Kingston / Gloucester

One of the things our class has embraced is the picking apart of The Waste Land in order to enhance our critical understanding of the poem. What better place to begin our tour of Modernist art and aesthetics than with Dadaism, a fascinating artistic movement whose luminaries dabbled in the nonsensical and absurd? In order to restrict the dimensions of this analysis to manageable/portable sizes, I’ll focus on our class’ discussion and several pertinent pieces of information I found online.

Earlier today, scanning the Internet for pliable research topics, I stumbled across the origins of Dada. Rising to prominence in the aftermath of the First Great War (redolent of Our Poet’s rise to the mainstream), the Dadaists trafficked in art that was very nearly antithetical to Eliot’s own. The collective of artists who referred to themselves as Dadaists refused to be pinned down by anything but their own terms and labels; Marcel Duchamp, famed New Yorkian avant-gardist, even refuted associations with the movement despite clear collaborations between him and his contemporaries. Cross-pollination seems plausible, with many recorded encounters between several factions of the group (the three headquarters are typically acknowledged as Zurich, New York and Paris). Famously, Duchamp requested permission from Tzara for the usage of the word “Dada, ” to which the second man, the coiner and originally distributor of the term, replied that Dada “was for everyone.”

So now that we’ve begun to clear the air around the mystery of Dadaism, we can start to demystify T.S. Eliot’s association with the group as well. Due to the dissemination of divergent aesthetics in the artistic community, I believe that T.S. Eliot certainly encountered the Dadaist Movement at one point or another, probably by the mid- to late- 1920s at the latest. In order to justify this claim, I turned to a short excerpted piece by Sean Coffer. Eliot, a recently converted Anglican Christian by the publication date of “Ash Wednesday” in 1927, was decidedly NOT that six years prior during the drafting of The Waste Land. The author of this particular paper claims that by edging closer to the aesthetics of the Zurich Dadaists, Eliot positions himself brilliantly into a new era of poetics, for himself and for popular art in general. The article breaks before Coffer’s thesis can be established and verified, requiring some additional extrapolation on my part.

The language of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” struck this reader immediately as broken and unsure, quickly alternating between peaks of emotional ecstasy and troughs of despair. The formal repetition of the poem’s opening lines (Section I is patterned off of the statement “because I…”) simultaneously evokes both sacrosanct, religious incantations and depressing resignations/lamentations. Yet the structure of the poem’s first portion IS as absurd as a Dadaist painting; it’s spontaneous, fluid and full of expression. The motivation for these rapid mood swings seems to be external to the poem (possibly hidden in plain sight?), and while it’s clear that he grapples with the values of his faith, there’s an underlying pain that translates beyond the poem. The fact that he can’t, or doesn’t, name this Pain might allude to the Dadaist conceit of calling one thing something else entirely; besides, the “naming” of this Pain seems almost superfluous to a comprehension of it (I expand on this below). While I admit that at the time of this writing I’ve only read the first little bit of this poem, I can sense that Eliot wants to exorcise the part of himself that’s riddled with doubt. Perhaps by confronting the most immediate emotional responses by undercutting the intellectual significance of his word usage, Eliot hopes to contrive a more base yet equally true understanding of self-. Some of the Dadaists were pretty pro-intellectual, but also pretty anti-bullshit; Duchamp’s readymades were so controversial because audience’s couldn’t see why Duchamp would so clearly mislabel a toilet a fountain. Maybe it’s a similar conceit; that Faith and the Emotions of Self are seemingly antagonistic entities who nevertheless must coexist, and while understanding and misunderstanding play a key role in the foundations of belief, overationalization will bring him further from any definition that would seek to reconcile them. Art, for both Eliot and the Dadaists, seeks to reconcile some version of Truth with what they already know and can perceive. Eliot’s ultimate struggle as a man of faith is, after all, to become whole with God, despite his fear of knowing too much about the physical world (man’s world) or perhaps not enough; whether he perceives this is possible still remains to be seen.

