Book Review: How “The Waste Land” Was Won

By Peter Keough

Poet and professor Jed Rasula makes the case for The Waste Land‘s lasting revolutionary impact in his engaging and insightful, if occasionally discursive, study.

What the Thunder Said: How the Waste Land Made Poetry Modern by Jed Rasula. Princeton University Press, 344 pages, $31.67.

The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse by Lyndall Gordon. W. W. Norton & Co., 505 pages, $28.49.

A hundred years have passed since the debut of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, which, along with James Joyce’s Ulysses, published the same year, is considered one of the defining works of modernism. Yet has its impact survived the age of the internet, in a waste land perhaps beyond Eliot’s imagining? True, phrases from the text such as “April is the cruelest month” and “memory and desire” — even an occasional “unreal city” and “fear in a handful of dust” — persist in the general discourse, popping up meme-like and dimly connected, if at all, to the source. But does the poem have any more clout these days than that of Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats and its immortal musical adaptation?

Jed Rasula makes the case for the poem’s lasting revolutionary impact in his engaging and insightful, if occasionally discursive, What the Thunder Said: How the Waste Land Made Poetry Modern. He states upfront that his intention is not an attempt to add to its “recognition … as a poem to be analyzed — there’s a mountain of scholarship on that — but as a phenomenon … a component in a broader … revolution that led to abstraction in art, atonality in music, and an overall flouting of conventions. ” To that purpose he focuses more on the historical and cultural context than on the poem or the poet — who “doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through.”

True to his word, except for a few cameos, he doesn’t grant Eliot his close-up until the sixth chapter, and even then only to repeatedly upstage him. Instead he guides us through a happy hunting ground of artistic movements, ferreting out the context of the poem’s achievement. It begins with Wagnerism (amusing asides include Nietzsche presenting the maestro composer a gift of silk underwear, and Wagner later accusing Nietzsche of being a masturbator) with its “endless melody,” Gesamtkunstwerk, and the ecstatic aesthetics of Teutonic myths. In The Waste Land Eliot quotes from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, based on the medieval legend of fatal love, and also from the Ring Cycle, with the mystifying Valkyrie cry, “Weialala leia/ Wallala leialala.”

Next follow divagations on the Symbolist movement and French poets Charles Baudelaire (Eliot cribs his “hypocrite lecteur” line from Les Fleurs du Mal), Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé (Rasula refers to an an unnamed critic who says that Mallarmé is untranslatable, even into French), Gustave Apollinaire, and Eliot’s beau ideal, Jules Laforgue. There are artform-merging painters like James Whistler, with his nocturnes and symphonies on canvas, avant garde composers like Stravinsky and Debussy, all culminating perhaps with the orchestral synesthesia of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin.

All this and we haven’t even gotten to the legacy of World War I or the whirlwind that was Ezra Pound. The latter pretty much takes over the show when he makes the scene, promoting Eliot and Joyce, fashioning the meteoric movement “Imagisme,” and paring down the shapeless mass of verse that Eliot composed while convalescing from a nervous breakdown into the ever-beguiling, ever-enigmatic poem we have today.

He was, as Eliot states in his Dantesque dedication of The Waste Land to his mentor and mage, “il miglior fabbro.” Like the poet referred to in the Inferno, Pound would also end up in a hell of his own making, undone by his cracked conspiracies and anti-Semitism, broadcasting as a radio apologist for Mussolini. After the war, captured by the Allies, he was spared execution for treason by an insanity plea and a stint in “The Bughouse,” his term for St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington DC. No wonder the flashier, wackier Pound tends to take over the book, edging the buttoned-up, quietly tormented Eliot into the Prufrockian role of “an attendant lord/…/Almost, at times, the fool.”

The poem he and Eliot shaped is an epic of condensation, polyphony (an early title was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” a quote taken from  Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend), and allusion, consisting of 433 lines in five sections (Rasula takes his book’s title from the heading of the last), plus notes. The role of collage, Rasula points out, is paramount — the suggestive, seemingly random scattering of detritus from everyday and timeless sources, the “fragments I have shored against my ruins” as Eliot puts it in the poem.

