie rich and modest, but
asserted by a simple pin. They will say, but how his
arms and legs are thin. Do I dare disturb
the universe? In a minute there is time for
decisions and revisions, which a minute will reverse, for I
have known them all already, known them all, have known
the evenings, mornings, afternoons. I have measured out my life
with coffee spoons. I know the voice is dying with a
dying fall beneath the music from a farther room. So how should I presume? Prufrock is a genuine
creation. He is J. Alfred Prufrock. And this is actually slightly
different from being Thomas Stearns Eliot. I think Eliot was a rather
sophisticated human being. Clearly a man who
was reserved. Virginia Woolf once sent in an
invitation out saying T. S. Eliot would be here in
his four-piece suit. Clearly people saw this. But I think actually a man
capable of great passion and not ridiculous, not at times
almost the fool. Well, he was always someone who
liked to play roles, even from an early age. People who knew him well, even
people who didn’t, noticed that he was, as it were, as V.S.
Pritchett said, a company of actors within one suit. His life, in a sense,
was a continual parading of roles or masks. And this certainly began because
of Harvard where he posed, as it were, as
the young dandy. That was one of his
great poses. He could also pose as the
religious mystic. That was another phase
in his life. So the adoption of these
dramatic personae in the early poetry would, I think, have come
quite naturally to him. In fact, it has been said and
could even be proved, that Eliot is the greatest dramatic
poet of our period. You can interpret his early
poetry, and certainly you can read it, as a series of dramatic
monologues by various characters coming on the stage
of Eliot’s consciousness. Certainly that was what
immediately struck his contemporaries about
that kind of work. And certainly that was the
reason why it seemed so different from the kind of work
which was being produced by English writers at
the same period. And would it have been
worth it after all? After the cups of marmalade, the
tea, among the porcelains, among some talk of you and me,
would it have been worthwhile to have bitten off the
matter with a smile? To have squeezed the universe
into a ball, to roll it towards some overwhelming
question? To say, I am Lazarus
come from the dead. I have come back to
tell you all– I shall tell you all. If one settling a pillow by her
head should say, that is not what I mean at all. That is not it at all. And wouldn’t it have been
worth it, after all? Would it have been worthwhile,
after the sunsets and door yards and sprinkled streets,
after the novels, after the tea cups, after the skirts that
trail along the floor, and this, and so much more. It is impossible to say
just what I mean. But as if a magic lantern threw
the nerves in patterns on a screen, would it have
been worthwhile, if one settling a pillow or throwing
off a shawl, and turning towards the window should say,
that is not it at all. That is not what
I meant at all. Prufrock, I think, anticipates
“The Waste Land” in two ways. One is thematic and the other
one is in terms of technique. In terms of theme, it introduces
what is actually the theme of a great deal of
Eliot’s poetry, right up through “The Waste Land” and
into “The Hollow Men.” And it’s the theme of
the failure to live. If you think about Prufrock,
I mean, he’s an incredibly inhibited man emotionally, who
is, whatever the turmoil inside, very little
is coming out. I mean he’s as uptight
as a rolled umbrella. In terms of technique, yes, I
mean, it is an extraordinary poem in which you have a
constant use of pathos and anti-climax. You have the overwhelming
question, which is then refused. “Oh, do not
ask what is it. Let us go and make our visit.” Then you have the biblical
pastiche of Ecclesiastes, the meditation on time. “There
will be time. There will be time to prepare
a face to meet the faces that you meet. There will be time to
murder and create.” But by the end of that, it’s
“time for a hundred visions and revisions, before the taking
of a toast and tea.” And the whole thing
dribbles away. By the end of the poem, this use
of pathos and anti-climax is actually deepened so it
gets a tragic night. I mean, it’s not
simply ironic. No, I am not Prince Hamlet,
nor was meant to be. I’m an attendant lord, one
that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two,
advise the prince; no doubt an easy tool, deferential,
glad to be of use, politic, cautious, and
meticulous, full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse. At times, indeed, almost
ridiculous. At times almost the fool. I grow old. I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms
of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel
trousers and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids
singing, each to each. I do not think that they
will sing to me. I have seen them riding seaward
on the waves, combing the white hair of the waves
blown back, when the wind blows the water white
and black. We have lingered in the chambers
