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Tom Bair

“The Waste Land” is most usually and most persuasively read as a satire. The argument for “The Waste Land” as a satire sounds something like this: Written in the wake of WWI, a time of immense cultural (and personal) confusion, Eliot’s waste is pure disharmony between body and mind; the triumph of industry over civility and of frivolity over responsibility; and the ultimately sallow consolation of restoration only in one’s own headspace. Poetry itself is implicit is this decay— Romanticism’s unearned novelties a reflection of hubris and Victorianism’s decadence only spit-shining a deeper blemish.  But of course, Eliot is a poet. This irony of “The Waste Land” is best represented by its only true emotional center, the second line of quoted material taken from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins/Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.” Here our “The Waste Land”’s speaker is channeling a father gone insane with the death of his son—the opposite of Hamlet—in which he (the father) will use the stage to draw out guilt from his son’s killers. In “The Waste Land” we see that poetry, for Eliot, only continues to be a possibility because of this father, this tradition, which can be reused and recycled at the given historical moment’s discretion.

So fragments are the order of the day. The text is divided between poem proper and footnotes, the poem proper is divided into sections, no narrative calcifies among these sections, even the allusions divide their ancestry between what is known as East and West. The speaker, of course, is worse for the wear (ie so nuts they’re still roasting him (yes, that‘s a Fire Sermon joke)). And the one solace, these ‘fragments shored against ruin’ (please note that this is a metafictive trope regarding “The Waste Land”’s own design, famously described as collage), beacons an effort to stave off despair, heralding a tradition that has simultaneously abandoned its decedents as its decedents have abandoned it, leaving a trail of empty gestures, an uncultivated culture, a poem breaking itself apart with the without of guidance, composure, and love and compassion. Thus, “The Waste Land” is a satire, finally, of western tradition and culture. It is not linear, it does not usher a transcendent meaning, it does not reason, it’s barely for the public—and yet its contents are: Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, etc. And so where the poem is at all comical it is so with a sort of hysterical laughter, high-brow, perhaps, but more especially high-pitched.

Given this assumption, I consider my counter to be self-evident. If “The Waste Land” is a satire by way of referencing and containing the diamonds of the West while simultaneously parodying the West’s finger-banging for an easily communicable Truth, then it is only a satire by way of its mode of reference. Were it not for “The Waste Land”‘s allusions it would be a fragmented poem. An experiment no more or less attention-grabbing than practically the entirety of Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations. A hybrid of Prufrock and Eliot’s collection titled Poems, it is the domineering use of allusion in conjunction with its teen-like angst at the lack of tangibility of the texts of which it is made that makes this poem in any way ironic.

Thus, first and foremost, “The Waste Land” is—in the tradition of Dante and Eliot’s later flag-bearer Thomas Pynchon—an encyclopedia. The notion of encyclopedic narratives comes from Ed Mendelson, and I’ll expand on this tradition in a moment, but my point here is that Eliot’s sense of responsibility is not to conjure a well-informed guffaw, bludgeoning the calamitous sexual needs of a brutish poor, but an attempt to save a few lines, a few poems, a few books for later use. I direct those who scoff to Eliot’s own “Hamlet and His Problems,”

Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know.

The work of poetry as a material. As something physical, like lumber. And, according to Eliot, interpretation is matter of facts. That’s a bewildering prescription. Also, the word “standards” is odd here, and we’ll return to these things. But as an encyclopedia, “The Waste Land” is not a satire at all; instead, it’s an earnest documentation of Eliot’s very profound and very personal experience with literature. The fragments, after all, are shored against my ruin.

Three asides (concluding with awesome segue):

1. In this context, the poem proper and the footnotes—together—make a cohesive whole that is “The Waste Land.” The footnotes are part of the body of the text, nothing less. Eliot’s flippant attitude toward we-the-reader’s interpretation, the dozens of allusions (aka suggested reading), even the notes that inject Eliot’s own understanding into the text, each are elements of the poem that enjoy an all-but-equal share in consideration.

2(a). In “Burial of the Dead” the speaker says “Come in under the shadow of this red rock/(There is shadow under 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”—why does the speaker assume you are traveling eastward? Why does Eliot’s footnote for “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” go out of its way to mention that this is a formal closing of an Upanishad, much like “Amen” at the close of a prayer. Eliot wants one mythology to rule them all. And so he writes his western Upanishad.

2(b). For Eliot, form is not a matter of fitting the inspiration for a strait jacket. Eliot’s form creates a historical object, something with borders and boundaries. Form tempers the bleeding from one thing into another; but this is not to say that the boundaries are not, when at their best, porous.

3. What Whitman means to the epic is still becoming clear, which is nice because it means it’s a process in which we’re partaking, if we’re partaking. Speaking of process, it seems to be the hallmark of this tradition. The American epic is not as much the all-encompassing sweep of any particular poem, but is instead the motion—the before, during, and after—of each particular poet. Hence, Leaves of Grass is the becoming of Whitman. And Eliot is a full-fledged participant in this tradition. Much like Leaves of Grass, after 1925 Eliot put all of his poems, with exception of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a children’s book, into one book of Collected Poems. And if this is not enough to convince you that Eliot was invested in process, read his remarks on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which explicitly instructs readers to look at this as a one aspect of the totality of Joyce’s career.

