In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses one of the most famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
‘April is the cruellest month’ – the five words which don’t, strictly speaking, constitute the ‘first line’ of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, as I have previously discussed – has become one of the most famous quotations found in twentieth-century poetry. Another celebrated line from Eliot’s 1922 poem, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’, appears near the end of the 434-line modernist poem. And the meaning of the latter quotation is almost as elusive.
Fragmentation is both a theme and a formal feature of The Waste Land. The fragmentary nature of certain passages from Eliot’s 434-line poem mirrors the social, psychological, and spiritual fragmentation of Europe after the First World War. National borders were changing, and citizens’ nerves were shot to bits – both those of the recently returned soldiers, suffering from shell-shock or PTSD, and, in many cases, their wives and sweethearts who had had to keep the home fires burning, raising the children and working to make ends meet, in the men’s absence.
The first half ‘A Game of Chess’, the second section of The Waste Land, captures this through the conversation between the upper-class woman (‘My nerves are bad tonight’) and her husband or lover, whose mind is still inhabiting ‘rats’ alley’ full of the bones of ‘dead men’: almost certainly an allusion to the trenches of northern France. Although the man ostensibly seems to be responding to the woman’s questions, there is a sense of dislocation between them, an inability to hear or speak to each other. They are talking at cross purposes. As Eliot’s poem repeatedly shows, relationships and marriages have become fragmented, with men and women failing to understand each other.
All this is true, and yet it would be easy to overstate the extent to which The Waste Land is all that stylistically fragmented. Much of the poem is written in iambic pentameter, although with multiple departures from this. It remains, however, like Eliot’s poetry as a whole, haunted by the ‘ghost’ of that most quintessentially English metre (‘ghost’ is a word I have borrowed from Eliot’s essay, ‘Reflections on Vers Libre’), the iambic pentameter verse line.
However, all that begins to fall apart in the final, largely unpunctuated section ‘What the Thunder Said’, which Eliot wrote in a sort of trance while convalescing at Lausanne in Switzerland following a nervous breakdown. He had previously gone to stay in the seaside town of Margate (where, The Waste Land tells us, the speaker cannot connect anything to anything else: more fragmentation), but it was on the shores of Lake Geneva that Eliot wrote the final part of the poem. ‘I wasn’t even bothering whether I understood what I was saying,’ as he later confided.
And it is towards the end of this final part of The Waste Land – indeed, just three lines before the poem’s very last line – that we encounter the line, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’ The meaning of the line, in itself, is fairly straightforward: the verb ‘shored’ here is used in the sense of supporting something that would otherwise decline. In other words, the speaker is attempting to offset his own ruin by supporting the ‘fragments’ that remain, preserving them against further decay.
This wasn’t the first time Eliot had made reference to fragments, or, for that matter, the preserving or collecting of fragments in order to shore something up from utter disaster. In his 1915 poem ‘Hysteria’, for instance, his male speaker had talked of ‘fragments’ of the afternoon being ‘collected’, so as to avoid his afternoon (his date?) with his female companion being a complete write-off. But by 1921, when he wrote the final part of The Waste Land, his vision had become more ambitious, moving from carefully observed and socially awkward situations (usually, as in ‘Hysteria’, ‘Portrait of a Lady’, or ‘Prufrock’, involving doomed relationships between the sexes) to the imminent decline of civilisation itself.
‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’ But which fragments? Or whose? The placing of this line tells us perhaps everything we need to know, for it comes eight lines into this final section or verse paragraph of The Waste Land. After a casual nod to the figure of the Fisher King at the beginning of this section, this ‘voice’ of the poem then gives way to a myriad other voices: to children’s nursery rhymes (‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’), Dante’s Purgatorio, Tennyson (‘O swallow swallow’), and a sonnet by Gerard de Nerval. Then, hot on the heels of all this, that reference to these fragments which the voice of the poem has ‘shored against’ his ruins.
The fragments are the fragments of European civilisation, repeated and quoted in Eliot’s poem in an attempt to shore them up and preserve them. For all of its radical stylistic approach to form and layout (although, we I remarked earlier, this aspect of the poem can also be overstated), the final vision of The Waste Land is conservative: a (perhaps futile) attempt to preserve or conserve culture from permanent decline and dissolution.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.