‘It takes your hand off the panic button’: TS Eliot’s The Waste Land 100 years on

TS Eliot’s modernist masterpiece has baffled and moved readers for a century. Now the poem has inspired a whole festival. Fans including Jeanette Winterson pin down its elusive, allusive power

Of all modernist works of literature, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land is one of the hardest to piece together – as countless disconsolate English students have realised. How to crack the codes of its influences and multiplying footnotes? Are sections of it autobiographical, drawing on the poet’s nervous breakdown and volatile marriage? Why do the poem’s opening lines decree that April, with all its lush promise of spring and renewal, is the “cruellest” of months? Is it genuinely one of the greatest works in the language, or – as the poet once claimed – just “a piece of rhythmical grumbling”?

This April, audiences will have an opportunity to consider such questions afresh, perhaps even come up with some answers. To mark The Waste Land’s 100th birthday – it actually first appeared in October 1922, but a little poetic licence seems justified – a six-day festival will take over the City of London, filling 22 churches with responses to Eliot’s poem and its afterlife. The title, fittingly enough, is Fragments.

“There are so many different elements to The Waste Land, so many different ways to react,” says co-curator Séan Doran. “It’s kind of a dream work.”

Unreal city: Ruby Philogene prepares to sing Wagner in St Vedast alias Foster Church.
Unreal city: Ruby Philogene prepares to sing Wagner in St Vedast alias Foster Church. Photograph: Matthew Andrews

Anyone wanting dry textual analysis should look elsewhere: there is not a single straightforward reading of the poem on offer. Instead, Doran and his fellow director Liam Browne have programmed a jamboree of artistic reimaginings, many of them musical, blending – as the poem does – down-and-dirty popular culture with the highest of art. One event features a piano transcription of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which Eliot heard the year before the poem came out and which affected him profoundly. Another is assembled around Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written in a Nazi prisoner of war camp and likewise shot through with a sense of precarious faith in the bleakest of circumstances. The festival concludes with a tribute to the music hall star Marie Lloyd at Wilton’s, whom Eliot passionately – perhaps incongruously – admired as a “genius” and whose obituary he composed a week before The Waste Land first came out.

The festival will be stranded into five, multi-part evening “celebrations” and audiences are encouraged to drift among individual events, sampling, say, a new setting of lines from the poem by the Orkney-born composer Erland Cooper en route to concerts of sea shanties or gospel music. The mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene will perform songs by Wagner, one of a multitude of artists and writers quoted or alluded to in Eliot’s poem.

“There are suggested routes,” Doran explains. “But you can deviate and take in other sites as much as you can. Or just sit for 50 minutes with Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, and slowly sink into it.”

Would Eliot approve? He laughs. “I’d hope he would say that we’ve built something real upon the poem. We’ve brought it back into place.”

The festival commences with a “secular sermon” delivered by Jeanette Winterson in the ancient nave of Southwark Cathedral, which will explore The Waste Land’s examination of faith and belief. Eliot was a keen student of sermons by 17th-century preachers such as Lancelot Andrewes – buried just metres away from where Winterson will speak – and the poem shows Eliot grappling to find a form for his Christianity, which culminated in his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927 (his friend Virgina Woolf didn’t think he was serious; he absolutely was).

The poem probes some of the deepest questions there are, Winterson says: “It’s a slow point in the turning world. It encourages you to take your hand off the panic button and breathe a bit deeper. There’s a real meditative quality to it, if you spend the time.”

Having first encountered The Waste Land as a student, Winterson has been refreshing her memory by listening to Alec Guinness’s celebrated mid-70s recording, witty and surprisingly lyrical. “Every time, there would be somewhere deeper to go, somewhere unexpected,” she reflects. “It’s filmic, almost visual. Every time you think you know where you are, it moves to somewhere else.”

How is she approaching Eliot’s undoubted antisemitism? “That was real, and I’m not excusing it,” she replies. “But I’m not a fan of cancel culture.”

Brought to life … the St Mary Woolnoth church, name-checked in Eliot’s poem.
Brought to life … the St Mary Woolnoth church, name-checked in Eliot’s poem. Photograph: Nathaniel Noir/Alamy

Spread across historic City churches, 15 of them designed by Christopher Wren, the Fragments festival underlines something not always appreciated about The Waste Land: that it’s one of the greatest poems about London ever written. Southwark Cathedral is a stone’s throw from London Bridge, the site of one of the poem’s doomier meditations on mortality (“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”). As a clerk at Lloyd’s Bank, Eliot worked on King William Street, immediately north of the bridge; he will have walked past the sombre architecture of the St Mary Woolnoth church and heard what the poem calls the “dead sound” of its clock every working day.

A later section takes us inside what sounds like a Cockney pub at closing time (“Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight …”), while one of its most evocative sequences whisks the reader eastwards along the Strand, towards a dive bar on Lower Thames Street where the mandolin plays and “where fishmen lounge at noon”.

“We’ve tried to make it site-specific,” says Doran. “There’s so much in the poem about place, London most of all.”

Some of these varied sights and sounds will be refracted in a new acoustic piece devised by the French sound artist and composer Pierre-Yves Macé and installed in St Mary-Le-Bow on Cheapside. Played on a loop, it will sample a babel of voices and characters drawn from the text to create a kind of sound world for this noisiest of poems.

Jeanette Winterson will deliver a ‘secular sermon’.
Jeanette Winterson will deliver a ‘secular sermon’. Photograph: Sam Churchill

Known for pieces that blend concrete sounds and musical textures, Macé was drawn to the polyphonic texture of Eliot’s writing, which – as well as snippets he heard on London’s streets and drinking holes – draws deep on a spread of European influences, from Apollinaire and Baudelaire to Dante and Wagner.

“Little by little, we had a cast of 10 voices, among them French, Italian and German native speakers,” Macé explains. “Then I made music out of the spoken words.”

Though The Waste Land is regarded as a keystone of English literature, it’s far more than that, he goes on. “The poem is completely European, in my view.”

Not just European, says the British-Indian pianist Rekesh Chauhan, who will perform one of the festival’s closing events. Inspired by the poem’s very last words, “Shantih shantih shantih” – a Sanskrit phrase taken from ancient Hindu scripture, translated by Eliot as “The Peace which passeth understanding” – Chauhan will draw on classical Indian ragas to offer a meditation on calm and rest.

Eliot studied Sanskrit and was fascinated by the connections between different belief systems; Chauhan argues that despite its anxiety and turbulence, the poem shows a sense of life beyond.

“The Waste Land is dark, but there’s also a lot about regeneration, renewal, spring,” he says. “I really hope that will come out.”

Perhaps this is a lesson to draw from The Waste Land, a century on: created in the shadow of world war and a devastating global pandemic, it asks whether fragments of the old order can ever be reassembled or whether, to move on, we need to start again.

Those themes have boomeranged back in 2022, somewhat uncannily, Doran observes. “A hundred years on, here we are again: Covid, world war, the sense of the fragility of life, even climate change. The poem couldn’t be more relevant to now.”

But above that, he argues, it offers a way to navigate a world where so much is nervous and uncertain. “All you need to do is listen to its strength and its spirituality. It’s all there, waiting.”

Fragments: The Waste Land 2022 is at various City of London churches, from 7-12 April.


Andrew Dickson

The GuardianTramp

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