‘The Waste Land’ at 100: T.S. Eliot’s monument to despair — with a few laughs thrown in
It is one of the grimmest monuments of suffering and despair ever penned. T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” might also be one of the most difficult texts to interpret. But whatever the author was doing in the poem, he was being deadly serious about the cultural, existential and political problems that were afflicting humanity in the wake of World War I.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of “The Waste Land.” The 433-line poem, divided into five sections, first appeared in the United Kingdom in October 1922 in The Criterion, Eliot’s own literary quarterly that launched that same month. And it appeared the following month in the United States in The Dial, which marked the poem’s importance by awarding it the journal’s prestigious award of $2,000.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of “The Waste Land.” The 433-line poem is important, but it’s not very user-friendly.
The poem is important, but it’s not very user-friendly. In fact, it is a surpassingly difficult read on first encounter. The biographical background of the poem—which seeps through the surface in surprising ways—includes Eliot’s time-consuming job at a bank, his miserable marriage to a troubled addict, a spiritual crisis and his own nervous breakdown in 1921. The foreground of the poem is the violence and wastage of the Great War: The poem documents the breakdown of social convention, shared values, religious culture and philosophical meaning. Rather than merely talk about these issues, the poem dramatizes breakdown by withholding the kinds of cues that readers were used to getting from authors. The poem has no single narrator or easily identifiable point of view. There is no recognizable plot. Scenes that seem to be going somewhere are abruptly cut off. Unnamed characters, barely sketched, disappear before we grasp who they are. Most famously, the poem is a collage of fragments: Words or phrases appear from sources such as the Bible, Augustine, Dante, the Hindu Upanishads, and dozens of texts, plays and poems whose titles most people had never heard of, let alone recognized quotations from. A line from the final stanza seems to be referring to the poem itself: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
The poem is mostly written in English, but phrases and sentences are strewn throughout untranslated in Latin, Greek, French, German, Sanskrit and Italian. Oh, and then there are the animal sounds and nonsense syllables: “co co rico,” “jug jug,” “twit twit.” Wagner’s Rhine maidens, from the epic Ring cycle, operatically wail away in the poem: “Weialala leia/ Wallala leialala” which, I guess, is both German and nonsense. The modern Midwestern expression of dismay, “oofta”—sometimes spelled “uff da”—does not appear in the poem, but maybe it should. It’s the sound some of my students make when I assign it to them. In short, I cannot think of a text less likely to elicit guffaws than Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
So why then, when Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden were undergraduates, did they howl with laughter when they first encountered the poem in 1926? Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Auden describes the two as reading “The Waste Land” first with “incredulous hilarity,” and then with “growing awe.” Something radical has changed—not in the poem itself—but in the culture that now reads the poem as a humorless exercise in source-spotting. With a little excavation work, we can recover what made Auden and Isherwood laugh so hard, and what made them reread it with admiration.
Why, when Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden were undergraduates, did they howl with laughter when they first encountered the poem in 1926?
Part of the context to be recovered involves the brash, nervy world of artistic experimentation in which the poem was composed. Avant-garde art flourished in the postwar era, as artistic conventions from the 19th century were gleefully smashed. Provocative stuff was offered up by artists like Marcel Duchamp, who bought a porcelain urinal, sloppily signed it “R. Mutt” and exhibited it with the faux-solemn title “Fountain” in 1917. Given the unforgiving surface of “The Waste Land,” its reader-repelling stance, many critics thought Eliot was playing a similar, Dada-inspired joke on them. Auden and Isherwood were budding artists themselves, looking for inspiration as writers. Part of the meaning of their laughter is that they were delighting in the sheer bravery and novelty of Eliot’s experiment.
There were other in-jokes that Auden and Isherwood were probably laughing at as well. The most vulgar joke in the poem is the camp song that Eliot quotes about prostitutes who service army men. The madame is a certain “Mrs. Porter,” with her younger co-worker, who is certainly not her actual “daughter”—a euphemism to disguise why they work together:
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Prostitutes, of course, don’t need to wash their feet after sex. To get the joke, students who do not know the original lyrics of the song need to be given the cue that has been lost. With his cheeky substitution of “feet,” Eliot is not merely slyly skirting obscenity laws (strict and strictly enforced in 1920s Britain), he is also taking a tremendous risk, because the next line is disorienting: “Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!” (From Paul Verlaine’s sonnet “Parsifal”: “And O these voices of children, singing in the dome!”) Is there anything more innocent and sublime than the sound of a boys’ choir filling the resonant space of a chapel with liturgical music? Eliot has managed both a sneaky joke and a neck-breaking U-turn. It is a cliché that the sacred and the profane can sit near each other, but mingling the most sublime with the most vulgar is not a trick that easily offended gentlefolk were likely to admire. It raises the question of the function of this joke: Is it a cheap shot, vulgarity for the amusement of the peanut gallery, or is it a genuine reflection of cultural breakdown? Can a mouth that utters dirty jokes also utter a prayer?
