2022 marks the centenary of the publication of T S Eliot's great poem The Waste Land.
Published in 1922 Eliot's masterpiece had a mixed reception. Evelyn Waugh's father, Arthur, dismissed it as "the ravings of a drunken helot" and John Squire, editor of the London Mercury, a foremost literary review magazine between the wars, simply threw up his hands and admitted defeat. "I read Mr Eliot's poem several times when it first appeared" he wrote, "I have now read it several times more. I am still unable to make head or tail of it". An anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement wrote that "there was no other modern poet who can more adequately and movingly reveal to us the inextricable tangle of the sordid and the beautiful that make up life". The American poet, Conrad Aiken, hailed it as "unquestionably important, unquestionably brilliant".
I read The Waste Land first in my A level years and fell in love. I didn't really know why, but whilst most of my fellow classmates were muttering about incomprehensibility and nonsense, I was revelling in the beauty of the words, the denseness of the allusions and the music of the poetry. When I read Eliot's The Music of Poetry lecture, I felt a shaft of recognition. He was describing exactly how his poetry made me feel.
I read the poem regularly, along with Eliot's other wonderful poetry, especially Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets. For me Eliot is a poet who, first and foremost, helps me make sense of the world. He writes so eloquently of decay and destruction, of despair and futility. But his poetry is also full of beauty and, through the classical allusions, gives a sense of stability and comfort in the immutability of life and society. That however bad things might seem, life will go on and will improve, probably.
It seems appropriate that 2022, with the Covid-19 pandemic, effects of Brexit, the war in Ukraine and political unrest and economic meltdown at home, should mark the centenary of The Waste Land. The precocious child of Modernism speaks to us today as it did to a war weary and morally decayed world in 1922