In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle rereads T. S. Eliot’s classic poem about a Britain in decline
It’s nearly a century since T. S. Eliot, having just turned thirty, announced his intention to write a long poem about the contemporary world. Several letters he wrote in 1919 see him declaring this ambition to move beyond the dramatic monologues of his first volume (most famously ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ but also ‘Portrait of a Lady’) and the witty quatrain poems of his second collection (of which ‘Sweeney among the Nightingales’ is a notable example). But what form this new poem would take, Eliot did not know at the time. He just knew that it would be longer than anything he’d attempted before.
Now, in 2018, returning to Eliot’s The Waste Land is a strange experience which reinforces the sense I’ve had for a long while that phrases and images from Eliot’s poetry read like some sort of uncanny prophecy of a future world which he couldn’t know. In 2005, shortly after the terrible tsunamis in the Indian Ocean and in the immediate wake of the 7/7 London bombings, including the Edgware Road bombing which killed six people, I remember reading ‘The Dry Salvages’ and being struck by the oddly vatic quality to Eliot’s lines, ‘When there is distress of nations and perplexity / Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.’ The way ‘When there’ shrinks to ‘Whether’ at the head of the two adjacent lines, and how ‘nations’ thins to ‘Asia’ at the exactly corresponding point in each of the two lines, made this already tight couplet seem positively watertight. What’s especially strange is that these lines come immediately after a long consideration of humankind’s fondness for divination and prophecy.
The ‘falling towers’ which Eliot refers to in The Waste Land, followed by a list of cities which had been the centres of great civilisations – Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London – but had now crumbled, take on a new meaning in the wake of 9/11. But it is not just the ways in which Eliot’s poem seems to foreshadow our own time. The Waste Land is a poem that resonates differently in the Britain of Brexit.
London’s connection with Europe is everywhere in Eliot’s poem. As Eleanor Cook noted in a fascinating 1979 article about The Waste Land, Eliot’s poem draws a parallel between modern-day London and ancient Rome. Eliot envisioned The Waste Land as not merely a London poem but a European poem, as the depth of the poem’s literary allusions makes clear, with Dante, Virgil, Ovid, and many others feeding into the poem. Even many of the English literary allusions reveal a European influence, such as Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’. In the year he completed The Waste Land, Eliot wrote an essay about Marvell, in which he opined that ‘Marvell’s best verse is the product of European, that is to say Latin, culture.’ Marvell is an English poet but also a European one. The same is true of Eliot, that American but English-adopted poet, especially in The Waste Land.
William Empson, summarising Ezra Pound’s view of the poem, wrote that ‘London has just escaped from the First World War, but it is certain to be destroyed by the next one, because it is in the hands of the international financiers’. Bankers, not war, will lead to the ultimate decline of London. The Waste Land is also preoccupied by trade and by the health of the economy, and once again, Eliot’s allusions imply an understanding of London’s financial health as dependent on Europe’s economic robustness. When the Thames-daughters sing at the end of ‘The Fire Sermon’, their song summons the chorus of the Rhinemaidens from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, as Eliot’s notes made clear, in which the Rhinemaidens lament the loss of their gold. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles included, as part of the ‘reparation’, the seizing of the Rhineland, Germany’s economic lifeblood (or at least main artery): the Treaty, in a sense, was a modern-day theft of German gold from the Rhine. Eliot’s poem brings together the English Thames and European Rhine, seeing their fates as interlinked and even interdependent: it is worth noting that, also in 1919, Britain had suspended the gold standard.
Indeed, for a poem written not long after the end of a war with Germany, The Waste Land is full of German references: we are only a dozen lines into the poem when a voice announces that s/he comes from Lithuania and is a ‘true German’ (‘echt deutsch’), and as the poem continues we get quotations from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the Götterdämmerung, and a passage inspired by Hermann Hesse’s Blick ins Chaos (again, name-checked in Eliot’s notes). Germany’s fate under the punitive enforcement of the Treaty of Versailles will end up being Britain’s fate.
Not all of these references point to such a happy cross-fertilisation between Britain and Europe. The section inspired by Hesse, detailing the ‘hooded hordes swarming’ over ‘endless plains’ (‘Polish plains’ in the poem’s original drafts), sounds like the sort of fear-mongering associated with media accounts of mass immigration and the arrival of refugees and Eastern Europeans, although Eliot’s poem is not propaganda and this passage neither invites sympathy nor condemnation for these mysterious crowds of dispossessed souls, just as the ‘crowd’ which had flowed over London Bridge earlier in the poem, undone by death, are treated neither with pity nor disdain. The Waste Land is closer to drama than poetry in this respect: it does not offer an argument as much as set up two contrasting arguments, suspending its ultimate ‘message’ and allowing conflicting ideas to sit side-by-side. Perhaps that is why it remains not merely a great London poem, but the defining modernist poem about a broken Europe.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.