Home/Articles/Arts & Letters/T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, Reconsidered in the Pandemic

T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, Reconsidered in the Pandemic

The poet complained his masterpiece was never intended to be an ode to angst, but finding the water spring among the horrors.

From Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Triumph of Death (circa 1562). Museo Del Prado, Madrid.

Written one hundred years ago, T.S.Eliot’s sour poem The Waste Land—might have been penned this Spring. April 2020 was certainly the cruelest month. Coronavirus was real. Heads were out of the sand, and the denials echoed hollowly in the mouths of the men who made them.

History may not have been repeating itself, but it sure was rhyming. In 1918 humanity was just staggering out of the horrors of a world war when she was hit with the Spanish Flu. By 1920, 500 million people had been infected and 50 million died. More U.S. soldiers perished from the flu than were killed in the war.

Published in 1922, Eliot’s grim portrayal of post war, post pandemic Europe is apocalyptic in tone. His pessimistic masterpiece was hailed as the anthem of a disillusioned generation. The poem, like the society it reflected, was “a heap of broken images.” Visionary fragments in Italian, Latin, German and French tumbled like a broken kaleidoscope with American slang, Cockney voices and English poets. Allusions to Greek myth, Wagner, Dante, pop songs and yesterday’s newspaper clippings were all jumbled together in a bewildering melange of misery.

Obscure and inexplicable, the poem disturbed and excited the literary classes. Why was The Waste Land so fragmentary, puzzling and maddening? Because life in 1920 was fragmentary, puzzling and maddening. The war had solved nothing. The horrors of modern warfare and the devastation of the Spanish Flu left poor old humanity punch drunk and reeling. The poem reads like a madman in a ruined museum trying to make sense of the artifacts.

Eliot meant The Waste Land to be mystifying. He was holding a mirror to a decadent and lost generation. In his opinion, Western civilization was already worm-eaten with materialistic hedonism, atheism and a weary boredom founded on the yawning pit of nihilism. The poem simply showed the vapid, consumptive face of the European society as it really was.

The pandemic of 2020 has given us a similar dose of reality. We have not emerged from a hellish world war. Instead we were living in a Disneyland bubble of affluence and technological marvels. Americans, for the first two decades of the twenty-first century, were able to live in a land where almost anything was possible if you put your mind to it. Our health care, technology and financial systems assured us that we could control everything. Every problem could be solved. Every unpleasantness could be swept away. Illness was confined to modern, marvelous hi-tech hospitals and when Mr. Death did come knocking we cushioned ourselves with euphemisms, a hygienic and economical cremation followed by a “celebration of the person’s life.”

We didn’t need a creepy dystopic novel in which everything is just too good to be true. We were living in one. With plastic surgery, fast food, instant entertainment and a cornucopia of consumer goodies cascading into our lives, everybody seemed to have more than enough. We had an abundance of abundance, and as one wry foreigner observed, “America is the only country where the poor people are fat.”

But beneath it all was our own wasteland. J.D.Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy showed us our neglected white underclass. If we took time to look below the comfortable affluence we saw a nation or ordinary folks reeling from racial inequality, family breakdown, industrial rust, mindless gun violence, the highest rate of incarceration in the world by far (737 per 100,000 population) soaring alcoholism and opioid addiction, thousands of abortions and a silent suicide epidemic. (48,344 suicides in 2018)

Eliot’s Wasteland in 1920 might just as well describe our own society in 2020, so recently riding the roller coaster of affluence and power, but now rattled by fear:

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

With 85,000 dead we cannot turn our gaze away. Even if the numbers are exaggerated, the dead shuffle past, crossing the bridge over the river Acheron.

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

With such a grim prognosis shall we wallow in Eliotean despair? In fact, Eliot himself loathed the popular reading of his poem. In her monumental biography of the poet, Lyndall Gordon has shown that the first drafts of The Waste Land were actually interwoven with much more hopeful Christian content. The atheist poet Ezra Pound convinced Eliot to excise them. 

From the beginning Eliot rejected the pessimistic reading of his poem, claiming that it was never intended to be the ode to angst the modernists claimed it to be. Eliot commented in 1931, “When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land, some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed ‘the disillusion of a generation,’ which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusion of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention.”

When reading The Wasteland closely it is clear that Eliot’s vision is a paean to depression and disillusionment only in the way that his great mentor Dante’s Inferno is a schlock horror poem. There stirs beneath the grim observations a glimpse of redemption and a glimmer of hope. The first hint is in the opening lines of the poem, ”Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” Gordon discovered that the young poet, while still at Harvard was reading all the great mystical writers from the world religions, and during his year in Paris in (1910-1911) he experienced a transcendent moment that changed his life. It was a mystical experience he described as “looking into the light—the silence.” Finally, he expresses his hope because “these fragments I have shored against my ruins” and in that he finds “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih”—the peace that passes understanding.

Where is the water spring in our Wasteland? Just where Eliot found it: in the depths of our religious tradition. When faced with the uncertainties of crisis, the possibility of illness and death and the dissolution of all we thought solid and sure, one looks to what one hymn writer called “the solid joys and lasting treasures.” It is building on a rock—not the shifting sands. It is “looking into the light, the silence.”

It was this life of prayer, discipline and observance that took Eliot through his personal wasteland and brought him to a point of confidence and trust. So at the end of Four Quartets he echoes the fourteenth century English mystic, Dame Juliana of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Fr Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest working in Greenville, South Carolina. His book Reluctant Allies: Essays on Eliot and the Inklings will be published in July. Follow his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com

leave a comment

Latest Articles