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Sunday 12 January 2014

The Waste Land

When T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1922, it was one of the most avant-garde poems in the English language. It’s also a long poem – about 3000 words, divided into five sections, and followed by more than 1500 words of detailed endnotes. Both the text of the poem and the notes are packed full of quotations and allusions on a wide variety of themes, some of them distinctly Fortean – the Holy Grail, Eastern mysticism and Tarot cards among them.

The poem is Fortean in its structure as well as its content. The concatenation of seemingly unrelated fragments, in different styles and sometimes even different languages, is reminiscent of Charles Fort’s own writings, where he strings together quotes from newspaper clippings. Eliot wanted to produce a similar effect in the poem – a fact that would be clearer if the work was still known by the title he originally gave it.

The poem’s actual title, “The Waste Land”, is a reference to the desolate area surrounding the castle of the Grail in Arthurian legends. However, during the early stages of composition Eliot’s working title was “He Do the Police in Different Voices”. This silly-sounding phrase is a quotation from a novel by Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, in which a woman describes how her son reads newspaper stories out loud. Eliot’s use of this title suggests he conceived The Waste Land as a Fort-like compendium of press clippings – something that was apparently more obvious in earlier drafts of the poem than in the final published version. The critic M. C. Bradbrook wrote: “The original title, He Do the Police in Different Voices (applied to reading newsprint in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend) would be applicable to some of the excised stories; the riotous scene in Boston might have fed a newspaper column, the heroic deaths of the fishermen certainly would; and the lady Fresca must have featured in gossip columns.”

Eliot’s notes to the poem are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and he deliberately overstates the Grail connection: “Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance... Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do.” Besides references to the Grail and the Arthurian “Fisher King”, the poem includes quotations from Tristan and Isolde (“Mein Irisch Kind, wo weilest du?”) and Das Rheingold (“Weialala leia Wallala leialala”). In Wagner’s opera, the latter words are sung by the three Rhine-daughters – in Eliot’s poem they are attributed to the three Thames-daughters!

The Waste Land may be one of the few works of mainstream English literature to feature that New Age favourite, the Tarot pack. “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant, had a bad cold, nevertheless is known to be the wisest woman in Europe, with a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she, is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor... Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel, and here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card, which is blank, is something he carries on his back, which I am forbidden to see. I do not find the Hanged Man.”

In his notes, Eliot says “I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience. The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways: because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer, and because I associate him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus in Part V. The Phoenician Sailor and the Merchant appear later... The Man with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King himself.”

The hooded figure that Eliot refers to is an interesting Fortean phenomenon in its own right: “Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together but when I look ahead up the white road there is always another one walking beside you. Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded, I do not know whether a man or a woman—but who is that on the other side of you?” In the endnotes, Eliot explains that these lines “were stimulated by the account of one of the Antarctic expeditions (I forget which, but I think one of Shackleton’s): it was related that the party of explorers, at the extremity of their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more member than could actually be counted.”

Two of the poem’s five sections take their titles from works of Eastern mysticism – again, not the usual subject matter for works of mainstream literature at the time. Part III is called “The Fire Sermon”, after a sermon of the Buddha which Eliot says “corresponds in importance to the Sermon on the Mount”. Then Part V is called “What the Thunder Said”, in reference to a fable from an ancient Hindu text called the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad. Eliot even includes a Sanskrit quote from the work: “datta, dayadhvam, damyata”, which he translates in the notes as “give, sympathize, control”. Then he concludes the poem with another Sanskrit word, shantih, repeated three times, which he describes as the formal ending to an Upanishad.

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