Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Modern Waste Land

This Modern Waste Land

I have always found poems at different times enchanting, bewitching, moving, magical, mysterious, challenging, comforting and disturbing.  In their mood and tone they run the whole gamut of emotions and in their effects upon the reader they elicit similar and parallel feelings.  It is to poetry that I often turn to be moved in any of the various ways outlined, and T. S. Eliot has long been a favourite of mine in this regard.  The reason is very simple.  My English lecturer at college introduced me to him.  He had tapes of T.S. reading his poems, and quite simply I found his reading voice bewitching.  I did not understand very deeply Eliot was saying, but one thing for sure was that I was spellbound by the feeling in his voice, and the tone of his words.  The same was to happen to me with two other marvelous performers of their own word, namely Dylan Thomas and Randall Jarrell (see my post of 28/01/2006).  

As a young student of 17 years of age I was transfixed by the magic and tone and uniqueness of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Much of it was and still is beyond me, but the magic of it still remains.  The lines are always not too far from recall and I can still quote many of them.  I had never sat down to deliberately memorize them as our teacher did not insist on this, yet like any great song these lines insinuated themselves into my memory.  All enchanting songs work like that, do they not.

Likewise, some two or three years later when I came to read The Waste Land at college, the lines of this marvelous poem assaulted my ear.  All those voices that I could hear – voices from Shakespeare, from many other masters of poems and drama, quotes from an Italian author (Dante I think) Baudelaire, Ovid, Milton, Webster, Miss Weston’s book on the Grail legends and the famous book of anthropology by Sir James Frazer called The Golden Bough, chess, tarot cards and many other voices all intertwined with the voices of workaday men and women in a pub.  The overall effect is mind blowing.  Why?  Because, like the modern world, this poem assaults our ears with many disparate voices.  One has to be a very well centered human being to pick out the voices that encourage and sustain us from those that bring us down and depress us.  Eliot merely enlists all these disparate voices and like any good poet chooses not to be didactic.  Hence Eliot is a great modernist poet indeed.

The lines that come to my mind in the context of my last four posts about the changing face of religion in the postmodern or even the now post-postmodern world are these ones from Eliot’s famous poem The Waste Land : “In this decayed hole among the mountains/ In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing/ Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel/ There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home./ It has no windows, and the door swings, / Dry bones can harm no one.”(Lines 385-390)

T.S.Eliot became a convert to the Church of England and bought into the Christian creed, an official state religion version at that.  Yet he was a great poet who could talk also about the waste land that modern society had become.  The church in the modern world is only an “empty chapel” which has become now “only the wind’s home.” And then we get those very telling and almost sad words which refer to this chapel’s irrelevance to the modern world: “Dry bones can harm no one.”

There are other lines which underline the “uprootedness” of modern man, his alienation and his sense of being lost in this rather unsympathetic and indifferent world.  I will finish with these words which still go round and round in my head and they are a stark portrayal of the human condition

: Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. Above I have inserted a picture aI took three years back of litter along the coast at Sutton Cross Dublin. Signs of our Modern Wasteland?

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