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Reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in the Age of Brexit

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 r Read the rest of this entry


A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘What the Thunder Said’

A reading of the fifth section of The Waste Land

‘What the Thunder Said’ concludes The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot’s landmark 1922 work of modernist poetry. In many ways, this is the most difficult section of The Waste Land to analyse. Nevertheless, what follows is an attempt to sketch out one possible reading or analysis of ‘What the Thunder Said’ in terms of its meaning, language, and use of literary allusions. You can read ‘What the Thunder Said’ here.

In summary: things really begin to break down properly here. In the previous four sections of The Waste Land, Eliot had used a number of different poetic forms and metres, and although the poetry occasionally broke down into what we might call free verse, it usually regained its form after a while. But ‘What the Thunder Said’ is overwhelming written in unpunctuated, unrhymed, irregular free verse. Read the rest of this entry

A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Death by Water’

A reading of the fourth part of The Waste Land

‘Death by Water’ is by far the shortest of the five sections of T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land. The section which precedes it, ‘The Fire Sermon’, is 234 lines – over half of the entire length of the poem. Why is ‘Death by Water’ so short? We’re going to attempt a brief summary of this section of the poem here, along with some words of analysis. You can read ‘Death by Water’ here.

Any analysis of ‘Death by Water’ must contend with the question: how come this fourth section is so much shorter than the other four which make up The Waste Land? Well, it wasn’t originally. In [The Facsimile of the Original Drafts] (a must-read for any serious student of Eliot’s poem), we discover a much longer draft involving a crew of men at sea and the ensuing shipwreck, culminating in the description of the dead Phoenician sailor, Phlebas, which is the only surviving part of the original draft of ‘Death by Water’. Read the rest of this entry