T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land": Pound for Pound

Gunning Golf Course, 4th December 2018. Photo: Michael de Percy [CC BY-ND 4.0].

After reading Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, the title of which is derived from T.S. Eliot's modernist poem, The Waste Land, I was compelled to read the poem and to learn more about Eliot. Up until today, my knowledge of Eliot was limited to what I had gleaned from Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.

I have read all around Eliot, including Djuna Barnes (whom Eliot admired)1, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Andersen, Ford Madox Ford, and Virginia Woolf. But I have shied away from poetry until only recently.

After reading the poem, I listened to the BBC's In Our Time podcast episode, "The Waste Land and Modernity". There was much interesting discussion about the original book version of Eliot's poem. Apparently, the poem itself was too short to be a book and the publisher asked Eliot to pad it out.

Eliot added a bunch of notes to the poem, many of which turned out to be superfluous. The poem had also been cut down considerably by Ezra Pound, which took away the various signals of the several stories that emerge in the poem.

I listened to a reading of the poem on YouTube (below), partly read by Eliot. In the In Our Time discussion, they mentioned that the poem was published at the same time BBC Radio began, so in many ways the poem lends itself to a radio reading. It is interesting how listening to the poem being read makes the different voices more obvious, whereas this is somewhat obscured in a first reading (to oneself).

In sum, an issue that constantly strikes me is that the more I read, the less I know. And in many ways, based on my reading around The Waste Land, and from the discussions on the In Our Time podcast, Eliot meant to show how we don't or can't know everything; indeed, we may not need to know everything.

Even the different interpretations by American versus English critics revealed different interpretations of common English sayings highlighted in the poem. And of course, there are many references to the classics and so on which I hope to discover by obtaining a copy of the original (pre-Pound) version of the poem, and also the published version with the superfluous notes added by Eliot.

The poem apparently took Eliot one year to write, and he was quite upset by the paltry sum first offered to him for its publication. Yet it is now regarded as the most influential poems of the twentieth century.

Like all great works, the poem deserves several readings. But if you want to really hear the different voices, the recital of the poem will bring this to the fore.


1. Fleischer, G. (1998). Djuna Barnes and T.S. Eliot: The Politics and Poetics of "Nightwood". Studies in the Novel, 30(3), 405-437. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/29533280.