Reading the Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation

Reading the Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation

Reading the Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation

Reading the Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation

Synopsis

This book offers fresh commentary on T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, a book of modernist poetry published in 1922. It aims to be both a part-by-part analysis of the poem with periodic summations and a meditation on the limits of interpretation and the problematic nature of reading in the late 20th century. Bringing both Eliot's philosophical writings and contemporary theory to their interpretation, the authors aim to demonstrate that in his early essays and poems, Eliot anticipated by over 50 years basic insights of contemporary theory. Using The Waste Land as their reference point, they clarify the manner in which modernist texts both insist upon and defeat interpretation.

Excerpt

The Waste Land was published in 1922, and by the 1930s it was being treated by many as the poem of the century, as a text that serious readers could not ignore. The history of discussions of The Waste Land can be divided into roughly three dispensations, the first extending from the thirties through the fifties, the second from the sixties to the eighties, and the third beginning in the eighties.

The first period was dominated by scholars loosely called the New Critics. Many of these scholars knew Eliot personally, many admired him intensely, and although a number of individual voices were negative about his work, virtually all acknowledged his importance. These critics tended to read texts closely and carefully, and their work is still indispensable for an understanding of The Waste Land. The second period was in large part a reaction against the first. Dominated by figures interested primarily in literary theory, it was a period in which many younger scholars validated their credentials as Newer Critics by rejecting both the methods and the canon of their elders. Most abandoned close reading altogether in favor of metacritical discourse, and many were open in their hostility to Eliot. In the background, meanwhile, foundations of a new era in Eliot studies were taking shape. The poet's early philosophical writings began to appear, and the original drafts of The Waste Land, edited byValerie Eliot, were published. A new dispensation of Eliot studies, greatly enriched by an awareness of the new primary materials and also by an increased appreciation of the relevance of theoretical concerns with language, emerged in the eighties.

The best of the New Critics were masters of close readings. Cleanth Brooks, for example, in 1937 wrote a detailed commentary on The Waste Land which is still a model of critical helpfulness. The fact that certain basic insights in the past generation have originated as reactions against Brooks and his colleagues does not in any way diminish their excellence. What is usually perceived as a repudia-

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