The Story So Far

By Tim Butler | Posted at 1:17

OK, so I'm going to give Mike the full 20 points on Eliot; he didn't get the title, but he did get some of the background. The quote is the beginning of “the Wasteland,” a poem made up of five smaller poems. The first poem, the one quoted, is “the Burial of the Dead.” Eliot wrote “the Wasteland” in the early twenties, in response partially to the collective societal shock and breakdown after World War I, and also his own personal nervous breakdown that brought him to Switzerland to recuperate.

Some of the other significance stems from the negative look at flowers and April. Eliot is nothing if not an allusionary poet. He is always alluding to other works, and what is a better known beginning to a poem in English literature than the beginning of Chaucer's prologue to the Canterbury Tales? While Chaucer's April is full of life budding, Eliot's reinvisioning of the world as a wasteland turns that happy image on its head.

Y'all should go read “the Wasteland.” It is worth it, just be forewarned it isn't easy, but I have confidence that my readers are up to a challenge.

Mike: 20 pts.
Jason: 5 pts.
Dave: 3 pts.

More to come.

Re: The Story So Far

With respect to your suggestion, and it's probably a good one at that, but I'll pass. After 4 years in EE and almost 13 years reading design and requirements (all under NDA of course) documents and such in industry, my reading is now for learning or pleasure.

Give me a good Winnie the Pooh book with my son anyday. ;-)


Posted by Mark - Dec 28, 2006 | 14:13

Re: The Story So Far

I really didn't like it the first time back in my first college tour. I like it less now that I have some idea what the man was about.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Dec 28, 2006 | 14:42

Re: The Story So Far

Okay, I'll take the 20 points, and the challenge. I'll go read the Wasteland (and Canterbury Tales.) One of the paradigms that intrigued me was in my undergrad years. It was possible to go to a tech school and a humanities school (like Union, Colgate, Hamilton,…), for a total of 5 years, and get a grounding in both areas.

Recently, I had a job with a lot of spare time, and went and read Moby Dick. That I enjoyed. So, Chaucer and Eliot are the next move.

As a side note, England took a beating in WWI - the whole “leadership” segment was decimated. As if West Point, Harvard, Wharton and Stanford were all nuked. England lost its place in world leadership (leaving a vacuum for Germany, USA and Russia). In a lot of ways, England felt the depression worse than the US.

Posted by Mike O - Dec 28, 2006 | 15:54

Re: The Story So Far

Mark, yes, Winnie the Pooh it ain't. :D

Ed, what in particular about Eliot? He had his flaws, admittedly…

Mike, wow, you are the daring one. Chaucer too? Have you read any of the Canterbury Tales before? If not, let me make at least one recommendation: find a version with modernized spelling. A lot of editions don't modernize the spelling, which makes it particularly difficult to read.

I hope you enjoy. If you want to start off easy concerning Eliot, you might go with “the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” before diving into “the Wasteland.” It's a relatively short (couple page) poem that would acclimate you somewhat to Eliot's unique style first. Maybe read it before you get a taste of Chaucer, then go back to the Wasteland after Chaucer. :mrgreen:

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Dec 28, 2006 | 23:24

Re: The Story So Far

Well, call me Isma-eliot :)

Thanks for the tips on Chaucer - I'll look for a modernized one. As far as Eliot, does Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats count? :)

Off to Prufrock. I've got an hour to read - it's been a funny day. One train had a loose pigeon, another was attacked by a person throwing potatoes. Staffing was so short I wound up doing a normal amount of work, all stuffed early into my shift.

Posted by Mike O - Dec 29, 2006 | 4:06

Re: The Story So Far

Okay, seriously, here's a thought about Prufrock -

Eliot came from the midwest (St. Louis). He started Prufrock as a grad student at Harvard, near Boston. The midwest, in general, is a fairly fluid, accessable, intertwined society. My wife's family is from Iowa, and the family gatherings include simple blue collar types to Northwestern students. And everyone in between. Lots of grace, “cultural glue” and respect. It would not be uncommon for singles to date at all ends of the spectrum. Marriage? Maybe a little more commonality.

Boston is a very structured society. I see Eliot trying to navigate the customs, protocols and “rules” of romance on the rigid playing field of Boston. In the early 1900's, New York City was becoming America's pre-eminent city, displacing Boston. There was a large degree of “insecurity/ineriority” as Boston lost it's premier status. (Not that Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago weren't valid models for expressing Americanism, just that Boston felt it had a lot to defend).

Modernism implies structure, part of Eliot is modern, and, thus has to defend structure. But, as Eliot grew, Boston declined, it would be six decades of “adolescence” before Boston grew up to stand alongside (although different) its “little brother” - New York City.

Ironically, at this season (Dec 25-Jan 1), this whole identity dynamics gave us Kwanzaa, born in a slightly different form, as Connecticut culture morphed from Bostonese to New York City-ese.

