I have a theory about poetry. (This should come as no great surprise; I have a theory about pretty much everything.) My theory is that poetry is verbal music -- a concerto for the English language, if you will. Like music, poetry is free of meaning and is therefore free to strive for aesthetic effect with sound, rhythm and composition. Some people disagree with this, but then, some people will disagree with anything.

(I'll note parenthetically that some people even disagree with my theory of music, and believe that song lyrics aren't disposable, and that a lousy song is good because the lyrics allegedly have some sort of meaning. I had a rather involved discussion on this topic with a friend in college, and it ended with him trying to justify the undisputed excellence of the Mortal Kombat theme song by appealing to the brilliance of its lyrics, which I excerpt here: "Test your might. Test your might. Mortal Kombat! Fight! Mortal Kombat!" It takes all sorts, I suppose.)

Anyway, my theory of poetry perhaps explains why I absolutely love T.S. Eliot -- more than anyone this side of Lewis Carroll, Eliot writes poems that are bursting with brilliant micro-composition. It's no accident that so many novels use Eliot lines as titles. So when I stumbled on the Norton Critical Edition of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land at Barnes and Noble one day, I just had to pick it up.

The Waste Land is, perhaps even more than the rest of Eliot's poetry, famously incomprehensible. To fully understand the dedication alone requires one to be fluent in Latin, Greek, Italian, and English; to recognize quotes from Dante; and to have a familiarity with Greek myth. And then there's the poem itself, which is rather more wide-ranging in its literary borrowing, and adds the additional lingual requirement of German.

The Norton edition does its best to demystify the poem. It has, of course, the de rigeur explanatory footnotes; but it goes rather beyond that by also including substantial excerpts of the material to which Eliot alludes. The book has excerpts from the Bible, St. Augustine, Dante, Buddha, Ovid, a host of 19th/20th century works which have passed into obscurity, and a bunch of other stuff. The amount of excerpted text far dwarfs the poem itself. Following those source excerpts, there are a ton of critical reviews and essays about the poem. In short, if you want to understand this poem (to the extent to which it's unambiguously understandable, anyway), this is the edition to get.

For my own part, I quickly realized that I really had minimal desire to do so. Reading some of the source material for allusion context was interesting and illuminating -- but the critical essays held absolutely no attraction to me. There is a reason that I did my best to weasel out of college literature courses, despite my love of reading (and general fondness for capital-L Literature) and it's that I despise critical essays. So, I'm afraid that I still have no advanced comprehension of The Waste Land, alas -- but I can report that it's a beautiful piece of textual music.

And if I might briefly depart from commentary to share a bit of prospective amusement with you: When I look at my server logs, I see that a lot of people find their way to my archives by searching for an analysis of the themes and motifs of The Canterbury Tales; I can't help but imagine that a whole bunch of helpless students are going to find their way to this entry, particularly ones who are searching for information about the use of Christian and Buddhist themes in Eliot's poetry, and those who are interested in the interrelationship of Modernism, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. To these students, I say: The Internet can really suck sometimes, huh?


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