Ask a group of poetry experts what the most consequential poem of the 20th century was. The majority vote will most likely be The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. Written in 1922, its recent centenary was commemorated in a book by Jed Rasula, Professor at the University of Georgia. This is truly a book to savor.

“What made The Waste Land matter,” he writes in the Introduction, “is what it enabled readers to do. It activated them, vaulting them beyond armchair consumers into coconspirators, as it were.” In life, timing is everything. Rasula notes that if Eliot’s poem had been published in 1910, it “would have passed without notice because it would scarcely have qualified as a poem at all.” But in 1922, in that period shortly after World War I, “the time was ripe.”

There is virtually no way to explain what Eliot’s poem is. But Rasula comes closest to it by brilliantly employing an analogy. “What his poem did is best approached by way of Richard Wagner. Wagner realized that melody in opera was concentrated in aria, leaving vast expanses of musical composition of no interest to the audience. Incensed, Wagner determined to write music that would compel attention all the way through.” In relating this to the poem, Rasula writes that while Eliot likely read little or nothing Wagner wrote, he did sit through the operas. Igor Stravinsky wrote “Eliot’s Wagner nostalgia was apparent.” Rasula concurs, explaining that in listening to Wagner, Eliot “experienced endless melody. And he intuitively grasped Wagner’s directive that the poet keep clear of the domain of the speechless.”

To implement this in a poem, Eliot knew there needed “to be continuity in a poem, some rhythm that would span the discrete units.” He found that in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce had derived his narrative concept from Eduard Dujardin, a French acolyte of Wagner. “Dujardin had pioneered interior monologue as a technical resource” in a novel of 1887.” By merging Wagnerian music with the Wagnerian-inspired narrative technique, Eliot wrote a poem “that took on a life of its own, and continues to emit what its first readers recognized as an uncanny music.”

All this is just from the Introduction (!), and it presages another 240 pages of extraordinary poetic analysis, among the finest ever written. I can do no more than give a few highlights in this review. Later this month I will be reviewing the Houston Grand Opera production of Wagner’s Parsifal, and in that I will quote further from Rasula’s book.

To place The Waste Land in various contexts (such as its relationship to the work of other poets, such as Conrad Aiken) is the motivating factor of this book. In explaining how it arose from seeming nothingness to suddenly appear and dominate poetry for ever more, Rasula looks at the relationship between the prose poems of Max Jacob and his 30 years of interactions with Picasso. Rasula reformulates as a list what Jacob synthesised about his own writing:

Complexity in form;

Dominance of interior harmony over meaning;

Speed in the association of images, ideas and words;

Love of words;

Surprises, willed or not;

The appearance of dream or dream itself;

Invisible rhythms.

Rasula goes on to write: “Far from being confined to Jacob’s work, these are the features of modern poetry in general. These were the terms by which Symbolism overcame itself, yielding a modernism that would find its distillation in The Waste Land. Becoming modern was a struggle; and struggle – difficulty, resistance – would in turn be the face of modernism.” So what was modernism?

I have already mentioned James Joyce. Eliot hailed Joyce’s novel Ulysses in portentous words: “The novel is a form which will no longer serve.” He meant that as a compliment, writes Rasula, “mindful that there were those who disqualified The Waste Land because it failed to mimic verse conventions.” Gilbert Seldes (a cultural critic who Rasula does not adequately introduce in the book) directly linked Joyce and Eliot. “He proposed that Eliot as introvert and Joyce as extrovert together formed the nucleus of modernism.” I found this sufficiently profound to use it as the headline of my review.

Eliot himself, conscious that critics such as Seldes had paired him with Joyce, took “it a step further” and disclosed what that unity meant. What poem and novel shared, wrote Eliot, was the “mythical method,” deploying “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.” Rasula notes that the “continuous sounding of the bells of antiquity is overt in The Waste Land.” The ‘music of poetry,’ which was the title of a 1942 essay by Eliot, is key to appreciating (even if not fully understanding) The Waste Land.

Ernst Curtius translated Eliot’s poem into German. He found that “its music carried me over its obscurities. He is the discoverer of a new tone which can never be forgotten. He has heard the mermaids singing.” When the English art critic Clive Bell identified Eliot as a “jazz poet,” the “musical affinity was in place,” writes Rasula.

 “The Waste Land is not only a poem: it names an event, like a tornado or an earthquake. Its publication was a watershed, marking a before and after. It was a poem that unequivocally declared that the ancient art of poetry had become modern.” Whether one can discern its meaning or not, Rasula lays down the gauntlet here. Once The Waste Land was published just over a century ago, the world was not the same. What other poem can make such a claim? I highly recommend this book on every level.

A couple of minor quibbles: There is a typo on pg 69: ‘knew’ should be ‘know.’ Sometimes the dates quoted in the text for a publication do not match the dates given in the Bibliography (Cyril Scott, for example, which is 1920 in the text on page 63, but 1917 in the Bibliography). But even worse, the quotes Rasula gives are from an entirely different book by Scott, published in 1933. The references must, therefore, be used with caution.

Author bio:

Jed Rasula is the Helen S. Lanier Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia. He is the author of nine scholarly books and three poetry collections and the coeditor of two anthologies. His recent books include Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century and History of a Shiver: The Sublime Impudence of Modernism.

What the Thunder Said: How The Waste Land made Poetry Modern, is by Princeton University Press. It lists for $39.95

Photo: T.S. Eliot in 1934. Wikimedia Commons.

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.