Lilacs in the Waste Land

In the summer of 2000, in the midst of the bike trip that began the ongoing negotiation with emotional health in which I am still embroiled, I found myself in Århus, Denmark in the rain. Though it was early July, the rain had followed us all through Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany, and continued to dog us across Denmark. This didn’t help my fragile emotional state. I had somewhat bizarrely chosen to carry the 768 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow with me in the very limited panniers in which I also had to carry two weeks of clothing and toiletries. Though I did get an odd pleasure from reading about the flights of V-2 rockets from the Low Countries toward London as I flew the opposite direction through that same airspace, it wasn’t a practical decision. The book was bulky, and it also left me with only a single option for reading, a sort of reading that demanded more attention than I generally had available (though I do fondly remember reading a section while sitting by myself in an outdoor restaurant on Ærø on one of our few sunny days). And thus in the rain in Århus, I went into an English-language bookstore looking for options. There I found editions of The Tempest and T. S. Eliot‘s The Waste Land and other poems. I skimmed “The Waste Land” and then set it aside in favor of The Tempest, and hadn’t picked it up since.

Until last week, when the BBC’s In Our Time did a program (or programme) on “The Waste Land and Modernity.” I picked the poem up again, and read quickly through it. Except for the section alluding to Dante’s Inferno, which reminded me of nothing so much as The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” and the opening images of the comforts of winter and the pains of spring, which I suspected were meant more ironically than I took them, I couldn’t make much of it. So I consulted Harold Bloom as I often do on these matters. He first has this to say of Eliot:

I set aside Eliot’s verse plays, which are scarcely stageable or readable, and his criticism, despite its historical importance. As for what would now be called his cultural criticism, I grimace and pass by. There remains his anti-Semitism, which is very winning, if you happen to be an anti-Semite; if not, not.

Having disposed of so much of Eliot’s oeuvre, he makes the helpful suggestion that Eliot’s poetry might be most profitably read as anxiously influenced by Whitman, with “The Waste Land” being particularly influenced by “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” I read the Whitman poem, re-read “The Waste Land,” and I’m now listening to the BBC program (which two-thirds of the way through, hasn’t yet mentioned Whitman), and I suggest that you do the same. ‘Tis a profitable expenditure of an hour or two, and it’s all free.

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