I must tell the world about this recording. It’s a BBC production of T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Waste Land read by Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins. It is not only the best reading of The Waste Land that I have ever heard—and I’ve heard a few—but it might be the best reading of any poem of considerable length that I have ever heard. Run, don’t walk, to this BBC site and, not just listen to, right click and save the recording to your computer. I don’t know how long the BBC will keep this available to the general public. Many of their recordings become CDs that you will have to purchase. If you have an interest in literature, you will want this forever.
First, I must give a hat tip to Joseph Susanka of the blog Summa This, Summa That for bringing itto my attention.
Second, read along with this hyper linked with split screen notes, internet posting of The Waste Land. One of the things that make this poem hard to understand is the many cultural and literary allusions, both explicit and furtive, that lend meaning to the line and to the larger themes. The notes and hyper links help identify and clarify the allusions.
The Waste Land (readthe Wikipedia entry) is the single most important poem in English (possibly in the world but I can’t speak for other languages) of the 20th century. I’m not going to expound on the poem here. I’ll save that for next year (my readings have already been planned for this year) where I plan to post several detailed blogs that will provide my thoughts and understanding of the poem. For now, let me say that the poem emerged from the horror that took Europe from World War I (the poem was written in 1922 but was worked on for several years prior), the culture (especially the loss of religious faith) that developed during and as a result of the war, and the fragmentation from the western historical identity. WWI became a fracture point between modernism and a historical past.
The introduction provided by poets Jackie Kay, Matthew Hollis, Sean O’Brien and the former Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is interesting, though not all that penetrating. Several points they bring up may need a little elucidation. One is the motif of multiple voices within the poem. The multiple voices is the key aesthetic of the poem and reflects the theme of fragmentation, the apparent lack of coherence. When a work of art’s aesthetics are integral to the theme, that’s when greatness is achieved. No one did it better than Dante in The Divine Comedy and why I consider that the single greatest work of literature ever produced. But Eliot does it here too. I would say that Eliot is the Dante Alighieri of the 20th century.
Another obscure point in the introduction is the reference to the poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in relationship to The Waste Land. Ezra Pound, also a great and influential modernist poet, was Eliot’s friend, and he edited the original Waste Land manuscript. He didn’t add any lines, but he did cut a lot of extraneous passages that clarified and crystallized the poem. The original manuscript would not have been the great poem it has turned out to be, and Eliot recognized it. The poem is dedicated to Pound: “For Ezra Pound/
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
And then towards the end, the rain over the wasteland finally comes in a redemptive baptism of water:
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust