The Waste Land at 50 at 50

Matthew Kilbane

Centenaries can be treacherous. We step up to the round number “100” as if to a high summit on a clear day, the wide plains of history stretching out before us, now to then. But a vantage so unimpeded is substantially an illusion, an effect of the “false coherence” imposed by the “empty occasions of calendrical time,” to borrow some warning words from Harris Feinsod. Insights occasioned by anniversaries come laced with special forms of blindness, and I’ll open and close this brief meditation on the centenary of The Waste Land by indicating two challenges in particular.     

The first peril seems to me handily averted by some of the most thrilling new Eliot criticism. It follows from an understandable desire to reflect upon what The Waste Land means precisely now, in 2022. Such reflection is perhaps inevitable given how consistently the vicissitudes of the poem’s reception over the past century “reveal the political or pedagogical priorities of a given moment,” its astringent drama, flickering between world-historical crisis and personal grouse, seeming to echo back in high fidelity the particular forms of dread and suffering assailing its readers in the present. Considering the interlocking social and ecological crises wracking life on this planet today, we might well conclude of the poem and its poet what Eliot himself noticed about August Strindberg on the occasion of his 100th birthday: “that we are now in a much better position to appreciate him, that life has caught up with him. So much the worse, perhaps, for life.” And we might add: for the planet. Writing in a centenary cluster for The T.S. Eliot Studies Annual, Jahan Ramazani and Claire Colebrook conclude as much and to brilliant effect in essays that frame Eliot’s poem, in the grievous light of the climate crisis, as “world elegy” or “post-apocalyptic” meditation. 

History seems to have “caught up” with Eliot’s politics, too, however long underway has been the critical reckoning with his misogyny and anti-Semitism. As Megan Quigley eloquently notes, many students today demand without hesitation that we confront The Waste Land for what it is: “a poem that stages and performs racial and gender violence and investigates trans* experience.” Those familiar with the richly difficult discussions that unfold when broaching the poem in these terms will readily grasp the aforementioned challenge of a centenary reading that takes its bearings from present-day concerns: far from a self-evident object of reference, the contemporary is a scene of contestation and struggle. Its history is not yet written, and using that history to venture claims that freshly contextualize the work in the now may require embracing values of self-conscious provisionality, speculation, and critical experiment. In my view, the essays by Ramazani, Colebrook, and Quigley meet this challenge by way of a fundamental, if implicit, adjustment: they consider not how the present illuminates the poem, but how the poem illuminates—like a searchlight—the present. They test whether The Waste Land speaks in a contemporary voice by asking to what extent it articulates the structures of feeling that pattern our own responses to breakdown and crisis, or how it opens spaces for thinking together about the perduring injustices that deform Eliot’s world as much as our own. The poem is less a touchstone, in these accounts, than a time-tested tool.

For a point of comparison, we might observe that this way of figuring a poem’s value, if not exactly novel, certainly wasn’t the modus operandi when The Waste Land turned fifty in 1972. Scholarly titles like T.S. Eliot: The Making of the Waste Land (1972), The Waste Land from Ur to Echt (1972), Eliot in His Time (1973), and What the Thunder Really Said (1973) indicate the extent to which criticism of the period was dominated by Valerie Eliot’s publication, in 1971, of The Waste Land drafts. Reviewing this scholarship fifty years on, we’re not surprised to find the reception of the drafts rather “awkward[ly]” mediated, as Donald Davie recalls, by a sharp distaste for Eliot’s own “social and political attitudes,” and by the resulting politicized dust-ups over matters of literary interpretation. In Davie’s own review of The Waste Land drafts in the Times Literary Supplement, for instance, complaints about the “squeamish” and “mealy-mouthed” youth of a “post-Lawrentian, post-Freudian 1970s, the years of Women’s Liberation,” give way to pleas “for an end to the whispers and tittle-tattle that circulate about Eliot.” 

But what we don’t find in the poem’s fiftieth-year reception is express commentary on the poem’s relationship to pressing current affairs—essays on “The Waste Land and the War in Vietnam,” say, or “Eliot and the Counterculture”—though this, too, is hardly surprising. What I am surprised by, and what takes revealing measure of developments in critical approaches to the poem, is my own deeply-felt desire, quickened this June by the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, to discover the least trace in the scholarly record of one contemporaneous event specifically. The year of The Waste Land’s golden anniversary was also, of course, the year the Supreme Court heard Roe v. Wade. This conjunction deserves remarking not only because The Waste Land thematizes abortion in the pub scene, but also because, as Christina Hauck has detailed, figures of reproduction haunt the poem’s genesis (from Pound’s self-nomination as the work’s “sage-homme,” to Eliot’s anxious view of his own poetry as “unviable production”) as well as its scholarly uptake; reading The Waste Land drafts in 1972, Harry Levin imagines Eliot’s readers “shaken by the incidental perplexities that all but aborted it.”

This brings us to the second reason centenaries are a tricky business: their dubious implication of progress, of accumulating insight. Eliot’s lines have always given readers a kind of imaginative access to Lil’s suffering; the Dobbs decision will bring some readers materially closer to Lil’s situation than they have been any time in the last fifty years. Perhaps the poem’s own ruthless critique of progress will inspire us to grapple with that fact. In any case, even now when a surge of new publications and archival disclosures are vivifying Eliot scholarship, we ought to be suspicious of the presumption that we know more than ever before, or indeed that—in the words of one centenary volume on The Waste Land—the poem “needs salvaging from the welter of social, political, and (especially) literary-critical noise to which it has been subjected.” Whatever the calendar date, let’s turn up the contextual noise.