The publication of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land 100 years ago in October 1922 was a watershed in modern poetry. James Joyce’s Ulysses, published in February that year, was similarly iconoclastic for the novel as form. Two literary events of such lasting consequence rarely occur so closely.
Eliot’s The Sacred Wood, a book of critical essays, had appeared in 1920 and in 1922 he became editor of The Criterion, an English journal with ambitions to reconstruct a European republic of letters. Building on his remarkable combination of critical and poetic gifts, and, after 1925, his editorial role in Faber & Gwyer, later Faber and Faber, Eliot became England’s most eminent man of letters. No American had ever attained such position in London, then still the English-speaking world’s literary capital.
At 434 lines, The Waste Land was not exactly Paradise Lost or The Prelude. However, its strange music, intricately orchestrated allusiveness, tightrope walk of metrical surety and psychic uncertainty, and stricken lyricism conjured a terrific spell. The poem spoke to a Europe shell-shocked by the first World War. Affectively, The Waste Land belongs with the great postwar works of civilisational pessimism and mourning: Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918-1922), Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930), and Kafka’s The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926). These works trouble Christian or Enlightenment faiths in redemption and liberal progress.
In The Waste Land, a sense of faint but possibly delusional hope for salvation intensifies the existential agony. Its condition is one of bare life and nervous spiritual twitch. The poem begins with an epigraph from Petronius in which the Cumaen Sybil, asked what she wishes, replies: “I want to die.” References to crowds crossing London Bridge – ”I had no thought death had undone so many” – summon Dante’s Inferno. The final section ends with another classical language, Sanskrit: Shantih shantih shantih. Eliot translates this as “The peace which passeth understanding.” From opening death wish to wearied final prayer, The Waste Land pilgrimages through a purgatory offering more glimpses of hell than heaven.
Powerful new poetic voices emerged in Britain after The Waste Land. Hugh MacDiarmid in Scotland; David Jones, WH Auden and Philip Larkin in England; Sylvia Plath, another American expatriate, brought a powerful new poetry in the 1960s. Still, these works seem scarcely more contemporary now than The Waste Land. The last century’s cumulative disasters ensure that we are still learning to be The Waste Land’s contemporaries. The poem’s continued resonance is symptom of our common misfortune.
As Eliot made his poetic career, his nearest peers were Ezra Pound and WB Yeats. The Cantos’ vast ambition and his support for Mussolini put Pound beyond the comprehension or sympathy of many readers. Yeats, already 57 when The Waste Land appeared, produced two more decades of remarkable poetry in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when many felt that Eliot’s poetic energies waned.
The early Eliot, doubtful whether there could be distinct national literatures in English, was condescending towards Yeats. “His mind,” Eliot wrote of Yeats in 1919, “is, in fact, extreme in egoism, and, as often with egoism, remains a little crude; crude, indeed, as from its remoteness one would expect. There is something of this crudity, and much of this egoism, about what is called Irish literature: the egoism which obstructs from facing, and the crudity which remains through not having to face direct contacts.” Arnoldian and Boston Brahmin superciliousness give the note here.
John Kelly argues that the young Eliot resented Pound’s closer friendship with Yeats and later regretted his asperity. Likewise, Kelly suggests, Ulysses shifted Eliot’s perception of Irish literature. Nevertheless, Yeats’s theosophy continued to bother. In After Strange Gods (1934), Eliot proposes that the decline of religious orthodoxy has bad consequences for modern literature. He cites Pound, Yeats and Lawrence as examples of great writers whose works suffer from “the disappearance of the idea of Original Sin”. With that loss comes “the disappearance of the idea of intense moral struggle” and the affected writers inevitably therefore create “less and less real” human figures.
“The idea of intense moral struggle” was something Eliot certainly tried his damnedest to render. For him, Pound, Yeats and Lawrence were all too Protestant or post-Protestant to have adequate feeling for the Catholic Middle Ages. Lacking a whole sense of Christian civilisation, they were all too willing to chase after “strange gods” and resorted to heretic mythologies or made of literature the compensatory religion it could never be.
Eliot’s appreciation for Joyce, widely considered the most blasphemous writer of the age, seems odd in the context. Disputing conventional opinion, Eliot apparently considered Joyce a deeply religious writer. Was this simply wishful thinking?
