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The Waste Land is deliberately difficult. It is crammed with obscure allusions, indecipherable footnotes and lines in foreign languages. it was also heavily edited by Ezra Pound, who got rid of many of the anti-semitic elements of the poem. However, it still reeks of a public school education and upper-class values. Most of the poem is deliberate pastiches of other poets' work. Yet it is hauntingly beautiful and poetic and is technically one of the finest poems of the twentieth century - definitely of the modernist period. I hate and love this poem simultaneously and there are not many works which you can say that of. If nothing else, it demands your attention.
The Waste Land is unashamedly modernist. One technique used by modernists was to employ myths as a parallel text to the poem and the Waste Land is one of the best examples of this. Right from the start "April is the cruellest month" - this echoes the beginning of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - the poem's epic pretensions are demonstrated. The Waste Land has been called the longest poem in the English language because of its constant allusions to other works. The author is saying that, unless you are clever enough to understand all my references, you are not good enough for this poem. Elitist or what?!
Eliot abandons any pretence at a single authoritative voice. We do not know where the voices are coming from. There are no links, we have to hop across white line breaks to another voice and time. The act of reading it out loud presents us with a drama - different voices which are not necessarily connected with the author. It is almost a stream of consciousness effect. The First World War is a big influence on the poem and this disillusionment with modern life is echoed throughout the Waste Land - it is not exactly a cheery little number. The Waste Land is a "heap of broken images" rather than a concrete narrative.
This is also a very right wing poem. Eliot shows his distaste for the lower classes in contrasting Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra with a relationship between a typist and a spotty young man. Eliot deliberately includes detail such as the typist's 'drying combinations' (all in one under-garments, designed so you can relieve yourself while wearing them), in order to reinforce the distaste he feels at the way the sexual act has lost any connotation with love for the lower classes. The typist concludes with 'Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over.'
I must admit that the ending of the poem lost me completely and I've no idea what Eliot as on about here!
In the book, there is also Eiot's second-most famous poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. This is an easier read than the Waste Land, more accessible, more enjoyable, but not as deep or as serious. However, many of the same themes are employed.
Eliot employs the image of cats in this poem and they are used as a metaphor for the evening - a predator, both attractive and yet dangerous.
The use of the phrase 'cheap hotels', like in the Waste Land, suggests sordid sexual behaviour - this is not mentioned explicitly, appropriately for the character of Prufrock, he 'doesn't dare' - he is too refined to put such thoughts on paper. Modern life to Eliot is dirty and full of secrets.
Like the Wasteland, there are cultural references in the poem, but we feel that he women who are talking of Michelangelo are not talking sensibly about his artistry, but are gossiping. Eliot cannot help looking down on the common people.
The poem also discusses our mortality - "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons". The present is sordid, the past contained Michelangelo, what does the future contain? 'We put on faces' - we do not behave naturally, we 'murder and create' - Eliot deflates such philosophical ideas by rhyming this - they 'put a question on your plate' - a little bit of something at a dinner party - the genteel, but banal conversation of middle-class ladies.
Eliot was writing for the middle/upper classes - literature belongs to people who have high tea. Prufrock feels inadequate, he is frightened to eat a peach - frightened of the embarrassment caused by messing his face up, perhaps indicative of a reluctance to explore a more sensual side to his nature.
These two poems are the best of the selection here. Sweeney among the Nightingales evokes ancient myths and the constellations, but is ultimately light whimsy. A lot of Eliot's work comes across as too clever-clever and pretentious and most of this collection is no exception.
I hope this gives you a taste of Eliot's poetry - which I find mostly infuriating. There are moments of great poetic beauty, but it also makes you want to bang your head against a brick wall at times. Strangely, I still have to recommend it, albeit reluctantly because for all its faults - there is still some great work and The Waste Land and Prufrock are seminal poems.
If you want to get infuriated too, you can get this collection for around £2 from Amazon in Dover Thrift Edfition.
Thanks for an incisive review - rather you than me, as I find Eliot extremely infuriating too.
Tricksty 27.03.2007 00:06
I loved Eliot when I was doing my A Level English. J Alfred Prufrock is still my favourite poem ever and lines from it often pop into my head even though I haven't read it seriously for 16 years... I never really got into the Wasteland though- perhaps it's time for me to revisit some Eliot! x Vicky