of the sea, by sea-girls wreathed with seaweed
red and brown, till human voices wake
us and we drown. Prufrock wasn’t actually
published until 1915, by which time Eliot had left America
and settled in England. He came initially to take up a
post at Oxford, but quickly discovered in the artistic
life of London a more congenial climate
for his writing. For the first time in his life,
he found himself with people of his own age, who took
poetry seriously, took culture seriously and were able
to discuss it at great length on many occasions. So that was one element of it. The other element was
that he was an authoritarian by temper. And being in aristocratic
American, disdained the American tradition in politics
and society. He found in Europe what he’d
not been able to find in America, which was a strong
almost medieval cultural tradition, an authoritarian
cultural tradition to which he went on to ascribe himself. It’s a decision he never really
regretted either, because he never actually went
home to live in America again. Avant garde life in London
during the First World War was dominated by two great
energies– Wyndham Lewis and another
expatriate American, Ezra Pound. Pound in particular was to play
a huge part in launching Eliot’s career. Indeed, it was he who
organized the first publication of Prufrock. Pound had joined Wyndham Lewis
in founding a movement they called Vorticism, dedicated to
reforming and modernizing English cultural life. Inspired by cubism and futurism
on the continent, Vorticism was determinedly
behind all things modern and experimental. It was spirited and
flamboyant. And the Vorticist magazine was
appropriately called Blast. Well as the name Blast
indicates, they were really trying to blast away the
remnants of Victorianism and English romanticism, what were
called the Georgian poets. And they were trying to
introduce modernism. What they were trying to do,
as a matter of fact, was to create a modern tradition which
connected with a past. They were against this sort of
idea of tradition as simply carrying on with what your
predecessors have done. It was a revolt against your
immediate predecessors, and a deliberate pushing yourself back
into a much more remote past but a relevant past. What they’re trying to do,
people like Pound and Eliot, is really to introduce that kind
of revolution into the history of poetry as it already
had occurred in music and painting. And all antecedents existed in
France around about the great dates, 1870, 1880 and so on. What they were trying to do,
trying to drag English into the mainstream again, not just
the mainstream of modern poetry but the mainstream
of modern art. The antics of the Vorticists
were one of the few colorful aspects of life in
wartime London. As the war dragged on and the
enormity of what was happening in the trenches began to sink
in at home, the capital took on a blighted mood. And the bleak reality of the
modern city found its way memorably into Eliot’s verse,
when in 1916 he began the poem that was eventually to be
published as “The Waste Land.” Unreal city under the brown fog
of a winter dawn, a crowd flowed over London Bridge. So many I had not thought death
had undone so many. Sighs, short and infrequent
were exhaled. And each man fixed his
eyes before his feet. Flowed up the hill and down King
Williams Street, to where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the
hours with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine. There I saw one I knew– There I saw one I knew and
stopped him, crying, Stetson, you who were with me in
the ships at Mylae. That corpse you planted last
year in your garden, has it begun to spout? Will it bloom this year? Or has the sudden frost
disturbed its bed? Oh, keep the Dog far hence,
that’s friend to men, or with his nails he’ll dig
it up again. You! [SPEAKING FRENCH] In relation to a poem
like Prufrock, what you have here is– in Prufrock– a poem which looks backward
and also looks forward. I mean, it’s modernist, but
it’s also traditional. It’s in the tradition of
the dramatic monologue. By the time you get to “The
Waste Land,” you’ve got something completely
different. And if you wanted an analogy,
supposing you look towards Picasso. You’d have the rose period,
then the blue period. Both of them different,
but also recognizable. And suddenly analytical
cubism– here comes “The Waste Land.” And, boy, is it all happening? You can’t quite follow
it, but it seems very, very modern indeed. And there’s a lot of
modern life in it. In England, it was what Theo
Connolly called the great knockout up to date. It was a poem which
had jazz rhythms. It had urban symbolism. It had anthropological myth. It had the whole gamut of what
was then fashionable concerns poured into this
slender vessel. And as a result, it goes
to an enormous success. “The Waste Land,”, as
it was published in 1922, is in five parts. Furthermore, the whole poem is
littered with a plethora of quotes and half-quotes from
sources as diverse as nursery rhymes and Dante, all of which
led some of its first readers to attack it as being
