#PoetryPromise April: The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

#PoetryPromise is coordinated through Poetry by Heart with the aim of promoting and spreading the love of poetry. My #PoetryPromise for 2015 is to share a favourite poem of mine every month through my blog. My choice for April is The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. After all, “April is the cruellest month.”

Title page of my copy of the poem. Annotations start here...

Title page of my copy of the poem. Annotations start here…

I first read Eliot as an A Level English Literature student, and I was awestruck. From the Latin/Greek/English/Italian epigraph onwards, this was a work of dazzling ambition and scope. Eliot cuts across cultures and through time in multiple voices, all the while maintaining powerful poetics, rhythms and sounds. The characters and places he establishes are haunting and powerful; I wrote a terrible short story based on the typist and her “young man carbuncular” and whenever I return to London I hear “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many…”

But this was a hard poem. As I began, I found myself asking the same questions as the poem posed:

“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”

I knew there was sense in it, but I couldn’t fit it together. As a life-long lover of puzzles, however, I couldn’t resist trying. The Waste Land is like a web, with words tugging on references to other texts which, when decoded, shine a light on the meaning of the whole. This was modernism, a text which existed in reference to other texts as well as to the real world. The trouble was, I knew hardly any of the references. Eliot’s own notes were a starting point but are often more opaque than the poem itself. But in tracing the lines of the web out to their historical, artistic and literary anchor points, I began to appreciate the richness that cultural capital could bring – and I wanted in. I read, and read, and read. I was voracious. And when, later in my course, I read Milton’s Paradise Lost, I found myself recognising more of the allusions. My experience was richer for it, and chasing down inter-textual connections and references still gives me a thrill of accomplishment.

The text of The Waste Land is too long to publish here, but can be found here or here. The typist section that inspired my short story is below. The story, I’m glad to say, is lost.

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
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.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
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.

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3 thoughts on “#PoetryPromise April: The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot

  1. I never quite ‘got’ The Waste Land’, Chris, though I loved ‘Paradise Lost’.

    This made me want to give it another go….

    Thanks.

  2. Love the whole idea of #PoetryPromise & it makes me think about what I would choose, and why!

    Also reminds me of how in my last year of headship I had my portrait painted (probably especially an independent school thing…) When I met the artist I assumed he’d take some photographs & use those, but he explained that getting to know me a little was part of the process, and he wasn’t just painting a physical likeness. He was trying to capture something of the person inside. He said it might take 10 2-hour sessions.

    I didn’t think I could possibly sit still and do nothing for 20 hours so I asked if he’d paint me reading, and he did. I think it then only took abut 7 sessions because I CAN sit perfectly still for a 2-hour block if I’m absorbed in a good book!

    And in order to help him ‘tune in’ better to what made me tick, in each session, at one stage, I read aloud something I’d read that I found powerful. Thinking about the choice of books and choice of extracts was interesting. What did they show about me? I think reading your choice of poems and what you say about them helps me to get to know you a little better. Chris.

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