Wastelands

I originally wrote and gave this paper in 2014. After a weekend reading T.S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ for the first time, I decided to commit this paper to my blog. In the paper, I compare the fallout of conflict in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ form Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ and Titania and Oberon’s quarrel in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (the featured image here is Vivien Leigh playing Titania in 1937).

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Under this conference’s umbrella theme of war and literature, I am specifically interested in investigating the aftermath of conflict, seeing what literature has to say about war when it is over. T.S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ is a seminal 20th century text, published four years after the 1918 Armistice and I would like to suggest that it is involved with a negotiation of the condition of modernity in the wake of the first terrible ‘Total War’. It is a text that in a number of ways bemoans war because of the death and decay it leaves behind it, but is simultaneously a violent and aggressive attack on preconceived notions of form and meaning, suggesting that it relies on war, indeed it is an act of war, to create something new and radical. I have restricted my close reading of ‘The Wasteland’ to the first part, ‘The Burial of the Dead’.

The title ‘The Burial of the Dead’ suggests a final action that commits dead bodies to the ground, keeping the spheres of the living and the dead completely separate and thereby allowing the living to continue with life. However, the poem opens with an image that suggests otherwise:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land

We are presented with living things, lilacs, rising out of a ground that belongs to death, but is not necessarily dead in itself because it is involved with growth, not stagnation and inertia. Thus a paradox emerges: whilst the ‘burial’ of the title suggests a movement of taking extinguished life down to the ground, the opening of ‘The Wasteland’ suggests a movement of death bringing something life-like back to the surface. The poem emphasises that this is a ‘cruel’ movement instigated by April, a month that traditionally has a cultural relationship to spring and new birth, but here becomes the site of death becoming an inescapable presence that infects life and the living. The snow of winter covers this ‘land’ which enables us to temporarily ‘forget’ its disturbingly deathly quality and, potentially, the conflict that made it this way, (Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow’) but April serves as a reminder that the earth is teeming with deathliness.

This is cemented by the speaker’s reference to lilacs, which are flowers with a mythological history: Syringa (the botanical name for lilac) was a nymph who hid from the amorous advances of the woodland god Pan by turning into a bush of flowers. Therefore, lilacs are involved with disguise and have a history that suggests that figuratively, there is more to them than what meets the eye. Within the context of ‘The Burial of the Dead’, the lilacs are masked harbingers of death, metaphors of bodies belonging to death that are hidden but nevertheless inherent to the post-war landscape. The use of the verb ‘breeding’ to describe the production of the lilacs complies with this, a word that is defined in the OED as ‘bringing to the birth’. It points to the bodily, inorganic quality of the lilacs that re-enter the sphere of the living hidden within the form of a flower. This image is echoed at the end of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ when the speaker calls out to Stetson:

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”

There has been a reversal in the terminology of growth and surfacing employed: whereas the lilacs are bred out of the ground like bodies, the corpse, it is proposed, will grow out of the ground like a flower, sprouting and blooming. This implies a commonality between the flowers and the corpse, suggesting that they are exchangeable and fluid.  The distinctions between them are done away with because they are both objects coming forth from death’s land, and we can see that the landscape inhabited by the living is at the mercy of a deathliness that seeps into it as a result of horrendous conflict, making the two states of life and death indistinguishable.

This can also be seen in the speaker’s description of London;

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

The repetition of ‘so many’ points to the extraordinary number of people that the war brought into contact with death in one way or another. The image suggests that in the aftermath of conflict, death controls and oversees existence, stripping life away from people left behind and reducing them to a deathly state whilst still alive. As a result of an existence defined by death blurring itself with life, the city and the people within it are ‘unreal’, occupying a liminal and disturbing position that they might not be able to properly identify themselves, hence the interchangeability of the lilacs with the corpse as previously mentioned. Death’s infection of life has become hegemonic, and is not challenged and questioned by the inhabitants of the city.

The image of the ‘brown fog of winter dawn’, a pervasive meteorological nuisance, helps to exacerbate the murky and indivisible landscape of deathly life, and also helps to develop the poem’s melancholic and depressive tone. It is at this point that I want to draw a comparison between ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, a text produced 300 years earlier, where we are also presented with a traumatised landscape that has resulted from conflict. Eliot’s ‘fog’ recalls the image of the fog produced by Titania in her description:

But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,

As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

Contagious fogs.

