Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Poetry Tuesday: The Waste Land

Even though we finished The Waste Land about a month ago, I've avoided writing about it, because I don't really feel competent to tackle it.  But we're still on Wallace Stevens in class, and the poems we've done the past two class meetings are not ones that would lend themselves to this format.  ha.  as if The Waste Land does.

But I'm backing up to it anyway. The Waste Land is more or less the defining moment in modernist poetry.  (and by the way, in literary terms, the word "modern" or "modernist" doesn't mean now, it refers to (roughly) the first half of the twentieth century, up to the start of WWII).  Eliot wrote it just after WWI.  The fervid optimism and belief in progress and  industrialization that characterized the end of the nineteenth century had come to a horrific end with WWI.  In his personal life, Eliot was suffering through a miserable marriage.  The world must truly have seemed a waste land.

The poem is difficult to a casual reader.  For one thing, it's long-- about 20 pages in the mass market paperback we used.  And it's thick with allusions, snippets of other works, references to mythology, and untranslated lines in German or Greek or Italian.  Eliot was utterly unconcerned with whether or not John Doe sitting over his pint at the local pub could understand it.  He wrote for other intellectuals, other thinkers, whom Eliot felt were the only ones who could comprehend what he wanted to say. 

So why should we bother?  If Eliot didn't care about the average reader, why should we care about him?  It's a question most of the students in my class were asking.  After not having read it in 25 years, I have to admit that the thought occurred to me as well.  But like all good poetry, the more you read it, the more you find in it.  It rewards study.

Anyway.  One of the ways I entertain myself while doing my commute (10 hours a week, just to get back and forth to school), is to listen to podcasts.  While I was reading The Waste Land, I listened to a panel discussion of four British academics talking about Eliot's great poem.  At the end of the hour, after they'd gone on and on about the social conditions that inform it and the historical milieu and etc, the moderator asked, so why do people still read it?  And the unanimous response was, "Because it has some great lines."  (To which I, ever curious, wanted to reply, "Which ones?" because they didn't specify, dangit.)

So here are are my choices of great lines from The Waste Land.  They're not necessarily pretty, but they're so perfectly apt, and often mordantly amusing. 

The opening lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

(If you hear Eliot read it--which you can, just google "Eliot reading the waste land," he makes "cru-ellest" into three syllables and sounds terribly snobbily British-- but he was born in St. Louis.)

      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.

(that last line is a quotation from Dante's Inferno.  I don't know if Eliot meant to refer directly to WWI, but he might well have-- estimates of the death toll range from 9 million to far higher.)
 and a few lines later:

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 sprout?  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!"

Later, nameless woman begins to whine, presumably to her husband:

"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."

(like nails on a blackboard to all of us introverted types, yes?)  The husband replies:

I think we are in rats' alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.

Hmmm.  in context, those are some of the mordantly amusing lines, but maybe they don't come across that way pulled out like this. 

Then perhaps the most famous line:


which is repeated five times scattered amongst lines in which a woman gossips cattily at a pub.  It's the voice of the bartender, encouraging his customers to order their last drinks since the pub is closing.  But as the line continues to be repeated (HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME), it takes on the sound of a bell tolling, or the Grim Reaper waiting.  When I read this as an undergrad, this line crept into our repertoire of Things We Say.  It's not uncommon even now for one of us to intone HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME when waiting for the kids or each other.

And his chilling description of  a casual sexual encounter:

The time is now propitious, as he guesses, 
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
and makes a welcome of indifference.
Bestows one final patronising 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 smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
and puts a record on the gramophone.

and the closing lines-- in the previous ones, I've skipped lines that have all the learned allusions, but here you go, so you can see what is like (parts of it, anyway):

Poi s'ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti 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.  Dayadhvam.  Damyata.
    Shantih   shantih    shantih

The first line is Italian (from Dante again:  "Then he hid himself in the fire that refines them"), the second is Latin ("when will I be like the swallow?"), and the third, French ("The prince of Aquitaine of the ruined tower").  Then the line starting "Why" is from an Elizabethan play by Thomas Kyd, and the closing lines are from Sanskrit:  "Give.  Sympathize.  Control yourselves."  "Shantih," according to Eliot, is the equivalent to an invocation of "the peace which passeth understanding."

Honestly, the lines of Eliot's that I remember most are from other poems.  Like the opening lines of "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock," because they're so unusual (and so famous)-- "Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table...."  And the beginning of "The Hollow Men," which I had to memorize in high school:  "We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw."

There you have it.  Eliot distilled down to a blog post.  I didn't begin to do him justice.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe not, but you did a damn fine job of sharing this with those of us who were unfamiliar with most of it. Nice. Thank you.
    (And I SO love the idea of you talking back to the podcasts.)