a poem of fragments. In a sense, it is a
poem of fragments. You see, when it was originally
about to be published Eliot was quite happy
to have it published in separate issues of
The Criterion. And there was one possibility,
I think, that is was going to be published in four different
issues at The Dial. So he wasn’t himself convinced
about its coherence as a poem. When everyone started saying
how wonderful it was, of course, he changed his mind
and saw exactly how good the poem was. So on that level, I think it
could be seen as it does have a fragmentary feel about it. On the other level, about the
fragments of verse which he introduces into the poem,
fragments of the literary tradition, that’s very deeply a
part of Eliot’s own psyche. That’s his way of finding his
own voice, by co-opting the voices of other people. You’ll find the strange thing
about Eliot’s poetry is that whenever you read it, you’re
constantly getting little echoes and murmurs of
other people’s work. You hear bits of Dante, bits
of Baudelaire bits of [INAUDIBLE], bits of Laforgue,
bits of Tennyson, bits of Browning all just underneath
the surface of the poetry. But that’s, of course, is what
gives it its strength. These words are Eliot’s words
and yet not his words. And it’s that strange echoic
quality, which leads to its being so memorable. One of the extraordinary things
about “The Waste Land,” of course, is the amount of
allusion and the amount of learning and reading that
goes into the poem. Eliot uses this, I think, quite
straightforwardly in order to show that things
have been debased. Perhaps the most significant
example is the opening of the game of chess where Eliot picks
up Enobarbus’ speech in Anthony and Cleopatra. “And the barge she sat on, like
a burnished throne burned on the water,” and
then on he goes. And it becomes “the chair she
sat in, like a burnished throne, glowed on the marble.”
And then what you have is instead of Cleopatra’s enormous
vitality, you have this incredible sinuous syntax,
which loses you and picks you up, until finally
you realize that the sensuality here is more
apparent than real. That this is a woman who
is the sum total of her accessories, her perfumes,
her jewels. She has no real vitality. And then, of course, as she
brushes her hair, and it glows into words, what the
words say are, “my nerves are bad tonight. Stay with me.” The chair she sat in, like a
burnished throne, glowed on the marble, where the glass held
up by standards wrought with fruited vines, from which
a golden Cupidon peeped out, another hid his eyes
behind his wing. Doubled the flames of
seven-branched candelabra reflecting light upon the table
as the glitter of her jewels rose to meet it. From satin cases, poured in rich
profusion, in vials of ivory and colored glass
unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
unguent, powdered, or liquid– troubled, confused, and drowned
the sense in odors. Stirred by the air that
freshened from the window, these ascended in fattening the
prolonged candle flames, flung their smoke into the
lacquearia, stirring the pattern on the coffered
ceiling. Huge sea-wood, fed with copper,
burned green and orange, framed by the colored
stone, in which sad light a carved dolphin swam. Above the antique mantel was
displayed as though a window gave upon the sylvan scene the
change of Philomel, by the barbarous king so
rudely forced. Yet there the nightingale filled
all the desert with inviolable voice. And still she cried, and still
the world pursues, jug, jug to dirty ears. And other withered stumps of
time were told upon the walls. Staring forms leaned
out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed. Footsteps shuffled
on the stair. Under the fire light, under the
brush, her hair spread out in fiery points, glowed
into words, then would be savagely still. My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak! What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? I never know what you
are thinking. Think. I think we are in rats’
alley, where the dead men lost their bones. What is that noise? The wind under the door. What is that noise now? What is the wind doing? Nothing. Again, nothing. Do you know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember nothing? I remember those are pearls
that were his eyes. Are you alive or not? Is there nothing in your head? But oh, oh, oh, oh, that
Shakespeherian Rag. It’s so elegant,
so intelligent. What shall I do now? What shall I do? I shall rush out as I am and
walk the street with my hair down so. What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do? One of the most innovative
aspects of “The Waste Land” to its contemporary audience was
the range of characters it seemed to contain. Eliot was deliberately trying to
incorporate into the poem, the speech and accents
of London life. Indeed, for a long time, he’d
considered calling it “He do the Police in Different
Voices.” They were trying to introduce
into language of their poetry the words, which everyone used
in the streets, whereas the Georgian poets– whom they
were rebelling against– always wanted to write poems
about poetic subjects, like the English countrysides,
sunsets. They were deliberately choosing
the dirty canal near the gas works. They were deliberately
choosing these sordid-seeming subjects. And as a matter of fact,
creating a strange kind of beauty for them. Although, of course, most of
their contemporaries didn’t recognize that. Take, for instance, I think,
one of the most striking things in it must be the
dialogue in the pub, the monologue in the pub. “You ought to be ashamed, I
said, to look so antique, and her only 31. I can’t help it, she said,
pulling a long face. It’s them pills I took to
bring it off, she said. She’s had five already, and
nearly died of young George.” Absolutely wonderful stuff and
never there in poetry before. But suddenly one day,
there you are, right in a London pub. And it’s marvelous. And clearly they must’ve
loved that. When Lil’s husband got demobbed,
I said, I didn’t mince my words, I said
to her, myself. [SHOUTING] Hurry up, please. It’s time. Now Albert’s coming back. Make yourself a bit smart. He’ll want to know what you’ve
done with that money he gave you to get yourself
some teeth. He did. I was there. You have them all out, Lil. And get a nice set, he said. I swear, I can’t bear
to look at you. And no more can’t I, I said. And think of poor Albert. He’s been in the Army
four years. He wants a good time. And if you don’t give it him,
there’s others will, I said. Oh, is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said. Then I’ll know who to thank,
she said, and give me a straight look. [SHOUTING] Hurry up, please. It’s time. If you don’t like it, you can
get on with it, I said. Others can pick and choose,
if you can’t. But if Albert makes off, it
won’t be for lack of telling. You ought to be ashamed, I
said, to look so antique. And her only 31. I can’t help it, she said,
pulling a long face. It’s them pills I took to
bring it off, she said. Well, she’s had five
already, and nearly died of young George. The chemist said it would
be all right, but I’ve never been the same. You are a proper fool, I said. Well, if Albert won’t
leave you alone, there it is, I said. What’cha you get married for,
if you don’t want children? [SHOUTING] Hurry up, please. It’s time. Well, that Sunday Albert was
home they had a hot gammon. And they asked me into dinner
to get the beauty of it hot. [SHOUTING] Hurry up, please. It’s time. Hurry up, please. It’s time. Good night, Bill. Good night, Lou. Good night, May. Good night. Ta ta. Good night. Good night. Good night, ladies. Good night, sweet ladies. Good night. Good night. The river’s tent is broken. The last fingers of leaf
clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind crosses the brown
land, unheard. The nymphs are departed. Sweet Thames run softly,
till I end my song. The river bears no empty
bottles, sandwich papers, silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes,
cigarette ends, or other testimony of
summer nights. The nymphs are departed. And their friends, the loitering
heirs of city directors, departed, have
left no addresses. By the waters of Leman,
I sat down and wept. Sweet Thames run softly,
till I end my song. Sweet Thames run softly, for
I speak not loud or long. But at my back in a cold blast,
I hear the rattle of the bones and chuckle spread
from ear to ear. When “The Waste Land” was first
published in 1922, it seemed to speak directly to
the spirit of its age. But many of its origins were
far more personal. In 1915, Eliot had met and
quickly married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. But it was not to prove
a happy marriage. Vivienne was highly strung
and given to increasingly bizarre behavior. Eventually, Eliot was to leave
her, as she drifted further and further into madness. Meanwhile, the couple
were not well off. As well as his poetry, Eliot
was editing a literary magazine, The Criterion, while
at the same time doing a full-time job at Lloyds
Bank in the city. Now what happened was he
suffered something close to a nervous breakdown in the year
of the making of “The Waste Land.” So you have a poem
which is immediately and clearly affected by Eliot’s
tribulations and privations of the period. There’s no doubt about that. But on the other hand, you
cannot read it as what he called a private grouse or a
piece of rhythmical grumbling, I think was his word for it. Because the genius of the man
was that he made his own obsessions and his own problems
part of the symbols of the age, as it were. He stood in a kind of symbolic
relation to his own time, and turned his private grief into
a public grief on one level. He was able to transmogrify
his own personality into something much larger than it
really was, so that he could– his private career, as it were,
could stand for the decline of the West. It’s a very gloomy poem. It’s a poem about the imminence
of some kind of apocalypse as we get there
strongly towards the end of the poem, remember? We’re all entitled
to feel that. I sometimes think we don’t feel
it as strongly as people did in the aftermath of the
