According to a website archiving the history and makeup of music from The Waste Land, “The Shakespearean Rag” was a popular tune composed by three gentleman: Gene Buck, Herman Ruby, and David Stamper. It appeared in 1912, later finding a second life in the second act of The Waste Land, “A Game of Chess.” Belonging to the ragtime genre–a particular style of music that prioritizes syncopation and rhythm–a snatch of the song is interpolated into a scene in The Waste Land, featuring a young wife attempting to communicate with her shell-shocked husband. I couldn’t find an audio recording of the track in question, but like music of its kind, “The Shakespearean Rag” as a lyrical piece seems pretty tame by our modern standards. Ragtime is traditionally accompanied by a multi-member brass band, and it became chic for young socialites and party-goers in the early 1900s to dance to the music’s frightfully frenetic tempo. One lyric in particular stood out to me; “[We’d] Grizzly Bear in a different way” refers to a routine that my sources indicate was pretty sensual and “scandalous” for the times. It seems ultimately pretty harmless, with the youth probably scoffing at the notion that they were behaving inappropriately or in a manner uncharacteristic of the culture.
A few lines from the chorus indicate that the narrator really has a thing for The Bard, a frail attempt at infusing modern songwriting with tidbits of classic literature. This methodology seems particularly insipid given the context of the late 1910s, as unfortunately the sad reality of the times was that of a world at war. Why, we wonder, was this simple song so significant to Eliot? The hollowness of these songs–so acutely complacent–has an almost delectable irony that I’m sure Eliot picked up at one point or another. We can trace some of the allusions back to Frazer and the Golden Bough/May Day Ceremonies, because, if you recall, these ceremonies involved as much youthful pageantry as the arch mayhem of an early 20th century dancehall. So there’s a pervasive idea in both cultures of a youth running carefree and wild, right on the cusp of inheriting the monumental burden of adulthood, yet for Eliot and other Europeans, their figurative “youth” died the moment the war began. There’s a painful element of nostalgia for the young man of the poem, a veteran of the First World War who hums the refrain of the song inside his head to himself, functioning soundly yet unable to connect with his equally despondent and traumatized lover; she too yearns for days gone by.
I’d also like to quickly gloss over something that was said in one of our lectures, which was that the jittery, unnatural stylings of ragtime-era dance were informed by the demobilized soldiers’ PTSD shakes and tremors. I don’t know if I got that down correctly, but if this statement is true, I could also see Eliot alluding to a greater re-contextualization of the pre-war in the post-war; once an act of merrymaking, “The Shakespearean Rag,”and songs like it, is now an act or expression of intense pain, sorrow and reminiscence.