"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, June 21, 2013

Audio: The Waste Land Read by Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins

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/ il miglior fabbro” (Italian for “the better craftsman”). 

The William Carlos Williams reference is harder to explain.  He too is a great modernist poet, but he hated (and that’s not too strong a word) Eliot’s style and a lesser degree his themes.  Williams, who wrote in the Walt Whitman tradition of poetry, was a very harsh critic of Eliot.  The allusions and the heavily cultural identity of Eliot’s poetry was anathema to Williams.  By the way, the other great poet of the early modernist period, Wallace Stevens, kind of splits the difference from the Eliot (with Pound)/Williams spectrum of modernist style.  There must be a book on the relationships between Eliot, Pound, Carlos Williams, and Stevens—the four great modernist poets, all Americans by the way—but if there isn’t it would make for a great PhD thesis.  I think I would explore that myself if I were to ever go for a PhD.  [Disclosure: I do have a Master’s Degree in English Literature.]

What was remarkably missing from the BBC introduction was pointing out how central to the poem is sexuality.  The crisis of modernity, as portrayed in the poem, is the severing of sexuality with the divine.  The operative word is sterility, sexuality without love, without birth, without regeneration.  So much of the poem deals, both direct and implicit, with an unholy sexuality that has resulted from that severed relationship.  Loose sexuality, meaningless and loveless sexuality, abortion, rape all figure in the poem.  The several song allusions scattered about the poem are from songs of his day that had sexual innuendo of a vulgar nature.  Would Eliot, with today’s sexual music, today’s hookup culture, today’s millions of abortions, feel he was prescient or be further shocked?  I don’t know.  We are still in a waste land. 

Let me give a couple of my favorite passages.  This passage is a voice that I take to be that of God speaking:

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.
(ll. 19-30)

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
Bringing rain
(ll.  377-94)

Listen to Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins perform the poem.  I was skeptical before hearing it that two voices, a man’s and a woman’s, would sound correct.  After listening to it, I think for many reasons it’s inspired.  I can’t rave enough about it.

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