First World War, simply because we’ve made
a routine of it. I mean, we have apocalypse
for breakfast. But the sense that the world
had entered a sort of spiritual desert, which becomes
very strong in Eliot later, that all the
Christian can do– he must have been very close
to religious conversion, obviously, when he wrote “The
Waste Land,” to some religion or another. [INAUDIBLE] to Buddhism, but whatever
it was. He really did think that the
world was going through a period where the good man could
do nothing but attempt to redeem time. Meanwhile redeeming the time. It really links up with a poem
of W.B. Yeats, in which the lines occur, “the best lack
all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate
intensity.” Well, that’s for Yeats epitomizes our
civilization. But that’s exactly what
you find also in “The Waste Land”– this view that people had at
that time of everything collapsing, breaking down, the
decline of the West, above all, the West. Unreal city. Under the brown fog of a winter
noon, Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant, unshaven,
with a pocket full of currents, C.I.F. London,
documents at sight, asked me in demotic French to luncheon
at the Cannon Street Hotel, followed by a weekend
at the Metropole. At the violet hour, when the
eyes and back turn upward from the desk, when the human engine
waits like a taxi throbbing, waiting, I, Tiresias,
though blind, throbbing between two lives, old
man with wrinkled female breasts, can see at the violet
hour, the evening hour, that strives homeward, and brings
the sailor home from sea. The typist, home at tea time,
clears her breakfast, lights her stove, and lays
out food in tins. Out of the window, perilously
spread, her drying combinations touched by
the sun’s last rays. On the divan are piled– at night her bed– stockings, slippers, camisoles,
and stays. According to Eliot, the key
figure in “The Waste Land” is the figure of the blind seer,
Tiresias, who appears in the third section of the poem. He has the ability to see the
whole of human history simultaneously, and so provides
Eliot with another device for comparing the
past with the present. Tiresias symbolizes decadent
aspects of the modern world of “The Waste Land.” For instance, sexual
ambiguity– he’s the old man with
withered breasts. That is important. I mean, Eliot is writing
about modern decadence. But he’s not seeing this kind
of decadence as something unique to the modern world. There’s a recurrent view of
history, I think, in “The Waste Land.” And decadence is
something which is concomitant almost with civilization. You have civilization,
decadence. They go side by side. That’s partly why the poem is
not just a poem about the collapse of Europe in modern
times at a particular moment. And I think Tiresias symbolizes
all that, or signifies all that. I, Tiresias, old man with
wrinkled dugs, perceived the scene and foretold the rest. I, too, awaited the
expected guest. He, the young man, carbuncular,
arrives. A small house-agent’s clerk– with one bold stare, one of the
low on whom assurance sits as a silk hat on a Bradford
millionaire. The time is now propitious,
as he guesses. The meal has ended. She is bored and tired. Endeavors to engage her in
caresses, which still are unreproved, if undesired. Flushed and decided, he
assaults at once. Exploring hands encounter
no defense. His vanity requires no response
and makes a welcome of indifference. And I, Tiresias, have
foresuffered all enacted on this same divan or bed. I, who have sat by Thebes below
the wall, and walked among the lowest of the dead. Bestows one final patronizing
kiss and gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit. She turns and looks a moment in
the glass, hardly aware of her departed lover. Her brain allows one half-formed
thought to pass. Well, now that’s done. And I’m glad it’s over. When lovely woman stoops to
folly and paces about her room again alone. She smooths her hair with
automatic hand and puts a record on the gramophone. Now, in Goldsmith, this is a
song which is sung by Olivia, in “The Vicar of Wakefield”
when she goes back to the place where she’s
been seduced. It’s quite a different thing. “When lovely woman stoops to
folly, and learns too late that men betray. What balm can soothe
her melancholy? What charm can wash
her guilt away? The only art that guilt can
cover, to hide her shame from every eye, to grant repentance
to her lover and ring his bosom, is to die.” In other
words, in those days, when you were seduced and you fell,
it was something serious. You went off and you
killed yourself. It was the only solution. Now what do they do? They brush their hair, “put a
record on the gramophone.” And everything has been debased
by the time it gets there. “The Waste Land” that was
eventually published is not the poem Eliot originally
wrote. “He do the Police in Different
Voices” was a much longer series, which Eliot showed to
Pound for his opinion, and which Pound edited into the
version that we know today. It’s small wonder that Eliot
dedicated the poem to Pound, whom he called, that wondrous
