The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, with a Painting by R.B. Kitaj, Arion Press

{Ed Note: Those only caring about pictures and facts about the edition itself should scroll down to the ‘About the Edition’ section.  For the more daring and forgiving of you, please subject yourself to the full review on the poem itself and please comment.}

Generally considered one of the most important poems of the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) is also one of the most challenging to follow and comprehend. It assumes a vast store of knowledge from across cultures, often shifts locations, time, emphasis and speakers at a whim, and even crosses boundaries freely between being satirical and prophetic.  In short, it is completely modernist, being a written parallel of modern abstract art.

Even before starting the poem, one realizes they better dust off their world literature reference books.  There is a Latin and Greek epigraph from The Satyricon of Petronius that precedes the poem, which translates to “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.”  In addition, there is a dedication to Ezra Pound, “For Ezra Pound: il miglior fabbro” prior to the poem. This loosely translates to “the better craftsman.”  Here Eliot is quoting from both Dante’s The Divine Comedy and from Pound’s The Spirit of Romance (1910). Pound had suggested several significant alterations, both cuts and comments for improvement.  Eliot went forward with those suggestions; hence the dedication.

The poem itself then contains hundreds of allusions and quotes to other texts, including from Homer, Sophocles, Petronius, Virgil, Ovid, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Dante Alighieri,William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Gérard de Nerval, Thomas Kyd, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Joseph Conrad, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, Oliver Goldsmith, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Paul Verlaine, Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker, the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Hindu Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and the Buddha’s Fire Sermon.

Though the poem is only 434 lines, you realize quickly how slow of a read it is going to be, as every few lines you scramble to read notes or do some research to figure out what the hell Eliot is referring to. Frankly, I find this tedious, a pedantic exercise that requires patience beyond what I have. Whoever wrote the wiki entry seems to have the same writers disease, as they describe the poem this way:

The Waste Land is not about the complexity of a life lived under the shadows of gloom, but it is the gloom that emanates a sense of chaotic existence where life dwindles to a heap of broken images where the sense of boredom and horror permeate the imagination of the time. It is again a sustained illustration or a manifestation of the apparent chaos within the modern society. The sterility of life emerges from a sense of failure, which is not the failure of an individual rather the failure of the society.

One has to be truly enamored with their own cleverness to come up with such obfuscating, complex language to essentially say “the world around me has gone nuts, I feel aimless, and it is everyone’s fault but my own.”  Reading The Waste Land reminded me of trying to get through Ulysses by James Joyce, only thankfully much shorter. Some writing, like some art, can only be appreciated because of its break from convention, it’s rebellious newness from what preceded it.  I remain convinced that history will show these styles to be an abhorrent diversion, hopefully temporary, from the true purpose and more natural evolution of art. It is hard to argue with Eliot’s mastery of verse, or the knowledge expressed within it; but it still seems disconnected and almost incomprehensible.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me on this, in fact I am almost certainly in the minority. Helen Vendler, in her introduction to the Arion Press edition, remarks on The Waste Land as Eliot’s:

…daring 1921 sequence, a poem so disturbing to its first readers–in its darting among many languages, many centuries, and many religious systems–that some were to believe its  hoax.  But it was not a hoax: to its first admirers it seemed the replication on the page of postwar modernity itself. It was cosmopolitan, painfully self-aware, burdened by legacies if the past, overcome by the chaos of the present, and skeptical about the future.

Vendler goes on to praise The Waste Land for how it:

…surveys a domain of lost hopes, charlatan advisors, destroyed cities, affectless sexuality, hordes of refugees, religious uncertainty, social hatred, lost ideals, and, above all, helpless loneliness and suffering in an arid desert.

I wonder if writing and art, like Eliot’s, is a leading indicator or lagging indicator of society as a whole. I believe that while art should provide a mirror into our hearts, minds and souls, it should also strive to show us the way; to lead us to beauty; to show us what we should strive for.  Art that says loudly “the world sucks and life is meaningless” may be brave, it may even be sometimes true, but shouldn’t art be more than that?

Now that I have told you how I really feel about The Waste Land, allow me to redeem myself by sharing some lines that did resonate with me. The most famous lines of the poem are the opening lines, and deservedly so.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Beautiful, thought provoking and a wonderful way to evoke images of spring. Things turn darker soon thereafter, not to mention more complex, though I can appreciate the thinking in:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images,where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Same here, where vivid imagery meets deep thinking, that causes the reader pause:

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

I can fully understand the frustration in Eliot’s voice when he says:

My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
I never know what you are thinking. Think.

Melancholy and pain abounds, effectively when he says:

By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

This sounds common enough in substance, though the writing is superb:

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter  no defense;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.

Bestows one final patronizing kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…
She turns and looks a moment in the glass’
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed though to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”

This, also nicely stated, something we all should keep in mind:

A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Is this the horror of World War I speaking, when Eliot says:

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

In an allusion to Antarctic explorers who at the end of their strength had the illusion that there was always one more person with them than there actually was, Eliot says:

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a mean or a woman
–But who is that on the other side of you?

The poem famously ends with “Shantih   shantih   shantih” which is a formal ending to an Upanishad, essentially meaning “the peace which passeth understanding.”

