by Robert M. Woods
In all of our Great Books based programs we exalt the primary readings, unmediated by commentaries, critical theories, jargon ladened treatises, and a mountain of secondary works explaining what a given author meant within his work. What we generally do is encourage the students to jump right in and start swimming. By asking interpretive questions and applying the Socratic method of clarifying and qualifying, the student has better understanding of the reading. Of course, we all know that sometimes answers to our questions about a reading are not to be found within the work and sometimes we need additional outside, background materials to assist a fuller reading. Typically, our students read introductions at the end and not the beginning.
All this is stated to provide the exceptions. Sometimes there are those writings about the Great Books that offer such assistance and are so rich with insight that the secondary work in conversation with the primary work comes a work well worth reading and analysis. One could immediately think of T.S. Eliot’s reflections on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Another would be Russell Kirk’s ruminations on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is a dense work, but we demonstrate to our Great Books students every spring that they understand much more of it than they think. We also tell them about Kirk’s work about The Waste Land.
Without doubt, and certainly without rival, the best commentary on Eliot’s The Waste Land is Eliot’s own oral interpretation of The Waste Land which is easily available online. In addition to that, I would add that one should read Russell Kirk’s reflections on this masterpiece.
Here are a few quotes from Russell Kirk’s The Inner Waste Land and the Outer unmediated by commentaries, critical theories, jargon ladened treatises, and a mountain of secondary works explaining what Kirk meant within his reading of Eliot.
Certain critics have offered theories about the poem so openly in conflict with Eliot’s own literary principles and with his later writings that one wonders whether those commentators ever read the poem itself with the desire to understand; they have read the notes and have read earlier critics – whom they imitate or denounce. But the poem may be read appreciatively without the possession of a doctoral degree in literature; and it is no allegory, but rather after its fashion a narrative poem, as the Aeneid and The Divine Comedy are narrative and philosophical.
In short, Eliot has described in The Waste Land not merely his ephemeral state of mind; much more important, he has penetrated to causes of a common disorder in the soul of the twentieth century.
Not his private misgiving, but his concern with the condition of modern man, is what gives The Waste Land an enduring force. Before him sprawled a prospect of private and public disorder.
My own summary analysis, which follows, is an endeavor to penetrate to the heart of the poem, necessarily refraining from comment upon Eliot’s technique, and avoiding most excursions into his evocation of prophets, saints, poets, potentates, and anthropologist.
The Waste Land, then, is no glorification of the Past. What the reader should find in this poem, rather, is Eliot’s vices and the same virtues are at work in every age; and our present discontents, personal and public, can be comprehended only if we are able to contrast our present circumstances with the challenges and the responses of other times.
The Waste Land is the endeavor of a philosophical poet to examine the life we live, relating the timeless to the temporal. A Seeker explores the modern Waste Land, putting questions into our hands, and though the answers we obtain may not please us, he has roused us from our death–in–life.
The general meaning of The Waste Land is as clear as its particular lines are dark.
Eliot had asked the great questions; and in The Waste Land, here and there, blades of grass had begun to sprout.
I urge the reader to carefully, and slowly follow along as Eliot reads you through The Waste Land and as you need help, let Russell Kirk be your Virgil.
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