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TS Eliot's The Waste Land: the radical text of a wounded culture | Roz Kaveney

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The poem draws on draws on the Christianity of Eliot's polite and cultivated youth yet at best offers little consolation

Siegfried Sassoon once wrote a poem complaining about a concert whose audience listened to The Rite of Spring as if it were "by someone dead / like Brahms", instead of rioting and yelling abuse. Indeed, most of the great works of 20th-century modernism have become part of the canon. People may still occasionally make disobliging remarks about Picasso, say, but we are used to TS Eliot's The Waste Land it is assimilated, and no longer regarded as an awful warning of the debased, degenerate way in which things are heading.

It's worth remembering just how radical it was. Its use of non-linear sequence, of sudden cuts from one thing to another, precedes by a year or two Eisenstein's invention of montage in the cinema. One of the few precedents for its technique is the obscure Paris: A Poem by the minor Bloomsbury figure Hope Mirrlees, published by Hogarth Press in 1920, but there is no evidence that Eliot had read it; the coincidence seems never to have cropped up during his later close friendship with Mirrlees. It is a far more controlled piece than Paris, with a far more considered prosody in each of its many sections and sub-sections. That is partly because The Waste Land had the advantage of having been edited by Ezra Pound, who tightened it up and gave it much of its focus. Paris is nonetheless worth mentioning because both Mirrlees and Eliot were doing something that was in the air. It was an attempt to find a way of doing to poetry what Picasso and Braque had done with cubism, a way of seeing things in a new way, of abandoning smoothness for truth.

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