Thomas Stearns “T. S.” Eliot (1888 – 1965) is considered one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Born in America, he moved to the United Kingdom at age 25 and remained there throughout his life, becoming a naturalized British subject in 1927. He won the awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. He was also awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom in 1964. The Poets’ Corner in London’s Westminster Abbey honors Eliot with a large stone in the floor with a quote from him, his Order of Merit and his life dates. Eliot’s other well regarded and famous poems include The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915), Gerontion (1920), The Hollow Men (1925), Ash Wednesday (1930), and Four Quartets (1945).

This Arion Press edition is the first illustrated edition of The Waste Land. The painting If Not, Not, by R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007), is used, according to Arion Press, not to illustrate the poem, but to form an alliance with it.  Arion Press further explains that “Kitaj’s painting, from 1975-76 takes inspiration from Eliot’s poem…Like the poem, the painting can be taken apart, yet both of these works of art are far greater than the sum of their parts.” You will see from the pictures below that sections of the painting are taken out and used as discrete illustrations at regular intervals, only coming together at the end of the poem.  In the essay on the painting, Marco Livingston remarks that Kitaj “extends Eliot’s despairing vision into a visual parable of a diseased and tragic century, and reinvents his still reverberating lines into a richly evocative, never exhausted, poetics of painting.” Kitaj’s painting of If Not, Not is housed at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In 1999, it was also commissioned, as a tapestry, for the opening of the new British Library in London.

Like The Waste Land itself, I am not a huge fan of If Not, Not, mainly for the same reasons discussed above. Modernity is often used an excuse, an anti-intellectual dogma masking as intellectual rationality and superiority. I do not mean to swipe with a broad brush as there are certainly outstanding modern novels, poetry and art; not liking one does not mean one cannot appreciate it. However, being afraid of being accused of “not getting it” is no reason to shy away from pointing out that which should be obvious. Complexity does not by default mean great art.

About the Edition

Despite not being a fan of the poem, nor the art that accompanies it, I am a fan of this edition. Like many Arion Press books, the sizing in wonderful, the type nearly perfect, the binding imaginative and the paper nice.  All in all a very impressive volume, of the quality expected from Arion Press.  While I am not a fan of the art, it is hard to argue with it being an appropriate match for the poem.

  • Designed by Andrew Hoyem
  • Illustrations from the painting If Not, Not by R. B. Kitaj
  • An essay on the poem by Helen Vendler
  • An essay on the painting by Marco Livingstone
  • The book is 12.5 by 12 inches, 68 pages
  • The types are handset 18-point Bauer Bodoni for the poem with larger sizes for display and 12-point Bodoni Book in Monotype composition by Mackenzie & Harris for subsidiary text, printed by letterpress
  • The papers are Somerset Book, a British mouldmade sheet, for the text, with Mohawk Superfine for the pictorial pages, which were printed by color offset lithography at Hatcher Press
  • The book is handsewn with linen thread  over linen tapes and bound in full cloth, a half-linen, with titling on spine and front cover
  • The edition is limited to 300 numbered copies for sale and 26 lettered copies for complimentary distribution; mine is copy #80

Pictures

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The Waste Land, Arion Press, Cover
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Cover and Spine
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Prospectus
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Title Page
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Contents
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Start of Essay
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Dedication and Start
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Sample Text and Illustration
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Sample Text Close-up, Opening Lines
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Second Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Sample Pages with Text
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Third Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Fourth Sample Pages with Text and Full Illustration
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Poem Closing Text, Close-up
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Start of Notes Section
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Start of Essay of ‘If Not, Not’
The Waste Land, Arion Press, Colophon

8 thoughts on “The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, with a Painting by R.B. Kitaj, Arion Press

  1. About the design, the dimension of this book and its double column give the impression of a high school textbook.

  2. like many, I haven’t read the Waste Land. but I wonder if those who read it when it was written didn’t have a better grasp of the poem in 1911 than those do reading it today. Unless you are majoring in classical literature, practically no one is subjected to ancient thoughts and writing.

  3. T.S. Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’ is the poetic equivalent of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. Both works are frustratingly dense and impenetrable and, on the surface, needlessly complex with their obscure and arcane classical references and cross-references. Unfortunately, both are indisputable masterworks in terms of original thought and innovative use of language. Fortunately, the Waste Land is much shorter than Ulysses. Nevertheless. both reward repeated readings and study because they are visionary works. In a real sense, T.S. Eliot’s cynicism and despair that society was heading down a slippery slope was nearly a century ahead of its time.

    I have read through it twice and share your frustration. However, it is too important a poem to easily dismiss. Obtaining a high-school or college level study guide such as Spark Notes or Grade Saver may seem, at first blush, to be a copout but it can help unravel the complexities and mysteries of this epic poem. Upon my next reading I intend to do just that. Incidentally I ,too, obtained the Arion Press edition of this poem because I believed it was too important of a work not to do so and is deserving of the Arion Press ‘royal treatment’. I also find the deconstruction and reassembling of R.B.Kitaj’s epic painting “If Not, Not” as a visual parallel to the poem, where the sum is much greater than the individual fragments, an inspired means of illustrating the poem.

    1. Good points, and I was thinking as I was reading, that I needed a Norton Critical Edition to really follow it and give it a fair shake. Will do that the next time I am brave enough to tackle it. As you mention, thankfully it is short enough where doing so is not that daunting.

  4. Wonderful review Chris. I’ve never tackled Wasteland, so I found your comments to be very informative as to what I’d be in for. I have similar feelings towards modern art, as I sometimes struggle between aesthetics that don’t appeal to me versus appreciating the statement being made.
    Beautiful photos, as always.

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