Sunday, September 13, 2009

13: The Waste Land and Other Poems

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems

The first copy of this that I borrowed from the library had more notes in it than the Half-Blood Prince’s potions book. So, I borrowed a second copy, which was less marked up but still contained plenty of marginalia. In the first copy, the person with the pink pen has outlined each section of the poems and several pencil markings have quite insightful comments. I think that it’s interesting to read a book that so many people have read, deciphered and left traces of their days of reading; it gives hints to future readers. I somehow think that margins are meant to be written in and books are meant to be lived in. The physical book shouldn’t be venerated; this is where Kien of Auto-da-fé went wrong. Because Therese put on gloves to read a beaten up old book, Kien thought that her action showed a love and respect for books, when in reality, it should only have showed a courtly love for books, which is easier feigned and rarely genuine. Real love of books reads books to pieces. When the pages are dog-eared, the margins filled with notes and doodles and the spine cracked and broken from use, then we can see that the book is well-loved and thoroughly studied.

Overall, there is a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the world and a preoccupation with living death. The dead people that Eliot portrays are not the peaceful, sleeping dead, entered in the ground and pushing up the daisies. Here, death is that of living folk; people who go through life like zombies, people in loveless marriages holding pointless, unsynchronized conversations every day. Perhaps that is the meaning of the lost generation, who failed to see hope in everyday life. And that poem is so chock full of things. Reference, imagery – all very intellectual and elite. The inscription, which I believe says it all best, is in Latin and Greek. It is about Sibyl, the seer that Aeneas appealed to, who had eternal life but not eternal youth. She is asked what she wants and she says she wants to die. I think that is the spirit of the poem; there is life without “something more” than everyday occurrences and stock phrases and stock feelings and Eliot sees it as a living death. But the inscription, how many people could have deciphered that? And there are so many quotations strewn throughout that he appended the poem with a reference section. I think it tries too hard to be so evasive and mysterious, which has led to an over-analysis and dissection of the poem – at least in the copy I read, scribbled in the margins.


  1. I read "A Brave New World" with notes written in the margins and throughout the text, and I think that I enjoyed the book more with these notes because I felt that it led to a deeper understanding of what Huxley was trying to get across.

    Go used books with writing in them!

    p.s. Highlighting, on the other hand, sucks.

  2. As a librarian, it can be frustrating to see a book "mutilated" with excessive marginalia, etc. Yet because I'm also a rare book librarian, marginalia can be wonderful and illuminating! (I also totally agree with you in terms of books not being treated like specimens. Which is why we don't want people wearing gloves when using our material. Our attitude is that books are meant to be read, and not necessarily viewed as aritifacts.) One of the great collections at the University of Toronto is the Samuel Coleridge special collection at the Pratt Library (Victoria College), which includes books where Coleridge himself made extensive notes within the margins, along the gutter, etc. Totally fascinating.

    PS Recently stumbled upon your blog, and quite enjoy it.