Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on this day in 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri. His most well-known work, “The Waste Land,” was published in the November 1922 issue of The Dial, a modernist arts and culture magazine edited by Gilbert Seldes. In the December 6, 1922, issue of The Nation, Seldes contributed a piece simply titled “T.S. Eliot.”
In essence “The Waste Land” says something which is not new: that life has become barren and sterile, that man is withering, impotent, and without assurance that the waters which made the land fruitful will ever rise again….
A closer view of the poem does more than illuminate the difficulties; it reveals the hidden form of the work, indicates how each thing falls into place, and to the reader’s surprise shows that the framework and the detail could not otherwise have been communicated. For the theme is not a distaste for life, nor is it a disillusion, a romantic pessimism of any kind. It is specifically concerned with the idea of the Waste Land—that the land was fruitful and now is not, that life had been rich, beautiful, assured, organized, lofty, and now is dragging itself out in a poverty-stricken and disrupted and ugly tedium, without health, and with no consolation in morality; there may remain for the poet the labor of poetry, but in the poem there remain only “these fragments I have shored against my ruins”—the broken glimpses of what was. The poem is not an argument and I can only add, to be fair, that it contains no romantic idealization of the past; one feels simply that even in the cruelty and madness which have left their record in history and in art, there was an intensity of life, a germination and fruitfulness, which are now gone, and that even the creative imagination, even hallucination and vision have atrophied, so that water shall never again be struck from a rock in the desert.…
It will be interesting for those who have knowledge of another great work of our time, Mr. Joyce’s “Ulysses,” to think of the two together. That “The Waste Land” is, in a sense, the inversion and the complement of “Ulysses” is at least tenable. We have in “Ulysses” the poet defeated, turning outward, savoring the ugliness which is no longer transmutable into beauty, and, in the end, homeless. We have in “The Waste Land” some indication of the inner life of such a poet. The contrast between the forms of these two works is not expressed in the recognition that one is among the longest and one among the shortest of works in its genre; the important thing is that in each the theme, once it is comprehended, is seen to have dictated the form. More important still, I fancy, is that each has expressed something of supreme relevance to our present life in the everlasting terms of art.
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