This is one of numerous images of the sickly landscape described by Titania that has resulted from her conflict with Oberon over an Indian boy. The personified seasons and elements have been neglected by the fairies, and avenge this abandonment by unleashing nature’s fury, causing chaos, sickness and ‘distemperature’ through floods, rotten harvests and ‘rheumatic diseases’. Most importantly, however, and in a way that links to Eliot’s wasteland, is that Titania shows how these have caused the seasons to change and merge with one another:

[…] the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evil comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.

Titania warns Oberon that the seasons have inadvertently undone themselves and have exchanged and adopted the appearance of each other, in the process throwing off what categorises them individually. The identities that contain and separate them from each other have collapsed so that now it is no longer obvious what time of the year it is supposed to be, causing confusion and bemusement amongst human beings. This motion is similar to what is at work in ‘The Wasteland’, where the boundaries separating death and life have disintegrated and death has blurred and intermingled with life, manifesting explicitly in the realm of the living, meaning that it is now difficult to successfully differentiate between the two states. However, there is a significant difference between ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: Titania delivers this speech during the middle of the conflict. Not only is there time for the situation between them to be resolved, which over the course of the play is achieved, she and Oberon have the power and the capability to reverse the deconstruction. As the fairy Queen and King, the parents of the seasons and the elements, they can restore the status quo through reconciliation and ending their conflict.

However, in ‘The Wasteland’, the conflict is already over and the speaker and humanity as a whole are left in a world that has not been restored to its previous state, but has seen the irreversible movement of death entering into the sphere of life and having an unwavering presence amongst the living. The speaker is not in a position, indeed no one is in a position to solve this, which is evident in the speaker’s assertion: ‘I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing’. Titania and Oberon know that if they reconcile and take up their parental responsibilities, the seasons will once again don the right appearance. However, the speaker in ‘The Wasteland’ is trapped between the states of life and death and has neither the power nor knowledge to resolve the conditions, and does not know how to continue existing within them. This is because death is the ultimate powerful force at work that has made itself an unquestionable presence that undoes people’s relationship with life, rendering them deathly whilst still alive. The poem suggests, therefore, that there is nothing more powerful and controlling than death in the post-war wasteland.

We have seen that the post-war environment that the speaker of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ presents is one that is mournful and aware of the presence of death that conflict has brought into the world. I would like to argue that this war has bred another war:  ‘The Wasteland’ as a poem that has been produced in a damaged and deathly world, has no choice but to carry on attacking, suggesting that the only way to exist is to perpetuate conflict. This it achieves through an attack of established poetic conventions, taking on the quality of the death it presents by rigorously undoing the standards we are familiar with. One of the last phrases of ‘The Burial of the Dead’s’ curious ending is ‘You! Hypocrite lecteur!’ which translates as: ‘You! Hypocrite reader!’ We can see that the speaker constructs a notion of readership through the use of ‘you’ that it immediately challenges by addressing the ‘you’ in French and by accusing ‘you’, this reader, of being a hypocrite, itself a curious insult that suggests that we are guilty of falsely professing some kind of virtuousness. I would argue that it points to the futility of people attempting to live life forgetting to acknowledge or pretending to not acknowledge that death is an almost tangible feature of the post-war landscape. Nevertheless, we can see that the poem aggressively sets up a concept that we might be familiar with, the position and audience point of a reader, but immediately undercuts it, throwing it into doubt and uncertainty through the use of a different language to the predominant one employed, and by using it imperatively to challenge and question. This is one of a number of ways in which the poem destabilises comfortable notions of poetic address, form and meaning, attacking conventions and norms in a threatening and war-like manner to create something new. Another example of this would be the endless references and inferences that are made in the body of the poem and for which Eliot provides notes at the end, which playfully lead to new references and inferences. It thus aims to send one on nothing short of a wild goose chase to uncover a meaning that the poem suggests, in doing so, does not exist.

Therefore, the poem, in this its first part, presents life post-war as not a unified thing, but is something pertaining to, undone and controlled by death. As a result of this, poetry itself is fragmentary, and can do nothing but arise from the ashes of one war to begin another, on the poetic form, and our conceptions of form and meaning. This, ‘The Wasteland’ suggests, is not wholly regrettable, and is an unmistakeable and undeniable condition of modernity post-1918.