necessary man, with the words, [SPEAKING ITALIAN], “the
better craftsman.” The original “Waste Land”
had many other elements. There was the element of
pastiche, parody, dramatic virtuosity. It was to be a much larger
statement than the poem we have now. What happened was that Eliot
gave the poem to Pound, and Pound performed upon it what he called a cesarean operation. He heard Eliot’s music and
decided that the music was the most important thing. So he excised the parody. He excised the pastiche. He excised the dramatic
virtuosity. And what was left was a much
shorter poem, but a poem which was much more clearly marshaled
around the evidence of Eliot’s music. See the thing about Eliot was
that all his feelings, his [INAUDIBLE] feelings seems to
cluster around cadences, literary cadences, largely
cadences which he heard from his childhood. And throughout “The Waste Land”
and, indeed, throughout his other work, we hear
the same music. It’s mournful, incantatory,
resonant music, which is Eliot’s music, the music
of his being. And what Pound did in “The Waste
Land” was to let that music come forth, let
that music be heard. And when he did so the poem,
as it were, came a unity around that particular fact. Other people heard
the music, too. That’s why the undergraduates
chanted “The Waste Land” as they chanted Swinburne
a generation before. So in a sense, it’s what Eliot
called the auditory imagination, what I would call
the music of Eliot’s being, which is the formal unity
of “The Waste Land.” “The Waste Land,” some of the
bits of it go back, right back to 1915, in fact, when he was
27, seven years before the poem, and possibly even
earlier than that. So as this process of gradual
agglomeration and then cutting and then saying, that’s the
poem– this poem is not like say, a dramatic monologue of
Browning’s, which is another, of course, important source. It’s not like that because
it hasn’t got narrative connectedness. It’s not meant to appeal
to what he called the logic of concepts. It’s meant to appeal to the
logic of the imagination. What you have to do, he said, is
the most difficult thing of all to do is to– and this distinguishes good
readers of poetry from bad in Eliot’s view– is to see the relationships
between what apparently disparate bits of imagery and
fragments of narrative and so on and hold it all by an act of
the imagination into some kind of unity. Very keen on its being a unity,
but that unity can only be had by particularly intense
kinds of attention, which he didn’t, incidentally, think many
people were capable of. This music crept by me on the
waters and along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street. Oh, city, city, I can sometimes
hear beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
the pleasant whining of a mandolin, and a clatter and a
chatter from within, where fishman lounge at noon. Where the walls of Magnus Martyr
hold the inexplicable splendor of Ionian
white and gold. The rivers sweats oil and tar. The barges drift with
the turning tide. Red sails, wide to leeward,
swing on the heavy spar. The barges wash drifting logs
down Greenwich reach past the Isle of Dogs. [CALLING] Weialala leia! Wallala leia la la! Elizabeth and Leicester beating
oars, the stern was formed, a gilded shell,
red and gold. The brisk swell rippled
both shores. Southwest wind carried
downstream the peal of bells, white towers. [CALLING] Weia la la, leia! Wall la la leia la la! Trams and dusty trees,
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew undid me. By Richmond, I raised my knees,
supine on the floor of a narrow canoe. My feet are at Mooregate, and
my heart under my feet. After the event, he wept. He promised a new start. I made no comment. What should I resent? On Margate Sands, I can connect
nothing with nothing. The broken fingernails of dirty
hands, my people, humble people, who expect nothing. When the poem was first
published in book form, Eliot added three pages of notes,
scholarly references, and clues to the way the poem
should be read. In particular, he acknowledges
a debt to two anthropological works, From Ritual to Romance
and The Golden Bough. In later life, Eliot was to
claim that he only added the notes because the poem as it
stood was too short to be published as a book. But whatever the truth, the
notes have spawned a considerable academic
industry. The notes should be taken with
a lot of grains of salt. They are rather illuminating,
especially in pointing out Tiresias. But I think Eliot himself once
said about the poets, the poet is like a burglar, who throws
the watch dog a large lump of meat. And while the watch dog is
eating the meat, he gets away with a burglary. Well, what’s that mean? I think it means in the case
of “The Waste Land,” that Eliot liked to think of all
these scholars, and teachers, and people occupying themselves
with explaining what “The Waste Land” was about,
and following all these false trails that he had
laid down in the notes. Eliot, as a poet, emerged at a
time when English literature as a university discipline was
becoming more and more prominent, with critics in
