A further look at Eliot's The Wasteland: the descent into academic verse.

The Waste Land (Continued)

The Waste Land (Continued)

One of the most illuminating comments on The Waste Land came from Harold Munro, (1) who remarked, ‘The Waste Land is one metaphor with a multiplicity of interpretations.’ Speaking from within the Modernist camp, John Press  (2) added, ‘It is his ability to fuse into poetry a multitude of experiences and a wealth of intellectual speculation that gives his verse such range and authority’. It is these two quotes I’d like to develop in this second post on The Waste Land.

That range of subject matter probably derives from Propertius, whose Odes Ezra Pound had rendered as Homage to Sextus Propertius, his beautiful but idiosyncratic ‘translation’ that appeared in 1919. That similarity of intention may have been what Pound saw in the first draft of The Waste Land, which he drastically pruned, of course, continuing to find a home for Eliot’s poetic and critical skills: Eliot became editor of The Criterion in 1922, the year in which The Waste Land was published. The sometimes difficult and tangled relationship between the two writers is germane to the discussion, but will lead us into areas I don’t want to explore here. Much is unflattering – Eliot’s treatment of his wife, Pound’s fascism and the mutual promotion of both – but I doubt we shall fully understand who did what exactly till Eliot’s private papers are published, if they ever are.

Munro recognized the multiplicity of interpretations, and Press regarded them as ‘fused’. Are they?

Only with a lot of critical erudition added, and an erudition that older men of letters thought had no place in poetry. Instead of miraculous craft skills that led us ever deeper into an understanding of what was superficially attractive and convincing, the new poetry required additional work from its readers. It was they, or critics, or theoreticians who had to supply what was missing – an understanding of those allusions Pound built his Cantos of, and the background to those sweeping judgements Eliot generally didn’t stoop to explain in his critical articles. Hence the ‘granularity’ I mentioned in the previous post. We can’t look deeper into the fabric of the poem because that detail isn’t there. Or to put the matter more politely: that’s not the way these poems work. They are more collages than closely-integrated thought.

Many critics see it otherwise, of course, and argue that the traditional skills are self-evident in both writers, a claim that seems to me true of Pound’s early work, but less so of Eliot at any time. There are ‘traditionally fine’ passages in The Waste Land certainly – any literary textbook will point them out – and more so in the Four Quartets. But there are also lacunae and much imprecision posing as profundity. If that seems harsh, look again at standard interpretations of these poems. (3).  Yes, we can compare:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

To Chaucer’s opening of the Canterbury Tales, but there is no compelling reason to do so.  We can agree that:

For Eliot’s speaker, this rebirth is cruel, because any birth reminds him of death. The soil out of which the spring plants grow is composed of the decayed leaves of earlier plants. April is the month of Easter, and Eliot is invoking here both the Christian story of the young god who dies in order to give new life to the rest of us and the many other versions of this myth chronicled by Sir James Frazer in his anthropological work “The Golden Bough” and Jessie Weston in her “From Ritual to Romance”. (3)

But again a simpler explanation of ‘cruellest’ is probably the sense of lost youth. And so on. Of course it’s good material for critical exegesis, requiring the wide leaps of logic that much of today’s critical industry is built on, and which I have outlined in website pages.

It is also a technique that tends to superficiality, no doubt producing intriguing poems in a talented writer but prententious banality in others. Exasperation must be the response of many common readers, and especially those who serve a long apprenticeship in  disciplines requiring writers to say exactly what they mean: science, philosophy, the law, etc. Meaning is not a simple matter, as I’ve laboured in this website to show – to the bafflement of many visitors, to judge from comments – but there are still rules and common practices that must apply if the work is to achieve what was intended.

Naturally, it’s possible to turn matters on their head, and argue that poetry is precisely a language that doesn’t make full sense. Or indeed shouldn’t make complete sense. Many contemporary poets probably do believe that. But it’s not a doctrine espoused by academic life, and seems doubly unfortunate when many contemporary attitudes are controlled by the mass media, making them shallow and commercially-orientated. Little of current journalism speaks ‘truth to power’, and many ambitious poets are moving from cautious to invisible in seeking university status. Few of the poets we most read would be so craven: Milton, Byron, Yeats, to quote only a few. Even Shakespeare, who knew very well what he could and could not say in the Tudor state, opens the door to a more generous and sympathetic treatment of human character than did his contemporaries.  My suggestion is not that poets shouldn’t expand their range and repertoire, therefore, but that many of Modernism’s approaches create the anodyne poems that now seem to feature prominantly in serious writing. Interesting, intriguing, amusing and a dozen other things, but quite harmless, even at their best. That may be the shape of the world we live in,  but we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for the ‘original and challenging virtues of contemporary literature’.


1. Monro, H. Notes for a Study of the Waste Land. The Chapbook, 34. February 1923, pp. 21-24.
2. Press, J. A.  Map of Modern English Verse. O.U.P., 1969. p.76.
3. Lewis, P. The Waste Land. The Modernism Lab. http://modernism.research.yale.edu/wiki/index.php/The_Waste_Land

Related Website Pages

Free verse lyric. http://www.textetc.com/workshop/wa-free-verse-lyric-1.html

Theory Apparatchiks. http://www.textetc.com/modernist/poetry-theory-apparatchiks.html

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