Some of you will be reading The Waste Land for the first time for this course, while others may have studied it before. It was an enormously influential poem in a number of ways, on both poetry and fiction, in the U.S. and beyond, which is one reason we are reading—and listening!—to it. Please be sure that you ARE listening to Eliot read the poem as we study it and that you are NOT looking for guides to it online. You need to read it and think about it for yourself, to begin with
It is fair to say that The Waste Land revolutionized modern poetry. How?
First of all, in its polyvocality, or use of multiple voices. We are accustomed, in lyric poetry, to hearing from one speaker at a time. The Waste Land juxtaposes a number of different speakers, and shifts between them are not explicitly indicated, as they would be in a play. The original title for The Waste Land was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” a reference to Charles Dickens’s novel, Our Mutual Friend. In addition to multiple speakers, the poem also incorporates snatches of poetry and sacred texts in languages other than English. The poem also includes many allusions to other texts, historical events, and so on. At the time, readers of poetry were more accustomed to this sort of thing: “Day is Done,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Second of all, The Waste Land does not use a consistent form, in terms of line length and rhythm and meter and rhyme; usually we understand this to mean it is written in free verse. However, in a 1917 essay called “Reflections on Vers Libre,” Eliot offered some important insights on the concept of free verse, which is not a very meaningful term:
“There is no freedom in art… the so-called vers libre which is good is anything but ‘free.’ “
“If vers libre is a genuine verse-form it will have a positive definition. And I can define it only in negatives: (1) absence of pattern, (2) absence of rhyme, (3) absence of metre.”
Yet all poetry has rhythm and meter of some kind: “Any line can be divided into feet and accents.”
“The most interesting verse … in our language … either … tak[es] a very simple form, like the iambic pentameter, and constantly withdraw[s] from it, or tak[es] no form at all, and constantly approximat[es] to a very simple one. It is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.”
“the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only true freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”
As Robert Hass wrote in his essay, “Listening and Making,” in rhythm on free verse, “Repetition makes us feel secure and variation makes us feel free.” We may find that instances of irregular or regular rhythm within a set meter can correspond to moments of intensity or emphasis, depending on context. Shifts from one rhythmic or metrical pattern, or changes in line length, make us wake up and take notice. Regular rhythm usually has some semantic effect: think of hip-hop, which does not follow a metronome but is not, obviously, without rhythmic patterns. And when the rhythm shifts, it often signals a change in mood, a new phase in an argument, etc.
Without a set pattern of rhyme, a poet’s choices of diction and syntax may become even more prominent and important, as they are not controlled at all by a predetermined formal pattern, and rhyme can still be employed to great effect.
Eliot continues, in “Reflections on Vers Libre,”
“The rejection of rhyme is not a leap at facility; on the contrary, it imposes a much severer strain upon the language. When the comforting echo of rhyme is removed, success or failure in the choice of words, in the sentence structure, in the order, is at once more apparent. Rhyme removed, the poet is at once held up to the standards of prose. Rhyme removed, much ethereal music leaps up from the word, music which has hitherto chirped unnoticed in the expanse of prose.”
“And this liberation from rhyme might as well be a liberation of rhyme. Freed from its exacting task of supporting lame verse, it could be applied with greater effect where it is most needed. There are often passages in an unrhymed poem where rhyme is wanted for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change in mood.”
According to Eliot, then, there may be no such thing as free verse…
“And as for vers libre, we conclude that it is not defined by absence of pattern or absence of rhyme, for other verse is without these; that it is not defined by non-existence of metre, since even the worst verse can be scanned; and we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse [formal poetry] and vers libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”
Here is functional definition of free verse: Poetry that does not follow, for long, any set formal pattern of rhyme, rhythm, meter or line length. Yet these elements (with the exception of rhyme at times) are nevertheless important, and can underscore semantic aspects of the poem.
In reading free verse, we (still) want to:
– Notice patterns and variations in the rhythm and meter, and discover and appreciate the semantic nuances of these patterns and variations.
