Possibly the most famous—for some, notorious—English poem of the 20th
century was published in October 1922. T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land"
appeared simultaneously in The Criterion in the UK and The Dial in
the US. While it's not entirely accurate to say that the poem created
Modern poetry, it is unquestionably the most influential and monumental.
It is probably the most praised, reviled, analyzed, and discussed poem of
the 20th Century.
A great deal of lore external to the poem itself surrounds it, such as the fact
that Eliot wrote it in part to recover from an emotional breakdown and that
the poem itself reflects his perilous mental state, as well as his painful and
fraught marriage. The role of Ezra Pound in carving the original sprawling
manuscript down to the relatively compact poem we know today is also
For all this, the poem landed on English and American literary culture like
a nuclear explosion. Whether loved or hated, it was impossible to ignore.
The appearance of the poem was polarizing in a way few previous literary
productions had ever been. Ezra Pound—admittedly someone with a large
stake in the matter—said it was "about enough to make the rest of us shut
up shop" and called it "the justification of the 'movement,' of our modern
experiment, since 1900."
On the other side of the Atlantic, the two arguably most important
contemporary American poets were shocked and discouraged. Wallace
Stevens, while grudgingly admiring of Eliot, denied any influence. "Eliot
and I are dead opposites and I have been doing about everything that he
would not be likely to do…. I regard him as a negative rather than a positive
force." William Carlos Williams was even more disturbed. The poem
"wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it."
Williams saw the publication of "The Waste Land" as a major defeat for the
campaign he and his allies were waging to create a new, genuinely
Nowadays, when "The Waste Land" sits securely if not always comfortably
in anthologies and syllabi, it's easy to give it a nod in passing, possibly
seeing it as a relic of early Modernism without much relevance to today's
world. However, and its centennial approached, numerous essays and
articles appeared in both literary and journalistic publications celebrating
the poem and relating its history and reception. I hadn't actually read the
poem myself in some time, so I picked it up and read it. Then read it again.
Then went to the library and picked up the Norton Critical Edition and
read it slowly, line by line, looking at the explanatory notes and then
reading some of the excerpts from sources used or alluded to by Eliot.
I can't say these readings had the same impact as the first time I read it
decades ago, but I felt excitement mount nevertheless as I made my way
through the poem.
I first read "The Waste Land" in high school, probably my senior year. It
was not part of the curriculum, but I was in an Honors English class whose
brilliant teacher, Mrs. Gayle Smith, rest her soul, pointed us toward other
literature beyond the syllabus. I had no idea what I was reading, having
barely put a toe into modern poetry, but I still remember the exhilaration I
felt as I let the words wash over me. I was unable to translate the foreign
language passages nor did I recognize many of the allusions, but somehow
reading the poem in my untutored state had a powerful impact on my
budding literary mind. I first turned to Eliot's somewhat more accessible
"Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Hollow Men," then started my
deep dive into poetry from which I have never returned.
I have nothing to add to the voluminous criticism, explication, analysis of
"The Waste Land." Millions of pages of text are readily available in
bookstores, libraries, and the Internet. I'd rather here prefer to suggest
some ways into the poem for those who have not read it (are there any such
?) or have attempted to and been repelled by its famed difficulty.
First, don't try to understand it. Let the language(s) wash over you. Read
slowly and savor it line by line. Every time I read the poem, I am caught by
the beauty or power of some of its individual lines or passages. "I had not
thought death had undone so many" (translated from Dante). "I will show
you fear in a handful of dust." "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
A heap of broken images." "'My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with
me./Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak./What are you thinking
of/What thinking? What?/I never know what you are thinking. Think.'"
The poem becomes much more approachable if you view it as using the
techniques of the then-new art form of the cinema. Eliot uses montage,
quick cuts between scenes, an almost Altman-like chorus of voices. The
mixture of diction, high, low, and foreign is challenging but thrilling.
Besides its status as a tower of modernist poetry, "The Waste Land" can be
seen as prophetic of our own time. We are all familiar with the cinematic
elements mentioned above; we live in a world of constant and
overwhelming information flow; we face much the same moral and
spiritual decline that Eliot describes. The post-WWI fragmentation of
culture and society in which he lived and wrote has come almost to full
fruition by now.
If you wish now to read the poem, there are many ink and paper versions
available. Or you can read it here (minus the notorious notes Eliot
appended to the poem:
One wonders how readers 100 years from now will respond to this