Perhaps because T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965), like myself, was a transplant from the American Midwest to England—or perhaps because my closest friend long ago used to recite “The Waste Land” with such unveiled urgency it felt wrong to admit I didn’t understand it, or perhaps because every time we pass into April I feel swollen with emptiness—T. S. Eliot and his wasted lands have been an opaque companion these many Aprils.
(And, with the climate crisis, Eliot’s imagery flashes across my internal brow like a viewfinder.)
What are the roots that 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 tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief.
Neither Eliot nor “The Waste Land” (he was very particular it should be two words) are to be entered lightly.
Eliot combined classic drama, poetic references, Grail lore, and both Buddhist and Hindu texts to form this stupendous piece of five sections.1
Eliot glorified erudition to the point of inscrutability. He introduces the poem with a few lines in Latin, Greek, Italian, and English.2
Eliot’s most common imagery—and from which the poem draws its true strength—is nature. Nature empty of human presence or comfort. Nature existing in the most unimaginable form, knowable but vile.
The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of the leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Despite its uneasy depth and slowly unfolding brilliance, of all 20th-century poetry, “The Waste Land” persists monumentally above almost all others and was part of the canon that won Eliot the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.
Legendary movie critic Roger Ebert once wrote that when he couldn’t grasp a movie intellectually, he approached it emotionally. How did it made him feel.3
Irish painter Francis Bacon echoes Ebert’s sentiment: “Yeats is probably a greater poet than Eliot but in the end, I prefer that whole atmosphere of Eliot… I love the feeling you get in ‘The Waste Land.’”
Tapping into one’s fears is key to Eliot, to “The Waste Land.” There is no mistaking the barrenness of the place and the dry, stale wind that crawls over you as you read. An existential non-existence. The kind that eclipsed Susan Sontag when she was dying and engaged Hermann Hesse his entire life.
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
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain.
A very interesting comparison to Eliot’s modern piece are the poems of Wilfred Owen. Owen was a contemporary of Eliot (though not in the same circles) who fought and died for Britain in WWI. Owen was also one of the first poets to write war poetry that portrayed the horrific realities of war and our loss of humanity when we shrug at death. Not dissimilar topics to Eliot, and yet, when compared, Owen’s verse is full of passion and emotion while “The Waste Land” is just deadened.
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 rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Decay is an oft-used image in Eliot’s poetry because it evokes our own fears of death and non-being. As a publisher, Eliot nurtured many writers and talents throughout his career. One of his brightest is Marianne Moore, a poet of precision and imagination who, in the erudite fashion of Eliot, combined worldwide influences to create perilous imagery.
I confess to not understanding a great deal of “The Waste Land,” but the older I become, the more this poem resonates. I think we all have buried awarenesses that move through us like waves. The swells rise and fall and occasionally spit drops into our consciousness, but they usually die back and we remain as we are.
Poetry empowers those swells. It changes what we know. It, as Gaston Bachelard said so beautifully, “gives us back the situations of our dreams.” Or nightmares.