The Waste Land, slightly clarified

July 30, 2018

I count myself an admirer of T.S. Eliot; quite a few of his poems have been important to me — PrufrockThe Hollow MenThe Journey of the Magi, Ash Wednesday, and especially Four Quartets. Yet the poem that many people consider to be his greatest — The Waste Land — has been a tough nut for me to crack. I’ve picked it up from time to time, puzzled over it, and let it go again. It has remained essentially opaque to me. If pressed, I’d have had a difficult time saying a single sensible thing about it. I’d mutter, “These fragments I have shored against my ruin,” and look the other way.

A few weeks ago I was listening to a professor who teaches the poem, and she said something that startled me: she said that it is an Arthurian poem. Arthurian as in Arthur, Lancelot, Gawain, Guinevere, the Grail, and the Round Table. Never had that occurred to me, so I decided to read it again. Alas! Once again, not only did I not see Arthur, but I could make neither heads nor tails of it.

I turned then to YouTube for assistance, and I found an excellent set of lectures on the poem by Victor Strandberg, professor of English at Duke. If you’ve admired the poem, or admired the poet and wondered why you didn’t admire the poem, I can recommend these lectures to you. He draws out the (sure enough!) Arthurian elements, but also walks us through the overall logic of the poem — there is a logic to it! — and makes a convincing case for its being “the central poem in English in the twentieth century”. It remains a poem of great relevance to our times, for we still live in the Waste Land, even if, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” we, perhaps, notice it less than people once did.

Here is the first lecture, on the background and context of the poem:

The other parts are:

And these are just parts of a larger series of talks on all of Eliot’s major poems; I plan to listen to some of them as opportunity allows.

7 Responses to “The Waste Land, slightly clarified”

  1. Janet Says:

    I wish I had time to listen to this. You would think I would have time.

    AMDG

  2. cburrell Says:

    I listened while running on the treadmill.

  3. Janet Says:

    I walk, but I say the rosary and other prayers, usually
    I am a peripatetic prayer.

    AMDG

  4. cburrell Says:

    I could do that while walking, but not while running. I am an exceptionally slow prayer-walker.

    • Janet Says:

      Running is completely out of the question for me, so it doesn’t even enter my calculations. Even walking on a treadmill is kind of dangerous. I just tread firmly on the ground.

      AMDG


  5. I never really felt obliged to understand The Waste Land in any linear sort of way, though I’ve heard that the pieces are there. I seem to remember long ago reading something about the Arthurian pattern.

    But what I actually wanted to say is that I think he’s wrong about it being the central poem of the century. So funny to be able to say “the last century” and be referring to the one I lived the bigger part of my life in. I suppose it’s central in influence. But I think Four Quartets is a greater work. Eliot said something like “I stand or fall on them,” thus settling the question of whether they should be spoken of as them or it.

  6. cburrell Says:

    Certainly in my own estimation it is Four Quartets that take the palm, but I’m not sure if that view is widely shared (outside the distinguished circle here present). The lecture series I link to in this post, for instance, doesn’t even cover Four Quartets! Strange, but true.


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