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.