Most of this article’s info was shamelessly pulled off the Wikipedia page for Dada and a Poetry Foundation reproduction of Ash Wednesday. Additionally, here are several other sources that helped me break down the movement from a specific vantage point:


Rag Time

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.


Chessmaster of None

A little late as usual (Apologies!), but let’s jump right to it. Our class has spent the majority of the week discussing Middleton’s Women Beware Women and its contributions to Eliot’s The Waste Land. But I’d first like to review an intermediary text that provides additional linkage between the Middleton’s tragedy and Eliot’s poem: an essay entitled “Thomas Middleton” that was Eliot’s own critique of several Middletonian texts. Eliot distinguishes Middleton immediately from other Elizabethan/Jacobean poets, claiming that Middleton’s “realistic portrayal of women” in plays like The Changeling and Women Beware Women elevates him above the dramatists of his era. From what I could gather,  Eliot’s praised Middleton for his depiction of “the real human passions of [Women Beware Women‘s] Bianca,” and “correctly” evaluating Bianca (and women like her) as creatures inspired by a so-called “Elizabethan vanity.” Bianca, as he rationalizes it, is a woman who marries well-below her social position in an act of pure foolhardiness; later, her paramour with the Duke is a means for her to reacquire her lost status and retain some dignity. But does the “passion” that Eliot sees refer to the lust for her husband or her fellow fornicator, or both as I expect? Does he see the pursuit of vanity, material wealth and a prominent social position her only true “love?” Because the more this discussion entrenches itself among these problematic definitions, the harder it becomes to take Eliot’s perception of women seriously.

I’m seriously not well-versed enough on Elizabethan literature and culture outside of the mainstream, so it’s hard to tell how objective Eliot could have been with regard to women in his culture, yet the Modernist, English-oriented ideal of the Makings of A Woman must have been influenced by the artistic and sociological movements that preceded it (Edwardian, Victorian, and Elizabethan). And as Eliot positions himself in proximity to authors like Thomas Middleton, his authorship of The Waste Land proves that he holds women to many of the same standards within his poem. The women in the second half of The Waste Land’s “A Game of Chess” mimic the figurative “game” the women of WBW play with each other. To Eliot, the game is at one level a simple act of manipulation; recall that Livia, the games-master or strategist of the drama, is responsible for most of the nebulous romantic liaisons within the play. For a scene in Act IV of the tragedy, she and the Mother of her lover Leantio play at a game of chess, yet the two women of The Waste Land play a mental game of strategy similar but not identical to chess and the scene in WBW. In Eliot’s “A Game of Chess” (conspicuously similar to the title of a play by Middleton called “A Game At Chess”), one conspires to “win” the husband of another, acting on the grounds that the latter woman is not sexually gratifying her husband (in a world where there was not an over-abundance of able-bodied men). Here some critics would invoke the title of Middleton’s play as a warning to the folks of The Waste Land and the denizens of a post-war Europe.

This has become a difficult discussion for me, because I’m left with a lot of questions I feel unfit to answer. I really wish I better understood some of the arguments of modern feminism, because I think that a better author could identify and broker connections between the past conceptions of both English poets alongside a contemporary understanding  of women in modern fictive literature. This sort of ends my discussion prematurely, and relegates this analysis to  mere speculation: still, it’s given me a lot to consider over the next few days, and hopefully soon I’ll have some answers to the questions I’ve been asking.

Three Stories

The story of Tiresias begins with an argument between Jupiter and Juno, whose playful discussion of sex turns heated when Jupiter speculates that women enjoy it more than men. To settle the score, the gods defer to the judgment of the prophet Tiresias, who, under miraculous circumstances, had lived for a spell as a woman. Tiresias sides with Jupiter in the debate, earning Juno’s ire. She curses him to live without sight, which Jupiter eventually subverts by granting him the ability of clairvoyance.

