I’m not going to write an essay about this most written about of poems.
It’s almost a hundred years since The Waste Land was published and it’s still strange and beautiful and nowhere near as dated as some more recent poems.
Imagine someone spinning an old fashioned tuning dial on a radio, they said. Flicking idly between the different stations. It’s one way of thinking about the poem because sound is so important to the world Eliot created. But ‘thinking about’ this poem is only one way of dealing with it. Get yer hat and coat and wander through the landscape it creates, preferably by reading it aloud for yourself. It’s a masterclass in sound and rhythm.
Part of its power stems from Eliot’s undeniable skill in organising words. It contains some of my favourite lines in English poetry. Like him or loathe him, Tom was a great poet.
But like all great works of art, the maestro is on stage pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and like all magic tricks this one carries a faint whiff of a con job. You can object. Many others have done. Surely ‘Jug jug jug jug jug jug’ cannot be taken seriously as a line of poetry? Surely, as some of the early critics said, Mr. Eliot is not being serious.
But (#2) Pound’s famous editing of what was originally to be called ‘He do the Police in Many Voices’, (famous once the manuscript resurfaced), was brilliant and idiosyncratic. His suggestion was to cut without attending to logic, coherence or continuity. Just chop out the dead wood: lines, images, passages.
This fragmented an already fragmentary text. But because Eliot was as good as he was, it’s hard to escape the feeling that these fragments do fit together: If only you could find the key. You! Hypocrite lectuer! -Mon semblable!,- mon frere!.
A generation of literary critics went looking for the key that would unlock The Waste Land. Forests of trees died to provide the necessary paper. One key turned and turned out to be as inadequate as the next. So the poem became famously ‘difficult’, and because it was then there was a need for professional explainers. It became Eliot’s unintentional gift to the developing industry of academic criticism.
But it’s so much more interesting and enjoyable and entertaining than some Thing you have to write an essay about. You don’t need an explanation, you just need to take your hat and coat, and go….
(And who would have thought there were so many parrots in this wasteland. My apologies, I can’t do anything about it. The chiming clock on the other hand was tongue in cheek deliberate).