#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.”
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.
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.