True, Eliot’s speaker is more ornamented than our barbaric yawper. Eliot’s poems are built with closed doors, where Whitman wants the doors entirely removed. He (Eliot) prefers the ritual of technique to the ritual of intimacy. So although Eliot winces while he nods to Whitman, he nonetheless makes the nod. Remember, they are lilacs that breed from the dead land. The two are of the same lineage. Even the tension between the two is a classically American tension: Whitman, poet of action, newspapers, egalitarian even in his glances. Eliot, poet of inaction, journals, a representative from the creative elite.

Here we might again note that Eliot was a sickly child. He couldn’t play games. So he stayed inside, reading. The American stylizing of freedom is Whitman’s frontier as its absence is Eliot’s. Whitman participates, and Eliot envisions.

Encyclopedic narrative does not proceed as dramatic action. The narrative is not of people, places, and things but of words, ideas, and histories. It provides references. The processes of narrative only occur as an intellectual exercise in describing, categorizing, and reformulating. For the encyclopedia, events take place within ideas, not time. Take our dude Dante for instance. We’ll look at the Inferno.

In the Inferno Dante provides an intensely systematic description of sin. Notice that the dramatic action of Dante’s plot is decided from the beginning. There is no suspense here, no ‘what next’. The pilgrimage has been divined and it’s a comedy because it will end in Paradise. The characters are two dimensional. They’re representations of ideas—excuses for Dante and Virgil to have a chat.  The current of this story is not action. Instead it is the detail of the vision. Each punishment sheds more light on the nature of its corresponding sin by way of synecdoche (eg the lustful are blown around by the whims of the winds). His vision of Hell’s circles and their rigid hierarchies, the historical figures of his choosing, his own (Dante is a character is his own story) reactions to the punishment—all of these things lend to Dante’s classifying sin from least to most egregious.

Eliot’s encyclopedia is more . . . playful. I won’t say that it is pure play. Thomas Eliot is not Thomas Pynchon. But if Dante’s encyclopedia represents a well-ordered world and Pynchon’s encyclopedia represents a world ordered only by the patterns of one’s perception, then where is Eliot? In short, how do we read “The Waste Land” as reference? How do we use “The Waste Land”?

Eliot’s most obvious break from Dante occurs in the realm of aesthetics. To be clear, Dante’s preferred mode of operation is allegory. Eliot’s is symbolism. When I say symbolism, of course, I am referring to the aesthetic movement of which Eliot describes a variation as the definition of a poet in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The poet as a catalyst is the symbolist in motion: At the hands of the mind an emotion or feeling is processed and transformed into an entirely independent material. Like how lumber becomes a house. For Eliot, the poet is essentially a specialist. Everyone uses words but the poet designs words. The poem does not “convey” meaning. The poem is meaning.

With this in mind, that the poem’s presence is its meaning, we use “The Waste Land”’s “historical facts,” (eg the images of speech it performs, its allusions, even its lapses) like atheists in a friend’s church. We show up. We’re polite. We scoff. We’re confused. We’re offended. We like the way some things look, so we look more closely. We take what we need, we use what we can. We go Garbage Picking. We say thank you. Thank you.

It might be noted here that although the fragment was one of Eliot’s wild “inventions,” a necessary consequence and weakness of Eliot’s poetry are these fragments. For whatever reason, Eliot’s poetry is incapable of performing pattern perception. It may be that the specialist undergoes a certain occupational psychosis. The current trends toward reflexivity in nearly every discipline of study would suggest a closedness that  I sometimes assume hurts everything.

Or it may be that Eliot’s prioritization of entire realms of experience either above or below others. Exclusion of this sort, the kind that takes short cuts and calls them standards, is a mutilation. And the perpetrator is often first to be scarred.

But to be as plain as I can be, my goal here has been to define the terms and conditions for Eliot as an American. America faces some special conditions. We’re founded by slaves and idealists and—the combination of the two—entrepreneurs. The numerous paradoxes of American culture often find their home in the tension between an egalitarian proverb and the reality of the creative elite. Eliot’s poetry reflects a very specific reaction to the poet-as-a-person-who-must-get-up-and-work-everyday. For Eliot, poetry is a spiritualization of luxury. It’s the finest things, it’s the time to enjoy the finest things, it’s the burning that comes with acquiring the acquired taste. It’s the confusion thereafter, when possibilities for praxis need practice.

For choosing to write about Eliot, I have also noticed that many of my poets-in-arms borrow Eliot’s snobbery and use it against him. Yes, he is a big dumb white man. Yes, he was racist and sexist and anti-Semitic and a royalist if not a fascist. Still, it seems to me that one of the dangers of not engaging with a strand of thought is that it seeps into your own with you being able to detect its presence.

