I didn’t know when I got up this morning that I would be writing about T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland” this afternoon. Who knew I would ever write anything about “The Wasteland”? Not I.
I haven’t read the entire poem since sometime in the 1970s. But there comes this week’s New Yorker in the mail with a long article by Anthony Lane about the poem’s 100th anniversary. Before you know it, I have pulled my old Norton Anthology off the shelf, complete with my 70s-era scribblings in the margins, which appear like reverberations of thunder of spring over distant mountains. (Not really.) Soon I’ve turned on YouTube and listened to Alec Guinness read the whole damn poem. Twenty-six minutes. That’s how long the reading is.
I tried T.S. Eliot’s YouTube reading first but could not handle it. The guy was born in Missouri and didn’t move to London until he was almost thirty, but still his overripe English accent makes Guinness sound almost American. I also sampled Bob Dylan’s reading, which Lane alludes to. Weirdly awkward, it’s fortunately only about fifteen lines long.
Eliot died only a few years before I graduated from high school. He was Modern Poetry. In my Norton Anthology, “The Wasteland” begins on page 1781, less than two hundred pages before the volume’s end. Eliot would be, in other words, one of the most recent writers we’d encounter in a survey course. That his most famous poem is turning 100 reminds me uncomfortably of my age.
Eliot, I was given to understand, was cryptic, complicated, abstruse. What he wasn’t was funny. It never occurred to me that he was funny, until I read Anthony Lane’s essay. In Guinness’s reading, you get that. Guinness performs all the accents and voices effortlessly, virtuosically. In my memory, Eliot was a profound puzzle to be decoded. He was a sibyl himself, like the Sibyl in his poem, revealing the desolate dryness of modern life. Who knew he was funny as well?
In all our analyses and reading of Eliot’s notes and Norton’s notes and recondite allusions to The Golden Bough, I can remember only one professor telling us to just read the poem. (Hearing it is even better.) She told us that she had once shared “The Wasteland” with her mother, who had never taken a college English course and had never heard of T.S. Eliot. Her mother said it was a poem about feelings of sadness and emptiness. Right, the professor said. My mother is right.