100 years since poetry changed for ever with 'The Waste Land'

2022. A deadly pandemic. War in Ethiopia. Civil war in Myanmar. Looming war in Ukraine. Chaos in American politics, in British politics. Woke lunacy. A million Uyghurs interned in China. Sectarian violence in India.

Was there ever a worse year?

There are quite a few contenders, but one of them surely is 1922. One hundred years ago, the future looked grim. The world had just recovered from the First World War, in which 40 million people died. Another 40 million or so died in the Great Influenza Epidemic. The Bolsheviks were consolidating their rule in Russia after a civil war in which 10 million died. Americans were suffering under Prohibition. Australia had just invented Vegemite. Yes, 1922 was worse.

Articulating the dread and despair of the 1920s was a poem aptly named “The Waste Land”. It was published in 1922 by T.S. Eliot, a 34-year-old American -- although he found Britain so congenial that he spent most of his adult life there and posed as a middle-class Englishman with a bowler hat and rolled-up brolly.

Analysis of “The Waste Land” would fill a library; commentary on his other poetry, plays, and literary criticism, plus endless biographies, would fill several libraries. In 1922 “The Waste Land” was exhilaratingly modern and since then, say some critics, nothing more modern has been written. In 1948 Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

After your first reading of “The Waste Land” you may feel that it is almost unbearably bleak. It opens with an epigraph in Latin and Greek from a Latin classic, The Satyricon, written in the first century AD: “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered: ‘I want to die.’”

And that is just the beginning. The vignettes of characters ancient and modern are mostly about death and desolation.  

The citation from an obscure ancient text is characteristic of Eliot’s technique in “The Waste Land”. He quotes or paraphrases St Augustine, Elizabethan poetry, Sanskrit poetry, 19th century French poetry, a guide to North American birds, German opera, Dante, Antarctic explorers, an Australian pub song, and I’ve left out a lot. It’s a sort of jumble sale of Western culture.

The 433-line poem creates an overwhelming sense of moral, psychological, cultural, and intellectual chaos with its rapid succession of flickering images, deftly woven together in words of memorable music. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” is one of the poem’s most often quoted lines.

It depicts a culture which is falling apart and no longer understands where it has come from or where it is going, where nothing is admirable or even intelligible, where sexual immorality is commonplace. It was written in the Roaring Twenties, but it has a very contemporary ring. What is the woke movement other than a repudiation of the Western canon?

Read it for yourself. Better still, listen to Alec Guinness read it. Notwithstanding its pessimism, it is musical and endlessly fascinating.

Alec Guinness reading 'The Waste Land'

Despite the dismal themes and supercilious erudition in “The Waste Land” and in his other early poems, Eliot was a searcher after truth. You can see that he senses that there must be something else, something that will slake a thirst for happiness and meaning:

If there were the sound of water only   
Not the cicada   
And dry grass singing   
But sound of water over a rock   
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees   
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop     
But there is no water

These are not the most-quoted lines from “The Waste Land”, but they anticipate a radical change in Eliot’s later poetry. In 1927 he converted from nominal Unitarianism (an American denomination whose creed is the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man and the neighbourhood of Boston) to Anglo-Catholicism. It was an astonishing transition to traditional Christianity, which he celebrated in a beautiful and enigmatic poem, “Ash-Wednesday”. His new-found faith must have baffled his friends.

Thereafter he wrote a series of deeply Christian poems. “Four Quartets”, the most important of them, must be numbered amongst the greatest religious poetry in the English language. He also wrote several plays, of which the best-known is Murder in the Cathedral, about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket by knights of Henry II in 1170.

He became a critic of an increasingly irreligious British society and published a collection of his lectures as The Idea of a Christian Society in 1939. His political philosophy, while perhaps naïve, was a testimony to the intellectual depth of his conversion. He wrote:

As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organisation which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality …  If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.

What I am not suggesting is that Eliot was a saint (unlikely) or a touchstone for Christian orthodoxy. He was simply a poet – albeit the greatest poet in English of the 20th century -- who allowed his work to be shaped by Christian doctrine and culture rather than by the bleak nihilism of his surroundings.

What I am suggesting is that Eliot’s career has a message for us. It shows that 2022 need not mark the end of Christian influence upon our culture because of woke insanities, the cancel culture movement and the steady erosion of faith. 2022 could be another 1922, the year in which Thomas Stearns Eliot began to gather together the scattered fragments of his Christian heritage.


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