The Waste Land

The first line of this poem sprang suddenly into my mind this morning. I don’t really know why. It mentions the month of April, of course, but nothing especially cruel has happened so far, at least not to me. In fact, I’m in an unusually good mood, considering I have a bit of a hangover. Any excuse will do, though, for posting (the first part of) the definitive modernist poem, The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot.

The opening section of the wikipedia article I linked to above sums this poem up beautifully:

Despite what is seen by some as the poem’s obscurity – its shifts between satire and prophecy, its abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location and time, its elegiac but intimidating summoning up of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures – the poem has nonetheless become a familiar touchstone of modern literature.

Although it’s undoubtedly dense with cross-cultural references, and for many people it crosses over into sheer pretentiousness, it has always come across to me as an intensely humorous piece, somehow brilliant and dark at the same time. Its meaning is often cryptic, sometimes impenetrably so. Nevertheless, I keep returning to it, partly in the hope of understanding it better and partly just to enjoy the words on the page and the sounds they make when you read them out loud.

“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis
vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:
Sibylla ti theleis; respondebat illa: apothanein thelo.”


  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 archduke’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.

   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, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.                              
        Frisch weht der Wind
     Der Heimat zu
      Mein Irisch Kind,
      Wo weilest du?
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
––Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,                                    
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.

  Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.                                                
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

  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.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson!
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!                           
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frere!”

As an added bonus, here is the poet himself reading it, in his characteristically clipped but very nuanced style.

The full text of The Waste Land can be found online here.

3 Responses to “The Waste Land”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    It never occurred to me that The Waste Land was humorous. I see it as reflecting the despair of a wholly material culture. The best artists give expression to the deepest aspects of their own culture.

    I used to have TS Eliot reading this on an audiocassette, but changed when I went digital to Paul Scofield’s reading. It’s better!


  2. telescoper Says:

    I think it is what you say, but it frequently expresses its despair satirically, with a liberal dose of irony. I wouldn’t say that it’s the kind of poem to make you laugh; it’s definitely a black comedy rather than any other kind.

  3. telescoper Says:

    I think Leonard Cohen writes funny songs too.

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