Reading History: TS Eliot’s The Wasteland


I open this blog in my little Reading History series by saying that what follows offers nothing that I have the arrogance to imagine is any kind of new perspective on one of the English language’s most famous poems. I am no literary critic, nor was meant to be. This is more of a reflection on what reading this poem, and Eliot’s poetry more generally did for me as someone coming to poetry first through school and later as part of life.

Somewhat terrifyingly, as we approach the beginning of a new school year, I note with some shock, and not a little awe, that it is fully ten years since I first moved to Cork as an eager, and vastly overconfident (about how well read I was), young student to study Arts at UCC. I was lukewarm at best about drama, and novels I loved, but couldn’t get into the meat of unpacking them. Then, and now, for me poetry was the thing.

The period between 2004-2006 when I was in the senior cycle and preparing to do my Leaving Certificate (and doing Transition Year), was when I was first really fully properly exposed to poetry. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the experience of learning about poetry for my Leaving Certificate was that our redoubtable teacher, Mr Whittle, was insistent that while studying to the exam, and preparing appropriately, was paramount, we nevertheless covered at least six poems by all eight of the poets that were on the syllabus for the Leaving Certificate, 2006 edition.

If I recall rightly, in those years, that meant engaging seriously with the poetry Elizabeth Bishop, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, Michael Longley, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and, the maestro of early twentieth century modernism in many eyes, TS Eliot.

The sheer weirdness of Manley Hopkins’ poetry – the neologistic aspect to his work, his strange annotations of pronunciation – best exemplified for me in his poem The Windhover, shifted permanently my capacity for imagining what poetry could do. But to read Hopkins’ work and to then move on to the seemingly otherwordly poetry of Eliot was absorbing. For my teenage brain, it provided a great deal of ideas and many awful bits and pieces of poems were scrawled into the margins of my copy of New Explorations. the boook has long since been dumped, but I can still remember furtive inspiration to rob baldly ideas from the poetry in the pages of that textbook to write my own juvenalia into margins mid-lesson.

I grew to really enjoy Eliot’s poetry but remember especially being intrigued by his strange religious journey in life, recounted very much abridged, in the back of New Explorations.  Oddly, I also recall the weirdly muted discussion of Elizabeth Bishop’s sexuality from thosebiographical sections of that same textbook.

Squaring his many apparent contradictions – his evident enjoyment of the popular with his erudition and the edits of Pound – were all part of the pleasure of discovering ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, the stillness of ‘Prelude’ and the baroque obscurantism of ‘The Waste Land’. In Mr Whittle’s class I think we battled most with section II. A Game of Chess from ‘The Waste Land’. If I know this with any certainty, it’s only because it was this section of the poem with which I was most familiar when, in college, I took a modernisms class under Lee Jenkins and Alex Davis. This was the class that forced me to really engage with the poems, and the poet, who had – Hopkins excepted – helped me make my way into a world of twentieth century poetry that was not, to say the least, conventional.

My much scrawled on copy of The Waste Land & other poems from college.

I grew especially to love the entire mythology that grew up around ‘The Wasteland’. Of particular interest to me being the vicious re-edits of Pound, and the red herring notes. It reemained for a long time somewhat inspirational to how I could re-edit and re-imagine the poetry was beginning to write more seriously myself. From that period when the only book of poetry I owned as a teenager was New Explorations, my most abiding memory is of struggling really hard to imagine the scene as painted in the opening lines of A Game of Chess.

At base too, something of my unease with the term poet  – one of several hats which I wear depending on the circusmtances – may be rooted in this early preference in my poetry reading life for Eliot. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of English Verse, Christopher Ricks writes of Eliot, whom he describes as ‘the central poet-critic’ that he ‘preferred the dry, well-nigh clinical term practitioner.’ I have often said I am writer of poems, but not as such, a poet – wary in part of all the baggage that comes with such a term. I think the idea of being practitioner is a good one. I have always felt my efforts to be fairly workmanlike. Unlike Eliot – or any number of other serious critical readers I have known, I have no real critical faculties to be a critic of poetry except as far as my own tastes extend, but undoubtedly,without encountering him inside the turquoise blue covers of New Explorations a decade and more ago, I couldn’t even have the temerity to describe myself as a practitioner, a writer, of poetry.

Byrhtwold spoke: Michael Smith’s Maldon

For those of you who missed it, the obituary of well-known Irish translator, writer and editor Michael Smith is now available to view on the Irish Times website. In the obituary, they note particularly his role as a translator of Spanish. However, my main encounter with Michael’s writing is his collection Maldon & Other Poems. At home this weekend, I was going back over the poem and had initially noted the differences between Michael’s version and those of Richard Hamer and a much older prose translation which I had a copy of from the 1920s. Revisiting those few notes about the differences, I’ve decided to write them down and try to tease out why I found Michael’s version so appealing.

