Sunday Pages: "The Waste Land"
A poem by T.S. Eliot
Today is Easter Sunday, an overtly pagan feast day that doubles as the holiest day of the Catholic liturgical year. As I wrote last year, in a piece about the Nicene Creed, “For me, Easter is the Christian version of the celebration of spring. Of rebirth. Of hope. And what is hope, after all, but blind faith in a happy outcome?”
Two years ago, when “Sunday Pages” was in its infancy, I had this to say:
Although it is a Christian holiday, almost everything about Easter is pagan in origin: the name (from “Astarte,” a pagan goddess), the springtime symbolism of the bunny and the egg, the determination of the date (first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox)—even the story of the Resurrection, which goes back to ancient Egypt, predating Anno Domini 33 by thousands of years.
I have long moved on from the formal Catholicism of my youth, but I have come to regard Easter, because of its pagan roots, as a (small “c”) catholic holiday, with universal vernal themes (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least). At its core, it is a celebration of rebirth, renewal, fertility (meaning creativity of all kinds, not just babies), and, above all, hope.
Whatever you may believe, my wish for you today is that your sense of hope be renewed, refreshed, and replenished. These next few months are going to be arduous and difficult, but my faith remains absolute and unwavering: just as the sun shall rise each morning, so we shall prevail!
I’m nothing if not consistent.
Hope has become something of a pejorative word on Twitter lately, the stock in trade of suckers. But we can be circumspect without losing hope; the two are not mutually exclusive.
Hope, it seems to me, is the fuel of humanity, the élan vital without which life becomes drear. Hope is what drives us to make the world a better place, to envision a brighter future, to help each other in our hour of need, to create and invent and build, to make love, to wash the dishes and cut the grass—to get out of bed in the first place. There is a reason that the ultimate purpose of disinformation campaigns, Russian and otherwise, is to eradicate hope. There is a reason that our most popular former president ran a campaign on it.
To be sure, hope can be a fragile thing—like an apple, susceptible to bruising. Compelling evidence that we should all just pack it in is everywhere, if we care to take inventory. The one line in the aforementioned Nicene Creed that is universal is this: He suffered, died, and was buried. Not all bodies are buried, sure, but no one escapes the suffering and dying.
But hope is also, thankfully, durable. It dies hard.
On Friday, I sat under my glorious pink tree that I now know is a Japanese cherry (thanks!) and read from a newly-acquired collection of poems by Marie Ponsot. In the sublime “For John Keats,” she writes:
Though nothing lives that does not die,
Nothing dies that does not live.
The price of death is life.
That, I submit, is the proper frame!
Another poet who inverts an old idea is T.S. Eliot, in “The Waste Land.” For today’s “Sunday Pages,” I wanted to tackle that five-part poem. I wanted to, but I cannot. Frankly, it makes James Joyce read like a nursery rhyme. In his notes to the poem, Eliot tells us that reading a book called From Ritual to Romance, which explores the pagan origins of Christian symbols, “will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do.” No doubt that is true, but it seems backwards to have to read a book to grok a poem.
However, because I do like Eliot, and know that there is much in the difficulties of his verse that we might elucidate even without more reading, I thought I’d take a crack at the very beginning—much the best part of the poem. As it happens, there is a lot to learn here.
First, the epigraph, which is—duh—from the first-century Satyricon of Petronius:
“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβνλλα τί ϴέλεις; respondebat illa: άπο ϴανεΐν ϴέλω.”
Eliot translates this thus:
I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she answered: “I want to die.”
The backstory here is that the Sibyl was once young and beautiful—so beautiful that the radiant god Apollo wooed her. She used her influence to exact a wish from her immortal suitor: to live as many years as there are grains of sand in the desert, or somesuch. This was granted. But the Sibyl forgot to also ask for eternal youth—derp!—so her frail body bore the merciless rigors of age without relent. She with the gift of prophesy could not foresee her own misery! There is something to that.
Next, the dedication:
FOR EZRA POUND
IL MIGLIOR FABBRO
The Italian translation, “the better craftsman,” is obviously an allusion to Dante’s Purgatorio. (Just kidding. I did not recognize the line, and I suspect most mortals would not.) Pound was a great editor, apparently; he helped promote and popularize the work of Eliot, Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway, among many others. I find his own poems forgettable, dated, lacking in something essential.
When “The Waste Land” was published a century ago this year, Pound may well have been the better craftsman, but my goodness did that cat stray from the path. He believed the Great War was caused by financial capitalism—usury, in his view—and ran so far to the left that he wound up carrying water for actual fascists: Sir Oswald Mosely, Mussolini, Hitler. He was the prototypical horseshoe! He lent his voice to hundreds of paid radio broadcasts for the Italian government; “anti-Semitic” doesn’t even begin to cover the toxic sludge that came out of his mouth. If Pound were alive today, he’d have a popular podcast and be a regular on Fox News. But we were smarter about this stuff back then; in 1945, he was arrested for treason.
Then we come to the first part of the actual poem, called “The Burial of the Dead,” after the title of the Church of England’s burial service:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Even I recognize this as not just an allusion to the prologue of The Canterbury Tales, but its complete inversion:
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;
Eliot is saying that no, spring is not “soote,” or sweet, but rather cruel, because all that yuck buried beneath “forgetful snow” is now nakedly exposed to the elements—the “spring rain.” Worse, by “mixing / memory and desire,” April is instilling (false) hope. And the Sibyl knows better than to hope for anything but death!
(The “stirring” of “dull roots,” meanwhile, is so overtly phallic that Tucker Carlson is devoting an entire segment to it in his new show about the End of Men—right after the part where the dude plugs his junk into the Tesla charger.)
The general vibe can be expressed in five words, read as sardonically as possible: Great, here we go again. Also: nothing is being buried, despite the title; quite the opposite!
Then the poem devolves into what feels like fragments of a dream—or, better, footage from some lost film about the subconscious mind that Christopher Nolan left on the cutting room floor. There are different languages we are expected to speak, and allusions to ancient texts we are expected to recognize, and a Tarot that Eliot made up, because he was too busy reading Petronius and Virgil and Ovid to familiarize himself with an actual deck.
The poem ends in Part Five, “What the Thunder Said,” with this word salad:
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 uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
The “fragments” here, the little bits and pieces of a life of obscure reading that have stuck in his head, fly around his mind like literary detritus from an explosion. That final word, repeated three times, is, Eliot explains in his notes, the formal end to an Upanishad—almost like saying “Amen” three times. He translates it as “the Peace which passeth understanding,” which is an apt way to end a poem that passeth understanding.
But the point here, I think, is this: despite his initial resistance to repetition of the cycle, to rebirth, to hope, he has come around. By the end of this poetical fever dream, even the fuddy-duddy, wet blanket Eliot finds himself at peace.
I wish you a happy Easter / Passover / Ramadan / secular Sunday, Dear Reader, and hope for the bunny to be the harbinger of good things in the days ahead.
Photo credit: Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl Entering the Infernal Regions, drawing, Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, early 17th century.