Tuesday, 10 January 2012

"O City city": T S Eliot's The Waste Land

T S Eliot and THE WASTE LAND at The Poetry Archive

This link will take you to an excellent T S Eliot page at The Poetry Archive, featuring biographical information, the entire text of The Waste Land (broken down into its various sections) and other poems including 'Journey of the Magi' and extracts from Four Quartets.

There is also an entire recording of Eliot reading The Waste Land. I have to admit, though, that I'd probably rather listen to Viggo Mortensen reading it on Faber's Waste Land app for iPad - if I had an iPad, and I'm probably not going to buy one just for that.

If you are reading this entry and have not yet read The Waste Land, I can't urge you too strongly to read it. Complex, yes, long, yes, intensely referential and rather confusing, yes. It is also a profound, beautiful, organic and skilfully integrated poem with some of the most resonant lines in all of English literature. The reader who sits with it and returns to it over the years will find that reading it is like swimming in the collective poetic unconscious.

I took the above picture near City Hall some months ago. Tonight, as I was thinking about writing this entry, it occurred to me that it would be a good illustration for Eliot's fragmented and layered vision of London in The Waste Land. A little later, I noticed that one of the London pages that I've "liked" on Facebook was featuring an almost identical photograph. It was one of those odd London moments that happen so constantly that they're almost a commonplace.

It's hard to walk around London, particularly the more historic areas, without having Waste Land moments. London is Unreal City, after all:

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.

(from 'Part I: The Burial of the Dead')

Of course, this is also Dante, one of the guardian spirits and governing principles of the poem. Dante saw the Inferno; Eliot saw London Bridge; I tend to see the outside of Victoria Station (and just possibly the inside). A couple of days ago I posted the following quotation from The Waste Land on my Facebook status - just because:

'This music crept by me upon the waters'
And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.
O City city [...]

(from 'Part III: The Fire Sermon')

Last night I was on my way to the Globe Theatre to meet a friend for a Shakespeare/Globe event, decided that the easiest station to get out at was Mansion House on the District Line, stepped out of the station and found myself on Queen Victoria Street. I've been in the City many times, and nearby, but on Queen Victoria Street perhaps only once or twice before. It was another strange London moment, and a Waste Land moment.

I was reading The Waste Land today and came across these lines:

[...] I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

(from 'Part I: The Burial of the Dead')

I had a sudden flashback to Watership Down, for a great many years one of my favourite books, if not my favourite. I'd probably still count it as such, though I haven't read it for several years. I read it so many times particularly between the ages of about 12 and 18 that I have a lot of it very nearly memorized. I was fairly sure that "the heart of light, the silence" was echoed in one of the poems contained in the book. Sure enough:

O take me with you, dropping behind the woods,
Far away, to the heart of light, the silence.
For I am ready to give you my breath, my life,
The shining circle of the sun, the sun and the rabbit.

(from Watership Down)

I realised over the years that there are so many literary references - some of them only faint and glancing - in Watership Down that the pleasure of reading it is only increased by having a wide literary frame of reference. Reading The Waste Land is very similar. It both references - the Bible, Dante, the Grail Quest, Shakespeare, Verlaine, The Golden Bough, and many other sources and incidents - and is referred to. I have heard echoes of The Waste Land in so many of my favourite authors. As well as Richard Adams, I can think of Ursula Le Guin, Michael Ende, and Susan Cooper, among others. It is such an extraordinary and pervasive work that it seems to have seeped consciously or unconsciously into the works of countless writers. I am not sure that there is another modern poetic work to equal it in this respect or in its sheer catastrophic, fragmented, disorienting power. Although published in 1922, it is surely a suitable epitaph for the entire 20th century:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
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.

(from 'Part I: The Burial of the Dead')

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