Reading T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land by myself could have been a slog through a poetic wasteland. In partnership with Peter–through his urging “Let us go then, you and I,”—the pilgrimage became a joyful meander through a classic literary past. After the months of reading silently and aloud, especially listening to others’ readings, and then puzzling over the possible meanings, discovering layers of meaningful content, I felt Eliot’s poem took shape as a mental poetical landscape I could play around in. There was so much information available to wade through, if we wished, so many allusions from literary eras we were not familiar with, that it became important to dig deep and to share interpretations and discuss possible insights. I would encourage others to share the reading experience as a partnership on a future difficult club project.
My approach to The Waste Land, struck by its initial fragmentary form and verbal inscrutability, was to question for the longest time what I heard in the poetic music, and not to attempt too quick a decoding of meaning. I wanted some familiarity with the whole, all its pieces, its different rhythms, its mood changes, it musical notes. As with Rilke’s advice to a young poet, I thought it best to live the questions, not search for answers—meanings—too quickly. With time to explore the work, the experience would engage my thoughts and feelings, deeper realms being plumbed through periodic exchanges with Peter. As I read it now, The Waste Land is a strange living room I can comfortably inhabit and feel at home in.
Therefore, with my interest in sound, rhythm and prosody, I chose to look carefully at one portion of the poem and explain how my thoughts and feelings worked it out. Part IV, Death by Water looked metrically and musically explicable in a short essay, especially since the few lines gave recognizable consonance in the wafting waves and whispering winds, the soughing surf, and the swirling in the swell. Phlebas’ drowning was a lull before the storm of Part V, What the Thunder Said, and a calming, cooling swim after the excruciating sacrifice of the soul on fire in Part III: Death by Fire.
If I had looked at all possible interpretations of Death by Water, I would never have been able to explore the section and explicate it as I have done. It would not have seemed necessary, nor a very personal, fresh composition. Even so, I have exploited one serious commentator, Calvin Bedient of He Do the Police in Different Voices, who does examine the importance of Eliot’s prosody. If you Club Members should read this, now months past our consideration of The Waste Land, I hope it brings together many features of the poem to remind you how Eliot’s great work has found a place in your mental library and how important it was for our common readership.
David Gilmour (March 10, 2014)