All you need to know about the books you meant to read

This week: The Waste Land

by TS Eliot (1922)

Plot: Ezra Pound helped Eliot construct this extended, allusive, modernist epic poem, using quotation, bits of foreign languages, shards of satire, dramatic monologue and vatic utterance to produce a detailed map of post-First World War disillusionment. There are five sections:

I) The Burial of the Dead. An emigree reflects sadly on her past; a prophet promises to display "fear in a handful of dust"; a clairvoyant fails to see the future.

II) A Game of Chess. A posh lady bewails her sterile fate; a cockney woman exposes her barren mentality.

III) The Fire Sermon. A sordid description of the Thames is followed by a series of seedy sexual encounters: with Mr Eugenides, with a cocky clerk, with Wagner's Rhinemaidens (now Thamesmaidens).

IV) Death by Water. Phlebas the Phoenician is drowned in a soothing and, perhaps, redemptive manner.

V) What the Thunder Said. A crowd in search of a saviour transforms into a pilgrim in search of a chapel. The poem ends with "the arid plain behind me" and the poet waiting for rain. There is a Buddhist prayer.

Theme: A meditation on the state of Western civilisation: beliefs have seeped away, individuals are left with sex or themselves. The voices in the poem reveal states of impotence, despair and loneliness: the mixing of "memory and desire". Towards the end, lumps of Western and Eastern culture are yoked together in an effort to find hope or religion. Eliot's conversion to Anglo-Catholicism shimmers distantly on the horizon.

Style: A hotchpotch of free blank and rhymed verse striving for unity, laced with the odd phrase of haunting brevity: "On Margate Sands/ I can connect/ Nothing with nothing"; "I knew nothing/ Looking into the heart of light/ the silence".

Chief strengths: After 70 years, still one of the most exciting poems in the language. Although much is obscure and some plain silly, line after line conveys an intensity of bleakness that seems both personal and an impartial judgement on modern life.

Chief weakness: The sections are of uneven quality. The cockney woman in Part II has stepped out of an Ealing Comedy.

What they thought of it then: The allusions were unpopular: "A poem that has to be explained is not unlike a picture with 'this is a dog' inscribed underneath" (FL Lucas). Some critics thought it was a leg-pull.

What we think of it now: Eliot is admired, and seen as more neurotic and romantic than he once was.

Responsible for: A lot of adolescent poetry full of rodents walking over glass and condoms by the river bank.

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