And the possible lesson from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is that we agree on a canon, not The Canon, or even a tradition with the same guiding principles. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot hands us his own canon. This idea, that what we read can be completely private and completely public might be useful. Or a canon with the potential for flux would be nice, one that changes as needed. Certainly a canon that would include all of the voices marginalized for centuries. But a canon is there for a reason: The Community. If we are talk about the same things, if we are to really talk at all, we must have some commons between us. Straight people should endeavor to understand other sexualities. Asians should read Hispanics. White people should read black writers. Men should read women. Women should read men. Black people should read white writers. Hispanics should read Asians. The queer community should endeavor to understand other sexualities. If democracy is to exist let all permutations therein dance around a bit. This is the lesson for democracy of T. S. Eliot, the fascist.

Still, the close reading. Fine. You will have your blasted close reading. However, I will conduct this reading on my own terms. I will shuffle, and play the cards at my whim, sometimes to my detriment. First though, a word on why and how I’ve resisted the close reading.

“The Waste Land” begs a different criticism. My initial interest in the poem sprung from the seeming impossibility for anything clever to be said about the poem, and yet everyone went on assigning it, sometimes with a tone of reverence normally associated with religiosity: “You don’t get it? None of us do, it’s a mystery! Work toward it though, it has its rewards!” That Eliot can be enjoyed without thorough understanding is entirely true. The danger, of course, is that Eliot may or may not be part of what we might call The McMansion Canon. This canon has the look and feel of substantial lodging, but was erected specifically for this appearance.

I have said that Eliot is not an elitist, but a nerd. I stand by this. What I failed to mention, however, is that often, in pursuit of the mastery of an idea or ideal (in this case, language) the nerd becomes the bully. An elitism by submission if you will. Indeed, Bill Gates, the patron (saint?) of nerds reminds us, “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.”

Thus, in this age of the internet, where I take my rigor and turn it into something a bit more performative, something which (if I may deign (I deign)) engages the audience and recognizes that this act of internet writing is, as it occurs at the push of a button (thereby drastically cutting the gap between writer and reader), more similar to a stage than a page, it is not much of a surprise that Eliot is having something of a popular revival. The ability to split-screen, open tabs, tap hyper-links with a finger, express-order live performances of, say, an epic utterance that can be enjoyed in less than thirty minutes, etc., have enabled happy days for Eliot, precisely because he is so famously complicated. Notice that “The Waste Land” for iPad has been Mac’s best-selling book app, surpassing Marvel Comics and Twilight. “The Waste Land” has always begged its readers to multitask, to make leaps, to be both attentive and creative readers. “Garbage Picking,” this method where I invoke the poem and then collect its significant rubbish, was created for “The Waste Land.”

Upon arriving at the first line of “The Waste Land” proper we’ve read lines from Petronius’s Satyricon, Dante’s Purgatory, The Book of Common Prayer, and hopefully Miss Westion’s From Ritual to Romance and Frazier’s The Golden Bough. That’s six texts, counting “The Waste Land” itself, and four languages. And do not try to sell me that—ahem—garbage about the terms and circumstances that led Eliot to write the footnotes. It is an odd mythology this poem engenders: it asks to be read impersonally, and often the same readers who hold this fact to be sacrosanct are the readers who form all sorts of logics as to why Eliot included the footnotes: “He was being ironic, he was having a laugh at the people who said the poem was difficult, he was trying to buttress his reputation (it’s critical success was not guaranteed, after all).” No, the footnotes are a part of the text. If there is a personal fact from Eliot’s biography that is important, it is that he was a sickly child and spent his youth indoors, reading.

Let’s look at the excerpt of the Satyricon. I have a translation here:

I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her ‘What do you want?’ She answered, “I want to die.”

A powerful and brilliant epigraph. It does a number of duties, two of which I will remark on. First, readers of Miss Weston know that the trope of the Priest/Healer runs parallel to that of The Fisher King’s hero, the hero who makes the kingdom plentiful by healing its wounded king. So “The Waste Land” opens with a priestess who wants to die. We then ask “The Waste Land,” what about you is a climate where the healer wishes herself to be dead? That Sibyl of Cumae signaled the coming of Jesus might also prove relevant.

Second, and you have to know the Satyricon to know this, Sybil of Cumae asked for eternal life without asking for perpetual youth. Above, when the boys question Sibyl what she wants, she has aged into a pile of dust. In a sense, she is neither living nor dead—thus, her answer, “I want to die.” The epigraph also implies that death would be preferable to an in-between state. This reading assists with lines like, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

Finally we read the first line. “April is the cruelest month, breeding.” A famous line for good reason. It’s counter-intuitive. April is the Easter season, the time of rebirth! But based on what we know from the epigraph we might guess that the speaker has not yet earned rebirth. Is the speaker, who later turns out to be the Phoenician Sailor and the hero of the poem, like Sibyl of Cumae, a handful of dust in a cage, wishing to die?