The greatest writers, Eliot reasoned, kept the whole history of their civilisation’s attainments in front of them. For Eliot, like Dante, Joyce was such a writer. Quite unusually, Christianity for Joyce was also not a mere anachronism but a formative intellectual presence and he had to believe its power to blaspheme it. And unlike Gerald Manley Hopkins, Joyce was not a specifically devotional writer but worked a broader canvas. Joyce’s writing, Eliot asserted, was “penetrated with Christian feeling”. When Joyce began Work in Progress, Pound thought this a disastrous creative cul de sac but Eliot kept faith with Joyce, and Faber and Faber published the Wake in 1939.
Eliot’s Irish connections continued into the 1930s. In 1931, Thomas MacGreevy published Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of the first monographs on the poet. The slim volume opens pugnaciously: MacGreevy argues that Eliot’s work since The Waste Land has mostly been a disappointing “falling off in vigour and vividness”. He describes Eliot’s early work as puritanical, thanks to his New England formation, and professorial, thanks to Pound. These traits, MacGreevy asserts, made Eliot’s early work satirical and lacking in hope and humility, virtues that came easier to Catholics thanks to the practice of confession.
However, Eliot, MacGreevy allows, never entirely lacked humility or self-criticism. As he matured, his verse “has moved towards Catholicism, even the bastard, schismatic and provincial if genteel kind of Catholicism that, for the time being, at any rate, he has, somewhat New Englishly, stopped at.” Like Ulysses, The Waste Land, MacGreevy proposes, is preoccupied “with the death and resurrection of the spirit”. Contrasting Ulysses’s tolerant ending and Work in Progress’s musical gaiety with Eliot’s work’s abiding despondency, MacGreevy concludes: “Mr Joyce has more faith and joy in existence than Mr Eliot has… Mr Joyce hopes for the best and plays accordingly, Mr Eliot fears the worst and works accordingly. Which attitude is the more blessed we must wait for the Judgment to know.” There is as much denominational jousting as discernment here maybe.
Irish literature’s vocation, he believed, was to bring an atmosphere of ‘living Catholic thought’ to the international conversation of Anglophone literatures
Eliot visited Ireland in 1936 and 1940. On his first visit, he addressed the English Literary Society of University College Dublin, the young Free State’s flagship Catholic university. There, Eliot still questioned whether the British Dominions “will ever arrive at distinctive literatures of their own” and asserted that if they did so this would be “in too remote a future to be discussed”. However, he now accepted that Ireland and the United States had indeed attained their own English-language literatures. As such, he suggested, “as far into the future as the future concerns us, there must be three literatures in the English language – English, Irish and American.” Irish literature’s vocation, he believed, was to bring an atmosphere of “living Catholic thought” to the international conversation of Anglophone literatures.
A year earlier in The Criterion, Eliot had praised Yeats “as the greatest poet of his time”. In his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), Yeats was less complimentary: he described Eliot as a satirist, “an Alexander Pope working without imagination”. Some denominational sparring here too perhaps.
When Yeats died in 1939, Eliot accepted the invitation to present the first annual Yeats lecture hosted in the Abbey Theatre in 1940. Eliot’s address stressed Yeats’s lifelong capacity for artistic renewal. “Most men,” Eliot avers, “either cling to the experience of youth, so that their writing becomes an insincere mimicry of their earlier work, or they leave their passion behind, and write only from the head, with a hollow and wasted virtuosity.” There was “another and even worse temptation: that of becoming dignified, of becoming public figures only with a public existence – coat-racks hung with decorations and distinctions, doing, saying, and even thinking and feeling only what they believe the public expects of them.” Yeats, he allowed, magnificently avoided these sirens.
Viewed in terms of the rise of fascism and Stalinism, the interwar modernists can now appear nearly all compromised by their convictions or lack thereof. When measured against the epoch’s awful exigencies, Joyce’s 17-year immersion in Finnegans Wake, Eliot’s conservative Christianity, Yeats’s Blueshirt histrionics, or Pound’s anti-Semitic ravings appear somewhere between self-absorbed and criminal.
However, our present age of catastrophes brings challenges as epic as those that troubled the modernists. In this respect, the modernists – now, as Fredric Jameson says, our ancients – and contemporary writers come unhappily close again. Desperate times, daunting challenges. It is easier to task the modernists with their sins than to know how best to measure up to our moment.
The Waste Land struggles with torpor, apathy, dearth of conviction. Have things changed? A century later, where are the faiths, secular or religious, capable of rallying people collectively to realistically address our mounting perils? Can we postmoderns do better than the modernist ancients? Or are we doomed to privatised purgatories, worsening wastelands?
Joe Cleary teaches at Yale University. His recent books are Modernism, Empire, World Literature (2021) and The Irish Expatriate Novel and Late Capitalist Globalization (2021)