The Waste Land and Other Writings (T. S. Eliot)

Posted: June 21, 2015 in nonfiction, poetry
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A little while ago, my friend David was struggling with his feelings for T. S. Eliot. I agree with him, that Eliot is an author that is hard to love, but after reading this collection, I no longer feel guilty for disliking him, despite the occasional beauty of his words.

This collection was assembled by the good people at Borders, before they went out of business. It covers his works from 1917 to 1923, or in other words, when he was 29 to 35 years old. There’s more prose than poetry, and I think it’s important to read the essays in order to understand the poetry.

Okay, story time. When I was in school, we usually studied literature in chronological order, discussing great movements. In twelfth grade, our teacher decided to teach British literature thematically instead of chronologically, so we did a unit on heroism that included Beowulf, an excerpt from Paradise Lost, and Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” He knew that most of his students didn’t really care about movements, and if they were going to study literature at the university, they’d learn the movements there. So, as he explained it, there are two contradictory basic impulses that battle through culture throughout time: classicism and romanticism. To introduce a comparison he didn’t make, classicism is Spock in The Wrath of Khan. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. A hero sacrifices everything to protect his society. They find value in the history and traditions of their community, like Alexander Pope, always looking backward to gods and kings in ancient Latin and Greek texts. Romanticism is Captain Kirk in The Search for Spock. The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. A hero struggles to live naturally and authentically, despite social pressures, so he is rejected by society. They find value in nature and in themselves, like William Wordsworth, always looking around at poor wanderers amid the trees and rivers. If you’ve ever heard me talking about literature, it should be no trouble to determine which I prefer. So, imagine my great umbrage at reading:

We agree, I hope, that ‘classicism’ is not an alternative to ‘romanticism,’ as of political parties, Conservative and Liberal, Republican and Democrat, on a ‘turn-the-rascals-out’ platform. It is a goal toward which all good literature strives, so far as it is good, according to the possibilities of its place and time.

Or:

With Mr Murry’s formulation of Classicism and Romanticism I cannot agree; the difference seems to me rather the difference between the complete and the fragmentary, the adult and the immature, the orderly and the chaotic.

Or the weird, excessively sarcastic:

For to those who obey the inner voice (perhaps ‘obey’ is not the word) nothing I can say about criticism will have the slightest value. For they will not be interested in the attempt to find any common principles for the pursuit of criticism. Why have principles, when one has the inner voice? If I like a thing, that is all I want; and if enough of us, shouting all together, like it, that should be all that you (who don’t like it) ought to want. The law of art, said Mr Clutton Brock, is all case law. And we can not only like whatever we like to like but we can like it for any reason we choose. We are not, in fact, concerned with literary perfection at all – the search for perfection is a sign of pettiness, for it shows that the writer has admitted the existence of an unquestioned spiritual authority outside himself, to which he has attempted to conform. We are not in fact interested in art. We will not worship Baal. ‘The principle of classical leadership is that obeisance is made to the office or to the tradition, never to the man.’ And we want, not principles, but men.

Well, yeah, Mr Meanie Pants, I do desire men more than I do principles. Now fuck off.

Not content with mocking Romantic principles, he trashes Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge (not the prose, just the poetry), and then he even talks smack about the tradition that Romantics love, like:

The real corrupters are those who supply opinion or fancy; and Goethe and Coleridge are not guiltless – for what is Coleridge’s Hamlet: is it an honest inquiry as far as the data permit, or is it an attempt to present Coleridge in an attractive costume?

And

Milton and Wordsworth, on the other hand, lack this unity, and therefore lack life; and the general criticism on most of the long poems of the nineteenth century is simply that they are not good enough.

