The Waste Land: The most acclaimed piece of modern verse in English

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,

And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,

And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke’s,

My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,

And I was frightened.  He said, Marie,

Marie, hold on tight.  And down we went.

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

. . .
Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

. . .

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said –

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.

Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.

T S Eliot, from The Waste Land
The work from which those lines come, The Waste Land (1922), is acknowledged as the most influential poem of the 20th century.  It is perhaps the most important, most acclaimed and venerated piece of modern verse in the English language.  Its author, T S Eliot, is held in equally high regard in the literary world as the poet who most influenced and changed the nature of poetry and literary criticism in the modern world.

Thomas Stearns Eliot (September 26, 1888-January 4, 1965), poet, playwright, literary critic, was born in the USA and graduated from Harvard University in 1909 before crossing the Atlantic for further study in Paris and then Oxford in 1914.  He worked as a banker, then as editor and director of Faber and Faber publishers and took British citizenship in 1927.  After much controversy over his poetry in the 1920s his reputation gained ground and his influence firmly asserted its authority in the 1930s.  Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948 “for his work as a trail-blazing pioneer of modern poetry.”

His first published poem, The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock  (1917) which became one of his great works, as well as the greatest of them all, The Waste Land, attracted controversy and had a negative reception when they first appeared.  That kind of reaction is not surprising for the time when they appeared because of their revolutionary styles and the unconventional newness of their concerns.  The Waste Land was first greeted with resistance and wide disagreement over its meaning.  But by 1931 Edmund Wilson articulated the accepted consensus that within a matter of 10 years, “Eliot has left upon English poetry a mark more unmistakable than that of any other poet writing in English.” His critical theory has been acclaimed in similar superlative fashion, especially his influence on ‘New Criticism.’

The Waste Land  holds the unique distinction because in 1922 it changed the state of poetry.  Although The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock  had created some ripples before it, The Waste Land utterly transformed the conventional poetry as it was known previously and established ‘Modern Poetry’; in particular it fixed the styles known as ‘modernist’ verse.  Another great figure in this new movement was the poet Ezra Pound who published Eliot’s first poem and gave him much editorial advice on Waste Land.   Other poets such as W B Yeats had begun to reflect a sense of directionlessness, lack of faith, loss of confidence and human frailty in Europe at the time, which prompted Yeats to write “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.”

It is hardly surprising that the poets found Europe and in fact the entire First World in such a state, emerging out of a nineteenth century in which capitalism peaked into imperialism.  The exploitation of humanity had deepened with the rise of industrialisation and the new forms of control that replaced slavery after emancipation.  The class struggle gained momentum and European nations were once again at war.

Eliot brought it all together in The Waste Land.  In one poem the crisis-ridden state of the modern European world with wars, rumours of wars, the rise of fascism, the dominance of imperialism and the effect they had on the state of mankind were reflected.  More than that, in addition to these as subject, the poet reinforced them with style.  The modernist poetry forsook the kind of ‘poetic’ language of the 19th century bringing into the verse quite a bit of plain talk in ordinary language.  Expressions, turns of phrase, the way the lines of the poem were organised, an appearance that would have seemed prosaic as well as other modes of expression that broke long-held conventions were commonplace in the new poem.  Many of these upset the complacency of the society in 1922.  However, it did not take long for the critics and the audience to realize that poetry had changed and that this great poem had in fact set new standards.

Those were the reasons for the unprecedented impact of the poem and the great influence it had over the art that followed.

The use of various forms of free verse, in which the rhythm of speech and thought patterns, rather than measured metre or conventional versification determine the length of lines and the rhythmic movement of the poem, is now commonplace and taken for granted.  But Eliot uses it casually in the poem; take for instance, the third extract printed above.  This is a feature of modernism in poetry.  A working class woman speaks in her local dialect of English in a pub in London, and this free-form linguistic expression is given rein by Eliot.  The style suits the setting, in the bar where people are drinking and the landlord calls out “hurry up please, it’s time” because it is close to closing time (the law is very strict; they must close at 11 pm).  The wars are reflected.  The husband of the speaker’s friend is returning home after serving in the army.

The poem has different narrators;  the proletarian woman, another female as in the first excerpt, and at other parts of the poem, different male narrators.  Eliot captures a sense of timelessness and sexlessness since all the narrators are really the same who, together, cover the experience of mankind in a desert-like, harsh, difficult circumstance.    He introduces the old androgynous figure of Tiresias from the Greek myths.  This figure is a wise, ageless presence who has seen and suffered all.

He makes great use of the mythical and borrows frequently from other great works of literature.  In the second extract he describes the peak-hour crowds of people going home from work, leaving the train and walking over London Bridge.  But they are zombie-like, each self-contained in his own world, hardly seeing or feeling anything, moving as if unconscious or dead.  The lines “I had not thought death had undone so many” come from The Inferno by Danté in which the poet is taken on a journey through hell, witnessing the purgatorial lamentations of the dead inhabitants.  London here becomes an “Unreal City” in which people are reduced to this sub-human lifeless state.  But for London, read the whole world.

The poem is excellent in all respects.  The apparent ordinariness that is suggested by prosaic structures, lineation and ordinariness of dialogue is a superficial factor.  The craft is exquisite and the imagery skin-tight.  The poem opens with “April is the cruellest month” which is often described as one of the most outstanding images in English poetry.  The idea is a wasteland in which there is a dearth of life.  April is the end of winter when plant-life returns, but Eliot gives nothing of the usual fertile festive spring.  The month is cruel because it is still cold, the weather is unfriendly while deceiving one into believing it is spring and pleasant.  It is “breeding lilacs out of the dead land,” meaning the land is frozen and lifeless through a bitter winter and here it is now pushing out flowers.

It is similar in Prufrock, the other modernist poem mentioned earlier.  The lines “let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table” is another example of exceptional and outstanding imagery.  The large spread of a reddish glow against the sky at evening is compared to a hospital patient stretched out, drugged by anaesthetics.  It shocked the audience and upset critics in 1917, the tail-end of World War I.
There are several characteristics that make The Waste Land  a great poem and account for the impact it has had on modern poetry.  The foregoing tries to draw attention to only a few of them.

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