He Do “The Waste Land” in Different Voices

The following review was published in the Summer 2022 issue of the Ver Poets members’ newsletter, Ver Poets Poetry World. To join Ver Poets and receive a free copy of the newsletter together with the other benefits of membership visit their website here.

He Do The Waste Land in Different Voices – the Centenary of T S Eliot’s Poem

(Drama on 3, BBC Radio 3, Sunday 10th July)

By Stephen Claughton

T. S. Eliot’s modernist masterpiece, The Waste Land, was first published in October 1922, when it was included in the inaugural issue of The Criterion, the literary magazine that Eliot himself edited. (Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press brought it out in book form a year later.) To mark the centenary, the BBC has broadcast a dramatized reading of the poem, prefaced by comments from a number of academics to set it in context. The title refers to the poem’s working title, He Do the Police in Different Voices, a quote from Dickens’ Dombey and Son about a boy who reads aloud from the newspapers. (The poem is famously littered with quotations and allusions.)

When it first appeared, reviewers regarded The Waste Land as representing the voice of a generation, an expression of epochal despair following the devastation of the Great War, and when I studied the poem in the 1960s, it was still generally regarded as a commentary on the fragmentation of Western civilisation. The stress now is more on Eliot’s personal life, in particular the breakdown he suffered, partly as a result of his unhappy marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, although she is defended here as the woman who, while very nearly killing Eliot himself, kept the poet in him alive. (In contrast, Eliot thought that to have married his fellow American, Emily Hale, would have killed the poet in him.) Having obtained leave of absence from Lloyd’s Bank, where he worked as a clerk in the Colonial & Foreign Department, Eliot convalesced first in Margate (‘On Margate sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.’) and later in Lausanne (‘By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept’).

The poem is modern not only in its subject matter (with references to gas houses and polluted rivers), but also in the way in which it is organised – a collage of fragments jostling for attention. Surprisingly, no mention was made of Ezra Pound’s (il miglior fabbro) radical re-editing of the poem, which gave it its final form. (For the imagist, Pound, it was all about precision and concision, paring away anything extraneous or below par.) Nor was there any mention of other modernist poets, in which there has recently been a resurgence of interest, notably Hope Mirrlees, whose long poem, Paris, also uses collage to capture the essence of the city and was published by the Woolfs two years before The Waste Land.

It is, of course, also the centenary of the BBC and we heard the view expressed that in composing The Waste Land Eliot, who would go on to write Murder in the Cathedral and other verse dramas, had anticipated the radio play. More fancifully, the fragmentary form was compared with twiddling the dial of a valve radio, tuning in and out of various stations in search of the right one. (The production actually used this as a sound effect.)

Did Eliot anticipate the radio play? Despite his obvious interest in drama, I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced, nor was I sure that a multi-voiced reading added to rather than detracted from the poem. If the purpose of The Waste Land was to try and make sense of emptiness, suffering and loss by creating a mosaic or pattern out of disconnected fragments within the same textual space, assigning elements to different voices seemed to me to work in the opposite direction, pushing apart the pieces that the poem had brought together. 

There were pluses: you heard snatches of song actually sung and the Sanskrit words at the end of the poem, ‘Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata’ (give, sympathise, control), were clearly spoken by someone who knew the language. On the other hand, while the cast, which included Adrian Edmondson as ‘The Seer’, read well as actors, I found the acting a problem, with the heavy emphases and pregnant pauses causing further fragmentation.

I didn’t object to ‘What are the roots that clutch …’ in “The Burial of the Dead” being declaimed through a megaphone, as if by a street preacher (it reminded me of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited doing the same thing), or to the background noises in the pub scene at the end of “A Game of Chess”, but intercutting the section beginning ‘What is that sound high in the air’ (in “What the Thunder said”) with sound clips reporting violent events, including the attack on the Twin Towers, the Coventry Blitz and Kennedy’s assassination, came perilously close to interfering with the textual integrity of the poem. This was odd when the programme notes stress that: ‘Every word in the text is from the authorised text including the line reinstated by the Estate in the 2015 published edition of The Waste Land, and never before broadcast.’ (It’s the insertion of ‘The ivory men make company between us’ after line 137.)

That said, I enjoyed listening to the production, which I thought was an interesting experiment, although not the first dramatization of the poem. The introductory comments, too, were well worth hearing and the BBC is to be applauded for allocating an hour to a single poem (albeit a major one). Anything that prompts people, including me, to read or re-read The Waste Land, is welcome, even if next time I’ll be sticking to the printed version.

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3 thoughts on “He Do “The Waste Land” in Different Voices

  1. I’m sorry to have missed this broadcast, despite your reservations, for as you say Stephen anything is welcome that might introduce new readers to Eliot. Very many years ago I heard a radio reading from Joyce’s Ulysses which turned me on to that great book. Incidentally I liked your reference to Hope Mirrlees: her Paris deserves a radio reading, doesn’t it!


    1. Yes, I was surprised they didn’t mention her or Pound. Perhaps they were trying to keep it simple. It’s a pity you missed it. I caught up with it on BBC Sounds, when Ver Poets asked me to review it, but it looks as if it’s out of time now and no longer available. I’m sure they’ll repeat it sometime.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope so. I think it’s likely.

        Liked by 1 person

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