Aside: Eliot takes shots at the Romantic tradition throughout this poem, and when the second line goes onto read, “Lilacs out the dead land, mixing,” we should read that as a slap at Mr. Lilacs in the Dooryard himself. Quick fixes and emotional blabber that solves nothing, that is how Eliot reads the Romantics. Eliot wants to go deeper, down amongst the roots of the dried tubers.

“I. The Burial of the Dead” is a ritualized invocation bringing the proceeding elements and themes of the poem. WWI is indirectly referenced in the first stanza. If the poem begins with the Burial of the Dead, what can the poem bring us? Note, in the Book of Common Prayer the initial passage is from John: “I am the resurrection and the Life saith the lord: he that believeth in me, though dead, yet shall live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” So belief grants eternal life. But what if, like Madame Sosotris (a play on a Aldous Huxley character, symbolizing Bertand Russell, famous atheist (and a close friend of Eliot’s then wife)) we do not find “the Hanged Man,” whom Eliot tells us he (Eliot) associates with Jesus. Are we then merely pieces in a game with rigid and very certain boundaries?

For a student of comparative literature, something very interesting occurs in “II. A Game of Chess.” A woman speaking to our hero commands him to think: “‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me./’Speak to me. Why do you never speak?/’What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?/’I never know what you are thinking. Think.’” In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot the master, Pozzo, commands his servant, Lucky,
“Think, pig!” Also, Eliot’s “East Coker” uses the phrase “The end is in the beginning.” Beckett’s corrective is in Endgame. Hamm announces “The end is in the beginning, and yet you go on.” Hold on to this. I will argue that Eliot is, by lineage, more properly an ancestor of postmodernism than Modernism, and that the McMansion Canon too readily charted Eliot’s position as distinct from Beckett’s.

Can you find the sonnet in “III. The Fire Sermon?” I’ll give you a clue. It contains a veritable rape scene that highlights the name of the section by describing a cocky “young man carbuncular” and a typist who finds it easier to allow him access than to refuse. “The Fire Sermon” comes from the Buddha’s sermon on overcoming the flailings of pleasure. For Eliot it is not just the body that must be usurped; the other’s body must also be usurped.

The theme of water is the most interesting and most complicated theme in “The Waste Land.” Water, Miss Weston tells us, will restore the land, and yet throughout “The Waste Land” the hero will “fear death by water.” Also, the phrase “Those are pearls that were his eyes” sung by Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest suggests a transformation that might occur were one to drown. “IV. Death by Water,” the shortest section, is an invitation to hope against hope for redemption, that we might die and the hands of our redemption and be transformed. Death, for Eliot, permits life.

The final section contains the most convoluted denouement in the English language. “The Waste Land” ultimately tries to answer Miss Weston’s call for a piece of literature that combines the entire history of The Vegetation Gods and later Holy Grails myths, and we see Eliot’s belligerent, mechanized program of unity in the final eleven lines:

_______I sat upon 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

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à 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

Now, what I am about to do is for your eyes only. The point of this poem is this brokenness, the stretching of the lungs too wide that it might inhale all of history, and resurrect its own story. The speaker is nuts. If there is an emotion in “The Waste Land,” it is that this command to multitask has driven her insane. But for our purposes:

I sat upon 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

Then he hid himself in the fire that purifies them
When shall I become like the swallow?—O swallow swallow
The prince of Aquitaine in the abandoned tower
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Give. Sympathize. Control.

_______Shantih_____shantih_____shantih

There is a concession. The poem suddenly reduces its lens to “my lands”; a second ago the speaker was naming every major European city in history, we’d been to Ganges and Jesus had appeared in the walk to Emmaus . . . and now one sits on the shore and the plain is arid. The land, or that which is exterior, has not been restored. It seems that the speaker shrugs in the face of defeat; an image of a city in ruin, but a famous child’s rhyme, a whimsical and simultaneously sinister gesture; and suddenly, English now, we see a narrative.

The Fisher King (“he”) has again disappeared, into the fire that purifies. (Remember Weston’s Vegetation God is dumped back into the river after there is no use for it.) But so when will I be transformed, made into the once ravished swallow that now sings? No: instead, I am the prince of my abandoned tower, my cage only, and I’ve collected what I can to ensure my survival.

At that moment, when the speaker is merely protecting against ruin, The Fisher King returns, using his guile to bring out the causes of his son’s death. And the cycle begins again. Give. Sympatheize. Control.

Formally “The Waste Land” is most similar to an Upanishad; it’s nature is philosophical, it is most effective as a performance, and it even makes not just one, but all Upanishads a part of its body. But it’s also special poem. It’s wildly irregular. And Eliot is a special poet. He is cool because his design and detail are radically weird. His work looks like nothing else. And I find that I can return and return and reimagine and reimagine.

But he is also an idiot. I take a hands on approach with the folk I admire. Eliot is entirely racist insofar as “The Waste Land” is granted its departures by entirely prioritizing the enactment of written culture over the spoken word. And, my friend lewis will help me here, but the ethos of art as luxury is bunk, too. Art is neither luxury nor rebellion. We’ll talk.

