H.P. Lovecraft Writes “Waste Paper: A Poem of Profound Insignificance,” a Devastating Parody of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1923)

Image by Lucius B. Trues­dell and Lady Mor­rell, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Howard Phillips Love­craft, as his ever-grow­ing fan base knows, sel­dom spared his char­ac­ters — or at least their san­i­ty — from the vast, unspeak­able hor­rors lurk­ing beneath his imag­ined real­i­ty. Not that he showed much more mer­cy as a crit­ic either, as his assess­ment of “The Waste Land” (1922) reveals. Though now near-uni­ver­sal­ly respect­ed, T.S. Eliot’s best-known poem failed to impress Love­craft, who, in his jour­nal The Con­ser­v­a­tive, wrote in 1923 that

We here behold a prac­ti­cal­ly mean­ing­less col­lec­tion of phras­es, learned allu­sions, quo­ta­tions, slang, and scraps in gen­er­al; offered to the pub­lic (whether or not as a hoax) as some­thing jus­ti­fied by our mod­ern mind with its recent com­pre­hen­sion of its own chaot­ic triv­i­al­i­ty and dis­or­gan­i­sa­tion. And we behold that pub­lic, or a con­sid­er­able part of it, receiv­ing this hilar­i­ous melange as some­thing vital and typ­i­cal; as “a poem of pro­found sig­nif­i­cance”, to quote its spon­sors.

Eliot’s work, Love­craft argued, sim­ply could­n’t hold up in the mod­ern world, where “man has sud­den­ly dis­cov­ered that all his high sen­ti­ments, val­ues, and aspi­ra­tions are mere illu­sions caused by phys­i­o­log­i­cal process­es with­in him­self, and of no sig­nif­i­cance what­so­ev­er in an infi­nite and pur­pose­less cos­mos.” Sci­ence, in his view, has made non­sense of tra­di­tion and “a rag-bag of unre­lat­ed odds and ends” of the soul. A poet like Eliot, it seems, “does not know what to do about it; but com­pro­mis­es on a lit­er­a­ture of analy­sis, chaos, and iron­ic con­trast.”

Look­ing on even this hatch­et job, Love­craft must have felt he’d failed to slay the beast, and so he com­posed a par­o­dy of “The Waste Land” enti­tled “Waste Paper” in late 1922 or ear­ly 1923. This “Poem of Pro­found Insignif­i­cance,” which Love­craft schol­ar S.T. Joshi calls the writer’s “best satir­i­cal poem,” begins thus:

Out of the reach­es of illim­itable light
The blaz­ing plan­et grew, and forc’d to life
Unend­ing cycles of pro­gres­sive strife
And strange muta­tions of undy­ing light
And bore­some books, than hell’s own self more trite
And thoughts repeat­ed and become a blight,
And cheap rum-hounds with moon­shine hootch made tight,
And quite con­trite to see the flight of fright so bright

You can read the whole thing, includ­ing its prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal half-epi­graph from the Greek poet Gly­con, at the H.P. Love­craft Archive. “In many parts of this quite lengthy poem,” Joshi writes, “he has quite faith­ful­ly par­o­died the insu­lar­i­ty of mod­ern poet­ry — its abil­i­ty to be under­stood only by a small coterie of read­ers who are aware of inti­mate facts about the poet.”

Love­craft also tried his hand at non-par­o­d­ic poet­ry, though his­to­ry remem­bers him much less for that than for strik­ing a more pri­mal chord with his sui gener­is “weird fic­tion,” whose para­me­ters he was deter­min­ing at the same time he was sav­aging his con­tem­po­rary Eliot. And though sci­en­tif­ic progress has marched much far­ther on since the 1920s, espe­cial­ly as regards the under­stand­ing of the human mind and what­ev­er now pass­es for a soul, both men’s bod­ies of work have only gained in res­o­nance.

via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

H.P. Lovecraft’s Clas­sic Hor­ror Sto­ries Free Online: Down­load Audio Books, eBooks & More

H.P. Lovecraft’s Mon­ster Draw­ings: Cthul­hu & Oth­er Crea­tures from the “Bound­less and Hideous Unknown”

H.P. Love­craft Gives Five Tips for Writ­ing a Hor­ror Sto­ry, or Any Piece of “Weird Fic­tion”

Love­craft: Fear of the Unknown (Free Doc­u­men­tary)

T.S. Eliot Reads His Mod­ernist Mas­ter­pieces “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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