Long Poem #1: 'The Waste Land'

T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922)

1. Inheritance

T.S. Eliot's 'masterpiece' has become something of a 'set-piece' in literary studies, so I don't want to claim anything original or profound about this post. The following interpretations are meant only as an 'explanatory' introduction to the accompanying post, Grasslands.

For me, The Waste Land is a diagnosis of the national condition, or spirit, in Britain after the Great War of 1914-1919. The poem sits like the carcass of a whale on an empty stretch of coast somewhere -- as a sort of 'beached Britain' or 'exhausted Empire'. It is a memorial to an entire generation's utter weariness. The British lion was now, in Ezra Pound's phrase, "an old bitch, gone in the teeth". After the enormous effort of fighting the First World War, its massive expenditure of money and men, the nation was technically triumphant, but in reality, defeated. "Where will we get the energy from simply to recover?" was as important a question as "Where will the resources come from to put it all back together again?' Worst of all perhaps, was the inner emptiness, a backwash of disillusionment and despair from the conflict. 'No one believes this crap any more!' The pomp and splendour of Elizabethan England, the comforting mists of Arthurian legend and Christian tradition, all the noble ideals, were forever unmasked. It seemed as if there was nothing left, nothing to sustain, nothing to inspire.

I would like to suggest that in miniature, and without any moral equivalence to the Great War, that there is a similar overburden of 'family' history in the Western District. That is to say, a relatively recent past of furious family energy and achievement has similarly ended in a psychological, as well as an economic, void.

The outward evidence of former greatness remains -- impressive gateways and mile long drives, leading to imposing bluestone homesteads, woolsheds and stables, distanced by the basalt stone walls and sugar gum plantations that originally declared their boundary lines -- remnants of grandeur that are still in some sense grand. But they are much hemmed in now by subdivision, soldier settlement, and debt. These buildings are testimony to something lost, the survivors of an irretrievable period in social history. They are, on a much diminished scale of human significance to the themes of The Waste Land, the ruins of 'family' ambition, the relics from family 'tragedies'. For those with surnames such as Russell, Learmonth, Armytage, or Chirnside, there must be a sense of bewilderment associated with seeing, or remembering, these monuments to self-belief. 'How the hell did this calamity happen?' 'How could so much determination and enterprising intelligence disappear so rapidly, so completely?' And these are surely valid questions about identity and meaning.

I feel no more sorrow about disinherited grandees than you do. I hold no nostalgia for an era of social deference and income disparity. But what I feel about these marooned bluestone edifices is something different. My response has nothing to with monetary loss and I have no family connection to any of them. But there is still something mournful about them, a sense of spiritual bankruptcy, the loss of inner motivation and impetus.

2. Imitation

There is clearly a lot of literary larceny going on The Waste Land. Eliot has written on the nature of a poet's 'borrowings':
"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something that has no cohesion."
The line about the good poet who "welds his theft into a whole of feeling" is the key here.

One interpretation of Eliot's long poem is that it represents "a whole of feeling" -- it illustrates, or demonstrates, Britain's post-war emotional state through a number of discordant images, or symptomatic scenes. (It is probably worth noting here that Eliot's method is about 'painting' the problem, rather than seeking its solution). At the time the poem was published, a number of reviewers remarked on its striking relevance to their age. It's voice, or voices, 'spoke' to some contemporary critics . They recognised in The Waste Land "the plight of a whole generation". 

My long poem, Grasslands, retains the general structure of The Waste Land, along with his use of marginal notes (which are not always meant to be helpful). For the rest, I am content with the judgment "Immature poets imitate". 

One cautionary note. Grasslands is a work of imagination. Its sources are of variable reliability, and include myth and legend, hearsay and gossip, as well as history. It incorporates a menagerie of human misbehaviour and frailty, drawn and fabricated from a number of squatters and their descendants located throughout the Western District of Victoria and the South East of South Australia. 


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