– Pay attention to variations in line length, to enjambment (when the sentence runs over the line) and endstopping (when the end of a sentence coincides with the end of a line) and to
half-meanings, produced in a line before the sentences is completed on the next line. For instance, “But at my back from time to time I hear / The sound of horns and motors” (ll. 196-197). Here the half meaning of line 196 is a tone of apprehension and suspense, created by the break between the verb, “hear,” and its object, what the speaker hears. What is approaching the speaker from behind? This line alludes to Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy Mistress, “But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” In Eliot’s poem, one hears an approaching motor car instead, which deflates the apprehension a bit. Only the banal sounds of approaching motor cars, not Time reminding us of impending death.)
– Describe the syntax and notice what phrases and words are emphasized by the word order and by repeated syntactic patterns.
– Notice any rhyme, and consider whether it is used “for some special effect, for a sudden tightening-up, for a cumulative insistence, or for an abrupt change in mood.”
– Notice other aural patterns, such as assonance, alliteration, and near rhyme.
So, to return to the revolutionary aspects of The Waste Land: the polyvocality and allusive nature of The Waste Land, and the fact that it is written in free verse, make it a challenging read for those who would hope to understand it quickly and easily. Be patient with yourself and with the poem as you read it.
It can be tempting to constantly jump to the footnotes, but that makes for a very disjointed reading of the poem. When you read it for the first time, if this is the first time, LISTEN TO ELIOT reading it, try to go with it. Enjoy what you can of the language, the images, the rhythm. There will be allusions you don’t get; don’t fret. Do notice when a new speaker seems to come in, and take notes about the mood of each speaker’s section, and how it seems to shift.
The second and third (and maybe fourth and fifth and sixth, etc.!) times you read the poem, READ IT ALOUD YOURSELF, and feel free to refer to Eliot’s notes for the poem, which briefly explain the allusions, as well as the other secondary sources available in our Norton Critical Edition, which explain the allusions in detail. But don’t let the understanding the allusions take over your primary experience of the poem itself.
By the time we conclude The Waste Land, you will have a good sense of the different speakers in the poem, thanks to your own close reading and to an audio lecture I will post about it and our related secondary readings at the end of next week (by February 3rd). I won’t go into more detail now because I don’t want to preempt your primary experience with the poem.
So, for our second Blog Response, I want you to zoom in on a short passage from the first three sections of the poem in which we shift from one or more speakers to another. Choose one of these passages, which I have chosen because they definitely include more than one speaker:
Answer these questions below about it, and as you prepare to answer them, look up a few words from the passage in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online (you will find it on the CSUB library webpage, here; you need to be logged in). Choose the definitions that seem most relevant to the context in which the words are used. Acquiring a larger vocabulary and understanding the subtle connotations of individual words in context are essential to critical reading and writing. The words you look may be unfamiliar words, or they may be familiar words used in a surprising way. Cite the definitions as relevant in your answers to these questions.
1) Who are the speakers in each of the juxtaposed passages, what are they speaking about (and to whom, if there is an explicit audience), and how do specific word choices, in context, illustrate the mood of each speaker? What is that mood? (Don’t feel that you need to identify them precisely. Say what you can infer about each speaker.)
Be specific, quoting and analyzing evidence from the passage and, as relevant, the OED. Don’t expect the evidence to speak for itself; explain how it illustrates your answer.
2) How do the speakers in the juxtaposed passages seem to relate or connect to each other, to the extent that they do, and why do you think the two passages are juxtaposed?
Be specific, quoting and analyzing evidence from the passage and, as relevant, from the OED. Don’t expect the evidence to speak for itself; explain how it illustrates your answer.
3) How did you respond to listening to Eliot read the poem? Then, for fun, read and listen to this blog post I co-authored in the sound studies blog Sounding Out!, and let me know your thoughts about it. How might it influence how you listen to Eliot and other poets in this course?