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No really it isn't, even if you're sitting there thinking someone said that about Ulyssess and you got three pages in before throwing at the wall, or that the last modern poetry you read was just random sentences, please please try this. It's one of the starting points of modern literature and it is accessible (well ... it's not as bad as the Canto's or Ulyssess) and it is some of the most beautiful poetry your ever likely to read.
Now selections of Eliot's poetry vary from publisher to publisher editor to editor, which means that mine isn't likely to have the same stuff in it as one published more recently. However, the big three poems (ignoring the Four Quartets - although breathtaking a lot of collections leave them out because of length, and because they are of a leter period than the mythic Wasteland) are generally all included.
The big three, are The Wasteland, Portrait of A Lady (which i am really slipping in as a personal favourite) and The Love Song Of J Alfred Prufrock. These are the three I'm going to review, they are pretty typical of early Eliot (although some of it is occasionally in French) and they are all worth reading.
Prufrock and Portrait are the earliest, and they compliment each other well. Prufrock is the ramblings of a man observing the futility of his own life, his inevitable aging and his inability to tell a woman he loves her (lots of people I know disagree on this last reading, since many of them are more intelligent than me I though I ought to point out that it is something of 'an interpretation' of the lines. But why else call it a Love Song?). The poem wanders through tea rooms, beaches, city nights and art galleries. It encapsulates that mode of exsistence in the early 20th century, of men and women of lesirue. Those who had nothign more to do than take tea and look at pictures. It is a recognition of the meaningless nature of such a life, and also of its complexities. The fear of rejection that a life dependent of society breeds.
Prufrock both longs to escape from a life which is simply rounds of tea and cake (are cake and escape a rhyme?) but fears that he will not find another a home - nonetheless he does find some escape in his imaginings of mermaids at the end of the poem. The style is not really v. complicated. Its the imagery which tends to confuse a reader, the disjointed setting of ideas against each other, with no logical link. The point is that this should force you to contruct the links yourself. To reason out the story from the ramblings of Prufrock's mind. Indeed the mind is what is on show here, the way in which it forms seemingly random conections mirroring the way in which Eliot moves through his theme.
Even if you find the idea of having to fill in the gaps too stressful to be bothered with it (in which case read a novel) the imagery here is wonderful. The poem is sparse compared to the rich victorian verses that proliferated at the end of the 19th century, but that sparseness is also elegant. No word here is not working. Repetition is used only to highlight the repetitive nature of life, and there is nothing here that merely fills up the number of syllables in a line. Eliot was a critic as well as writer and he knew what he was doing.
Elegance is also what characterises Portrait. This is the comments of a young man on an older lonely woman. The poem is told by him, but her voice intrudes in snatches of reported speech. The style is less unclear than that of Prufrock. Its a good starting point for Eliot since it shows the sparse modernity of his lines in a more accessible situation than that of other poems. Yet this is also a cruel poem. The young man's rejection of and dislike for the lady force you into finding him slightly distasteful, even though he is doubtful as to the extent to which he is allowed to dislike her. The whole poem becomes more problematic the more you look at it, but in a way this only reflects the realities of the relationship it depicts.
Hhmmm, The Waste Land. Its dedicated to Ezra Pound, whose helpful editing included deleting the entire first page, but don't let that put you off. Eliot did provide notes which list many of the major influences, but are not really very helpful. Which means that your pretty much on your own when it comes to reading and understanding the poem. So, it's a long poem. Written in the smae style as the others I've mentioned and split into various books, the title of each giving a hint as to the subject matter of that section. Like Prufrock it's a poem about disillusionment and decay. Unlike Prufrock it concerns the whole of westerm civilization. Now this probably seems like a big topic, and it is, but knowing that that is the topic, and that this is a poem written close to the end of the 1st world war helps to decipher what Eliot is trying to say.
Much of the poem is built on memories, or scenes of everyday life. These are then contrasted, with each other, withthe past, or with literature. The literary refrences in this poem are formidible, but most are self explanatory, or can be ignored as adding to what is there, rather than being an essential part of the meaning. The poem moves onwards, charting the decay and death of meaning until the last part shows that the references to what was culture are now meanignless, and that a new form of order and menaing must be foudn. The old way of living is lost, and the scraps of ti swhich are salavaged are like the scraps of greek which appear in the poem, the last rmenants of a dead world.
The poem is long, and confusing, and disjointed. But if you read it once you'll get a fell for what's being said which will enable you to go abck and reread it with a greater sense of the connections between its various parts. Every time I read it i get a better sense of the whole, it grows with each revisiting.
In the end these are wodnerful poems by a good poet. Yes the use of obscure references tends towards the snobbish, but you don't need them to understand whats being said or appreciate its beauty. Just read them and enjoy them, revel in the language if you can't see the meaning and savour the moment.
Nice review. In general I don't read poetry but I like Eliot. -d.l
minigrile 01.02.2004 23:40
I think some of the references are meant as a kind of literary joke - or maybe I'm out of date, at any rate, you've inspired me to go back and read it again. I hated it as an undergraduate, but I re-read it a few years ago and it grew on me. Time to read it again. Good review, but check your spelling to make it easier to read. B
Calypte 01.10.2003 17:13
Waste Lands is brilliant for imagery - I read it after finding it was one of the inspirations for Stephen King's Dark Tower series, so hardly high-brow in my case! Might I offer a small suggestion that you check particulary the final few paragraphs for typing errors? There are quite a lot of transposition typos that look a little messy.