Review of The Waste Land by F L Lucas, from the New Statesman


This is a review of T S Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, published in The New Statesman in November 1923. It was written by F L Lucas (1894–1967), who had little time for the ‘modern movement’ in poetry. A veteran of the First World War, he claimed to have been kept going in No Man’s Land by poets such as the ancient Greek Homer, and the pastoral A E Housman (1859–1936) who sustained him: ‘I doubt if there is much modern literature that would stand that test’, he later wrote.

What does the review argue?

Many critics have been impressed and often intimidated by the breadth of Eliot’s learning about a range of world cultures, and the way in which this learning is synthesized in The Waste Land. Lucas admits there are ‘snatches’ of poetry in the now-famous opening lines,

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire …

Yet even when he draws attention to the passage which he thinks is the best in the poem, we get the impression that Lucas is drolly drawing attention to the phrase ‘stony rubbish’, and general sense of disjointed hopelessness:

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
(Part I: The Burial of the Dead’, ll. 19 – 24)

But as a classical scholar and poet himself, Lucas was distinctly unimpressed on the whole. Lucas tries to outmanoeuvre Eliot by going back to ancient Alexandria and placing him in a broader historical continuum, in which there are real poets, and ‘bookworms’ like him: ‘maggots which breed in the corruption of literature’.

In all periods creative artists have been apt to think they could think, though in all periods they have been frequently harebrained and sometimes mad; just as great rulers and warriors have cared only to be flattered for the way they fiddled or their flatulent tragedies.

Lucas reflects that ‘to attempt here an interpretation, even an intelligible summary of the poem, is to risk making oneself ridiculous’. Yet he clearly feels a sense of compulsion and perhaps duty to do so: ‘it is not easy to dismiss in three lines what is being written about as the new masterpiece’.

Lucas makes a point of showing that it is not a case of him missing the breadth of quotations Eliot is using. Rather, Lucas thinks they do not add up to much, and expresses his opinion with colourful wit: ‘the borrowed jewels he has set in its head do not make Mr. Eliot's toad more prepossessing’.

Lucas is referring to the version of the poem published as a book in 1923 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press. This version came with notes apparently illustrating the body of the poem. These also did not impress Lucas, who argued ‘a poem that has to be explained with notes is not unlike a picture with “this is a dog” inscribed beneath’.

Full title:
Reviews: The Waste Land
3 November 1923, London
Statesman Publishing
The New Statesman: a weekly review of politics and literature, F L Lucas
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New Statesman: © First printed in the New Statesman. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

F L Lucas: © Estate of F. L. Lucas. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

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