In the tale of Philomela, the King of Thrace, Tereus, lusts after the sister of his wife Procne, the titular Philomela. Convincing her father to let her return with him to Thrace, he rapes Philomela upon their arrival and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the crime. Philomela writes to her sister, who becomes frenzied when she discovers her captive sister. In a fit of rage and distress, Procne kills her own son Itys, cooking him into a soup that she later feeds to her husband. While in flight from the King, all three party members are transformed into different species of birds.

Weston chronicles the “Medicine Man,” an archetype found in Indian plays and Greek tragedies, responsible for the restoration of the ailing or the dead. The Grail Legend goes on to use some elements of the character, with Gawain taking the title of a healer in some versions of the tale (the protagonists invariably set out to restore the kingdom of the Fisher King, essentially a task of healing as well).

The Waste Land makes sly allusions to all three. I think the physical representation of Philomela in “A Game of Chess” works as a metaphor for European womanhood when conflated with the WL’s preceding passage, one concerned with the visage of a Cleopatra-type figure. The image of the ancient Egyptian queen, cloaked in fine fabrics and strongly perfumed, recalls Ovid’s earliest impressions of Philomela; her beauty is said to be that of “the Nymphs, the Naiads and Dryads.” Ln. 99, referring to “The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king…”, designates this woman’s fall from grace within the confines of British social structure; she formerly possesses legendary status and intoxicating beauty, but the image of Philomela alongside Cleopatra indicates that recent events (probably the war) have turned the system on its head and left her powerless (her own sort of “raped”). This corresponds with the burden placed upon the post-war woman, who are expected to comfort their men at any cost (cf. the bar scene in “A Game of Chess”), and with Eliot’s adaptation of the story of Tiresias. The blind prophet makes an appearance in “The Fires Sermon,” overseeing plain sex between a man and a woman somewhere in British lodgings. With the fertility act having been completed, the man motions to leave, and we see the woman behave strangely. Sex is no longer a conquest, but an attitude, and while the woman was not entirely complicit (she sighs with relief after the ritual reaches its end), she has not been violated in the same manner as Philomela. This destroys the classic notion that women enjoy sex more than men (@Jupiter), and seeing Tiresias arbitrate both discussions allows one narrative to flow into another.

Finally, I’d like to close on some thoughts regarding the Medicine Man. Healing is a prominent narrative in the Waste Land, as is restoration, but it is difficult to isolate a character within the poem that represents this characterization. If the grail legend resigns the “Healer” to a secondary or tertiary profession (behind Knight/Squire and Voyager/Quester), then I would say its pretty hard to define this concept in the same terms as the poem. All of those characters connected to the divine (Madame Sosotris and Tiresias, to name some) do not intervene on behalf of the shell-shocked Londoners. Instead, they oversee some of the natural processes and heavily influence the tone of the poem. They are there as these almost divine, natural forces, and when they do contribute, it is often silently (the voyeurism of Tiresias) or cryptically (Madame Sosostris’s tarot). Philomela, too, sits silently in the living room of Cleopatra, an envoy for those who have been too damaged (psychologically or physically) to contribute to the discussion. But they, like the Fisher King, await the return of some hero who will restore order to the ailing kingdom. But for the unfortunate cast of characters in the WL, I propose that help will actually never arrive; the men lost in the Great War will never return to revivify the spirit of their nation.

Wordly Wise

T.S. Eliot intended the parable of the Fisher King(s) to serve as a sort of prologue to the Waste Land. Taking what I could from the text, I identified the immortal figures as having once again fallen out of cycle with the natural world in the aftermath of WWI.

According to French poet Robert de Borron, Brons, a simple fisherman by trade, consumes a meal comprised of sacred fish and the precious blood of Christ via the Holy Grail (Weston 110-111). One of the few consistencies across later versions of the story is the ruler(s) predicament; in one manner or another, he is described as possessing an injury to the groin that corresponds with the slow extermination of his kingdom’s flora. Often a distinction is drawn between one Wounded King and his father/grandfather that suffers from a similar ailment. Later writers worked romance into the tale, with the aging Kings entrusting a young knight (of considerable nobility) to restore their kingdoms. Close adherents to the legend of the Fisher King note the ruler as an ineffectual ruler who silently allows his domain to wither, and perhaps due to his literal castration solemnly resumes his position as a fisherman in the Hero’s absence.

