Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

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.