Celebrating a Landmark Poem
“April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Any reader more or less familiar with the ins and outs of modern Western poetry will recognize these verses, and will know they come from the start of The Waste Land, the famous poem by Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965), published one hundred years ago in December of 1922. Its first verses are so iconic, its images so recognizable, that the poem almost needs no introduction. It is indeed a true contemporary classic. Born in the United States, in St. Louis, Missouri, but descended from one of Boston’s highest-ranking families (the so-called “brahmins”), T.S. Eliot is considered one of the most influential poets—if not the most influential poet—to write in English in the twentieth century. This primacy has lasted into the twenty-first century, and now, on the occasion of the hundredth birthday of his best known poem, there is a renewed interest in The Waste Land in particular and Eliot’s literary work in general. In the English-speaking world, this interest has produced a wave of new critical commentaries, biographies of the writer, television documentaries, and exacting editions of his poems, as well as a monumental eight-volume annotated edition of his critical writing, not to mention his complete letters, which now fill nine volumes. There has also been a reedition, now in full color, of the poem’s manuscript, with corrections by Ezra Pound and comments from Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Eliot’s first wife. London publishing house Faber & Faber (Eliot was its most famous director) has launched an app built around the poem for iPhone and iPad, with detailed textual and philological comments from specialists, reproductions of the manuscript, and video interviews with poets like Seamus Heaney and scholars like Craig Raine and Jeanette Winterson, as well as recorded readings of the poem by Eliot himself, poet Ted Hughes, and actors Alec Guiness, Jeremy Irons, and Viggo Mortensen, among others. This academic and commercial boom should come as no surprise: ever since The Waste Land was first published, critics have taken it upon themselves to take apart its mechanisms, to interpret its verses in detail, clearing up its every highbrow or biographical allusion, and reading in it certain keys to its author’s life in the hopes of finding the source of his creativity and his pessimistic vision of the world. Some have also hoped to inquire—excessively, to my mind—into certain aspects of Eliot’s intimate life that the poem supposedly reveals, whether they be dark episodes of his sex life, or his depression, or the crashing failure of his first marriage. This is all the more ironic when we remember the author famously advocated impersonality in poetry. There is no risk in stating that The Waste Land is not only a landmark poem of the English-language avant-garde: it is, first and foremost, an icon, a totem, a literary monument that, in its four hundred thirty-four verses, encodes and condenses decisive aspects of modern life—especially those of the times in which it was written.
“A Heap of Broken Images”
Despite all interpretations, all painstakingly thorough investigations to determine what kind of paper Eliot wrote the poem on and which typewriters he used to transcribe it, The Waste Land is still a mystery, “an obelisk covered in signs, impervious to the ups and downs of taste and the vicissitudes of time,” as Octavio Paz rightly said. The best evidence of the poem’s durability is the fact that still, despite its over-interpretation, it retains its novelty and freshness, and it surprises first-time readers just as much as those who are returning to its verses. Why is this? Of course, it being such a complex poem, the reasons are many and they vary according to the reader’s tastes. Here I offer my answer.
In the first place, The Waste Land seems to have truly captured the spirit of the Europe of the first post-war era, which had sunken into a state of absolute pessimism after its near-destruction (“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images,” the poem reads) and the unbounded hedonism of the nineteen-twenties, known as the années folles, the “crazy years” in French (“O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag— / It’s so elegant / So intelligent”). In the second place, the poem achieves a balance between high culture and popular culture worthy of the best moments of Chaucer or Shakespeare. In the third place, consider the poem’s curious construction, its complex edifice made of various juxtaposed voices, following the examples of Jules Laforgue and, in particular, of Apollinaire. But, most importantly, Eliot’s original tone is what has always intrigued readers; that colloquial, demotic timbre so uncommon in the English-language poetry of that time, which was still digesting the sublimest achievements of romanticism. The Waste Land was the masterly culmination of the desacralization of poetry, which ended up giving definitive shape to the English-language avant-garde, known in that language as “Modernism.” Lastly, another far-from-insignificant fact that has contributed greatly to the poem’s mythology: the amendments to the manuscript made by the author’s countryman and colleague Ezra Pound, another expatriate in Europe, when Eliot handed over to him the chaotic fruit of his sleepless nights. These handwritten pages, long lost and ultimately found in 1971, revealed that the poem was once at least twice as long as the version that was finally published. Pound, himself one of the great poets of the twentieth century—and a tireless promoter of another key work of the English-language avant-garde published in 1922: James Joyce’s novel Ulysses—had the intelligence to recognize the best of the diamond in the rough he had before him, transforming it into the masterwork that finally saw light. Eliot, for his part, had the sage confidence to accept Pound’s suggestions. Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, also made suggestions and commented on the manuscript with skill and authority. We can therefore say too that the most significant poem written in English in the twentieth century is, to use Freud’s well known term (and Freudian readings of The Waste Land abound) a true family romance, which makes it all the more attractive.
