"April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire ..." So begins The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot's most famous, if not notorious, poem--a work which still surprises and excites with its technical ambition, its range and complexity, its startling images. One of the iconic works of Modernism and one of the great 20th-century poems in English, The Waste Land places the spiritual emptiness of modern urban existence within an intricate, allusive montage which draws on history, literature, myth, and world religions: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins". Difficult, yes, but also powerful: you don't need to get the references to get the poetry.
Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and studied at Harvard and the Sorbonne in Paris before settling in London (the city that provided much of the urban detail of his post-1920 writing): a shift evidenced by his repeated allusions to the European literary inheritance (from Dante to Baudelaire and beyond) and by his refusal of the American poetic sensibility of writers like William Carlos Williams. The result was a body of writing both curiously nostalgic for a sense of "tradition" and highly inventive, suffused with an acute and perceptive sense of contemporary life and the anxieties of turn-of-the-century modernity.
This selection of his verse is a useful introduction to the range of his poetics, from the early pieces which bear the influence of French symbolist poets--most notably Jules Laforgue--to the later works which are marked by his turn towards Christianity. The nervous, amourous hesitancy delineated in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"; the memory fragments of "Gerontion"; the impressionistic canvas of "Landscapes: II. Virginia" ("Red river, red river / Slow flow heat is silence ...")--all give ample evidence that Eliot's poetry is always worth revisiting. --Burhan Tufail