City of dead souls: The Waste Land and the modern moment

Lyndall Gordon explores how modernist art, dance and music, as well as the experience of early 20th-century urban living, shaped T S Eliot's The Waste Land, which both describes the modern condition and searches for something outside of it.

In about December 1910, Virginia Woolf said, ‘human nature changed’. This was the date of the first post-Impressionist exhibition in London. Human nature, of course, doesn’t change; what she meant was that ways of seeing and depicting human nature changed. New works of art by Picasso, Cezanne and Gauguin were received with derision by the critics, and one Dr Hyslop (Virginia Woolf’s physician) pronounced these the works of madmen.

'Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown' by Virginia Woolf

Page 4 from 'Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown' by Virginia Woolf

‘On or about December 1910 human character changed’: from ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’, an essay on modern fiction by Virginia Woolf, 1924.

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At the same time, the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev presented the experimental and controversial ballet Le Sacre du printemps ('The Rite of Spring') with Nijinsky’s choreography and Stravinsky’s music at the Paris Opera. Howls of derision from the audience made the music inaudible to the dancers who weren’t able to continue their performance.

Photograph of a scene from The Rite of Spring, 1913

Photograph of four performers in costume and masks from Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring

Dancers from Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes performing a scene in the original Paris production of Stravinksy’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring), 1913.

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The modernist experiment in writing, led by Eliot’s poems written between 1917 and 1922, followed the experiments in art, music and dance of a decade earlier. In the summer of 1921 – at the time that The Waste Land was gestating in Eliot’s mind – he went to see Sacre performed by the Diaghilev Ballet in London. In his ‘London Letter’ for the New York Dial, he said that Stravinsky’s music seemed to ‘transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor-horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and other barbaric noises of modern life’. He saw that he might strip experience of a narrative as well as objective explanation, leaving yapping voices and brute fact exposed: it might be Sweeney on his way to Mrs Porter’s brothel or it might be the clerk’s caresses of a typist, which ‘still are unreproved if undesired’. And Eliot simplifies further by showing the repetition of the same sexual experience along the continuum of history. The soulless coupling of clerk and typist is foreseen by Tiresias, a blind prophet in Thebes, 2,000 years ago.

Prufrock, and other observations by T S Eliot

Front cover printed with text in capitals reading 'Prufrock' and 'T S Eliot'

Published in 1917, T S Eliot’s Prufrock, and other observations was a key early modernist work.

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The Waste Land by T S Eliot, Hogarth Press edition

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Front cover from the Hogarth Press edition of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land, 1923. The poem was first published in America in 1922.

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Imprisonment in the ‘Unreal City’

In some ways The Waste Land is a social document accumulating evidence against civilisation through the ages. At the same time the poem is a vision of sorts, a vision of horror, suggested by its original epigraph, ‘The horror! The horror!’, taken from Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s disturbed witness to savagery in the Congo finds an equivalent savagery when he returns to the ‘sepulchral city’ – a city of dead souls like the surreal London of Eliot’s great poem.

If we read The Waste Land as a vision, we will pick up hints and guesses of something that is not a wasteland, that is anti-wasteland. In part, The Waste Land is defined by a visionary alternative we can’t quite grasp before it fades and eludes us. This is to say that to be inside The Waste Land is to experience this loss of what Eliot terms reality; it is repeatedly to find ourselves imprisoned in the ‘Unreal City’. Reality, undefined in this poem, is implied by its absence. Later, Eliot was to discover ‘reality’ in the masterpiece of his maturity, Four Quartets, in a visionary moment in a rose garden.

There’s a precedent to this scene in the hyacinth garden of The Waste Land when love for ‘the hyacinth girl’ passes beyond its object, so that a lover sees into ‘the heart of light’, only to lose his vision. To lose what is not the wasteland, or to lose what is anti-wasteland, is the very condition of being in Eliot’s Waste Land. The mass of the inhabitants of the Unreal City – the workers, the clerk and typist, the chatterers in the pub – are too oblivious of their condition to suffer the realisation which the poem grants us readers who enter its silences (‘I could not speak’, says the lover of the hyacinth girl). The poem advances and retreats from what Eliot later called ‘the frontiers of consciousness where words fail though meanings still exist’.

