(In February, I lectured on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land for Arts One, a first-year undergraduate humanities program at the University of British Columbia. Video versions of that lecture, which is an overview of the poem with an eye to the course theme of the “monster in the mirror,” can be accessed here. With my colleague Jon Beasley-Murray, I also discussed the poem, along with J. M. Coetzee’s novel Foe, in an audio podcast, that can be found here. This brief essay is an attempt to come to some personal terms with a poem I’ve been reading for over thirty years.)
Amid the iterative crescendo, the torrent of abstruse and fractured references with which The Waste Landbuilds toward formal closure (citing Arthurian legend, the Book of Isaiah, nursery rhyme, Dante Alighieri with Arnaut Daniel, the Pervigilium Veneris, Gerard de Nerval, Thomas Kyd, and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, almost all at once), one line stands out, anomalously clinging to a reflexive, lyric plainness and to a rhythmic heft that would soon come to characterize much of Eliot’s nascent liturgical poetry:
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down
falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why the Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”: for me, and I’m sure for many late readers of Eliot’s poem, this line offers without too much irony a small key to the interpretative challenges of The Waste Land’s broken whole; it encapsulates, with as much directness as the poem can manage, its difficult and seductive music. Not that this line stands alienated from any cultural intertext, as some nonce moment of romantic originality; I hear echoes of the autumnal decrepitude of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, where the leafless and bird-abandoned branches of a deciduous tree – themselves part of a sustained conceit, an ingrown metaphor comparing the poet’s aging aspect – are compared to “[b]are ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” Eliot’s line offers an instance of what the poem elsewhere names “that Shakespeherian rag,” when the allusive backbone of poetic canon begins to shred itself; the pentameter-based sureness of the sonnet is not lost, but starts to give way – with its missing end-stop and outriding unstressed final syllable – to its own audible ruin, shored up but crumbling. In a way, the line stands as a next-to-last gasp, a feint of vestigial originality, the expiration of the uninspired: Eliot briefly, nostalgically culling one more time, out of time, what Ezra Pound had called a “penty” lyricism from the shards of his trans-Atlantic English.
There is also an internal iteration, a dying echo: the line picks up and semantically retools the word “shore” from the mention of the fisher-king just above it. The western shores of Albion, the Atlantic verges of both promise and twilight, figure the sea both as mortal desert – the saline whirlpool picking the bones of the Phoenician sailor; the stale sea of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, water everywhere but not a drop to drink – and as creative protoplasm – the transformative bath of Ariel’s song, the pearls that were his eyes. To shore fragments against one’s ruin is both to beach the shards and remainders of self and culture, but also to shore up, to secure, to gather, and even to culture the scattered pearls of what might be left of Western European wisdom. What gets shored here on the poem’s formal terminus, at its ragged edge, is also subjective, personal: whoever this speaker is – and it’s tempting, given the scattered references to Eliot’s troubled private life in the poem (like the shoreline at Margate mentioned in “The Fire Sermon”), to identify this last “I” not as a persona, not some overdetermined Tiresias, but with Eliot himself, speaking candidly – whoever this speaker is in this particular line, he or she links those ruins directly with subjective agency, a reflexive capacity in language identified with a moment of intervention, of productive action: the lyric first-person staking its claim (“I at least”) as a speech act, in the iterative stuff of the poem: “my ruins.”
In a poem that appears to declare the exhaustion of its own means, and of poetic means generally, this one line offers a tenuous but palpable moment of verbal surety, of measure. Readers come to The Waste Land in these late days, ninety years or more after its first publication in The Criterion, with a sense of trepidation, of being culturally intimidated. But I think this trepidation has been carried alongside the poem since the inclusion of the footnotes two months after that first appearance: what was ever left to say about a poem that tries to say too much, and knows it does, making its bed in its own overwhelmed and overwhelming wreckage? Not much. But what does remain, for me, what lets me make these ruins also mine, somehow habitable for me as a reader, is the poem’s pulse, its measure, that music. In a 1988 speechintroducing a celebratory reading of The Waste Land, Ted Hughes remarks on “the curious fact” that “this immensely learned, profound, comprehensive, allusive masterpiece is also a popular poem. And popular with the most unexpected audiences.” (I tend to trust Hughes on Eliot, pretty much on the strength of his recorded readings of Eliot’s poetry; his Yorkshire intonations, much more than Eliot’s mid-Atlantic accent, resonates for me in these lines.) Its accessibility as poetry, Hughes declares, rests on a reader’s capacity to listen to and to hear its cadences, as well as its deeper music(s): “this notoriously difficult work is wide open, in some way, to those who can hear it as a musical composition.” Early on in the poem’s critical reception, F. R. Leavis noted that the poem’s order is essentially musical rather than logical or thematic, so in this regard Hughes isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before, but what he does reaffirm, for me, is the sustained immediacy – despite all the critical wear and tear – of Eliot’s “whisper music,” or what Hughes identifies as the poem’s “assemblage of human cries”:
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down
a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns
and exhausted wells.Reminiscence and nostos, the pool of cultural memory, may be exhausted, fraught, depleted, but those voices still sing. And they don’t merely seem to sing; they do it. The poem doesn’t just thematize song, but aspires to it, to a condition of music. The iterative echolalia out of which the poem fabricates itself – drawn out in the eighteen-syllable last line of the passage above, which gesticulates toward its own extension, its excess – isn’t so much a set of traces or afterimages as it is a persistence, a choral sustain. Something like what Gilles Deleuze, thinking of late modernist composition, might have called an assemblage (though I’m sure this isn’t exactly what Hughes might have had in mind when he used the term). No matter how many times I come back to The Waste Land, I keep thinking that I can hear it. Still.
A last note about Hughes, Eliot and – incidentally – me: in his speech, Hughes compares Eliot to what he transliterates from Gaelic as fili, a composer-bard. “Ideally,” Hughes says, the fili “carried the whole culture of the people. He was the curator and the re-animator of the inner life which held the people together and made them what they were.” Big boots for a late modern poet to step into, but boots that Hughes, a little extravagantly but appropriately, suggests that Eliot, with his Mallarméan ambitions to purify the dialect of the tribe (and which Hughes had echoed in his own acceptance of the laureateship), might fill. One possible Celtic etymology for my own last name is mac an filidh, “son of the fili.” Which means something like I might come after them, trying to find a few of their footprints.