Another quick story: I’ve been working at my current job for almost five months now, and at first I had a lot of trouble with one of my co-workers. He had a habit of expressing his opinions as if they were dogma, even on trivial matters. And he only expressed an opinion of it was in opposition to whomever was speaking at the time. He didn’t have an unqualified good word to say about anyone or anything. At first, I assumed he was much younger than I am, and that he was so rigidly axiomatic because he hadn’t had enough experiences with the real world. But no, I was wrong. He’s my age. Almost exactly. He’s actually a few weeks older than I am. However, I’ve spent the last eighteen years living on both American coasts, and also traveling through South America, the Middle East, and even a short trip to Paris, looking for people to love and ways to understand myself. He’s been living in either Indiana, Japan, or Korea, and he seems to have spent all that time correcting the internet. He doesn’t call himself a troll because it’s not trolling if you’re right. So he was approaching us real people as if we were faceless webpages, so aggressive and offensive that I started shutting down as soon as I saw him. He’s been verbally beaten down a couple of times since then, once by me for speaking disrespectfully of the American South, and now he’s quieter, but I don’t think he and I will ever really be comfortable in each other’s presence.

This is T. S. Eliot. He was a troll before the internet existed. He wants to break with the nineteenth century, so he opposes them as vehemently as he dares (he may have a soft spot for Matthew Arnold). Eliot reminds me of an undergraduate so passionately attached to his opinions that he ignores his professors.

So, we circle back to the poetry. He may be in his late twenties and early thirties, but he still writes poetry like a Victorian undergraduate. He’s so insulated in his little community of people who share his ability with Latin and Greek that he assumes everyone does. My students used to ask me why he included so much Latin, Greek, Italian, German, and French in his poems, and I told them that it’s a way of selecting your audience. Eliot has a specific sort of reader in mind, probably what he would consider a person with a minimum of education, but he sets the bar so high that very few people of any time would be qualified to read him. He’s selected not to have an audience.

Polyphiloprogenitive
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the windowpanes.
In the beginning was the Word.

Perhaps he’s a bit like Ginsberg writing “Howl,” but Ginsberg showed that he was writing for a few select friends by writing about their specific experiences that other people can still identify with, not by using language that no one else would be able to understand.

Eliot rejects the nineteenth century, it’s true, but he seems to reject his own time as well. That’s the effect I feel from all those allusions. His view of the 1920s seems summed up here:

O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag –
It’s so elegant
So intelligent

Some of the most beautiful writing in the English language is reduced to a pop song. I tried to find the Shakespearean Rag on youtube, but it’s not there. I think it must be like the “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” scene from Kiss Me Kate. High drama is juxtaposed with people who can’t afford proper dentistry, and the modern sufferers seem tawdry and mean compared with Cleopatra’s burnished throne or Juliet’s temporary tomb.

Okay. I hate it when people are excessively negative, and here I am being excessively negative because T. S. Eliot is excessively negative. Now, OccMan, say something nice.

Eliot does put his words together very well. Some of his images and thoughts are really very beautiful.

The winter evening settles down
With smells of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

And

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

And again

Stand on the highest pavement of the stair –
Lean on a garden urn –
Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair –
Clasp your flowers to you with a pained surprise –
Fling them to the ground and turn
With a fugitive resentment in your eyes:
But weave, weave the sunlight in your hair.

In fairness, I can understand Eliot being depressed around this time. He was the primary caregiver for his wife, who had a severe mental illness. Eventually he placed her in a long-term care facility, but during the time he wrote these poems and essays they were still together. Can you imagine? Leaving your home to study in a foreign country, loving the new place and marrying someone from there, only to have her lose her mind and suddenly the whole world seems like a sterile, unfriendly place, where the best offer he ever hears is

There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Later, of course, he’ll go on to write a sweet book of poems about the neighborhood cats, but he’s always remembered for these early depressed writings. This is what we study, and that may say more about us who study literature than it does about Eliot himself.

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Comments
  1. Brilliant and bold essay, my friend. Thank you! Love this:
    “Eliot has a specific sort of reader in mind, probably what he would consider a person with a minimum of education, but he sets the bar so high that very few people of any time would be qualified to read him. He’s selected not to have an audience.”

    But yes, I confess, there are sections of his works that I do love, “Prufrock” is one.

    • theoccasionalman says:

      Prufrock is probably my favorite of his. I’ve always identified with bits and pieces of it, even before I started wondering if I should part my hair behind.

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