Laughter of a sort does appear in “The Waste Land,” but not the pleasant kind. It is the hollow laughter of an unnamed villain: “at my back in a cold blast I hear/ The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.” Other moments of humor in the poem include the gentle mockery of Madame Sosostris, a fortune teller who “Had a bad cold, nevertheless/ Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,/ With a wicked pack of cards.” There is also the brutal satire of a scene in which a young man visits an unchaperoned typist. Eliot intended the scene partly as a caricature of an aimless bourgeoisie, people with no purpose and no values other than egotistical, mercantile ones. The humor of satire is bitter rather than breezy, and its aim is social critique. In drafts of the poem, Eliot’s friend and editor Ezra Pound toned down some of the viciousness of this section for the published version. Perhaps he should have cut more: The gender politics and class condescension of the scene do not wear so well anymore. And what criticism read for nearly a hundred years as a description of bad sex is now read by students—who are more attuned to issues of active consent in sexual matters—as a straightforward rape scene. The problem with understanding the “humor” of this scene is not that we now miss the cue of what makes it satire. It’s that we do know the cue, but we no longer find such representations acceptable—even as satire.
By tearing apart conventions to get at something more serious, Eliot gambled on the misunderstanding and disapproval of his audience.
One section that I do find equally humorous and problematic involves a Cockney woman who is overheard telling a story in a pub. She relates how she has been lecturing her friend Lil about the imminent return of her husband Albert from the army:
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself, […]
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
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 swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
The content of the story is gruesome: Lil has lost her looks and her health because of multiple children and a botched abortion—because of Albert, in effect. Now the speaker blames her for not looking “smart” enough for him. The speaker even intimates that she’ll seduce Albert if Lil can’t keep his attention. Cruelest of all, Albert has jeered his own wife’s troubles. Sex in this wasteland, even when it is fertile with children, is infertile: selfish, terrible, empty. Definitely not funny. And yet, if you listen to a good recording of the poem, with an actor who knows how to lean into that Cockney accent and bite off those initial h’s (“’e’s been in the army four years, ’e wants a good time”), there is a fierce comic energy here that approaches vaudeville at its most savage.
“The Waste Land,” contrary to what I might seem to be arguing, is not secretly a comic masterpiece.
When it was published, the poem quickly became an international sensation, and it met with a mixed reception, both hailed and derided. A scandal is also a financial opportunity, and Eliot sensibly wanted to publish the poem in book form, but it was too short. So (he later claimed), he padded it out with notes. These notes extend both the poem’s seriousness, by identifying allusions, and its weirdness, by fouling up yet more expectations. The tone of the notes are even more off-kilter than the poem. Considering the groveling anguish of the poem, the tone of the notes seems comically pedantic. They begin: “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do.” Is the voice of this dreary egghead the same one that, a few lines earlier, was howling into an existential abyss?
Another problem with the notes is that many of them aren’t even helpful as notes. Surely the author is teasing when he glosses the character of Tiresias with a quotation from Ovid in 19 lines of untranslated Latin. (If you can read 19 lines of Latin at sight, then you don’t need to be told who Tiresias is.) In the notes, Eliot wrings more mileage from the camp song by pretending that it is a classical allusion whose source is just beyond his reach: “I do not know the origin of the ballad from which these lines are taken; it was reported to me from Sydney, Australia.” I chuckle at the euphemism of “ballad,” and at the deadpan of that verb “reported,” as if dirty songs make their way around the world not via the travels of drunken sailors, but the questionnaires of meticulous sociologists. And what tedious joke is Eliot playing when he solemnly explains the hermit thrush (which appears in the poem in line 357) thusly in the notes: “This is Turdus aonalaschkae pallasii, the hermit-thrush which I have heard in Quebec County.” Turdus indeed.
“The Waste Land,” contrary to what I might seem to be arguing, is not secretly a comic masterpiece. However, sprinkled throughout the horror, the despair and the boredom are other tonal registers, including bawdy humor, savage satire, the in-joke and the smirk. In the early decades of the last century, popular poetry struck a tone that was lofty and elegiac. “Georgian poetry,” as it was called—first as a description, now as a pejorative—had clear narratives, digestible morals, all set preferably in a bucolic countryside. By tearing apart those conventions to get at something more serious, Eliot gambled on the misunderstanding and disapproval of his audience. It was a breathtaking risk. Auden and Isherwood, weighing their own ambitions as artists, had their breath taken away, first in laughter, then in wonder.