Today we continue our performance of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as part of our celebration of National Poetry Month this year (#npm2018). We’ve reached the end section of the first part, “The Burial of the Dead” which started with it’s famous stance, opposite to April and Spring, before proceeding through some scattered bittersweet pre-war reminiscences and a satirically murky attempt to read the future. In the concluding “Unreal City” we present today, we move on to an even darker scene.
In a dreary London day cast with brown fog, the poem recounts a hellish procession of desultory men walking to work over London Bridge. Compare this to Carl Sandburg’s Chicago-set treatment of a similar bridge scene written just a few years earlier. Sandburg, the working-class political radical, knows well the worldly bargain the workers face in addition to the human condition. Eliot, the conservative bank officer personally grappling with depression, will connect the weary enervation to a spiritual brokenness.
Readers differ on what level of reality we should ascribe to Eliot’s scene, which after all is labeled “unreal.” Is this a vision of the dead of World War I arising in a zombie walk? Or is this some level of Hell or Purgatory, in which urban London is only imaginary set-dressing for immortal torment? Or is it an actual observed moment in Eliot’s London living life which seems as trapped and without options as death? Imaginary gardens with real frogs in them, or real gardens with imaginary frogs?
Eliot develops this scene with the deepest gallows humor in the whole poem. One of the sighing walkers on his unvarying path is called out, greeted by the speaker in the poem as a fellow veteran of a naval battle between Rome and Carthage in 280 BC. I’m sure Eliot would have appreciated the anachronistic pun before its time, as by happenstance that Punic Wars battle at Mylae can now pun on the infamous 1968 My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war.
“The Waste Land,” which had begun with lilacs bred by Spring, now speaks of a corpse planted in a garden as if it was the bulb of a prized perennial flower. Eliot’s writing this nearly a hundred years ago, but poetically his iconography has taken a step toward a late 20th Century Heavy Metal album cover. I’ve double-checked Eliot’s notes on this poem. No, he wasn’t listening to Iron Maiden when he wrote this poem.
Would Ezra Pound have said: Make it New! (Wave of British Heavy Metal)
The section closes with a French quote from Baudelaire that translates to “Hypocrite reader! My fellow, my brother.” Eliot is inviting us into his nightmare, asking us to come along with him. If you haven’t read “The Waste Land” before, or recently, where do you think Eliot will go next, now that he’s put us in grisly post-World War unreal corpse garden land? Fulfilling his poem’s design, it will be somewhere completely different.
Musically, I didn’t attempt NWBHM to accompany this section of “The Waste Land.” Instead, I combined a fat synth motif and Rhodes piano with some electric guitar stabs and burbling bass. Listen to my performance with the player gadget below.