“It’s all Latin to me.”
“No no. I think you’ll find it’s also Greek, German, French and Sanskrit.”
So formally begins my project to spend the next 6 months reading The Waste Land and exploring it, its meaning, its references, its context and its place in (modern?) culture.
I knew enough to understand this was going to be a personal challenge – why set the task of the project otherwise? – but a first detailed reading shows just how long and steep this climb is going to be.
As we approach the end of June (one month gone already! There’s been a lot happening, which goes to show how difficult the pull of news and events and life can be, especially when a further intention of this project is specifically to create some space, focus and flow for myself in one tiny area of the physical and mental worlds) I have read The Waste Land in detail three times. After my first read I wrote down the themes and dimensions of the poem that I could see, all of which have many questions associated with them.
To try and provide some structure to how I’ll get into The Waste Land, below are these very initial notes and some associated questions.
Themes, or meaning
Knowing what The Waste Land means is the whole point of this, really, so I can’t expect myself to capture and understand all of the themes and meaning of it in one go! The themes I have detected so far, though, are:
- Time and seasons
- Geography and nature
- Reality and mysticism
- Our everyday lives against the tide of humanity
There will be others.
There’s not much point expanding on these just now, so I won’t.
These feel to me more like the technical aspects of the poem – how it achieves its effects and conveys its themes. They seem to include:
- Perspectives and relationships – it’s hard to know exactly who is talking or is being talked about at any given point of the poem. Who are the characters? Why are the characters? What do the different perspectives bring?
- Structure – why is The Waste Land structured as it is? What is the purpose of this and what effect does it create? How does this compare to other poetry of the time?
- Rhyme and repetition – sometimes there, sometimes not. Why?
- Language(s) – there are at least six languages used in the poem. What are the translations? Why are different languages used? What does a different language add that the English equivalent couldn’t convey? What motivates the inclusion of an additional barrier to understanding the poem?
- Humour – unexpected, but definitely there. To what end?
It’s not much, but it’s a start.
It is probably to be expected, but I feel more comfortable in thinking about the dimensions of The Waste Land rather than its themes. As someone with an untrained eye for poetry (and literature more generally) there is an element of comfort in questioning the practicalities of the poem rather than grappling with its themes. This, alas, will have to change.
But for now this will suffice. The question in my mind, though, is how to progress now? – a question I’ll return to in a further post.