And if I may borrow from Eliot, my real gripe with “poetry is an escape from emotion” is that it is an inexact formula. Like O’Hara’s notion of “Personism,” in which a poem is directed to a specific recipient, thereby launching the poem into abstraction for the general audience (the intensely personal becoming impersonal), Eliot’s impersonal poem is the most personal. When Eliot says impersonal, he doesn’t mean inspired, he means necessary. To paraphrase myself, it is Frankenstein’s monster: Made of the component parts its master uncovered, and forever bearing that master’s name.

Like Eliot’s “East Coker,” the second part of this dumpster dive ended in its beginning. In Part 2 of “Garbage Picking in Eliot’s Waste Land” I resolved the mystery of “The Waste Land” with such ferocity and acuity that the fan-mail I’ve received for my accomplishment has been rather demeaning. In fact, I’ve received no fan-mail at all. No one has even mentioned this study to me, and so I’ve been forced to write myself several letters, letting me know how I am coming along, and how I am faring. Here are three examples:

1. “It does not seem like you believe what you are asserting about ‘The Waste Land.’ Part 1: Eliot is the most American poet? The poetics of nerd-dom? These arguments are sweeping gestures and are unsubstantiated, if they can be proven at all. Part 2: You begin you assessment of the poem itself by attempting to solve its entirety, and although your declaration that the ‘The Waste Land’ is a fundamentally personal pursuit of Eliot’s is fairly convincing, you must admit that you have abandoned the reader, and good sense by beginning where you do. Other that, you mutter truisms of academic work and the methods of symbolism, and conclude with another unfounded slip of reasoning in regard prophets and arts and such. Slow down, Tom, and appreciate his work and your own, by god.”

2. “Are we ever going to see a close reading of the poem, or will you prattle about design forever?”

3. “You are neither cute nor charming when you rail against yourself as you do. Please, save the phony self-abasement for your extracurriculars. Besides, it only seems you enjoy yourself the more you pile lashings against your own work.”

Fine criticisms indeed. Truly, I have the most eloquent of readers. I will defend some of my methods in a moment. But first I will answer these remarks by proceeding with a more calculated decorum.

It is a mistake to think of Eliot as having totally rejected what might be regarded as the American tradition of “immediacy.” I’m speaking, of course, about Whitman, W.C. Williams, Ginsberg, and now Ashbery. (Ashbery’s great accomplishment, it might be noted, is that he mediates Whitman’s poetry of the moment with Eliot’s style of collage.) These great white sharks are marked by urgency (see W.C. Williams’  “Of Asphodel That Greeny Flower”: “It is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserablely everyday/for lack of what is found there”), formal flux, and, in varied degrees of intensity, a championing of the personal.

Eliot is all of the above. Yet because he is abstract, dense and because his significant poems are relatively long, we assume that he is not urgent. His formal flux is more apparent than any of the aforementioned because it happens from within poems, and less so between them. “The Waste Land” itself contains blank verse, free verse, couplets, ballad meter, and a sonnet. This third category, that American immediacy is indefatigably personal and, if you take Eliot at the word of Eliot, not a characteristic of Eliot’s poetry. Famously, from Tradition and The Individual Talent (published in The Sacred Wood in 1920):

It is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. . . . In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him “personal.” Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things. . . . But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.

Yes, Eliot attempts make poetry into something of a social science. (We’re also reminded of “The Fire Sermon.”) “Emotion which has a life in the poem and not in the history of the poet,” begins to sound like something a sociologist may be able to survey, analyze, and report. And what are these emotions that live in the text? To this, we turn again to The Sacred Wood, this time to “Hamlet and His Problems”:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

So the task of the poet is not to present emotion as the poet experiences emotion, but to create emotion; to make emotion a viable experience, a veritable object–a thing that exists regardless of the reader’s attention or intention.

It is not a coincidence that Eliot’s reputation has survived more powerfully (with the exception of the Quartets) in his criticism than in his poetry. Unlike Prufrock, Eliot dares. He speaks with an infamous tone of objectivity; a psychologist whose brain is both the tool of implementation and the case study. Funnily enough, this is exactly Eliot’s criticism’s intention. When asked about his criticism, his response was that it was “merely a by-product of his private poetry workshop.” Note the trajectory of Eliot’s career: Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), Poems (1920), The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920), and “The Waste Land” (1922).

I’m already receiving the next batch of fan-mail: Thomas, get to your point! Fine, fine.

I have two objections here:

1. Eliot the Victorian is alive and well in Prufrock. Yes, he has disdain for the chatter of the art rooms, but he is there, among them. Poems is a collection of bad poetry, striving for something new, mainly an effort to synthesize his style more fully with the power of allusion. Then, ta-da, The Sacred Wood, a collection of wonderful essays that, by Eliot’s admission, carve a vision, and lay blueprints for “The Waste Land.” Two very interesting essays that are not often read are “Ben Jonson” and “Blake.” “Ben Jonson” is remarks on a poetry of ‘the surface,’ where characters purposely lack a third dimension but populate an accurate vision of the poet’s world. Also, Eliot attends to Jonson’s reputation for having failed as a poet precisely because he was scholarly. But look at what happens if we combine “Ben Jonson” with “Hamlet and His Problems”:

Every creator is also a critic; Jonson was a conscious critic, but he was also conscious in his creations. The critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power conforms, or attempts to conform, to conventions; not to the conventions of antiquity, which he had exquisitely under control, but to the conventions of tragico-historical drama of his time. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization.

