Six Reasons to Not Like “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot

“The poem is—in spite of its lack of structural unity—simply one triumph after another . . .” – Edmund Wilson on “The Waste  Land”

 “A pompous parade of erudition” – Louis Untermeyer on “The Waste Land”

Waste-Land-Eliot

A lot of ‘authorities’ on poetry consider “The Waste Land” perhaps the greatest modernist poem.  However it is very easy to dislike this poem.  I ought to know, because I’ve just listened to it six times.

1.  “April is the cruelest month”.  Just as the poem begins to make some semblance of sense, Eliot drives us off the trail of understanding by throwing in un-translated lines in a variety of foreign languages.

                          Frisch weht der Wind

                          Der Heimat zu

                          Mine Irisch kind,

                          Wo weilest du.                          (German)

 

                          Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant,dans le coupole   (French)

 

                          Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina

                          Quando fiam uti chelidon – O swallow swallow

                          Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie              (Italian)  

 

                          Shantih shantih shantih                  (Sanskrit)

2. As if the un-translated lines weren’t confusing enough, Eliot then tosses in some lines of pure nonsense gibberish to really throw us off.

                    Twit twit twit

                     Jug jug jug jug jug jug

                     So rudely forc’d

                     Tereu                                               (Nonsense)

 

                     Weialala leia

                     Wallala leialala                          (Nonsense)

3.  Even if after all the un-translated and nonsensical lines, you think you might still salvage some meaning from “The Waste Land”, forget about it. Now Eliot bombards us with obscure erudite allusions to mythical and real figures of the past.  Here are some of the figures he expects us to have a nodding acquaintance with: Philomel, Tiresias, Coriolanus, and, of course, the Fisher King.

4.  Supposedly Eliot was reading “Ulysses” by James Joyce while writing “The Waste Land”.  In fact it is from Joyce that Eliot picked up his indecipherable fragmented style.  James Joyce is also where Eliot picked up that ridiculous dialogue in the poem between a man and a woman who appear to be Irish or English bar patrons.  Thus among all the learned references, we have these two dummies talking who  wouldn’t know their Coriolanus from a hole in the ground.  At least these lines I could figure out.

 “He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you

To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

You have them all out Lil, and get a nice set,

He said, I can’t bear to look at you.

And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,

He been in the army four years, he wants a good time,

And if you don’t give it to him, there’s others will, I said.”    

5.  If you translated all the foreign phrases, made sense of all the nonsense lines, and fully understood all the literary allusions, you would still be stuck with the dismal theme of the poem, that the modern world and modern life is a waste land.   “The Waste Land” is T. S. Eliot’s response to the spiritual collapse of his era. In fact, the better you understood the poem, the bleaker your world view would be.

6.  In one of the more brilliant(?) analyses of the poem, Conrad Aiken, a friend of T. S. Eliot, considered the incoherence of “The Waste Land” a virtue because its subject was incoherence.  Of what other poems can this be said?

After listening to the poem six times, I finally did come to some sort of terms with “The Waste Land”  I decided to not even consider whatever Eliot was trying to get at.  Instead I would just listen to the sound of the fragments.  The poem does sound great; and it is in the sound of the words and phrases where T. S. Eliot excels.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. This looks interesting. I have a copy of Four Quartets but I haven’t got around it yet because I do not know how to approach a T.S. Eliot work. Now I have an idea. Thanks!

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    • Hi Angus Miranda,
      The audio book I listened to contains both “The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets”, but after listening to “The Waste Land” six times I was too exhausted and disenchanted to listen to “Four Quartets”. Perhaps you can take up where I left off? Thanks.

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      • Where did you get a copy of the audiobook? Is it on YouTube or somewhere?

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        • I’ve got a long commute to and from work, so I’m a member of the Audio book club Audible. Anyhow they had one with both “The Waste Land” and “Four Quartets” for only $5.00 so I got that. I bet you probably would be able to find a reading of the entire poem on You Tube for free.

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  2. Posted by acommonreaderuk on May 2, 2013 at 6:44 PM

    Hi Tony – I wonder what Parrish would make of this post? He seems to know more about poetry than most. While the Waste Land doesn’t do much for me, Four Quartets certainly does. Interesting point about the influence of Joyce – a writer I’ve never bothered myself with (and don’t intend to)

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    • Hi Tom,
      I’ve read “Ulysses” and liked it a lot, lot better than “The Waste Land”. It is one of my favorite novels. I was just saying that this conversation between these Joycean characters seems kind of out of place with the rest of “The Waste Land”. I must read “Four Quartets” soon.
      I’m not familiar with the Parrish blog, although I think I saw it a long time ago.

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  3. Posted by acommonreaderuk on May 8, 2013 at 7:14 AM

    I sort of assume that regular visitors to my site are also regular visitors to others. Stupid of me. I was thinking of this one http://parrishlantern.blogspot.co.uk/

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