OF course January is the cruellest month. As an old boss of mine used to say: “The grim reaper is on the downstroke JDQ.” Covid and influenza are killing thousands. And if that wasn’t enough we’ve got the ongoing decay of Britain’s mephitic political elite and its insistent negligence regarding the public good. Then too there’s the stench emanating from the more cloacal sectors of the English press.
Given the current state of moral entropy what better way to start 2023 than by going back just over a century to TS Eliot’s laugh riot?
As Matthew Hollis has it, the poem was written in a time not unlike our own where “civilization and progress ... seemed emptied of meaning, robbed of certainty or value”.
Firstly Hollis gives space to Ezra Pound, midwife to The Waste Land, by saying he “distilled Eliot’s craft: an original rhythm, an inventive form, a personal take on tradition”. Eliot himself, talking of Dante, thought “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”, what Hollis terms a “pre or para-linguistic pulse”, a “sensory event: imagined pictures cast on received sounds”.
Eliot wanted us to work at his poem, he’s saying – if you don’t get it the first, second, or even third time around, chill. You need to do some background swotting to check out the references ...
Eliot was near mental collapse when he wrote The Waste Land. The sources of his despair are forensically outlined by Hollis, namely: the political and cultural fallout from the First World War, the death of Eliot’s father, his tedious job in banking, the failure of his marriage (exacerbated by a predatory Bertrand Russell) to the valetudinarian Vivien.
And then there were dinner parties with the Woolfs (petty, snobbish) where he writes “everyone is very sensitive, very perceptive and very quick” (read bitchy) that exercised “one’s psychological gifts more than the best fencing match or duel”.
Virginia would write later: “His writing is almost unintelligible.” But then Woolf didn’t have Coles Notes.
For Eliot, everything was all too much. To those who thought his writing unemotional and depersonalised, he said: “Only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from those things.”
Many critics thought him too clever by half – all brain and no heart. But what was he really trying to escape from? While he wrote there was the prospect of a general strike and Eliot “expected the postal service to be stopped at any moment”.
He thought this was just another step in the destruction of Europe: “The whole of contemporary politics etc. oppresses me with a continuous physical horror like the feeling of growing madness in one’s own brain.”
He banged on: “it is rather a horror to be sane in the midst of this; it is too dreadful, too huge, for one to have the comforting feeling of superiority. It goes too far for rage.” Life before email was tough.
Eliot turned to Anglo-Catholicism, the monarchy, and a “profound hatred for democracy”.
He was a wrong ’un and Hollis doesn’t skirt the poet’s anti-Semitism. But Eliot wants us to remember “honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry”. It’s about the work, dummy, not me!
A reunion with his American maw failed; Vivien spent weeks in bed with her catamenial migraines. There was something amiss about Eliot, something hinted at in his line from A Game of Chess about “the ivory men make company between us”.
He’s talking about his learning the meaning of loneliness. The guy wasn’t much of a mensch. The crack-up duly happened and Eliot made for Margate where he could connect nothing with nothing. From there it was to Switzerland where a medic seems to have helped him recover, for a fine fee no doubt.
Hollis’s account of the work’s genesis and construction is enjoyable and enlightening but there’s maybe too much about typewriter ribbon variants for this pedant. Contemporary reviews of The Waste Land were sceptical: the Guardian thought it “so much waste paper”, the Freeman “a pompous parade of erudition.” A hundred years on it still baffles but Pound wasn’t wrong to call it “a damn good poem”.