As the centenary of perhaps the two towering works of literary modernism, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses, 2022 appears a natural time to reflect on the present day significance of these texts. Such an impulse can only be furthered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused many to use literary works as a means of processing, alleviating, or escaping from present reality.
Given this connection, The Waste Land is the perfect work for our times. Fragmented into many voices with bits and pieces of allusion, the poem is clichédly read as dramatising the condition of post-WW1 Europe. Eliot’s work begins by painting a world with only “a little life”: even the poem’s form itself is barely hanging on, with the lines held together by faint half-rhymes. As The Waste Land progresses, however, the possibility of regeneration and redemption becomes stronger and stronger. A “damp gust” is “bringing rain” to the “arid plain”, which is “behind me”; there is the hope that the land will be set “in order”. Reading The Waste Land in 2022 thus seems to offer not just consolation and peace of mind, but also give voice to the present urge to move forward and put the traumatic past behind us.
Do we need, though, to desperately move on whatever the cost? As I write, the frankly bullish ‘live with the virus’ ideology that is now governing the UK is causing a sense of profound unease, prompting me to turn back to The Waste Land. For the poem seems to me, in fact, to actually revolt against simplistic trajectories of hope and progress. Right from the beginning, the poem seems to suggest that suffering originates from unfounded hope. It is not entirely clear why “April is the cruellest month” because memory is mixed with desire and “dull roots” are stirred by spring rain: I think what Eliot is getting at, is that there is pain in trying to rejuvenate what is already dead (the dull roots), in trying to instil a desire for the future when past memories and traumas have not been fully processed. You can’t just mindlessly charge ahead.
As someone who doesn’t believe reasonable precautions (mask-wearing, self-isolating) should be thrown into the wind just for normalcy’s sake (whose normal, anyways?), reading The Waste Land and its thwarting of hope thus becomes strangely comforting. Think the rain at the end of the poem signals rebirth? Well, water actually seems quite deadly. The reader is told to ‘Fear death by water’, and when the veteran in the poem’s second section remembers his fallen comrade through an excerpt of verse from Shakespeare’s Tempest – “Those are the pearls that were his eyes” – water suddenly becomes much closer to the “green sea” of wartime poison gas that Wilfred Owen famously described in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. Does the fragmented poem ultimately cohere? Actually, we are told that the fragments are shored against rather than shore up the ruins; the tiny prepositional change crumbles hopefulness into limp helplessness. It is as if Eliot sets up the possibility of a redemption arc only to then deconstruct it from within the poem, reminding the reader that a much more nuanced post-crisis view is necessary. Living in the wake of any crisis, whether WW1 or the COVID-19 pandemic, does not mean forgetting the crisis altogether. Instead, The Waste Land reminds us, it’s much more about giving ourselves space to recollect, reflect, and recuperate, to emerge out of the crisis on our own terms. If Eliot’s poem is in many ways resistant to abrasive discourses of hope and progress, then, is it finally also against the very idea of centennialism? As Harris Feinsod puts it, centenaries are “empty occasions of calendrical time impos[ing] their false coherence on us”. Feinsod’s argument is sound: endlessly parading how applicable The Waste Land is to our modern day living feels suspiciously like stirring dull roots with spring rain, to use the poem’s own image. But I also don’t think there’s necessarily anything bad about using centenaries as motivation to revisit old works, and 2022 just happens to be a great year in which to read The Waste Land. For me, the experience of reading the poem will certainly serve to guide me as I navigate the uncertain days ahead, and I hope it will be the same for you.