Eliot might not have used Hamlet as a vicarious existence for his own creations, but he did use Jonson. Look at how he universalize Jonson’s malady of conformity! How is this impersonal? It isn’t! It’s a suture for the failure of poems, that “The Waste Land” might have been the scar. True, this is not the poetry. But first admit that Eliot’s impersonal poetics were said to extend to the criticism, and indeed, his criticism is highly personal; we will see more of this in “Blake.” But also, what is to be made of Eliot’s own inability to synthesize the creative and critical work?

In “Blake” Eliot’s personal movement is less a matter of my own performance. His entire analysis rests in a reading of Blake’s personal biography:

The question about Blake the man is the question of the circumstances that concurred to permit this honesty in his work, and what circumstances define its limitations. The favouring conditions probably include these two: that, being early apprenticed to a manual occupation, he was not compelled to acquire any other education in literature than he wanted, or to acquire it for any other reason than that he wanted it; and that, being a humble engraver, he had no journalistic-social career open to him. There was, that is to say, nothing to distract him from his interests or to corrupt these interests: neither the ambitions of parents or wife, nor the standards of society, nor the temptations of success; nor was he exposed to imitation of himself or of anyone else. These circumstances—not his supposed inspired and untaught spontaneity—are what make him innocent.

Eliot, of course, also had a “real job” as “The Waste Land” was composed.

In sum, a highly personal string of criticism directly before an “impersonal poem” is a bunk idea, firstly because Eliot’s TWL, if it is personal, rests in the ideas generated by his very personal criticism. Criticism where he not only universalizes the processes involved in the creation of poetry, but also universalizes the predicaments of both scholarly and working individuals. That his criticism and his poetry are irreconcilable are only one of his examples of the fragments in 20th century poetics.

2. My other concern, which is implicit in the first, is that this divorce of poetry and poetics exposed a weakness in “The Waste Land” that Eliot tried to buttress, but could not. In writing this “impersonal” poem, Eliot had camouflaged its meaning so deeply that he was it’s only possible reader, it’s only attendee. In lab of poetical sciences he’d created a Frankenstein of composite parts he’d dug up, baring his own name–in effect, the most personal poem! And besides, any avid reader will tell you that nothing is more personal than what you choose to read. (Pair this with Part 2–”The Waste Land” asks us to, for a moment, become T. S. Eliot himself.)

His remedy was to attach a reading list. Thus the footnotes. Thus, the text is now fragmented between two texts. And in these footnotes, the personal remarks from Eliot, the notes that position Eliot the person in various locales, should be read as a concession from Eliot. The impersonal poetry in impossible.

I dally. It is one of my strengths. I remember when I was ten years, driving to Boston in a groggy, once-flooded luxury Mitsubishi and telling my father, “Sire, it is summer, the windows are locked in the up position, and the engine’s heat is seeping through the vents.” He responded, “Your mind dallies, Thomas Charles Bair III; it is winter, the windows are rolled down, and the air conditioning is on. And do not contradict me.” “But sire, I am sweating and the juice you packed is boiling as though it were on a stove top.” “Young progeny, will you allow me none of long-driving’s natural silences? If you are warm, remove your jacket and your gloves and trim your beard. And if you are to contradict me again I will be forced to contact Authority Protection Services.” “That will not be necessary,” I replied, “your generous responses are truly my honor.

This is surely incontestable proof of my dallying. It may also hold some of the secrets to my method and purpose as to why I must go around with disposable gloves and a stick and gather the trash of this poem: I am full contradictions (as is the language of The Waste Land), and I am rude to my elders. That is, I am rude to my elders until they reference the local authorities, in which case I defer in reverence (The Waste Land has many authorities on file).

But I suppose my dallying is the reason I write on this ontologically paralyzing poem. Another anecdote: I first encountered TWL in school, duh. It seems until recently TWL was merely a mandatory furnishing of the English Literature 2 and American Literature 2 surveys, and it (TWL) was relatively proud of this standing. I, as I assume most people, encountered the poem in a sort of mad dash to move on to the “next literary movement.” But TWL, a radically condensed epic, refuses to be taught with any precision even in the three classes some teachers devote. How is the epic form reduced into something of nine pages (not counting the footnotes)? This is a question worth asking. TWL makes for an awkward Modern epic—too short and significantly odd to be passed over in a survey, too overbooked and promiscuous to be taught with certainty in a class or three.

