T. S. Eliot’s remarkable poem was first published (admittedly without the accompanying Notes) in the literary magazine The Criterion in October 2022, eight months after the publication of James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses (as featured earlier this year on PHIDOC). However, its author was already in discussion about its publication at the start of the same year. Like others, I think this month may be the right one to celebrate its later publication as the poem famously opens with the arresting line “April is the cruellest month...” - a line with perhaps surprising relevance in 2022!
I was vaguely aware of the poet in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t until his death in 1965, when I read the obituaries and accompanying articles, that I began to understand his stature and achievement. For the next five years or more, the poet became the attention of intense, retrospective, literary scrutiny. Some of it was genuinely illuminating, some of it just pretentious and unhelpful. It was also the period when my own interest in poetry began to blossom. T. S. Eliot, I recall, was both a blessing and a curse and I had many hours discussing this with my mentor and friend Geoffrey Earl who studied English at Cambridge under the ‘spell’ (for better or worse) of F. R. Leavis. Amongst many other things, Geoffrey and I had an extended discussion over several sessions about the relative merits of Eliot and D. H. Lawrence – his poetry as well as his novels.
In the summer of 1975, I spent nearly at King’s College Hospital, Denmark Hill, as an ordinand. Together with my colleagues, we portered up and down the stairs and lifts, did night duty with nursing staff, talked to specialists, watched operations live in theatre while also learning about severe dementia and the failures as well as the successes of the Todd Liver Unit. One image I shall never forget: a mother, born in the West Indies, keeping vigil over her dying young son; in short, a paracetamol overdose that resisted the most dedicated treatment by the greatest experts on the planet. Saturdays we had off. I definitely needed a break. Perhaps I should watch a film? What was on offer locally? The Night Porter! This proved a genuine diversion, if not quite what was wanted at that juncture! On another Saturday, I, along with a couple of colleagues, thought it might be ‘fun’ to visit the churches that Eliot referenced in The Waste Land, more specifically St Mary Woolnoth and St Magnus the Martyr (the church of fishers and fishmongers). The latter was certainly an experience!
“I had not thought death had undone so many.”
“London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down”
London Bridge (the original?) didn’t fall down, it was shipped, stone by stone, to Arizona in the late 1960s. In the summer of 1998, in the early hours of the morning, quite by ‘chance’, I witnessed it ‘glowing’ in Lake Haversu City as I journeyed to Yuma (on the Mexican border) with some friends. Only a week or two earlier, I’d flown over St Louis, Missouri, Eliot’s birthplace. Indeed, the plane flew so low that I could see individual items of washing slowly drying in neatly patterned gardens!
What was The Waste Land about? War weariness, the breakdown of a marriage, an unnamed new dispensation, everything and nothing and everything in-between, a quest for peace? Tom probably didn’t know, and I’m certainly neither a detective nor a psychoanalyst!