Certain passages from the poem re-imagine the Fisher King within the context of the 1920s. Fishing alongside the Thames, a solitary figure “muses” upon the deaths of his brother (a fellow ruler, a reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and his father the Wounded/Maimed King (Lines 189-192). That the eldest King has ostensibly perished indicates a newly crossed threshold, or a destruction so permanent that it could condemn a deity. Eliot doubtlessly intends this as an allusion to ancient fertility myths (such as the Akkadian god Tammuz) and to emphasize the impact of World War I. So surrounded by decomposing bodies and feral rodents, the King patiently awaits the return of a hero that will restore his dignity and position. When rain finally lands along the shores of the Ganges, fulfilling the promise of restoration, we revisit the European fisherman and his very own Waste Land. Consumed by the same unanswered question (“Shall I at least set my lands in order?”), England continues to degrade as the cycle of despair ostensibly continues (“London Bridge is falling down”) (Lines 423-425).

Dollar Short

This poem, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” seems designed to overwhelm, launching its audience through a series of ultra-refined, mostly inaccessible allusions to both apocryphal and contemporary subjects. Elliot’s affinity for the subjects of yore has merited excessive attention from students and scholars, but I’ve found that this poem resonates more with me with respect to its immediate cultural impact in the late 1910s. I interpret the poem as Eliot’s address to a globally grieving population, his appeal for humanity to correctly process loss and ultimately unearth and re-administer Truth. Witnessing such a profound loss of life after the Great War, with countries having been split into factions and pitted against each another, the world seemed frozen in a permanent state of shock (“each man fixed his eyes before his feet”). People were unsure that they could rebuild or restructure, and while many felt the need to reorient themselves, in Eliot’s mind they did so without the benefit of a proper, objective vantage point from which to process the chaos. Folks like Eliot must have become mesmerized by both the occult and Eastern religions as old ideas of spirituality (i.e. Christianity) became increasingly insufficient (“the dead tree gives no shelter”). Yet all three cultures strongly influenced the composition and tone of the poem. With this in mind, I tried to understand why Eliot felt the need to divest himself from the old standards for managing Grief and Loss. In my mind, Eliot’s seems so taken by the Italians (Dante) and Greeks (“Mylae”), not merely to imitate or pay tribute to them, but as a valiant strike in the name of Truth, having researched and discovered that the old masters couldn’t comprehend the vastness of loss as the World circa 1918. Perhaps it also spoke to the idea of unity, or the belief that a basis for pain–one that is finite and generational–can be observed in many different nooks and crannies.

I’m not sure at this point what Eliot wanted to say: whether he eventually proposes a putative solution for his well-defined problem. I have a difficult time deciphering Eliot’s message, but a recent discussion with my friend Cameron helped me find some resolution. He saw the first section as Eliot’s advice for his audience to redefine Death, and to “tend to the dead as you would the living.” The audience is invited to linger within the metaphorical “Waste Land” in order to hear the Word of the poet, and as Eliot’s complex depiction of Death and Resurrection unravels, the two of us became keen on finding the practical advice Eliot provides in this moment. We saw that the various ceremonies of burial and mourning led the living to neglect themselves. How would Eliot have his audience go about resolving/inverting this crisis? Just as “in life, one can tend to a garden,” in death, “one also tends to a garden” by letting their corpse fertilize their vegetation (from Cameron, based on the final lines of section 1). I think that the audience ought to recognize how Death operates, and that, as with the Hanging Man, something significant must be sacrificed in order for the real healing to begin. Maybe this would require an audience member to abandon their confused search for facts v. fiction, to drop their burdens, accept their messy reality and continue forward. I honestly don’t know if I’ve managed to get at the right things here, but this second reading of the passage managed to give my some clarity (as well as some grief). I’m fascinated by Eliot’s journey to crafting this poem, and I’m glad to spend a whole semester with this material.