More, the poem’s resolution enables professors to flee its fragments without worry. This resolution, that redemption is a wholly personal matter, that the TWL may not even be concerned with our the reader’s redemption, except that it provides us a heap of broken images, cracked voices, and a reading list is secondary to the other, more obvious conceit of the poem. Namely, that book learning (and only by happenstance aestheticism) unites the centuries, heals both cultural and personal trauma, and that the fundamental closedness that Postmoderns go on to high-five each other about for seventy-something years is a potentially redemptive thing. The following is the longest direct quote, aside from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Eliot’s footnotes. It is written by F. H. Bradley, the philosopher on whom Eliot wrote his doctoral thesis:

My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it.… In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.

It should be noted that this quote is attached to the fifth section “What The Thunder Said,” line 411 in TWL. It comes while our hero is in a hole next to the “the empty chapel.” The thunder’s command comes from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, thunder here vaguely signifying the coming of water, of renewal to the land (we will talk more about The Fisher King romances next time). In the Upanishad the command “Da” is given to the three orders of being—Gods, Humans, and Demons—and each hear different commands. The Gods hear Damyatta (Control), The Humans hear Datta (Give), and The Demons hear Dayadhvam (Sympathize). Significantly though, the reader of TWL receives all three commands—this works in synchronicity with Eliot’s “melting” of characters into one another throughout TWL.

This specific footnote arrives during the thunder’s command “Dayadhvam.” Eliot goes on to write the lines, “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 rumours/Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.” He defines The Demon, The Godless One, as the one that is locked in (and according to F. H. Bradley we are all “locked in”). “The key,” that which offers itself as our freedom, is Eliot’s proof that we are indeed trapped in an opaque circle.

But what is most interesting here is that the condition of “locked in” necessitates the modality of sympathy. As if one were not possible without the other. Also consider–and here is the difficulty of translation–sympathy is not empathy, but the difference is subtle. Sympathy is a relationship between things wherein what affects one also affects its other. If one is sad, its other is also sad. Empathy is an intellectual projection that intertwines subject and object. If one is sad, its other understands its sadness.  That sympathy and not empathy is The Demon’s requisite function implies that The Demon must become its opposing circles, not understand them.

And what of the aetherial rumours? Given Eliot’s style, we must concede that asking these sorts of questions to TWL can only be vaguely correct. This is a prime example of Eliot’s masking. “Aetherial Rumours”?—a brittle façade. Eliot uses the techniques of symbolism to paint faces over his meaning, thus giving us the reader a candy shell that can’t be cracked. But it’ll dissolve if we lick it! Conjecture it is. Aetherial rumours translates to something like “holy, celestial chatter that we can’t necessarily prove true.” Given the structure and style, method of arrangement, and basic assumptions of TWL—namely, that ‘public ritual’ has lost all practical meaning fifteen years after Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, the rise of popular atheism (Bertrand Russell is alluded to very early in the poem), the post-WWI ruins of Europe, the difficulties involved with romantic love not made any easier by the tattered and grossly sensual whinings of the romantics—these aetherial rumours, I argue, are the Arts and Prophets of times past.

Note that Eliot’s opaque circle is not described as having a limit to its width. By reading the classics, Eliot argues, one’s consciousness expands through time. It’s as though from Eliot’s perspective he stands in the present, and by grappling with the great works of times past, envelopes them, doubling the the radius of his circle into the past, and consequently into the future, minimizing his own, personal involvement with the creation of a thing. The trope of the Prophet is also a theme redoubled in TWL. What’s more, this is just about explicit in his essays. From “Tradition and The Individual Talent”:

. . . .What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

And if we consider ‘The Fragment” to be Eliot Prophet-Artist’s signature, at least in TWL, then, now looking back on the twentieth century, there is a case to be had.

Forgive me if these writings on Eliot sound a bit English in their method and tone but I’ve been reduced to reading an American for the past few weeks, so my folly is at once forgivable. Eliot is, indeed, the most American of poets, if and perhaps especially because he abandoned America. There are other reasons through which we will reach this conclusion. But, to be persistent, ask yourself, or better yet, when I, or anyone, asks you of your heritage, do respond that you that you are, in fact, American? I should guess not. Everyone knows that there is no such thing as an American, except during an election year or a country song. Come now, be plain with me—if I were to inquire as to your nationality would you point at the ground under your feet or walk me to the nearest genealogy section of a library? Better yet, would you tell me what someone told you? You would have to I suppose. The question of heritage in America, that it even is a question, obliges us to do some arranging (which is topical, actually. We are here to peruse The Waste Land.) We are a nation of outlaws, religious extremists, slaves, masters, pioneers, poor and tired, of huddled masses, plunderers, heroes, opportunists, co(dreamers)ugh, and all mongrel formulations therein implied, to say nothing of nation-states. No, we are a nation born of shoppers and service workers; by definition, Americans leave home so as to prefer themselves or leave themselves so as to prefer their home. The previous sentence exemplifies the latter condition—a touch of wisdom and a touch of gibberish. I could continue in this line of reasoning but I can tell that I am annoying you. Rightfully so. I will move on. This is a five part series—we will, together, mature. Aside: if I seem tightly wound, forgive me, this is, again, The Waste Land.

