T.S. Eliot Reads From “The Waste Land,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” & “The Hollow Men”: His Apocalyptic Post WWI Poems

The T.S. Eliot of the post-World War I peri­od was a poet who stood Janus-faced on the thresh­old of old and new worlds. He looked back­ward to the moun­tain ranges of Euro­pean tra­di­tion and mar­veled at their alpine peaks. At the same time, he seemed acute­ly aware of what a ridicu­lous fig­ure he some­times cut in his self-seri­ous, pedan­tic ven­er­a­tion for the past. Eliot acknowl­edged the inex­orable move­ment of time in poems like “The Waste Land,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and “The Hol­low Men,” even if time only moved for­ward into entropy and medi­oc­rity. When Eliot looked ahead, after the hor­rors of war and the increas­ing speed of mod­ern­iza­tion, what he saw was frag­men­ta­tion, wreck­age, and waste. I have heard his strat­e­gy in “The Waste Land” described as a “ter­mi­nal aesthetic”—a beau­ti­ful­ly destruc­tive poet­ics, and one which could go no fur­ther.

Eliot’s high mod­ernist poems stand in very dif­fer­ent rela­tion to the post-WWI world than the work of for­ward-look­ing 20th cen­tu­ry avant-garde artists of the peri­od. As James Mar­tin Hard­ing notes in Adorno and “A Writ­ing of the Ruins,” what “dis­tin­guish­es Eliot from the avant-garde is that… the pol­i­tics of the avant-garde evinced a faith in rev­o­lu­tion­ary progress…. One would have to ally Eliot’s imagery with the dawn­ing of the postmodern”—with ideas, that is, of the “end of his­to­ry.” In terms of form—characterized by pas­tiche, irony, self-ref­er­en­tial­i­ty, and a blend­ing of high and low culture—Eliot’s poet­ics were dis­tinct­ly post-mod­ern.

But post­mod­ernists have gen­er­al­ly cel­e­brat­ed the frag­ment­ing of tra­di­tion and the loss of grand nar­ra­tives. Eliot cher­ished the old, destroyed world, and most­ly despaired of any­thing of val­ue replac­ing it. His imme­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, whom he imi­tat­ed and ref­er­enced often, were the French sym­bol­ists and deca­dents; mod­ernist aes­thetes who mourned unnamed cat­a­stro­phes and cat­a­logued absurd cor­re­spon­dences. Crit­ic Cleanth Brooks sin­gles out one poem that Eliot quotes at the end of “The Waste Land,” Ger­ard de Nerval’s “El Des­dicha­do,” for its sug­ges­tion that “the pro­tag­o­nist of the poem has been dis­in­her­it­ed, robbed of his tra­di­tion.” Even in trans­la­tion, we can hear in Nerval’s lines the dark­ly com­ic, cos­mi­cal­ly iron­ic, despair of Eliot’s Prufrock:

My very supernova’s been snuffed out, and my one
shiny-ten­doned lute has been silenced by DEPRESSION.

I think you can hear that same world-weary depres­sion and sense of cul­tur­al exhaus­tion in Eliot’s voice as he reads from both “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” above and from “The Hol­low Men” below (unfor­tu­nate­ly drowned out near the end by some added music). I don’t mean to sug­gest that Eliot him­self suf­fered from some form of clin­i­cal depres­sion. But his poet­ic speakers—and in the case of “The Waste Land” his jum­ble of com­pet­ing voices—all join in an apoc­a­lyp­tic cho­rus as though wit­ness­ing the world’s end. Per­haps the poet­ry exag­ger­ates Eliot’s own per­son­al atti­tudes for effect, per­haps it acts as a series of guis­es for the philo­soph­i­cal and crit­i­cal ideas he explained with­out arti­fice in his essays.

This is how many peo­ple have read Eliot’s poems, myself includ­ed: as con­tain­ers for abstract ideas about cul­tur­al decay and the nature of art and tra­di­tion. But Eliot and his some­time edi­tor and friend Ezra Pound would like­ly object to this kind of approach to poet­ry. Added at the insis­tence of his pub­lish­er, Eliot’s foot­notes to “The Waste Land” seem to mock read­ers anx­ious to leap to inter­pre­ta­tion. Instead, the poet would ask us to attend not to ideas, but to the images, and the emo­tions they evoke—and in this case, to attend also to the poet­’s voice.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

Lis­ten to T.S. Eliot Recite His Late Mas­ter­piece, the Four Quar­tets

Young T.S. Eliot Writes “The Tri­umph of Bullsh*t” and Gives the Eng­lish Lan­guage a New Exple­tive (1910)

Grou­cho Marx and T.S. Eliot Become Unex­pect­ed Pen Pals, Exchang­ing Por­traits & Com­pli­ments (1961)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.