England like I.A. Richards and in American like Cleanth Brooks,
who were, as it were, becoming the new gurus in the
academic establishment. Now Eliot, I think, who was
nothing if not astute, realized this fact. And it could be said, I think,
without overstating the case, that Eliot started to write
poetry which would be not only approved of by the academic
establishment, but could be studied by that academic
establishment. I think he realized that
immortality as such it was to be, or at least fame, was
to be garnered from the universities as much as
from the newspapers. And I think he started
to pitch his poetry in that direction. And there has been
a huge industry. These must be the 17 or 19 most
annotated pages in the history of English literature. And it seems to me, that in
the end, we’re actually getting there. It’s very important that we do
understand the poem properly. And every time one reads it, one
discovers something new, something fits better. And I think actually what’s
happened is the explanations have, in fact, got simpler. It is clear now, after
all this mulging around, after all the– every cupboard has been
turned upside down. Every bed has been looked under
in English literature. After all of this, it’s clear
that there are three main strands in the poem that we
have to bear in mind. Fertility myths, though these
are much less important than we originally thought
they were. And then Elliott in the 1956
lecture in Minnesota actually said that he was sorry he’d
sent people off on a wild goose chase. Fertility myths, Christ and
the Resurrection, and the Buddhist notion of
reincarnation, which is also clearly there in the poem, and
has been rather ignored to date, but helps to explain the
whole ambiguity of the poem. Because in the Buddhist
religion, what you want to do is not to be reborn. You want to achieve nirvana,
a state of enlightenment. But at the same time, you have a
tremendous urge to be reborn because you want to
go on living. So throughout the poem, there
are these two impulses, running side by side. I think to say that one can
explain the poem is a bit like saying that you can explain
Cezanne or Picasso. There are things you
can say about it that might be helpful. Because you can’t explain it in
a sense of, unfold it, and make it simpler to apprehend. But in the end, what you’ve got
to do is to stand in front of it, really, and attend to it,
in the best way that you can manage. I don’t think there’s any way of
having it explained to you. After the torchlight red on
sweaty faces, after the frosty silence in the gardens, after
the agony in stony places, the shouting and the crying,
prison and palace and reverberation of thunder, of
spring over distant mountains, he was living is now dead. We who were living are now
dying, with a little patience. Here is no water, but only rock,
rock, and no water, and the sandy road. The road winding above among
the mountains, which are mountains of rock
without water. If there were water, we
should stop and drink. Amongst the rock, one cannot
stop or think. Sweat is dry and feet
are in the sand. If there were only water
amongst the rock. Dead mountain mouth of carious
teeth that cannot spit. Here one can neither stand
nor lie nor sit. That is not even silence in
the mountains, but dry, sterile thunder without rain. There is not even solitude in
the mountains, but red sullen faces sneer and snarl from doors
of mud-cracked houses. If there were water and no rock,
if there were rock and also water, and water, a spring,
a pool among the rock, if there were the sound of water
only, not the cicada and dry grass singing. But sound of water over a
rock, whether the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees,
drip, drop, drip, drop, drop, drop. But there is no water. Who is the third who walks
always beside you? When I count, there are only
you and I together. But when I took ahead, up the
white road, there is always another one walking beside you,
gliding, wrapped in a brown mantle, hooded. I do not know whether
a man or a woman. But who is that on the
other side of you? What is that sound high in the
air, murmur of maternal lamentation? Who are those hooded hoards
swarming over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth,
ringed by the flat horizon only? What is that city over
the mountains? Cracks and reforms and bursts
in the violet air? Falling towers, Jerusalem,
Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London, Unreal. Five years after “The Waste
Land” was published, Eliot was received into the Church
of England. And he remained a convinced
believer, for the rest of his life. He became an eminent publisher
with Faber and Gwyer, now known as Faber and Faber, and an
increasingly respected poet and critic. After publication of four
quartets during World War II, he largely abandoned poetry
in favor of verse drama. And plays, like Murder in the
Cathedral and The Cocktail Party, introduced his work
to a whole new audience. He was awarded the Nobel
Prize in 1948. Despite the acclaim, however,
Eliot remained a lonely and isolated man. It was only on his marriage
