Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read a passage from “The Waste Land,” click below:
I promised I would return to T. S. Eliot at least a couple more times in this column, and I am doing so today. On a recent visit to St. Louis, Missouri, I tried to find the places where Eliot was born and grew up. The site of the house where he was born is now a vacant parking lot with views over what remains of a once proud industrial city.
That is appropriate. The man who was born here became the great poet of renewal and the revelation that things can be saved even at the thirteenth hour. Though the full truth came to him later, even early in his career he knew that something always flowers.
A few years ago I led a seminar on Eliot’s poetry with a group of graduate students unfamiliar with his work. The poem with which he is most famously associated is called “The Waste Land,” and their reaction to it was pretty bleak. It seemed to make no sense, they kept saying—just a jumble of half-remembered quotations, references, and stories. They were not wrong, of course, though they had missed the point: which is that this is the point.
Still, there is a moment in the opening movement of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead,” that always strikes the reader. We are thrown into a kaleidoscope of mixed memories and an Ecclesiastes-like passage in which the author promises to show us “fear in a handful of dust.”
And what does Eliot do, immediately after this, but present a moment of pure bliss. We know what it meant to him, or to the many voices that chatter away throughout the poem, because in the original edition the scene returns, before being rubbed out and erased. Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound famously took his editor’s pencil to the original version of “The Waste Land,” and it is good for Eliot that he did. But one excision saddens me.