The Great War was a mass slaughter. It also became the catalyst for a social and cultural earthquake. But not until a young American poet began, in 1919, to address the desolate aftermath of this Armageddon did the interwar years begin to acquire the character we now associate with the 1920s, and also become explicable to the survivors of an apocalypse.
The Waste Land has attracted many labels, from the quintessential work of “modernism” to the “poetical equivalent to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring”. It was also one of those very rare works that both embody and articulate the spirit of the age. As such, it would be adored, vilified, parodied, disparaged, obsessed over, canonised and endlessly recited.
A generation after its publication, Evelyn Waugh would conjure the mood of interwar Oxford, and Charles Ryder’s initiation into university life in Brideshead Revisited, by having Anthony Blanche declaim The Waste Land at the top of his voice from Sebastian Flyte’s balcony.
The declamation is described in Chapter One of Waugh’s novel (Penguin, revised ed., p. 34):
After luncheon [Anthony] stood on the balcony with a megaphone which had appeared surprisingly among the bric-a-brac of Sebastian’s room, and in languishing tones recited passages from The Waste Land to the sweatered and muffled throng that was on its way to the river.
‘I, Tiresias, have foresuffered all.’ he sobbed to them from the Venetian arches;
‘Enacted on this same d-divan or b-bed,/I who have sat by Thebes below the wall/And walked among the l-l-lowest of the dead…‘
Where the Guardian’s columnist Robert McCrum got the idea that Anthony was shouting at the top of his voice is hard to say. Perhaps he was recalling one of the film adaptations. Mr McCrum might have made a bit more of Waugh’s admiration of Eliot’s work if he had mentioned that Waugh pinched the title for what many consider his best novel from this same poem:
‘…I will show you something different from either/Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;/I will show you fear in a handful of dust.’
Finally, there is another allusion to the poem in Waugh’s 1961 novel Unconditional Surrender where Everard Spruce wonders whether Ludovic, when he wrote”the Drowned Sailor motif” in his Pensees, may have “consciously had Eliot in mind?” Ludovic answers, “Not Eliot…I don’t think he was called Eliot” (Penguin, p. 51).