I’d like to take a quick look at one small passage from his translation of the Battle of Maldon, which gives perhaps some insight into what he achieved as a writer and in which it is easy to discern why he was held in such high esteem. At the very end of the Battle of Maldon, a poem that describes a battle which took place in Essex in 991 C.E. Just as the fragment comes to an end, a warrior, Byrhtwold, an old retainer is rallying men to fight. RK Gordon in his short introduction writes that ‘though a fragment, it is a magnificent record of heroism. Its spirit is best expressed in the words of Byrhtwold.’ It is to this particular bit of Maldon then that we will turn our attention. In Gordon’s prose translation from 1926 we are given the following:

Byrhtwold spoke; he grasped his shield; he was an old companion; he shook his ash-spear; full boldly he exhorted the warriors: “Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener, courage the greater, as our might lessens. Here lies our leader all hewn down, the valiant man in the dust; may he lament for ever who thinks now to turn from this war-play. I am old in age; I will not hence, but I purpose to lie by the side of my lord, by the man so dearly loved.”

This prose translation is dry enough, though not without its pleasing qualities, especially the lines ‘heart the keener, courage the greater’. Gordon’s translation into prose however clearly serves a function of comprehension first and literary merit second. Compare that to this rendering of the same passage, this time from Richard Hamer’s A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, first published in 1970:

Bryhtwold spoke out, he raised his shield aloft

And shook his spear; an elderly retainer,

Courageously he taught the warriors:

‘Mind must be harder, spirit must be bolder.

And heart the greater, as our might grows less.

Here lies our leader in the dust, the hero

Cut down in battle. Ever must he mourn

Who thinks to go home from this battle-play.

I am an aged man. Hence will I not,

But I intend to die beside my lord,

Give up my life beside so dear a chief.’

This is substantially different to Gordon’s prose, less economical too perhaps, but in keeping with Hamer’s own notice that the translations in A Choice were done in verse ‘in the faint hope that a verse translation might capture something of the spirit of the original’. This is a more lively version, where Byrhtwold not alone spoke, but spoke out. More than grasping it, he raises his shield aloft. He seems a more lively elderly retainer than in Gordon’s prose translation. Michael Smith, in his 2004 version of this same passage, surpasses any sense that the likes of Gordon or Hamer will have had of  making the passages either simply comprehensible, or as Hamer tries to make it: not alone comprehensible but enjoyable. Here is Michael Smith’s take on Byrhtwold’s speech:

Byrhtwold spoke out,

raised up his shield.

The old retainer

brandished his buckler,

exhorted his warriors,

spoke out fearlessly:

‘Our resolve must be tougher,

the heart bolder,

courage be greater,

as our might lessens.

Here lies our leader

cut down in combat,

a good man in the dust.

May he ever regret

who thinks to forsake

and flee from this fray.

I am old and wise in life

and will not go from here.

By the side of my loved lord

it is my desire to lie.’

Byrhtwold again speaks out, projecting his voice to the assembled mass of warriors rather than just speaking, as Gordon has him doing. Although Michael Smith does not have him raise his shield ‘aloft’, nevertheless his buckler is ‘brandished’, brandishing an act of defiance. He speaks out too, not just once, but twice. The second time, buckler brandished, he speaks out ‘fearlessly’. It is the fearlessness that makes what follows stronger than either Gordon’s boldness or Hamer’s courageous speech. There’s nothing to fear perhaps quite like a fearless old warrior. The words Michael Smith placed into the words of Byrhtwold were not just more fearsome, but more expressive of why they should be feared. To leave the battlefield for Smith’s Byrhtwold is not merely to think again about fighting or to think of turning from the fight. Smith’s Byrhtwold is of the view that it would cause regret to forsake their dead lord. Forsake is a much greater feeling than regret at turning away. The final lines of Byrhtwold’s speech in Smith’s version is powerful precisely because this Byrhtwold would see the leaving of the field as a forsaking, thus he is a ‘loved lord’, an almost Anglo-Saxon-esque compound minus the hyphen, as opposed to ‘a man so dearly loved’ or ‘so dear a chief’. ‘So’ and ‘dear’ are made superfluous by the alliterative quality of the ‘loved lord’. So it was that Michael Smith managed in his version of Maldon to make, in my mind, Byrhtwold truly speak: not just out, but across time, in a powerful and memorable fashion, demanding reading and re-reading.

Book Review: Ireland and the Czech Lands

Growing up in Waterford city on the same street as the Kilbarry site of Waterford Crystal’s factory and visitors centre, I was only ever vaguely aware of the names of Karel Bacik and Miroslav Havel, the two men who were granted permission by Ireland’s Industrial Development Agency (IDA) to begin again the business of glassmaking and glassblowing in Waterford after both men’s livelihoods were taken from them following the Communist liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Continue reading “Book Review: Ireland and the Czech Lands”

The Art of Football

Football is, in the minds of many people, perhaps the quintessentially modern, that is to say modernist, sport. Unsurprisingly then, many of the most well-known, and aesthetically appealing visual representations of football, particularly in the work of Italian and even English futurist-influenced painters,attempt to capture the dynamism of the movement of the footballer in action. Continue reading “The Art of Football”