Apr 26, 2023, 05:55AM

Rituals of Renewal: a Critical Look At T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

A heap of broken images on Margate sands.

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I’ve always disliked “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot. A pile of pretentious horseshit. A poem with footnotes, what’s that about? It gives the game away. Footnotes are generally limited to academic texts, so you can see what market Eliot was aiming at. He’s after getting his book put on a reading list for the newly-created academic discipline of English Literature. Hence the obscurity of the text. He wants his audience to be reading his poem and puzzling over it for years to come, like some giant crossword puzzle rather than a poem, during which time his book will be forced upon young readers who are made to study it for their exams.

What always got on my nerves, particularly, is the opening line: “April is the cruellest month.” No it isn’t. April is the loveliest month, full of flowers and optimism, with the occasional burst of sunshine between the showers. Even the showers are lovely. They’re watering the Earth, making it moist, helping to liven up the seeds so they burst out of the soil in their glorious catastrophe of color and life.

According to my online annotated edition of “The Waste Land,”the opening line is a reference to the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, 

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, 

And bathed every veyne in swich licóur

Of which vertú engendred is the flour.

In Eliot's poem, by contrast, not only is “April the cruellest month,” but “Winter kept us warm,” a reversal of the usual seasonal imagery. This is deliberate and again an affront to his chosen readership, the young, who’ll be made to read this drivel as part of their rites of passage through the exam system, sitting indoors bent over books full of dry words, studying in the spring, when they should be outdoors. Yes, “April is the cruellest month,” and you’ve just helped to make it like that, Mr. Eliot, with your ponderous versifying.

Having said that, re-reading it again this year I’ve been forced to re-appraise its value and its purpose once more. There is definitely a quality to it, something deeper and more occult than its display of deliberate obscurity; something emotional that lies hidden between the words; something painful that he can’t quite bring himself to say. It is, famously, the record of a nervous breakdown, a meditation on the failure of his marriage, as well as a reflection of the broken post-war world in which he, as an unknown American writer in exile in England, found himself marooned.

Part of it was written in a shelter in Margate, not more than 20 miles from where I live. It’s a bus ride away: the Nayland shelter, unhappily run down these days, most of the glass smashed by vandals. I’m tempted to think of that as a critical statement, done to reflect the broken nature of the verse. There’s a blue plaque, which announces its cultural importance as the place from which the poet composed some of his most memorable lines. Margate gets a mention, in Part III, The Fire Sermon:

‘On Margate Sands.

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect


Last year was the 100th anniversary of the poem’s publication, in celebration of which a few friends and I went down to the shelter to perform it. You can watch that here.

I was reminded of it again this year when I wrote a piece for Spice Today about the writing of my book, the Trials of Arthur. I referred to From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Laidlay Weston, which is mentioned in the footnotes to the poem. You can hear an online reading of that here; although, be warned, it’s read out in large parts by non-native and non-professional English speakers with strong accents, which makes listening to it a quest in itself.

From Ritual to Romance is about the possible links between the Grail legend of medieval European literature, and the mystery cults of the ancient world. Weston traces themes in the legend to the myths of Attis, Adonis and Tammuz, about the renewal of the land and the participation in that by human beings in the form of ritual: what you might call, “the Ritual of Renewal.” She then links these themes to the Tarot deck, which, she suggests, contains remnants of archaic ritual thought within it. Weston identifies four objects that make up the Grail, which she calls the Four Hallows of the Holy Grail, and which she locates as the four suits of the Tarot. It’s a nice idea, but probably wrong. The Tarot dates no further back than 15th-century Italy.

Weston’s book is a classic of Folklorist literature and, while it’s hard going at times (she never translates her sources, expecting you to be able to read medieval German or French) it’s still a fascinating read. No wonder Eliot found himself referencing it in his famous poem. The notion of the Waste Land is contained in the Grail legend in the form of the wounded Fisher King, whose realms are made infertile by his enfeebled state. There’s a suggestion that the body of the King and the state of the land are linked by some obscure, magical-sympathetic mechanism. He’s wounded in the thigh, which implies sexual incapacity. The quest knights are expected to inquire concerning the nature of the Grail. The question is, “whom does the Grail serve?” If they fail to ask the question, the land remains destitute.

The Waste Land, then, represents the failure of Eliot, as the quester/questioner, to properly engage with the Grail. April is cruel, for him, precisely because of its joyousness for the rest of life. The ritual of renewal, which has given life back to the land, has failed to give it back to the poet. Hence the dried-up imagery, the “heap of broken images,” “the dead tree that gives no shelter,” “the dry stone” with “no sound of water.” Eliot’s describing his state of mind, his own emotional infertility.

And yet the poem is rich in its language, with dozens of memorable lines, despite its obscurity. The broken narrative is deliberate. It reflects Eliot’s broken world. The use of found quotations is innovative, particularly its references to popular culture and overheard conversations. You’re left with the image of a man sitting alone amidst the bustle of life, not quite belonging, overhearing the noisy clamor of the world outside, without ever being able to participate in it.

This idea of ritual as a way of engaging with the world fascinates me. It’s what the poem is hinting at. Usually, to our secular, modern way of thinking, ritual is seen as archaic, a remnant of some primitive misunderstanding of the world and our relationship to it, now thankfully overcome. But I see this as narrow-minded and foolish. Did the ancient people think that they were bringing the world back to life with their rituals? They knew what was going on. They knew when to plant, and in what kind of soil, where the animals were to hunt. They knew the science of it all, it’s just that science and magic and poetry weren’t separate back then. Saying a prayer as you planted your seeds in the proper soil, at the right time, under the right moon, was a supplement to the knowledge. Performing a ritual before the hunt was a method of focusing the mind.

To me, ritual is a way of articulating, on a non-verbal level, our relationship to the life all around us. It’s a way of being-in-the-world. What’s being renewed here isn’t the world, but ourselves, the ritual actors, through our relationship to it. By performing ritual at a moment of renewal we’re participating in it, we’re drinking in some of the world’s spiritual water, bringing ourselves ritually to life.

That’s why “The Waste Land” is such a dismal poem. It’s the tale of a man bereft of life, separated from life, having spent his sexual energy on the wrong partner. It’s the story of a man who’s no longer able to feel the surge of life through his veins as the sap rises all around. That’s why April is so cruel to him: not because it’s objectively cruel, but because it’s subjectively so. While life blossoms he perceives it as breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

What he is describing is neurosis: the disease of modern life. It’s a kind of death-in-life, which Eliot manages to capture so powerfully in these lines:

 Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

That’s a perfect description of London at its worst: dismal, dreary and uninspiring, more than a little dead. You wonder what Eliot was doing here, having been born in St Louis, Missouri. He was such an Anglophile. He jettisoned his American accent to make himself more English, adopting all the worst traits of bourgeois buttoned-up Englishness—rather than the best of working-class humor, which is ribald and dangerous—converting to Anglicanism, the most pompous, vapid and spiritually bereft form of Christianity, while writing this impenetrable modernist poetry, deliberately elitist, designed to make himself and his class feel superior, while alienating everyone who doesn't have the time or the energy to read the footnotes.

In this sense we can read “The Waste Land” as an evocation of his neurosis and a prolongation of it. He’s bringing it to life and inflicting it on the world at the same time. It’s a measure of the poem’s success that we find ourselves coming back to it, again and again, despite its obscurity.

—Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone


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