Love Note – Ave Maria

Amongst the usual merry-go-round of Christmas songs, one song has captured my undivided attention this year: Frank Sinatra’s rendition of Ave Maria. It’s not necessarily a Christmas song; it’s not necessarily a song that I have cared much about in the past; and I only really started caring about Frank Sinatra two years ago when ‘One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)’ literally stopped me in my tracks.[1] This year, however, Sinatra’s rendition of Schubert’s much-loved piece has been the gentle yet sublime musical offering that I have needed during this busy time.

The combination of Sinatra’s deep voice with the soaring choral accompaniment is both uplifting and deeply comforting. He sings a popular Latin interpretation of the song that describes Mary mother of God being with ‘us’ in the hour of our death. This, understandably, could be read as extremely morbid, but for me, feels more like a lullaby. On a basic level, the speaker both entreats and asks for everything to be alright, but through the reassuring ebb and flow of the choir, the plucked violins, and Sinatra’s grounding dulcet tones, we get the sense that everything is already more than alright. How can anything be but OK when we use the present moment to tap into hope, appreciation and gratitude?

I would describe myself as spiritual, rather than religious, and whilst Ave Maria has some serious Catholic affiliations, thanks to the previously mentioned Latin prayer that was later attached to Schubert’s composition, there is ample room for further interpretation. Schubert originally composed Ave Maria as a musical setting for Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake: more specifically, Ave Maria is a musical dramatization of Ellen’s song ‘Hymn to the Virgin’, whispered by the heroine Ellen whilst sheltering in a Goblin cave with her exiled father. There are some problematic references to Mary being ‘undefiled’ and ‘stainless’, which reinforce the virginal standard of ‘perfection’ that has been used to hit women round the head with for hundreds and hundreds of years. Some of the lines, however, in their appeal for some kind of divine maternal protection are beautiful:

‘The murky cavern’s heavy air

Shall breathe of balm if thou has smiled;

Then, Maiden! Hear a maiden’s prayer,

Mother, list a suppliant child!

Ave Maria!’

The poem entreats a greater, spiritual power for comfort, safety and support; to dispense the dank weight of the air in the cavern with the gentle smile of benevolence and clarity. Whoever has felt like a captive in the churning and chattering or their own mind knows the yearning for relief and for lightness; the cavern that Scott describes here, trapping Ellen, could easily reflect the headspace of anxiety, depression and worry.[2] A calm, serene smile in the face of adversity, uncertainty and pain is a wonderful image of transcendence and acceptance. Whilst we may remain critical of the traditional, patriarchal imagining of femininity here, this is undeniably a prayer from woman to woman: Ellen appeals to Mary’s young womanhood here, so uncannily like her own, yet not her own. Ellen is at once a woman like Mary, but so in need of nurture and support, like a small child; Mary’s small child. She appeals to a maternal figure so much greater and more powerful than herself, currently trapped in a desperate predicament. In this reaching, in this supplication to something beyond herself for direction and guidance, she finds peace and joy in the declaration: Ave Maria! It is that same feeling I alluded to earlier of asking that everything be made OK, whilst knowing in the very asking, that everything in this present moment is OK, is as it should be.

Ave Maria then, whilst used in many religious circumstances for this most important time of year for Christians, is also welcoming beyond those confines. Life is so uncertain and awe-inspiring, and it is pieces of music like Ave Maria, and what it has come to mean for me, that soothe our fears. It takes us out of the worries and patterns that keep us stuck and afraid, and opens us to the possibility that if we look beyond ourselves into the mysterious, strange and beautiful world and Universe around us, that we can find inner stability and peace.

 

 

 

[1] My first experience with Ave Maria (as with most of my favourite pieces of classical music) was watching Disney’s Fantasia. The film finishes with the calm parade of pilgrims after the chaos and profanity of Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

[2] This also reminds me of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, which could easily be a metaphor for the existential crisis or Dark Night of the Soul that many, if not all of us, will encounter at some point in life: ‘Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark / For the straightforward pathway had been lost’.

#HandwrittenShakespeare – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

As a belated birthday present, I was taken to see an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Newstead Abbey, Byron’s melodramatic yet fabulous Gothic ancestral pile in north Nottinghamshire. This play is one I am particularly familiar with, having first studied it at age 11, performed in it at 14 (Snout the Tinker for life), studied it again at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at university, and then having given a paper on it at a student conference.[1] An evening spent on a picnic mat with a bottle of plonk, watching the Chapterhouse Theatre Company performing such a lively interpretation of the play was gorgeous.

