So Much Waste Paper

20 07 2014

This poem of 433 lines, with a page of notes to every three pages of text, is not for the ordinary reader. He will make nothing of it. Its five sections, called successively “The Burial of the Dead”, “A Game of Chess”, and so on, for all they will signify to him, might as well be called “Tom Thumb at the Giant’s Causeway” or “The Devil among the Bailiffs”, and so on. The thing is a mad medley. It has a plan, because its author says so: and presumably it has some meaning, because he speaks of its symbolism; but meaning, plan, and intention alike are massed behind a smoke-screen of anthropological and literary erudition, and only the pundit, the pedant, or the clairvoyant will be in the least aware of them. Dr Frazer and Miss J.L. Weston are freely and admittedly his creditors, and the bulk of the poem is under an enormously and cosmopolitan mortgage: to Spencer, Shakespeare, Webster, Kyd, Middleton, Milton, Marvell, Goldsmith, Ezekiel, Buddha, Virgil, Ovid, Dante, St Augustine, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and others. Lines of German, French and Italian are thrown it at will or whim; so, too, are solos from nightingales, cocks, hermit-thrushes, and Ophelia…

For the rest one can only say that if Mr Eliot had been pleased to write in demotic English The Waste Land might not have been, as it is to just all but anthropologists and literati, so much waste paper.

– Charles Powell, Manchester Guardian (Oct 31, 1923), 7. [Cited in Michael North (ed.), The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot (A Norton Critical Edition, 2001), 156.]




One response

20 07 2014

I think that a person can write for a select audience, if they want to. And anyway, even if someone can’t fully unravel a poem, but gains a sense of some of it, then it can be meaningful to them.

The feeling evoked by clusters of imagery can be even stronger when one doesn’t consciously know all the cultural references that have drawn them together in the previous mind of one’s people. Also I think that the obscurity is a part of the poem’s expressive technique.

The poem may have been better if it had all been achieved in a way that more people could more deeply access, but I feel that to call it waste paper is kind of dramatic criticism :)

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