T. S. Eliot Saw All This Coming

One hundred years after the publication of The Waste Land, its vision has never been more terrifying.

illustration of apocalypse with man's horizontal face half-submerged in river
Daniele Castellano

Why is April the cruellest month? Why did the chicken cross the road? Why do people watch golf on television?

The first question I can answer.

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April is the cruellest month because we are stuck. We’ve stopped dead and we’re going rotten. We are living in the demesne of the crippled king, the Fisher King, where everything sickens and nothing adds up, where the imagination is in shreds, where dark fantasies enthrall us, where men and women are estranged from themselves and one another, and where the cyclical itch of springtime—the spasm in the earth; the sizzling bud; even the gentle, germinal rain—only reminds us how very, very far we are from being reborn.

We will not be delivered from this, or not anytime soon. That’s why April is cruel. That’s why April is ironic. That’s why muddy old, sprouty old April, bustling around in her hedgerows, brings us down.

Imagine, if you will, a poem that incorporates the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the blowing up of the Kerch Bridge, Grindr, ketamine, The Purge, Lana Del Rey, the next three COVID variants, and the feeling you get when you can’t remember your Hulu password. Imagine that this poem—which also mysteriously contains all of recorded literature—is written in a form so splintered, so jumpy, but so eerily holistic that it resembles either a new branch of particle physics or a new religion: a new account, at any rate, of the relationships that underpin reality.

Now imagine this poem making news, going viral, becoming the poem—hailed over here, reviled over there—such that everybody is obliged to react to it, and every poem yet unwritten is already, inevitably, altered by it. And now imagine that the author of this poem—the poet himself—is a haunted-looking commuter whom you half-recognize from the subway platform.

You’re getting close to The Waste Land.

When Ted Hughes met T. S. Eliot in the 1960s, he was deeply struck by the older man’s physical presence: the strength of his hands (“thick, long, massive fingers”) and the slowness and deliberateness with which he ate. When Eliot spoke, Hughes remembered later, “I had the impression of a slicing, advancing, undeflectible force of terrific mass.”

This—long-chewing Eliot, consolidated Eliot, powerfully and ponderously integrated Eliot, extending his personality over the young poet—was not the Eliot who wrote The Waste Land. No indeed. That Eliot, 33-year-old poet/critic, acclaimed but still struggling, was in pieces. He was in quietly raving and silently groaning fragments. He had to be. Hypercivilized as he was, and dressed with bleak propriety for his day job at Lloyds Bank, Eliot on the brink of The Waste Land was nonetheless a shaman, a real one, and to manifest the dire spiritual condition of the tribe, he had to undergo—in his buttoned-up way—the regulation shamanic dismembering.

So the Eliot of 1921, as he prepared to deliver himself of “a long poem that I have had on my mind for a long time,” was picked and pecked at by demons. In the foreground, a miserable marriage, a life-sucking job, and the strain—for an American introvert—of participation in London’s highly charged literary scene. In the background, apprehensions of profound disorder, with accompanying nervous symptoms. And finally, a visit from his mother. Charlotte Eliot, 77 years old, resident of Greater Boston, popped over to see her son in London, stayed for 10 weeks, and left him prostrate with neurosis. “I really feel very shaky,” Eliot wrote to his friend Richard Aldington, “and seem to have gone down rapidly since my family left.” Some brain kink, some malady of consciousness, was sinking him repeatedly into obscure states of horror. His feelings, he said, were “impossible to describe.”

The bank, presented with his difficulties—imagine that proto-HR meeting, that one-act play—gave Eliot three months’ sick leave. He departed London in October—first for a month-long rest cure in the English seaside town of Margate, and then for Lausanne, in Switzerland, where by the waters of Lac Léman he placed himself under the care of Dr. Roger Vittoz.

Returning to London via Paris in January, he gave (as he later wrote) “the manuscript of a sprawling chaotic poem called The Waste Land ” to his fellow reality-shifter and most ardent advocate: the flame-haired American nutter-prodigy Ezra Pound.

Great editors, like great record producers, know where to make the cut.

It’s a secondary creative act, doubling the primary one: to breathe upon the formless waters, to infuse the Kháos, the sprawling manuscript, with the Logos. Teo Macero—New York City, 1969—having recorded hours upon hours, spools upon spools, of Miles Davis jamming sulfurously and sorcerously with a crew of possessed sidemen, takes out his razor and makes Bitches Brew. Ezra Pound—Paris, 1922—licks the nib of his pencil and slashes entire sequences, entire movements, from Eliot’s new poem.

Pound was a maker and a shatterer, prancing around London with his isms—his Imagism and his Vorticism and his anti-Georgianism. His ear for poetry was almost feral. Eliot trusted him completely. So across the manuscript Pound went prowling: He jabbed and bracketed and sliced, and his marginalia popped like fireworks. “Too loose” … “Too tum-pum” … “B-ll-s” … “Make up yr. mind” … Once in a while he approved: “O.K.” or (more Poundian) “Echt,” German for “real.”

By the time he was done, The Waste Land had been cut by half.

So what is it, The Waste Land ? It’s a poem of 434 lines, in five sections.

More than half of it is quotes or near quotes from or allusions to other pieces of writing. All sorts of writing, highbrow and lowbrow. If you’ve ever been around somebody whose psyche is collapsing, you know that this is what sometimes happens: They start spewing quotes. They start spewing references, innuendos, broken-off bits, debris. Then they start connecting the debris.

Whether this has always been the case, or whether The Waste Land prophesied and inaugurated an especially modern type of crack-up … That’s an interesting question.

Myth No. 1: It’s difficult.

I first read The Waste Land when I was 11, precocious little short-trousered bastard that I was, and no doubt I was a better reader of it then—which is to say a purer and sharper reader—than I am now. I didn’t find it difficult, because I had no expectation of understanding it. The question What does it mean? did not occur to me.

Myth No. 2: It’s depressing.

Au contraire, it’s totally bloody exhilarating. It’s like watching Evel Knievel. How many buses can the crazy biker fly over? How deep an abyss can the poet traverse? Across how large a synaptic loop can the vital spark jump? “Complimenti, you bitch,” Pound wrote to Eliot after reading the revised poem. “I am wracked by the seven jealousies.” Envy: the purest compliment one writer can pay another.

We begin, the poem begins, under the earth. Like bulbs or corpses. “Winter kept us warm.”

And then—I could say abruptly, but part of the spooky genius of The Waste Land is that none of its dozens of sudden tonal or thematic zigzags, its jump cuts and non sequiturs, feels abrupt—we are in middle Europe somewhere, in the mountains, drinking coffee and tobogganing with some aristocrats. Fresh air, the slopes. But the voice changes again: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” If The Waste Land has a narrator, it is this voice, this weird druidic voice: creeping, recurring, visionary, sardonic, anti-romantic, almost malign. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Which is the opposite, if you think about it, of seeing the world in a grain of sand.

Another voice, a lover disabled, made impotent—finished off, nearly—by an apparition of love: “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed.” Then we meet Madame Sosostris and her “wicked pack of cards,” her tarot. And with her cheesy clairvoyance, her fortune-telling powers, she glimpses it: the universal disaster. “I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.” Here we all are, us, in a herd, on the wheel. The poetry rises, apostrophizes, becomes super-famous: “Unreal City …”

That’s the first section, or some of it: “The Burial of the Dead.”

A woman seated before a mirror brushes her hair with stagy, fiery gestures. The scene is massively ornate and over-sensory, a smothering of jewels and carvings and reflections and glittering facets and beauty potions and “sevenbranched candelabra.” On the wall, above the “antique mantel,” is a picture of Philomela, after her rape by King Tereus, becoming a nightingale. Someone enters, a kind of cringing half person—“footsteps shuffled on the stair”—and the woman speaks.

Pound was not The Waste Land  ’s only editor. Eliot also ran early drafts past his wife, Vivienne—a risky move, given that the poem’s second section, “A Game of Chess,” drew upon and dramatized certain awful scenes from their marriage. And given also that Vivienne—vivid, quivering Vivienne—was, outwardly at least, even more unstable than Eliot. She cheated on him with Bertrand Russell; she blew her top; she lay in bed and screamed. An anxious woman speaks in this section, frenziedly interrogating her husband: “What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?” Not exactly a loving portrait.

Nevertheless. On the manuscript, next to the line “My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad,” Vivienne—who would end her days in a mental hospital in North London, long separated from Eliot—wrote “WONDERFUL.” What a trouper.

“All things, O priests, are on fire … The eye, O priests, is on fire; forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire.” So speaks the Buddha in his “Fire Sermon,” the Ādittapariyāya Sutta.

But the third section of The Waste Land, “The Fire Sermon,” is all sludge. This part of the poem is oozing and biological and not fiery in the slightest. In fact, it makes one long for fire. Or for a flamethrower. There are violated human bodies; there are sluggish bodies of water. The River Thames. Lac Léman, where Eliot had lately submitted himself to the healing hands of Dr. Vittoz. (Healing hands: I mean that literally. With a gentle and expert touch, he would palpate the heads of his patients.) And then the canal.

“A rat crept softly through the vegetation / Dragging its slimy belly on the bank / While I was fishing in the dull canal / On a winter evening round behind the gashouse …”

Time to meet the Fisher King. Who is he?

Well, he’s a number of things, in a number of stories. But in one of those stories, in the Arthurian myth that wrinkles its way through The Waste Land, he’s a man who sits and seeps and sadly fishes while his kingdom crumbles around him. He has a mysterious thigh wound, or groin wound, that won’t heal. The holy grail, in this story, is that which, at the end of the quest, heals the king’s seeping wound. And/or binds up his injured psyche. And/or restores the land to fertility.

This, this scene by the canal, is as Eliotic as it gets: a deep under-image of the Fisher King, deep psychic history, flickering and fizzing behind the right-now reality of the London fishermen. And they’re still out there, those London fishermen; you can see them any night of the week, sitting shapelessly on their bait buckets, dipping their lines into the greeny-black seam of Regent’s Canal. On the far bank, a huge disused gasholder rears its frame bonily into the city sky. This is the London of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, the London of The Waste Land, the London of now. It’s all still there.

Wounded groins. Drooping night anglers. Nervous wives. Are you picking up a slight atmosphere of sexual difficulty?

Enter Tiresias, “old man with wrinkled female breasts.” Tiresias, the blind prophet of Greek mythology who interrupted the lovemaking of two large serpents, two writhing, sexy serpents, and as a penalty was changed into a woman for seven years. So on the sex war, Tiresias has the answers for us—or some of them. “He knew both sides of love,” as a 1916 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses puts it.

For the next 42 lines of “The Fire Sermon,” Tiresias will be our guide. With Tiresias, who knows both sides of love, we will lurk, we will peep, we will snicker as a young woman (“the typist”) invites a young man (“a small house agent’s clerk”) into her bedsit and bad sex ensues. Terrible sex. A scene of muffled or dissociated coercion. The meter goes jaunty-iambic, smutty-iambic, with an ABAB rhyme scheme, as if to emphasize the mechanical, tum-pum nature of the thing. “She turns and looks a moment in the glass, / Hardly aware of her departed lover; / Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass: / ‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’”

Eliotic irony: Peering down upon this woman from a great height, itemizing snootily her “food in tins,” the laundry drying on her windowsill, the narrowness of her existence, the narrator (who is Eliot, who is Tiresias) also sees her sexual predicament with a special rarefied/horrified clarity. With a livid, frozen empathy. With the pity that she, allowing one half-formed thought to pass, cannot permit herself.

Pound’s cut to the fourth section, “Death by Water,” was the big one: 83 lines of wandering, wild-weathered sea narrative, in fluent blank verse, part The Tempest, part The Perfect Storm. “And no one dared / To look into anothers face, or speak / In the horror of the illimitable scream / Of a whole world about us.” Pound pencil-poked and worried at these lines, a jab here and a slice there, and finally cut the lot. Gone.

What was left, at the tail end of all this storm action, was a brief, perfect Elizabethan-style lyric. Ten lines. “Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead …” Glimmeringly discrete, with its own deep-sea music. Phlebas is a drowned sailor. The sea dissolves his body, picks “his bones in whispers.” Reversion to the elemental. All very final, all very peaceful. “He passed the stages of his age and youth …” He’s like the Knight, slain and rotting, in Ted Hughes’s Cave Birds: “His submission is flawless. / Blueflies lift off his beauty.”

This is what the Poundian cut could do for you: By removing the extraneous, however high-quality, it put a tremor of white light, a space echo, around what remained. Too bad he wasn’t available 20 years later, when Eliot was writing his Four Quartets. His priestly, intermittently waffling Four Quartets. Post-Pound it would have been Two Quartets. (You can’t tell me that a line like “I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant— / Among other things—or one way of putting the same thing” would have made it past the Pound pencil. Make up yr. mind.)

Unfortunately, by that point Pound’s brain had been eaten by anti-Semitism and crank economics, and he was making radio broadcasts for the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.

Is there anti-Semitism in The Waste Land ? No. But there might have been. It bubbles up nastily elsewhere in Eliot’s poetry, and it snickers around the edges of his criticism. Things written in his 30s and 40s would have to be answered for in his 70s. (“I did make the statement which you quote, but I have ever since regretted making it in that form, for it was not intended to be anti-Semitic.”)

But The Waste Land is free of it. By a happy accident. Or by the intervention of the Muses. The poem is superior to the poet. The poem sees more clearly.

“After the torchlight red on sweaty faces …” Darkness. Brute arousal. A lynching; a burning; a seizure; a mob. Charlottesville. We—as in: humanity—are never getting away from this line.

The last section of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said,” is ringing with aftermath, with a note that peals and resounds and hunts for an echo in all the hardest and rockiest places. Crucifixion has happened. Murder has happened. God is dead. The pottery shards are telling it. Stones are tolling like bells. The note gathers power and becomes a shock wave, destroying cities. “Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air” like high-altitude explosives. “Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria.”

Here comes Jesus, into this blown landscape. Or here he half-comes. Equivocally shows up, the hooded Christ of the hangover. “Who is the third who walks always beside you? / When I count, there are only you and I together / But when I look ahead up the white road / There is always another one walking beside you.”

Eliot is doing his time trick, mapping an anecdote from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914–17 Antarctic expedition onto the 24th chapter of the Gospel according to Luke. Shackleton and his two men, wading desperately across the snowfields of South Georgia island, silently sensed or fancied that they were accompanied by an enigmatic other. “I know that during that long and racking march,” Shackleton wrote in his 1920 memoir, South, “it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

The disciples in Luke, heads low after the Crucifixion, trudging along, fall into conversation with an inquisitive stranger on the road to Emmaus. The stranger is the risen Jesus. They do not recognize him.

We can imagine them thinking, Who’s this guy?

The last 39 lines of The Waste Land are an apocalypse.

Static hums in the dryness, little monsters twitch (“bats with baby faces”), and then—the storm. Civilization goes, the mind goes, and the God of the Upanishads speaks in syllables of thunder, the whole scene strobed by lightning bolts and the shock editing of life flashing before your eyes. “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” wonders the poet/Fisher King, with pathetic coherence, as London disintegrates behind him and his brain swarms with quotes and quotes and quotes, “the poem’s great and final collapse”—as Matthew Hollis puts it in his brilliant new book, The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem—“of cascading imagery and fleeting phrases, like a cine-reel of a disappearing Europe.”

“Shantih shantih shantih,” it ends. Sanskrit for “peace.”

Drone of the void. Of the mind suddenly emptied.

Okay. So where are we now, 100 years later, with The Waste Land ? The sludge is rising; the flames are rising; the demagogues are getting louder and the brownshirts are cracking their knuckles.

The poem’s discontinuities no longer startle us. Rather, they feel like home. All the sections, all the voices, all the tones—they hang together like … like … like “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Like an episode of Rick and Morty. Like a conspiracy theory.

Our inner condition, meanwhile, has not altered. We’re all trailing our lines in the dark water. We’ve all sustained the secret wound. You’ve got your holy grail, and I’ve got mine. And whether we can ever find them in this lifetime, our respective grails—get our hands on them and apply them to our suffering—I don’t know.

The Waste Land was written by a very disturbed man, a fastidious man possessed by visions of squalor, a man unable to distinguish the fall of civilization from the fall of his own psyche. It was written in the after-roar of one war, with another boiling up on the horizon. It was marginal testimony—imagine its fate without the encouragement of Pound—that became instantly central.

Why? Because it couldn’t be denied. Because it was brain-thunder. Because it was magic, and it ripped the shaman apart. Because it itemizes our illnesses like no poem before or since, offering nothing, nothing at all, but the stark elation of seeing the thing as it is.

This article appears in the January/February 2023 print edition with the headline “The Prophecy of The Waste Land.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.