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Sitting in the audience of this version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reminded me of a number of things. Primarily, that The Mechanicals pretty much steal the show every single time with their farcical production of ‘The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe’, a nod to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which was written and performed in the same year as A Midsummer Night’s Dream.[2] The Shakespeare geek in me just loves that these two plays sit alongside one another in the Shakespeare chronology: Romeo and Juliet is so elevated in our culture as the epitome of tragic romantic love, yet the next play that Shakespeare wrote effectively takes the piss out of it. It suggests that the tragic escalation of Romeo and Juliet should not be beyond comedy (there are many moments in the play that nod to the comic tradition of the carnival-esque) and that the meta-theatrical clap back in A Midsummer Night’s Dream should not be underestimated or under-acknowledged.

The performance also reminded me that for all the cultural grandeur of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the big names treading the boards in West End productions, some of the best Shakespeare performances I have seen have been the rabbly raucous ones; those productions that have been comprised of well-trained but little known actors, who truly capture the playfulness and humour of Shakespeare’s writing. It is often forgotten that Shakespeare plays were the 16th century’s chief forms of ‘low brow’ popular entertainment, and I love productions in the 21st century that are aware of this and attempt in some way to recapture that.[3]

Finally, I was reminded that alongside being funny and magical, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of moments that are steeped in poignancy, taking the play well beyond its cultural box of ‘fairy story cum romantic comedy’. One such moment came in the following lines delivered by Theseus, which I felt inclined to write out in full:

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Handwritten Shakespeare - AMND 2

It is important to acknowledge first the racism implied in ‘Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt’. This line suggests that people who are in love are so frantic in their minds, that they see beauty akin to that of famed, Classical beauteous woman Helen of Sparta/Troy in a face that is not to be thought of as beautiful. In a move that speaks volumes of the 16th century’s perception of non-white non-Europeans, Shakespeare opts to conflate ugliness with the facial characteristics of Egyptians; because as people of African heritage, they were not thought to conform to standards of Western beauty and physical perfection.[4] This is extremely problematic and as a result, and as much as I love Shakespeare and the rest of this quotation, we cannot let him off for explicit racism.

The specific line from Theseus’s little speech here that had me reaching for the Shakespeare Concordance after the play had finished was: ‘The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact’. [5] I was interested in the intertextual presentation of these three groups of people. This is because they are described as almost amorphous in Theseus’s discussion of the power of their collective imagination.[6] Imagination, he suggests, throws up images and distorts perceptions of reality with ‘frantic’ visions of ‘devils’, amongst other things. This culminates in the longer description of the poet, whose pen turns ‘the forms of things unknown’ into ‘shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name’. This suggests that what the poet accomplishes is the giving of life to what could have remained intangible and unreal, effectively a nothing. The irony of this is that the poet, like the lunatic and the lover, seemingly has no choice or control over their imagination. It is imagination that ‘bodies’ forth the forms of things unknown, which suggests that whilst thoughts and images are ‘nothings’, they are brought into language and expression through a corporeal being or experience.[7] This suggests that the imagination is something different and, perhaps, more complex and ambiguous than reason and rationality (‘Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends’). It has the fluctuating, changeable nature of all bodies but also possesses the physical corporeality that grounds us all in life. As such, it is a powerful almost tangible thing that is fluid, changeable and very difficult to pin down.

Indeed, Shakespeare takes this further by emphasising in the last four lines how this powerful, bodily imagination can bring about both the greatest joy and greatest fear, what Theseus describes as the ‘tricks’ of strong imagination. A modern translation of ‘tricks’ would be that imagination is a manifestation of some kind of cognitive dissonance: it is so powerful that it effectively establishes a disjunction between what it perceives as real and what is actually real. When something joyous happens, imagination establishes something or someone in the mind that brings that unparalleled joy; out of fear, imagination would convince us that a mundane bush is a ferocious bear. As a result, we can see that imagination, in the way that it acts uncontrollably and almost independently of a rational self, can disorient and confuse.