to his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, in 1957, that he
enjoyed at the end of his life, the happiness he’d not
known since childhood. He died in 1965. And after her husband’s death,
Valerie Eliot declared that he felt he had paid too high a
price to be a poet, that he had suffered too much. His achievement is very
difficult to summarize. The fact is, he never
repeated himself. I mean, this is the
main thing. And he was enormously
inventive. I mean, he went from one thing
to another, whereas other poets repeat themselves. Eliot didn’t. And his great achievement,
actually, of course, is to make this a myth of how the
poet should behave. Eliot’s triumph was not just
that he wrote poetry, which will probably be remembered as
long as the English language is read, but also that he in his
own person represented and sustained the culture,
which was on the point of falling apart. He put together what you might
call as the last vestige of a European, international,
literary culture. He represented in
his own person. And he gave it shape through his
own obsessions, which is most remarkable thing. He, as it were, came to
represent it, because you needed to represent it. He wanted that authority, so
he provided it himself. So on that level, it’s a most
remarkable achievement. On another level, he made his
poetry the music of the age. But he only managed that
by borrowing– co-opting– the voices, the cadences,
and the tones of other previous poets. So we have this strange paradox
of a man who sustains the culture through his own
obsessions, and creates the music of our age through
borrowing the music of other people’s periods. A woman drew her long black hair
out tight, and fiddled whisper music on
those strings. And bats with baby faces in the
violet light, whistled and beat their wings, and crawled
head downward down a blackened wall,. And upside down in air were
towers tolling reminiscent bells that kept the hours, and
voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells. In this decayed hole among the
mountains, in the faint moonlight the grass is singing
over the tumbled graves about the chapel. There is the empty chapel,
only the wind’s home. It has no windows, and
the door swings. Dry bones can harm no one. Only a cock stood on
the roof tree. [CALLING] Co co rico! Co co rico! In a flash of lightning, then
a damn gust, bringing rain. The central despair of “The
Waste Land” is really religious despair. And I suppose the central
inspiration is the Old Testament, is the Bible, “what
are the roots that clutch” and so on. The vision all the
way through is– Christ and Emmaus and so on– the vision is ready a
religious vision. Ganga was sunken. And the limp leaves waited for
rain while the black clouds gathered far distant,
over Himavant. The jungle crouched,
humped in silence. Then spoke the thunder. Da– Datta. What have we given? My friend, blood shaking
my heart. The awful daring of a moment’s
surrender, which an age of prudence can never retract. By this and this only we have
existed, which is not to be found in our obituaries or
in memories draped by the beneficent spider, or under
seals broken by the lean solicitor in our empty rooms. Da– Dayadhvam. I have heard the key turn
in the door once and turn once only. We think of the key,
each in his prison, thinking of the key. Each confirms a prison only at
nightfall, aetherial rumors, revived for a moment,
a broken Coriolanus. Da– Damyata. The boat responded gaily
to the hand expert with sail and oar. The sea was calm. Your heart would have responded
gaily when invited, beating obedient to
controlling hands. I set up on the shore fishing,
with the arid plain behind me. Shall I at least set
my lands in order? London Bridge is falling down,
falling down, falling down. [SPEAKING ITALIAN] Oh swallow swallow. [SPEAKING FRENCH] These fragments I have shored
against my ruins. [SHOUTING] Why then I’ll fit you! Hieronymo’s mad again. Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.

6 Comments

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  • Lucas Siccardi

    Nice. But, as with every synthesis of TWL, all the time is taken in remarking what must be known before plunging in the poem itself, and so the interesting stuff gets cut. I fear that those who don't already love it won't find here the reasons to be caught in the web, while those who already are insiders won't find anything they don't know yet. One should invent a new way of introducing TWL in a short time, leaving behind much and focusing on some particulars: for example reincarnation, hallucination of voices and ghosts, the links between prehistoric rites, the Eneid and the Commedia, the homosexual latent aspect, the integration of Vaudeville and nursery rhymes, the savage comedy, the sadistic and masochistic elements, the mourning for Verdenal, the journey by sea, etc…

  • s

    Insufficient biographical information – a cheap documentary of poetry readings which if we wanted just the poetry we'd read it ourselves.

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