Wednesday, December 15, 2010

T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, celebrated by Edmund Wilson, Harold Bloom, and Bones

Given his concern about the state of current literary culture in his recent review of T. S. Eliot’s letters, Joseph Epstein may be comforted to learn that Eliot is still very much in the zeitgeist. As The TV Watchtower recently reported, the December 9 episode of the television show Bones had Dr. Adit Gadh quoting from The Waste Land: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Dr. Gadh went on to explain:
We do not actually fear death—we fear that no one will notice our absence—that we will disappear without a trace.
American readers discovered Eliot’s quoted words eighty-eight years ago today when Boni & Liveright published The Waste Land. Within a month of publication Edmund Wilson acclaimed the poem in The Dial:
. . . the publication of his long poem, The Waste Land, confirms the opinion which we had begun gradually to cherish, that Mr. Eliot, with all his limitations, is one of our only authentic poets.
Wilson itemized rather severely what many considered “his limitations”:
. . . that he depends too much upon books and borrows too much from other men . . . that he does not feel enough to be a poet and that the emotions of longing and disgust which he does have belong essentially to a delayed adolescence . . . [that] he has no capacity for life.
Yet Wilson judged these deficits counterbalanced:
Well: all these objections are founded on realities, but they are outweighed by one major fact—the fact that Mr. Eliot is a poet. . . he feels intensely and with distinction and speaks naturally in beautiful verse. . . I doubt whether there is a single other poem of equal length by a contemporary American which displays so high and so varied a mastery of English verse. The poem is—in spite of its lack of structural unity—simply one triumph after another . . .
Harold Bloom has called The Waste Land “indisputably the most influential poem written in English in [the twentieth] century.”

Not everyone has shared Wilson and Bloom’s enthusiasm. Adrian Slather retells the story of when Eliot read his poem to the royal family during World War II. The Queen Mother later recalled the experience:
We had this rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem... I think it was called "The Desert." And first the girls [Elizabeth and Margaret] got the giggles and then I did and then even the King.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, volume one: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker (includes The Waste Land and thirteen other poems by T. S. Eliot); Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s (includes “The Poetry of Drouth: The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot”)

1 comment:

  1. The Wasteland is one of my favourite poems by TS Eliot (and was part of the syllabus I did at uni. Oh yeh. The anecdote about the reading in front of the Royals is fascinating!

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