How is T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece holding up these days?
The first essay in Cynthia Ozick’s Fame and Folly is ‘T.S. Eliot at 101’, originally published in 1989. It’s a clear-eyed examination of the poet and his meteoric rise and fall in the literary world in the early and mid 20th century.
I like to think that Ozick published her essay on Eliot’s 101st birthday, rather than his 100th, for the same reason that I am publishing this essay on the 101st anniversary of “The Waste Land” — she missed her deadline.
Whether that’s the case or not, in the tradition of the inimitable Ozick, I want to take a look at where ‘The Waste Land’ stands as it turns 101 this year.
In 2022, the centenary of the poem’s publication was met with plenty of fanfare and the requisite publishing of new books, criticism, retrospectives, etc. etc. In England — the country Eliot is still most associated with, at least in spirit — celebration of the poem included a six-day festival of readings held throughout London.
It also included an article by Anthony Lane that appeared in The New Yorker, titled “The Shock and Aftershocks of ‘The Waste Land’”. For the 100th anniversary of the poem, Lane examines where it stands currently in our cultural milieu, and finds it to be as relevant as ever. The poem, he states, “has never stopped sounding new.”
Let’s get something out of the way here — our sense that the works of art we love will hold up forever is probably universal. Our favorite books, albums, artworks, and poems all say something unique about the human condition to each of us. They make life a little sweeter by their very existence, and we tend to refer back to them when we can make even the most tenuous connection. Jordan Kisner wrote an article for The Atlantic recently about Don Delilo’s White Noise, (one of many that have accompanied the book’s movie adaptation). The novel is her mother’s favorite book and a source of continued inspiration. Momma Kisner likes to insist “That’s just like White Noise,” whenever she sees something that reminds her of Delillo’s masterpiece.
So it’s no wonder that Lane considers “The Waste Land” to be transcendent, a once and future poem that continues to hold meaning for each ensuing generation. Yet the truth is “The Waste Land” has…