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The Waste Land - BP Poetry > Clues 6-8 for reading The Waste Land

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Clues for reading The Waste Land, continued:


CLUE NUMBER 6 - Many voices.

There is not just one speaker. “The Waste Land” developed from a poem Eliot called “He Do the Police in Different Voices” It comes from Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

ha, ha, gentlemen!' roared Sloppy in a peal of laughter, and
with immeasureable relish. 'He never thought as I could sleep
standing, and often done it when I turned for Mrs Higden! He
never thought as I used to give Mrs Higden the Police-news in
different voices! But I did lead him a life all through it, gentlemen,
I hope I really and truly DID!' Here, Mr Sloppy opening his mouth
to a quite alarming extent, and throwing back his head to peal
again, revealed incalculable buttons.

The point is that the multi-vocal element is front and center. Let me offer an example re not clear who the speakers are and there is no specific way of identifying them.

The opening of the poem reads this way:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out the dead ground, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warming, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
In a shower of rain; we stopped in the Colonnade,
We went on in sunlight, into the hofgarten,
And drank coffee and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stammin Litauen, echt Deutsch.
And we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled
And I was frightened. And he said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

But look at this:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out the dead ground, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warming, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

That is one voice.
Then we have a second, less prophetic, more conversational voice:

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
In a shower of rain; we stopped in the Colonnade,
We went on in sunlight, into the hofgarten,
And drank coffee and talked for an hour.

Now we have a third, a woman:

Bin gar keine Russin, stammin Litauen, echt Deutsch.

It means, “I’m not Russian, from Lithuania, real German.”

And now we have Marie, the first person with a name in the poem:

And we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled
And I was frightened. And he said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

Try to find these changes. They will help clarify what you’re reading.


CLUE NUMBER 7 - Memory and Desire

The third line begins “memory and desire” and, as one critic noted, these are two of the central themes of the poem.

Memory certainly – we have Western civilization and some of Eastern at our feet.

Desire – the “persistent concern with sex” is hard to miss (which was noted by another critic I. A. Richards). The sex is not desirable – it is unpleasant. It is perhaps only “the hyacinth girl” where there are no unpleasant connotations – and it is brief.

The most extreme example of uncontrolled desire is the story of Philomel, which is violent even for Greek myth, involving as it does rape, mutilation, infanticide (by the mother) and cannibalism (unintentional) by the father. Norton has the story – however, to experience the full power I recommend the version by Ted Hughes in Tales from Ovid. It may be as much Hughes as Ovid, but it’s a hell of a read.

Eliot’s grandfather, who died a year before Tom was born and whose spirit presided over the household, was a severe Unitarian minister famous for resisting the regulation of prostitution because that would in some sense be condoning it. Eliot, who grew up near the Mississippi was forbidden to read Huckleberry Finn because, Eliot later speculated, it might lead to bad habits, like smoking. And while he was embarrassed by the fact, one of the Eliot ancestors was a judge at the Salem witch trials.

Eliot famously converted to the Church of England from Unitarianism, was baptized in it, and had a decidedly orthodox Christian point of view.

Then there is the question of Eliot’s own sexuality. There are those who argue Eliot was gay. Will we ever know? No. But it’s not implausible – what seems most notable to me is not the evidence but that Eliot always seems to lack is enthusiasm for women as objects of desire.

***

CLUE NUMBER 8 – What’s it all mean, huh? Tell me now, I’m confused!

What? You thought you were going to blow that one by me? No chance.

First of all, what the poem means is controversial. There are different interpretations, none conclusive.

In the most general terms, I personally read it as an expression of grief after World War I, personal grief for a lost friend and general for the generation lost, and more generally the increasing loss of what had seemed a coherent civilization of shared values that was breaking up before the war – with only fragments left – and the instability fed more and more by desire. But we’re also dealing with an Eliot who had a taste for the music hall, comedians and wrote definitely off-color, I believe (I’ll have to check) if not absolutely pornographic verse when he was young.

Some of the work critics quote to suggest a particular attitude of Eliot’s was written some time after the writing of The Waste Land, not before it.

So -- boat leaves March 5.


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