With regular works of fiction, and possibly regular works of poetry, the reader expects to get his/her bearings with ease. Most of it feels familiar, some surprises or exotic elements are laid out here and there for enjoyment, but the way home is straightforward; go with the flow and enjoy the ride. Not so with The Waste Land
(1922, the same year as Ulysses
; a couple of years before Mrs. Dalloway
). In this cabbalistic poem, the reader is cast right into the middle of a scorching desert of rocks, a charred forest of words, reverberating multiple voices and languages — to the untrained eye, there is no way home anywhere. You have to grab your machete and carve your path into this thick bramble of verses and stanzas. Indeed, to get a sense of the poem, Eliot requires from the reader a level of effort that is almost commensurate with that of the poet himself. And so, borrowing from Baudelaire
, Eliot calls on to him (or her), as an unreliable brother (or sister), for support: “Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!
” (v. 76)
Here is a possible hint, though: “Son of man, / You cannot say or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images” (20-22). Eliot’s poem refers to a crumbling world and, indeed, may itself seem like such heap of broken reflections of virtually everything, an entire library (The Bible
, The Upanishads
, etc.) folded and wrapped and packed and compressed into a symbolic card game, tumbled, scattered chess pieces, a ragged tapestry, an intricate and elliptical origami. It starts with the cry of the Sibyl from Petronius’s Satyricon
, exhausted with old age: “άπο ϴανεΐν ϴέλω”. Soon after, we hear the young heavy-hearted sailor at the start of Wagner’s Tristan
, “mein irisch Kind, / wo weilest du?
” (33-34). Then, again, Tristan’s shepherd, staring at an empty ocean in the last act, “Öd und leer das Meer!
And on it goes, in a wild lyrical collage where all the biggest hits of European high culture are smashed, shattered, recollected, pastiched and sewn up again, into the chequered verses of a lustrous Harlequinade. There is much affinity between Eliot’s opaque and ambiguous poetry and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra
and his critique of Western culture; or even Stravinsky, who borrowed from every musical tradition imaginable, melted them together into his crucible, and created some of the most (sometimes) strident, (always) mind-bending pieces of symphonic music.
In various places, Eliot overlays these artistic allusions with modern urban scenery to exceedingly striking effect. “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many” (62-63) mashes up the usual urban herd of stupefied, undead-like commuters with Dante’s vision of Hell (Canto 3, 55-57). Similarly, the evocation of the River Thames, poisoned with “empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends” (177-178), echoes, with some irony, the “Weialala leia” incantation, from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung
(III, 1). All in all, there is a general feeling of disgust about modern life and, at the same time, a conscious effort to re-enchant, to re-poeticise, to re-mythicise — albeit with sombre, prophetic imagery that alternates between floods and droughts — a world deprived of light, warmth and mystery.
Other parts of the poem are structured like off-kilter, dark-comedy playlets. For instance, the one starting with “My nerves are bad to-night” (111) or the scene that supposedly takes place in a crummy barroom with a yakking cockney woman (139-172). These sections — which, in a way, herald Samuel Beckett
’s plays — read like snippets from everyday conversations, mingled with highbrow cultural allusions. “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones” (115-116) hints at Ezekiel, 37, or perhaps at the WWI trenches... Meanwhile, the pub owner’s last call “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” is, perhaps, a parody of Brangäne’s warning in Tristan
(II, 2): “Habet acht! / Bald entweicht die Nacht.
Modern love, however, as Eliot depicts it — under the guise of Tiresias, with his “wrinkled dugs” (228) —, is nothing like Tristan und Isolde
; instead, it is a loveless, nauseating hookup between a sluggish woman and a “carbuncular”, pathetic loser (220-256). Once the dude is done shooting his load, the girl concludes: “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over” (252), and mindlessly “puts a record on the gramophone” (256)... or, say, checks her Insta... How much lower could Isolde still sink?
If books were celestial bodies, most would be intergalactic vacuum, some would be barren rocks, some hostile worlds, some lush planets teeming with life, some would be colourful nebulae, others burning stars, others still, dazzling supernovae. The Waste Land
is a black hole of virtually infinite density. It swallows up and siphons in all languages, all pictures, all slices of ordinary life, all the books that came before it, and crushes them inside, beyond the horizon of comprehension, perhaps leading up, in the end, to a universe of pure sound, syncopated rhythms, (dis)harmony and divine thunder.
“Shantih shantih shantih” (433): peace which passeth understanding.