The Waste Land and Other Writings by T.S. Eliot

51ulpuvn2wl-_sx323_bo1204203200_Fiction — print. Borders Classics, 2007. Originally published 1922. 151 pgs. Purchased.

This collection of poems and essays includes a selection of Eliot’s poems written between 1917 and 1920, critical essays on poetry and the nature of criticism itself from 1917 to 1923, and “The Waste Land”, which was published in 1922 and is largely considered Eliot’s masterpiece.

Poetry is not a particular love of mine; I often find myself caught up in cleverness of the rhyme rather than the beautify of the verse. Yet, I ended up purchasing this edition because of the haunting cover and added it to my Classics Club list solely because the publisher of this edition labeled it as a classic.

“Half-past one, The street-lamp sputtered, The street-lamp muttered, The street-lamp said, ‘Regard that women Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door Which opens on her like a grin. You see the border of her dress Is torn and stained with sand, And you see the corner of her eye Twists like a crooked pin.'” (pg. 14)

Despite being the titular work, “The Waste Land” is buried in the middle of this edition, sandwiched by other poems and Eliot’s essays. I can’t say that many of the poems before this one stood out to me; I liked some of them — especially “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”, which is quoted above — and then had to skip others because they were entirely in French, which I cannot read. Once I reached “The Waste Land”, though, I tried to slow down and really digest each word of the poem.

“After the torchlight red on sweaty faces; After the frosty silence in the gardens; After the agony in stony places; The shouting and the crying; Prison and palace and reverberation; Of thunder of spring over distant mountains; He who was living is now dead; We who were living are not dying; With a little patience” (pg. 59)

The poem is broken into five parts, and the final part, “What the Thunder Said”, was my favorite portion. The setting of the poem became far more vivid, and I found myself wrapped up in the imagery rather than the structure of the poem. The rest, though?

I’m not sure if its because poetry is just not my thing or because Eliot’s poems are so inter-textual (he includes references throughout the poem to other works), but I felt rather underwhelmed by this one. Or, rather, I felt overwhelmed by all the changes in language and style included as Eliot tries to touch every reference text.

As for the essays included at the end, I rather liked “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, which addresses the concept of “newness” in art and how criticism can and should be leveled against an artist. Ultimately, Eliot takes the position that criticism is a normal aspect of being a reader; a position I share and try to remind myself of when I wonder why and if I should blog about a particular book.

“…we might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it…” (pg. 77)

But Eliot is critical of the way some criticism is leveled at writers, particularly when people try to determine if works are “new” or not. Eliot argues the idea that conformity in art strips a work of its “newness” is inherently flawed because it is difficult for a critic to judge such a charge. That is, when we suggest something is individualistic rather than conforming, we are actually judging it by two things that are measured by each other and affixing a value based on our point of view. Such a judgement is difficult because

“…the business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him.” (pg. 83)

So if a poet (or a reader) has never experienced an emotion and cannot find new ones, how can they ever achieve individuality? Aren’t they always conforming because they must use the ordinary emotions?

Unfortunately, the eleven other essays included in this text did not inspire such contemplation as I read them. Many of them reference authors and works I have not read so I had no frame of reference from which to respond to Eliot’s thoughts. And, frankly, his criticisms did not inspire me to pick up works by the other authors, and this collection of his works were a rather mixed bag for me in the end.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. This deadline has since come and past, but I am still trying to work through my list by August 15, 2020. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post or project post.

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