The poetry of TS Eliot still touches on the great themes of our lives
The 17th-century Church of St Magnus-the-Martyr stands near the site of the old London Bridge over the River Thames in the city’s financial district. It is a glorious and magnificent building, created by Sir Christopher Wren on the site of an earlier church destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666.
The church is said to be one of the costliest rebuilding efforts of the time, and it has many admirers, including an American from St Louis Missouri who settled in London, worked in a bank in nearby and eventually became a British citizen. This American was TS Eliot, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, if not of all time.
Eliot came to church to reflect and pray, often thinking of the terrible state of the world he lived in after World War I. Exactly 100 years ago, in April 1922, Eliot published the long and complex poem, land of waste, which made his literary fame. What is remarkable is how strongly so many themes from this great work of literature resonate today.
Last weekend I was part of a group of writers, musicians, scholars and others celebrating the 100th anniversary of Eliot’s fine work at this church and other nearby churches with a live audience. We discussed not only poetry, but the state of the world today and the similarity to Eliot’s concerns 100 years ago.
The key theme of Eliot’s great poem is fragmentation, a 1920s world in which it was difficult to make sense of everything around it – a “wasteland” of debris and ruins according to -war. Eliot wrote the poem in an England exhausted by World War I and also enduring a pandemic, the Spanish flu.
Another war was going on in Eastern Europe involving Russia – the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Another war had just ended in Ireland. There was famine, economic dislocation and disrupted crops. There have been great social changes. In a world where so many men had been killed in war, women’s rights and what we would now call gender issues were part of a “culture war”. Fashion for women was changing profoundly from Edwardian England to the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and in 1928, after a long struggle, British women won the right to vote.
All of this happened as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was fragmenting itself. In 1922 the UK lost 22% of its land mass when the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland broke away, leaving us with an unresolved Northern Ireland question even in 2022. Many of these themes and others – especially fragmentation – are part of our world. right now.
The prospect of Scottish independence or Northern Ireland joining the Republic of Ireland, for example, could mean further reform of the United Kingdom. Our own pandemic, the coronavirus, is still with us. The Spanish Flu of TS Eliot’s time even had its own “fake news” – it wasn’t Spanish at all. Spain was not part of World War I and had no wartime censorship, so it was the first nation to report the pandemic, but the flu likely originated in the United States. For Britain, too, there is another echo of 1922.
Throughout British history, there has always been a tension between the UK’s relationship with the European continent and its relationship with the British Empire. The empire was where the money was to be made. Europe was where the existential threat of wars was fought.
At many times in British history, including the days of Eliot, governments hoped that Europe could simply be ignored and Britain could concentrate elsewhere. This led to policies known as the “splendid isolation” of Europe and in the 1930s to the appeasement of Germany. Today, the British government has pulled out of the EU in favor of what it loosely calls Global Britain.
The catch, of course, is that Britain’s disengagement from Europe never lasts long. We have just seen significant re-engagement, including the recent visit of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, amid fears of a wider European war in our own century. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
TS Eliot was not a prophet. But his poetry touches on the great themes of our life today. How to make sense of a world of fragments, divisions and disagreements? How do we deal with changes beyond our control?
land of waste – the clue is in the title – surveys a difficult and divided world, but ends with an optimism about the human spirit. We have great differences between us, different cultures, different beliefs, fragmented in many ways, but the poem ends with words from the Hindu scriptures meaning “Giving”, “Compassion” and “Self-control”. In 2022 as in 1922, we can be obsessed with what divides us, with conflict and misery, but we must also remember the goodness that unites us. The poem ends with the word “Shantih”. It is Sanskrit for “peace”. Hope.
Posted: April 12, 2022, 08:00 AM