Fragments Shored Against My Ruins
When we think of the radical novelty of The Waste Land, it is easy to give in to the temptation to think it appeared in the firmament of Western poetry like a brilliant comet, changing everything with its passage; to think the thirty-four-year-old young man who was its author plucked this work down from the “ether,” as Hegel might have said, in which he bred his words with no intervention from any conceivable force. But the history of literature teaches us that even the most singular of works are not born in a vacuum. Besides the influence he took from reading Tristan Corbière, Jules Laforgue, and Guillaume Apollinaire, among many others, and along with the erudition and vast knowledge he had at his disposal, Eliot himself had paved the way toward his masterwork ever since publishing his first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). What to make, for example, of poems like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”? Its opening, also iconic, must have seemed very strange to readers of its day: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.” Rather than describe the dusk in “poetic” terms, Eliot breaks with cliché and compares it to a hospital patient. The same thing happens in “Preludes,” another poem from the same collection: “The winter evening settles down / With smell of steaks in passageways. / Six o’clock. / The burnt-out ends of smoky days.” Here, the predictable melancholy, rainy, or snowy evening disappears. Lastly, think of these verses from “Gerontion,” from Poems (1920), Eliot’s second book, which seem to anticipate the pessimistic vision of history that would prevail in The Waste Land: “Think now / History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors / And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions, / Guides us by vanities.” Even back then, the echoes of the woebegone voice of the great poem Eliot would publish just two years later were audible: “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender / Which an age of prudence can never retract / By this, and this only, we have existed / Which is not to be found in our obituaries / Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider / Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor / In our empty rooms.” We can thus see that Eliot was indeed, ever since his poetic beginnings, what Harold Bloom called a “strong poet,” putting forth his own language, leaving an indelible mark on the tradition that gave him his start.
After completing his undergraduate and doctoral studies at Harvard, Eliot moved permanently to England in 1914. Nonetheless, he never lost touch with his country of origin and its literary culture. In time, he achieved universal renown, becoming the most highly-regarded public intellectual of his day. This culminated in his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. The strong connection he felt to his British ancestors led him to adopt British citizenship and, quite abruptly, the Anglican faith. There is some measure of reactionary nostalgia in these espousals—in wanting, as he indeed attempted, to return to the Roman rite via the Church of England, although he never set in stone what he saw as a natural adoption of Catholicism. Like Ezra Pound, who hoped to find a certain lost oneness in the Provençal poetry of the twelfth century and the literature and philosophy of ancient China, Eliot, a son of the New World, felt a need for history and rootedness. Faced with a world he portrayed in The Waste Land as a rocky, barren, and desolate plain (“Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand / If there were only water amongst the rock”), he could not help but identify with the Prince of Aquitaine in his ruined tower, deigning only to murmur “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.” To a great extent, Eliot’s life and work after The Waste Land represent his attempt to escape from the very state of mind his most revolutionary poem generated.
The Latin American Context
T.S. Eliot’s influence in Latin America has been extensive and fruitful. Spanish translations of The Waste Land were quick to emerge on this side of the world (Enrique Munguía of Mexico and Ángel Flores of Puerto Rico were the first to complete their versions, both in 1930). Since then, this work has not ceased to be translated into our language, on our continent as well as in Spain. Something of its innovative, revolutionary spirit found an echo among us that has not dissipated since. And art sometimes offers coincidences that can only be called extraordinary; in 1922, that same year, there also appeared in Latin America other books as radical in their experimentation and worldview as The Waste Land: think of Trilce by César Vallejo, 20 poemas para ser leídos en el tranvía by Oliverio Girondo, and Los gemidos by Pablo de Rokha. In their own way, these writers also rebelled against a world they saw as hostile and infertile; also, in their way, each one of them faced down this pessimistic vision of the world with a shout that, like the last verse of The Waste Land, is a mantra that still resonates powerfully down to this day: “Shantih shantih shantih.”
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon