“It takes your hand off the panic button”: TS Eliot’s Waste Land 100 years later | TS Eliot

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Of all modernist literary works, The Waste Land by TS Eliot is one of the most difficult to piece together – as countless inconsolable English students have realized. How to break the codes of its influences and multiply the footnotes? Are sections of it autobiographical, inspired by the poet’s nervous breakdown and unstable marriage? Why do the opening lines of the poem decree that April, with all its lush promise of spring and renewal, is the “cruelest” of the months? Is it truly one of the language’s greatest works, or – as the poet once said – just “a piece of rhythmic growl”?

In April, the public will have the opportunity to examine these questions again, perhaps even to find answers. To mark the 100th anniversary of The Waste Land – actually first appeared in October 1922but a little poetic license seems warranted – a six-day festival will take over the City of London, filling 22 churches with responses to Eliot’s poem and his afterlife. The title, appropriately, is Fragments.

“There are so many different elements in The Waste Land, so many different ways to react,” says co-curator Séan Doran. “It’s kind of a dream job.”

Unreal City: Ruby Philogene prepares to sing Wagner at St Vedast aka Foster Church. Photography: Matthew Andrews

Anyone wanting a dry textual analysis should look elsewhere: there is no single straightforward reading of the poem offered. Instead, Doran and fellow director Liam Browne have programmed a jamboree of artistic reimaginings, many of which are musical, blending – as the poem does – dirty, dirty popular culture with the highest of art. One event features a piano transcription of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which Eliot heard the year before the poem was released and which had a profound effect on him. Another is assembled around Messiaen Quartet for the end of time, written in a Nazi POW camp and also shot through with a precarious sense of faith in the darkest of circumstances. The festival ends with a tribute to music hall star Marie Lloyd at Wilton’swhom Eliot passionately – perhaps incongruously – admired as a “genius” and whose obituary he composed a week before The Waste Land was first released.

The festival will be split into five multi-part nightly ‘celebrations’ and audiences are encouraged to drift between the individual events, sampling, for example, a new frame of lines from Orkney-born composer Erland Cooper’s poem en route to concerts sea ​​shanties or gospel music. Mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene will perform songs by Wagner, one of the many artists and writers mentioned or alluded to in Eliot’s poem.

“There are suggested routes,” says Doran. “But you can veer off and enjoy other sites as much as you can. Or just sit for 50 minutes with Gavin Bryars’ Blood of Jesus Has Never Failed Me Yetand slowly sink into it.

Would Eliot agree? He’s laughing. “I hope he will say that we built something real on the poem. We put it back in place. »

The festival begins with a ‘secular sermon’ delivered by Jeanette Winterson in the old nave of Southwark Cathedral, which will explore The Waste Land’s examination of faith and belief. Eliot was an avid student of the sermons of seventeenth century preachers such as Lancelot Andrewes – buried a few yards from where Winterson will speak – and the poem shows Eliot struggling to find form for his Christianity, which culminated in his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927 (his friend Virgina Woolf didn’t think he was serious; he absolutely was).

The poem probes some of the deepest questions that exist, says Winterson: “It’s a slow point in the spinning world. This encourages you to take your hand off the panic button and breathe a little deeper. There’s a real meditative quality to it, if you put the time into it.

Having first encountered The Waste Land as a student, Winterson refreshed her memory by listening to Alec Guinness’ famous mid-’70s recording, witty and surprisingly lyrical. “Each time there would be a deeper place to go, an unexpected place,” she told herself. “It’s filmic, almost visual. Every time you think you know where you are, it moves somewhere else.

How does she approach Eliot’s indisputable anti-Semitism? “It was real, and I don’t excuse it,” she replies. “But I’m not a fan of cancel culture.”

Brought back to life… St Mary Woolnoth Church, whose name was verified in Eliot's poem.
Brought back to life… St Mary Woolnoth Church, whose name was verified in Eliot’s poem. Photograph: Nathaniel Black/Alamy

Spread across the city’s historic churches, including 15 designed by Christopher Wren, the Fragments Festival highlights something not always appreciated about The Waste Land: that it is one of the greatest poems about London ever written. Southwark Cathedral is a stone’s throw from London Bridge, the site of one of the poem’s most ominous meditations on mortality (“Under the brown mist of a winter’s dawn, / A crowd sank on London Bridge, so much, / I had not thought death had undone so many things”). As a clerk at Lloyd’s Bank, Eliot worked on King William Street, immediately north of the bridge; he will be passed in front the dark architecture of St Mary Woolnoth church and heard what the poem calls the “dead sound” of his clock every working day.

A later section takes us inside what looks like a Cockney pub at closing time (“Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight…”), while one of his most The evocative lines lead the reader east along the Strand, to a dive bar on Lower Thames Street where the mandolin plays and “where fishermen bask at noon”.

“We tried to make it site-specific,” says Doran. “There is so much in the poem about place, especially London.”

Some of these varied sounds and images will be refracted in a new acoustic piece designed by the French sound artist and composer Pierre-Yves Macé and settled in St Mary-Le-Bow on Cheapside. Played on a loop, it will sample a babel of voices and characters drawn from the text to create a kind of sound universe for this most noisy poem.

Jeanette Winterson will deliver a “profane sermon”.
Jeanette Winterson will deliver a “profane sermon”. Photography: Sam Churchill

Known for his pieces that blend concrete sounds and musical textures, Macé was drawn to the polyphonic texture of Eliot’s writing, which – as well as excerpts he heard on the streets and pubs of London – draws heavily from a range of European influences, from Apollinaire and Baudelaire. to Dante and Wagner.

“Little by little, we had a cast of 10 voices, including French-speakers, Italians and German-speakers”, explains Macé. “Then I made music from the spoken words.”

Although The Waste Land is considered a keystone of English literature, it is much more than that, he continues. “The poem is completely European, in my opinion.”

Not just European, says British-Indian pianist Rekesh Chauhan, who will perform one of the closing events of the festival. Inspired by the very last words of the poem, “Shantih shantih shantih” – a Sanskrit phrase taken from ancient Hindu scripturestranslated by Eliot as “The peace that passes understanding” – Chauhan will draw inspiration from the classic Indian ragas to offer a meditation on calm and rest.

Eliot studied Sanskrit and was fascinated by the connections between different belief systems; Chauhan argues that despite its anxiety and turbulence, the poem shows a sense of life beyond.

“The Waste Land is dark, but there’s also a lot about regeneration, renewal, springtime,” he says. “I really hope it comes out.”

It is perhaps a lesson to be learned from The Waste Land, a century later: created in the shadow of a world war and a devastating global pandemic, it asks if fragments of the old order can a day be reassembled or if, to move on, we need to start over.

These themes exploded in 2022, somewhat oddly, Doran observes. “One hundred years later, here we are again: the Covid, the world war, the sense of the fragility of life, even climate change. The poem couldn’t be more relevant for now.

But above that, he argues, it offers a way to navigate a world where so much is jittery and uncertain. “You just have to listen to his strength and his spirituality. It’s all there, waiting.

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