Posted by Mike O - Dec 29, 2006 | 4:36

Re: The Story So Far

I have read some of the Canterbury Tales and it wasn't a modernized version and I can remember absolutely nothing from it.

Like Mike, I am only familiar with Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and I might be able to quote some of that as long as Andrew Lloyd Weber kept close to Eliot's original. :wink:

I think Cat's is going to be in town or is in town… can't remember.

Posted by Christopher - Dec 29, 2006 | 19:16

Re: The Story So Far

I don't know why I added the ' in Cats. I am an idiot. The idiot has been sacked.

Posted by Christopher - Dec 29, 2006 | 19:17

Re: The Story So Far

All cryptic and muddy, yet lacking any of the fun in digging out the meaning. In other words, I felt I got no reward justifying the work. No real genius, just a fancy wordsmith who thought too much of himself. He loved dreary stuff but lacked the art of someone like Poe, who at least entertained. Also note I generally reject most of the academic opinion on poetry. I'm deeply opinionated about such things. As I think back over the English profs I've known, those who liked Eliot were the same bunch who came across as puffed up idiots. Oh, and the neo-orthodox Religion professors all liked him, too. :wink:

Posted by Ed Hurst - Dec 30, 2006 | 0:32

Re: The Story So Far

Now I remember the one thing most irritating about Eliot: He made vast assumptions about the lower classes and never bothered to actually find out it was false. To him, anyone who lived a routine life must be bored to tears, filled with despair, etc. It never occured to him folks could be contented and love Jesus even when living with grinding poverty. He never noticed they might be proud of anything.

I realize he lived in a particularly bad time in Western History, but that doesn't excuse his arrogant assumptions about the lower classes. A great many were strong Christians, and he had no room in his mind for such a faith.

Finally, I am deeply annoyed by his fascination with obscure references and subjectivism. People say he had finely crafted phrases; I say “baloney.” It's only craft if you like depressing, disjointed imagery with virtually no meaning. Chaucer was easier to follow, and I remember his characters and their stories. Eliot had no perceptable characters, adding in ghostly 3rd parties and other unidentifiable voices. Steam of consciousness is good for about 10 seconds; after that it's a case of taking onself too seriously.

Thus, the viewpoint of the educated lower class. :twisted:

Posted by Ed Hurst - Dec 30, 2006 | 4:00

Re: The Story So Far

Mike: Good observations. And, your note of his origin surely gave hint to part of my fondness for the poet. Practical Cats may count, although I think they are a lot easier to get into than his other works. The other works have a real value in the challenge. Nevertheless, his feline work represents part of his more optimistic later life (after his becoming an active Anglican, among other things).

Prufrock is chock full of social and class commentary, so it is even more prefect for your interests than I was even thinking. I really like the sense of rejection of the overly stiff, upper class that merely pretends to have knowledge (the “women come and go speaking of Michelangelo”). Prufrock reminds me of the Underground Man in Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (another work worth reading, which you might enjoy — it's a novella that has a lot of great observations packed in its absurdity). If you like Prufrock, I think you'll enjoy “the Wasteland.” It is more disjointed, but also full of interesting possibilities.

Eliot definitely is interested in structure, though in a artistic modernist sort of way. His literary criticism reveals a deep interest in building off traditional styles and forms, while ever moving forward. His poetry has a real sense of traditional structure to it that is missing in most free form poets, yet he isn't exactly adhering to a structure.

Christopher: You'd probably remember more from a modernized version of Chaucer, but…

I think memorization of Cats counts. ;) I wanted to see that when it came into town, but I guess I'm not going to.

Ed: Yes, it is something that runs with us neo-orthodox types. No wonder you don't like him. :mrgreen: I usually sense more of a critique of the upper class than the lower in Eliot, but perhaps that is just me.

He does spend a LOT of time alluding to things — in Prufrock it isn't too hard to follow, since a lot of it is stuff like the Bible and Hamlet. “The Wasteland” goes all over the place, and he does show off some of his obscure talents, such as reading Sanskrit, although I think the juxtaposition between St. Augustine and Buddha is rather fascinating. To me, I think a better comparison of Eliot's type of poetry would be Shakespeare's sonnets. It really isn't a story so much as a riddle. Prufrock does have a basic story though — it is really a mid life crisis put into a couple of pages…

(Incidentally, I generally have a lower estimation of Poe than many — though I like his detective stories and can take his other works in small bits at a time.)

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Dec 30, 2006 | 7:22

Re: The Story So Far

Tim loves a poet named TS
And compares his work with CS
While Mark, Chris and Mike
Find analogies oblique
Ed thinks his writing is BS

Posted by Mike O - Dec 31, 2006 | 4:10

Re: The Story So Far

That's good, Mike! :D

Posted by Timothy R. Butler - Dec 31, 2006 | 18:25

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