Eliot, T S: The Wasteland

The Proposer and host for the evening lives in a flat on the top floor of an impressive New Town residence. While this salubrious environment posed a stark contrast to any literal association with a “waste land”, it nevertheless accurately described the wasted state of the Book Group members who bravely tackled the climb to the top of the building.

Turnout has been better. This could be attributed to the prospect of the aforementioned climb, the challenge presented by T.S. Eliot or,  indeed, both. In order to avoid conflict and controversy, I should put on record that the missing had made their apologies.

The proposer introduced his choice of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922) by explaining why he had chosen poetry. He had fond, if somewhat faded, memories, of reading and studying poetry at Oxford University where he studied English. He had read very little poetry over the 30 odd years since then and he had utilised his Book Group choice as an opportunity to re-acquaint himself with the genre. He also noted that the Book Group had read very little poetry over the years.

He explained that he had chosen T.S. Eliot partly because he was intrigued by the controversy and wide-ranging critical coverage associated with his work but, more importantly, because he was influenced by the nature and importance of T.S.Eliot’s poetry, and in particular by its musicality,  rhythm, rhyme and range of reference. He acknowledged that reading “The Waste Land” required work, as it presented a challenge to decipher the multiple allusions and layers of meaning. It pushed language to its limits. He was impressed by the influence the poem has had and continues to have on other poetical work. He pointed out that the difficulty in understanding the poem has spawned a veritable industry among academics and others whose efforts to interpret the poem continue to this day.

T.S. Eliot was born in 1885 and died in 1965. He was born in Missouri and educated at Harvard where he studied English Literature. He had a post-graduate year studying Philosophy at the Sorbonne and in 1914 he set out on a travelling fellowship in Europe. He completed his studies at Merton College, Oxford and became a British citizen in 1927.

Twice married, his relationship with his first wife, Vivien, whom he married in 1915, became progressively unhappy She was committed to a mental health hospital in London in 1938 and died in 1947. He married his second wife, Valerie Fletcher, in 1957.

He was variously a teacher, a bank executive and a literary editor He had troubled family relationships and struggled to come to terms with religion and his own religious beliefs.

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

Everyone agreed that reading The Waste Land had been hard work. One member had found that reading The Four Quartets had helped because it was much more accessible.

Reference was made to the differences of mood between the two poems. The Waste Land conveyed a sense of resignation to a sterile and depressed state in the world and a sense of being stuck, while the Four Quartets offered the possibility of not being stuck.

It was for some an easier introduction into Eliot’s work. It was suggested that the more positive mood displayed in the Four Quartets could be attributed to the changes in Eliot’s life. In particular, his marital problems had been resolved and his religious beliefs had been consolidated.

Another member found reading the Waste Land to be rewarding, describing the poem as a complete one –off. He was delighted at the choice and noted that he appreciated the poem much more now than when first read many years ago. He particularly enjoyed the incantatory opening sections of the poem, without worrying too much about the range of reference, but he found it progressively less enjoyable. He described the poem as a “fervent of creation”. It was noted that Ezra Pound had made significant cuts to the original manuscript, significantly reducing the length of the poem and perhaps increasing its obscurity.  It was also noted that Eliot’s wife, Vivien, also contributed critical comment that resulted in adjustments being made.

Reference was made to the use of a “medley of languages” as a stylistic device to cross-refer to a learned and breathtaking range of other works. This layering of supplementary reference or meaning involved drawing on a staggering spread of “literary” work including, Dante, Latin literature, French poetry, Elizabethan drama, Opera, Nursery rhymes, the Bible and Upanishads. Most of the group appreciated this range of reference.

However, one member considered it pretentious – it simply added to the complexity of what was already impossibly complicated. The device aggravated the frustration that this member felt in trying to make sense of the poem. While respecting and indeed admiring its intellectual content, he had concluded that Eliot himself lacked confidence in some passages of the poem and that this had added to its apparent complexity.

Each member made reference to particular quotations drawn from either The Waste Land or the Four Quartets which they considered to be examples of Eliot’s genius with words and language, and his artistry in weaving together music, rhythm, and rhyme to deliver meaning from a collage of eclectic reference material.

Examples included:

“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” (WL)

“I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones” (WL)

“I shall show you fear in a handful of dust” (WL)


“In my beginning is my end” (FW)

One of the group had accessed the poem by means of an I Pad “App” and thought that the content of the “App”, with its wealth of interactive features, had transformed the poem for him. So to finish off our evening the group sampled the content of the “App”by viewing Fiona Shaw’s reading of the poem. She did successfully insinuate meaning where meaning was difficult to find without recourse to copious notes.

We left the meeting to make the much easier descent from the host’s top floor apartment unburdened by Eliot’s ambiguity and released from his textual knots. Our passage was aided by fresh insights as we hit the dreich streets of Edinburgh. Alas we could not escape the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that accompanied our trip home.