The process also recalls the dynamics of cinematic montage as developed by Lev Kuleshov in 1918 and taken up by Russian formalist directors such as Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein. Rasula doesn’t mention any such influences in the book, nor do I know if Eliot was aware of these movements at the time but the comparison seems apt. The poem plays as a densely layered, rapid-fire trailer, a cut-and-paste of highlights of the march of civilization from its origins to its doom, from the primitive myths surveyed in Frazer’s The Golden Bough to a sad, sordid conversation overheard in a postwar pub; from the sacred Hindu texts The Upanishads to music hall ditties; from Greek and Elizabethan tragedy to the prolonged tragedy of Eliot’s disastrous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

The latter may have been the key element in the poem’s inspiration, and in the creation of the poet. As Rasula observes, The Waste Land was “a transactional venture between the poet and his wife. It was, in a way, the seismograph of a shared emotion.”

Yet despite his dismal, if productive, marital experience and a nagging misogyny (perhaps as rancorous as his anti-Semitism), Eliot often was supportive of women writers and poets whose influence on his own work he would acknowledge. Among them are Hope Mirrlees, whose 1919 poem Paris Rasula discusses as a kind of prototype of The Waste Land, Mina Loy, and Marianne Moore.

But he determinedly did not acknowledge the woman who may have served as an inspiration for his greatest poem. January 2, 2020, saw the release of thousands of letters between Eliot and Emily Hale, a drama student whom the poet met while at Harvard in 1914 and with whom he fell in love. Nothing came of it and Eliot moved to London and married Haigh-Wood in 1915. But his correspondence with Hale resumed in 1932 when Eliot and Vivienne were separated and continued until 1947. They seldom met. Their love, apparently, was never consummated.

Hale consigned the letters to the Princeton University Library and allowed them to be unsealed 50 years after her death. To forestall this, Eliot wrote a statement (described by Rasula as “a carefully scripted dissimulation”) in 1960 that he instructed to be released on the same day as the letters were made public. In it he explains that, though his marriage to Vivienne was pretty much the ruin of them both, it inspired him to write The Waste Land. And it saved him from marrying Hale and becoming not one of the 20th century’s greatest poets but most likely a college philosophy professor and an academic mediocrity.

Be that as it may, Rasula concludes, the letters’ significance as far as The Waste Land goes is moot because they were written a decade later. Still, though the correspondence followed the composition of the poem, the love preceded it. In The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse, her exhaustive and illuminating study of the letters and the relationship, Lyndall Gordon identifies Hale with the figure in this passage from Eliot’s poem:

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;

‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,

Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.


And so his love endures, untouched by time or human frailty, like Dante’s Beatrice.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).


  1. Mir Anisul Hasan on December 28, 2022 at 1:38 am

    This write- up sounds like a timelesss testimony of ‘truth and beauty’ poetically attempted by the World Legendary Poet ever, called TS Eliot.
    It will, I believe, throw light and love to the hearts of passionate poetry lovers who,to my view only, seemed to have been in a deep slumber so far.
    The Waste Land is regenerated once again.
    The waste Land “Springs eternal in human breast”.
    It is The Waste Land that is shouting Slogans-
    Poetry Survives even at the fast and fabulous age of Science and Technology.
    The Poetry-Flag is today flying ‘up above the World so high,
    Like a diamond in the Sky”.

    Let poetry say – No to War!
    Let Poetry say- No to Blood.

    Eliot must have been watching his Real City of Poetry (poetically speaking, not the unreal city) with his immortal soul that has already had Super Salvation by God Himself.

  2. Paul Kachur on December 31, 2022 at 6:39 am

    I have been reading The Waste Land since I was a teenager and still don’t get it. But every now and then I run across an analysis like this one that helps.

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