But naturally then, Eliot is the Most American Poet (MAP), having enacted something of an identity pilgrimage, abandoning the Missouri and the cowboy town of St. Louis for New and then Old England. And what do we know of him in England? Firstly, that he would not let a picture be taken in which he was not wearing a three piece suit. Secondly, that his accent was as affected and deplorable as Madonna’s. The two share a bit in common: mid-west origins, a penchant for shopping the faiths, and   for out Englishing the English. What is the English tradition? Measure, reticence, empirical evidence? Good. Eliot out-dueled the English until they erected his memorial in Westminster Abbey next to the graves of Dryden, Tennyson, and Browning; men Eliot spent his life burying.

Witticisms be damned, we do not discuss Eliot as such. True, we can read Eliot as, in the words of a friend, an intentional anachronism, but we could just as easily read him as a Conquistador understood as a deity by the honest natives or an earnest tradesman willing to bargain a few beads for a plot of land. No, we are under the impression that we have, or had, the blueprint for a tradition, and that Eliot considered himself a proper antiquarian. Eliot, it seems, regardless of his intent, was, in truth, an outlier. Does his approach ring familiar? Almost . . . puritanical? Is Eliot, most particularly in The Waste Land, not saying something to the “American tradition” like, “Go and read your books.”? Still, a good bulk of us are on the side of William Carlos Williams:

Then out of the blue The Dial brought out The Waste Land and all our hilarity ended. It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust.

To me especially it struck like a sardonic bullet. I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt that we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which should give it fruit. I knew at once that in certain ways I was most defeated.

Eliot had turned his back on the possibility of reviving my world. And being an accomplished craftsman, better skilled in some ways than I could ever hope to be, I had to watch him carry my world off with him, the fool, to the enemy.”

A nation of mongrels inspects its goods and rules them to be too pure for Eliot. Also here is the oft-repeated sentiment that Eliot is an Academy-sized bully, and this echoes throughout the criticism of his work, regardless of the continent of its origin. Kingsley Amis also felt excluded by The Waste Land‘s density:  “I still feel that Eliot was the member of an exclusive club that didn’t include me.” This is a common mistake mas a menos. For in addition to his stature as the MAP, he is also known the world over as Poet Laureate of Nerds. The duty of the poet for Eliot “is only indirectly to the people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve.” We might define the nerd as one who recoils into an ‘idea’ [language] because the ‘thing’ is unbearable and confusing in its demands. Here I am something of an antiquarian, I suppose. But nerds do not have it is easy, that is my point. This is not elitism, but nerdom. Jeanette Winterson will help me elucidate:

When I was growing up poor and Pentecostal in the north of England, books were not allowed in our house, unless they were Bible books or my mother’s mystery stories—not of the miracle play kind, but of the Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen kind. . . . Fatefully, when I was 16, and just as she was about to throw me out of the house for ever, for breaking a very big rule (not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex), my mother made a mistake. She sent me to the library to collect her weekly haul of mysteries—and on her list was Murder in the Cathedral.

She thought it was a saga of homicidal monks. In the library, I opened it—it looked a bit short for a mystery story. I hadn’t heard of T. S. Eliot, but I read the line about “sudden painful joy” and I started to cry. . . .

The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family (I am adopted, so being packed off for a second time was very hard), the confusion of sexuality, and the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat and how to get on with my A-levels.

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

Yet it is still true that the bulky musculature of Eliot’s language is off-putting and alienating. My point here is that there is more to Eliot. At his own word, our output governs his place in history.  There are many other writers who had a fond taste for Eliot, including Ralph Ellison, who remarks that Eliot’s work is the closest to the sounds of jazz that he encountered. T. S. Eliot, jazz poet!

In the proceeding study of The Waste Land we will find that if we are reading for meaning in the sense that A+B=C, we are in for task. The difficulties of TWL are manifold. Here are a few potential road blocks (I am sure that you can help me come up with better questions):

 

  1. Already I have alluded to Eliot’s criticism. How and should we at all read Eliot’s prose into his poetry? Eliot, like all big mouths, often contradicts himself (yes, I’m tempted to quote Whitman); if we do read his critical work into TWL, which, when, how, why, where?
  2. The title of the poem alludes to The Grail legends. What does this have to do with the Fisher King? Is TWL positioned within the history of romance lit?
  3. Eliot complicates (2) in the first scribble of his footnotes. Who is Jessie Weston and why is she here?
  4. I’ve heard that Eliot considered the footnotes to be a big joke, that he wrote them in jest because people considered the poem so difficult in the first place. Are they a key to the poem or are they another mask?
  5. Speaking of masks, what is this style? How do we read a line like “to get the beauty of it hot?”
  6. More on masks: I am seeing speakers, but they’re fairly strange speakers. Are there characters in this poem?
  7. Why so many languages?
  8. The poem feels like it is moving to one, big, unified meaning. And yet the last stanza is the most disorienting part of the whole thing? What does it mean??