This essay, on TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 30 October 2022, under the headline “TS Eliot’s Waste Land was a barren place. But at least a spirit of optimism still prevailed”.
He promised “a new start”.
I made no comment. What should I resent?
No, not a response to the Tory leadership chaos but lines from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. This month marks the centenary of the publication of Eliot’s masterpiece, one of the most influential works of the 20th century. And not just on poetry or literature. Its themes and refrains, its fears and provocations, caught and shaped an important strand of modern thought and help illuminate our world as much as they did his.
The Waste Land can seem a forbiddingly difficult work, a fractured poem told through myriad fragmentary voices, echoing with recherché allusions and exquisite learning, lines dropped in from Shakespeare and Dante, Wagner and Verlaine, the Bible and the Upanishads.
Yet Eliot himself saw poetry as a sensual object to be felt as much as to be meticulously understood. He celebrated the “auditory imagination”, the “feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end”. The African American novelist Ralph Ellison wrote that when he first stumbled on Eliot’s poem as a student, he was taken by “its power to move me while eluding my understanding. Somehow its rhythms were often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets.” It is, ironically, through his allusive echoes, allowing us to grasp the deeper historical and cultural connections, that Eliot also reveals the ways in which language and literature and myth can move us “far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling”.
The Waste Land was written at a time when the threads of the social and moral order seemed to be unravelling. The carnage of the first world war and the drama of the Russian Revolution conjured up the sense of a world facing moral decay, social revolution and technological transformation. In an essay on James Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot portrayed the novel, published in the same year as The Waste Land, as depicting “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”. That may be a curdled reading of Joyce, but it is revealing of Eliot’s own preoccupations.
Those preoccupations turned The Waste Land, paradoxically, into both the greatest modernist poem and a profound lament for the impact of modernism and for the loss of a moral anchor through the erosion of faith and tradition. The modern world had, for Eliot, become a spiritless, barren wasteland in which people lived disconnected from each other, driven largely by individual lusts and desires: “Here is no water but only rock/ Rock and no water and the sandy road.”
It was a theme to which he constantly returned throughout his life. “The desert,’’ he wrote in The Rock, a verse-play written 12 years after The Waste Land, “is not remote in southern tropics” but is “squeezed in the tube-train next to you”; it is “in the heart of your brother”.
For Eliot, modernity had transformed even that which should delight into a burden. The Waste Land opens with one of the most famous lines in poetry – “April is the cruellest month”; cruel because the coming of spring brings to life that which the modern world would rather have stayed buried; not just new shoots but old memories and histories. And hopes. To hope, one must also open the door to disappointment and defeat. But, Eliot suggests, we live in a world that preferred the deadness of cynicism to the fragility of hope: “Winter kept us warm, covering/Earth in forgetful snow.”
In The Waste Land, Eliot looked to eastern spirituality – Buddhism and early Hinduism – as the source of spiritual renewal. Eventually, he was to turn to Christianity to act as his moral foundation. Eliot’s despair of modern mores and search for a moral anchor led him to dark places, especially in his misogyny and antisemitism. “Reasons of race and religion,” he believed, “combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.” The “population should be homogenous” and “a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated”. He was also, like many intellectuals of his time, deeply disparaging of democracy, for which he had, as he wrote to a friend, “a profound hatred”.
A hundred years on, anxieties about social change, the sense of a spiritless world, the lament for the loss of tradition, the entrenchment of cynicism and moral numbness, have all become features of political life. Today’s search for the anchor of tradition is, however, very different from that of the interwar years.
In Eliot’s day, pessimism about the human condition was confronted by optimism about future prospects. The breakdown of the old order disturbed many, but many others were inspired by the turmoil. There were dramatic and far-reaching political changes – the coming of mass democracy, the creation of new labour organisations and political parties, the emergence of independence struggles in the colonies, the resurgence of the women’s rights movement.
Social and moral dislocation also helped foster dazzling advancement in many areas of art, literature and music. Picasso and Popova, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, Joyce and Woolf, Langston Hughes and Louis Armstrong, Gropius and Le Corbusier and, of course, Eliot himself, all seized on the moment to refigure artistic expression. Technological advance from the aeroplane to insulin to motion films seemed exhilarating.
Today, that old strain of optimism has largely ebbed away and belief in the possibilities of social transformation eroded. Where a century ago it was the fear of working-class movements and of social revolution that fuelled the reaching back to tradition, today it is the absence of such movements and of such possibilities that shapes much of political discourse. It is also an absence that allows reactionary movements to present themselves, and their intolerance, not as elitist in the fashion of Eliot but seemingly acting in the cause of anti-elitism.
Eliot, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, made “new poetry flower on the stem of the oldest”. It was a beautiful evocation of Eliot’s craft. It is illuminating, too, of contemporary political conundrums. The Waste Land still speaks to us, though in a different register to that conjured up by Eliot; its contemporary meaning needs unpacking as carefully as the allusions in the poem.