Theseus’s example of the poet, lover and lunatic suggests that these three groups of people, as a collective, demonstrate this intense, two-pronged relationship with imagination. To have such an active imagination requires the mind to be performing at a certain level of creativity, which welcomes those who, inadvertently or otherwise, express themselves with words and love. Furthermore, an intense relationship with imagination might also feasibly be called an intense relationship with anxiety. T.S Eliot famously wrote that ‘anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity’, and I think this could serve as a reading of Theseus’s speech here. Eliot suggests that creativity is accompanied and perhaps even enabled by the presence of anxiety; that expressions of writing and love walk hand-in-hand with what the 16th century would use rudimentarily describe as ‘lunacy’ or ‘madness’. I would add, in Theseus’s vein, that having an active imagination can be read here to be the greatest blessing when it comprehends and brings forth in a tangible bodily way great joy and positivity. In an equal and opposite way, however, imagination can also be the greatest burden and responsibility, when fear distorts our conception of the world around us and ourselves. It is entirely possible to argue that anxiety is the manifestation of creativity (and active bodily imagination) gone awry.

[1] Just in case you’re interested, I used Jean Baudrillard to explore Lysander’s seduction of Hermia through the use of figurative language, brought the concept of Bottom’s ‘translation’ into an ass into discussion with Jacques Derrida’s ‘On ‘Relevant’ translation’ and used my conference paper ‘Wastelands’ to compare Titania’s description of the changed and damaged seasons through her conflict with Oberon with T.S. Eliot’s war torn landscapes in part one of his poem The Waste Land, ‘The Burial of the Dead’.

[2] The Beatles seemed to think so too. I love this very grainy footage of them performing ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxXkdYr5JYg

[3] As well as the Chapterhouse Theatre Company, I refer to Filter’s absolutely hilarious production of Twelfth Night that I saw at HOME in Manchester, where members of the audience were encouraged to sing, clap, dance about and some brought onto the stage to drink tequila and play catch. We were all then jointly chastised by Malvolio for gabbling ‘like tinkers’ and for having ‘no respect of place, persons, nor time’. This line seemed all the more pertinent because the fourth wall separating the actors and the action from the audience had been completely comically demolished.

[4] I would like to show some awareness here that still today, people from non-white BAME backgrounds struggle to have their beauty, alongside their stories, perspectives, talents and intelligence, respected as much as those of white people. Whilst many BAME men and women have blazed trails for black beauty in fashion, music and film, popular culture is still slowly catching onto the fact that beauty encompasses more than skinny able-bodied white men and women.

[5] The Shakespeare Concordance is an excellent reference point for finding recurring words throughout Shakespeare’s plays. I searched for ‘poet’ in the Concordance when trying to find this specific line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/

[6]Before I continue, I think it’s important to say that I haven’t written about Shakespeare in a long time and never, I think, outside of an academic setting. Historically, I have been quite reluctant to talk about Shakespeare beyond an analytical or theoretical perspective, because I am highly sceptical of the value of reader response criticism. I have realised quite recently, however, how much I have missed throwing myself into the poetry, tensions and conversations all taking place within and between Shakespeare’s texts. I am hoping that in this new ‘Handwritten Shakespeare’ series that I want to bring to the ‘Creative’ section of Harping On that I can explore a new casual and therapeutic way of approaching Shakespeare: handwriting a quote I find interesting and then unpacking very briefly what is going on.

[7]  Thus also pointing to the idea that ‘nothing’ is always potentially ‘something’.

Skull Money

Skull MoneyI remember standing in a queue at a cafe

Or getting ready to get onto a bus

Faffing with coins

And I told Annie

‘I don’t want to use this one:

It’s new and shiny’.

What. Why.

‘It’s pretty. I like it! I’m keeping it’.

She promptly told me off

For fetishizing money.

It’s true:

It’s all a fabulous golden fiction.

Who cares if it’s old or new, pretty or worn.

It’s all alloy and rotten

And irrational.

By accident I was given two skull coins

By two faceless strangers

And that felt more appropriate

To fetishize.

True, they are trying to

Commemorate William THE BARD Shakespeare

and some kind of pre-historic pre-coinage

Neanderthal person who lived in British Gibraltar;

But it feels quite alright

To keep two shining nothings of death and capital

Together and bright

Jingling about in my pocket or purse

Waiting, like my life, to be spent.

 

Photo: @E_S_Harper Instagram