Manuscript of T S Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's annotations

Page from the typescript draft of The Waste Land, with handwritten annotations by T S Eliot and Ezra Pound

‘Looking into the heart of light, the silence’: The hyacinth garden scene from the manuscript draft of The Waste Land.

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Silence and cacophony

Silence is central to this poem, a momentous silence between the lines, between the multitudinous, clamouring voices of The Waste Land. Silence comes to us as a counter to cacophony; it cannot exist without cacophony; in the same way as what we might call anti-poetry cannot exist without the high style of poetry. A coarse jingle, accompanied by the city’s horns and motors, that brings Sweeney to Mrs Porter’s brothel knocks against the polished eloquence of Marvell to his coy mistress. Modernism cannot work without such clashing paradoxes.

The advance on the frontiers of consciousness goes back to Eliot’s earliest years. It’s there in his poem ‘Silence’ (June 1910) and again in the fourth ‘Prelude’ where the infinite thing is lost on a revolving world. Eliot would later call these ‘unattended moments’ (similar to what Virginia Woolf spoke of as ‘moments of being’, and to the ‘epiphanies’ of James Joyce). Such moments in the moderns replace the high points of traditional narrative. Although they are evanescent as an experience, they hold in the memory against the facades of what Eliot felt to be a debased public world with its loathsome history and inadequate language.

Eliot’s influences

Eliot often alludes to literary and religious predecessors – St Augustine, Conrad, Dante – who nerved themselves to explore a psychic underworld and to articulate their findings for those of us who don’t venture that far. These are Eliot’s heroes of communication, and The Waste Land is heroic in these terms, even if its pathetic inhabitants appear, as in all modernist works, to debunk the heroic.

The Waste Land’s opening statement, ‘April is the cruellest month’, knocks against the pleasurable anticipation of other Aprils in English literature, in which spring is a delicious awakening. Here, to come alive after the deadness of winter is a cruel ordeal, as the sap gets pumped along the veins with a relentless throb that won’t stop. This feeling is perfectly conveyed in the music of Le Sacre du printemps.

Defining the condition of deadness

How does Eliot define the condition of deadness? One way is with intermittent intimations of what is not dead: the hyacinth girl; the unworldly fishmen who live on the edge of mortality; the inexplicable splendour of St Magnus Martyr; children’s voices chanting in the chapel; and the thunder, oncoming rain and bells that command a pilgrim’s attention in the finale of The Waste Land. Admittedly, these moments are almost lost amidst the deathly routines and cacophony of wasteland voices, desperate, silly, salacious. And yet the isolated moments of escape from the waste carry the only authority in the poem and provide a counterweight (if valued as reality). This is a poem about waste and the possibility of the collapse of civilisation, alongside an alternative possibility of regeneration through some recovered purity of feeling.

The finale seems to divide our feeling between these antithetical states of being. On the one hand, there is a pilgrimage, a chapel, three Sanskrit words of instruction, and a damp gust bringing rain to the waste. On the other hand, London Bridge is falling down, and madness returns (as Eliot himself, after a breakdown in 1921, fell into depression once more in January 1922 on his return to London from the sanatorium in Lausanne where he’d written the final section of the poem).

Like the poet, the poem stops short of regeneration, and leaves us in some interface between the horror of urban decay and the need for ‘Shantih’, the peace that passes understanding; between the Unreal City and unspoken reality. It leaves us haunted by momentary glimpses of reality and appalled by the fall into worthless schemes of existence.


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  • Lyndall Gordon
  • Lyndall Gordon has written six biographies, including The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot (Virago, revised edition 2012) and Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life (Virago, revised edition), as well as two memoirs. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Lyndall grew up in Cape Town and, having studied at Columbia in New York, she came to England in 1973 through the Rhodes Trust. Lyndall is Senior Research Fellow at St Hilda’s College, Oxford where she specialises in nineteenth and twentieth-century literature.

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