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The Waste Land Read by Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins

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I must tell the world about this recording. Itís a BBC production of T.S. Eliotís famous poem, The Waste Land read by Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins. It is not only the best reading of The Waste Land that I have ever heardóand Iíve heard a fewóbut it might be the best reading of any poem of considerable length that I have ever heard. Run, donít walk, to this BBC site and, not just listen to, right click and save the recording to your computer. I donít know how long the BBC will keep this available to the general public. Many of their recordings become CDs that you will have to purchase. If you have an interest in literature, you will want this forever.

First, I must give a hat tip to Joseph Susanka of the blog Summa This, Summa That for bringing it to my attention.

Second, read along with this hyper linked with split screen notes, internet posting of The Waste Land. One of the things that make this poem hard to understand is the many cultural and literary allusions, both explicit and furtive, that lend meaning to the line and to the larger themes. The notes and hyper links help identify and clarify the allusions.

The Waste Land (read the Wikipedia entry) is the single most important poem in English (possibly in the world but I canít speak for other languages) of the 20th century. Iím not going to expound on the poem here. For now, let me say that the poem emerged from the horror that took Europe from World War I (the poem was written in 1922 but was worked on for several years prior), the culture (especially the loss of religious faith) that developed during and as a result of the war, and the fragmentation from the western historical identity. WWI became a fracture point between modernism and a historical past.

The introduction provided by poets Jackie Kay, Matthew Hollis, Sean OíBrien and the former Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is interesting, though not all that penetrating. Several points they bring up may need a little elucidation. One is the motif of multiple voices within the poem. The multiple voices is the key aesthetic of the poem and reflects the theme of fragmentation, the apparent lack of coherence. When a work of artís aesthetics are integral to the theme, thatís when greatness is achieved. No one did it better than Dante in The Divine Comedy and why I consider that the single greatest work of literature ever produced. But Eliot does it here too. I would say that Eliot is the Dante Alighieri of the 20th century.

Another obscure point in the introduction is the reference to the poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams in relationship to The Waste Land. Ezra Pound, also a great and influential modernist poet, was Eliotís friend, and he edited the original Waste Land manuscript. He didnít add any lines, but he did cut a lot of extraneous passages that clarified and crystallized the poem. The original manuscript would not have been the great poem it has turned out to be, and Eliot recognized it. The poem is dedicated to Pound: ďFor Ezra Pound/ il miglior fabbroĒ (Italian for ďthe better craftsmanĒ).

The William Carlos Williams reference is harder to explain. He too is a great modernist poet, but he hated (and thatís not too strong a word) Eliotís style and a lesser degree his themes. Williams, who wrote in the Walt Whitman tradition of poetry, was a very harsh critic of Eliot. The allusions and the heavily cultural identity of Eliotís poetry was anathema to Williams. By the way, the other great poet of the early modernist period, Wallace Stevens, kind of splits the difference from the Eliot (with Pound)/Williams spectrum of modernist style. There must be a book on the relationships between Eliot, Pound, Carlos Williams, and Stevensóthe four great modernist poets, all Americans by the wayóbut if there isnít it would make for a great PhD thesis. I think I would explore that myself if I were to ever go for a PhD. [Disclosure: I do have a Masterís Degree in English Literature.]

What was remarkably missing from the BBC introduction was pointing out how central to the poem is sexuality. The crisis of modernity, as portrayed in the poem, is the severing of sexuality with the divine. The operative word is sterility, sexuality without love, without birth, without regeneration. So much of the poem deals, both direct and implicit, with an unholy sexuality that has resulted from that severed relationship. Loose sexuality, meaningless and loveless sexuality, abortion, rape all figure in the poem. The several song allusions scattered about the poem are from songs of his day that had sexual innuendo of a vulgar nature. Would Eliot, with todayís sexual music, todayís hookup culture, todayís millions of abortions, feel he was prescient or be further shocked? I donít know. We are still in a waste land.

Let me give a couple of my favorite passages. This passage is a voice that I take to be that of God speaking:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
(ll. 19-30)
And then towards the end, the rain over the wasteland finally comes in a redemptive baptism of water:

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a **** stood on the rooftree
Co co rico co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain
(ll. 377-94)
Listen to Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins perform the poem. I was skeptical before hearing it that two voices, a manís and a womanís, would sound correct. After listening to it, I think for many reasons itís inspired. I canít rave enough about it.

Updated 06-21-2013 at 01:48 AM by Virgil



  1. Silas Thorne's Avatar
    wow, Virgil, thanks for this info! I don't have the time to listen to this at the moment, but it sounds amazing!
  2. Virgil's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Silas Thorne
    wow, Virgil, thanks for this info! I don't have the time to listen to this at the moment, but it sounds amazing!
    I've got it now on my ipod and have listened to it a few more times. It really is an amazing production. I can't use enough hyperbole.
  3. Hawkman's Avatar
    Yes, I have to echo Silas, many thanks for the link, Virgil. It is indeed a fabulous production. The quality of those voices is superb. There is nothing worse than a bad reading of a poem, and The Waste Land is not an easy poem to read. A bad reading can put you off a poem, but a good one can bring it to life and communicate so much more than mere words upon a page. poems read by actors are invariably delivered better than by those read by poets, who sometimes ruin the work with a ponderous, self-conscious gravitas that masks the words. With this performance the poem came to life. I was at times reminded of Thomas' "Under Milk Wood," where the voice of the narrator introduced scenes, and characters, who then had their own voices.
  4. Virgil's Avatar
    Dylan Thomas was an incredible speaker. I have a collection of him reading his poetry and other works somewhere. I haven't listened to it in years. It was too much to put on my ipod. Perhaps I should dig it out and judiciously put the best readings on it.

    You're welcome. There are other readings of The Waste Land out there, but nothing this good. You can listen to Eliot read it himself on Youtube. I'm pretty sure it's there. (Just checked, it's there and there are other versions as well.) His voice is kind of flat. He was not a great speaker. You can Google the Fiona Shaw reading and I think you can find it free on the internet. But I think it's terrible, but someone I know who loves Eliot as well said she loves it. You can also purchase Paul Schofield readings of The Waste Land and The Four Quartets as a package (it's on Amazon). His reading of The Waste Land is not bad, but his reading of The Four Quartets is excellent. I was skeptical that the Irons/Akins reading as a duo would work, but I think the two make for a better reading than a single voice. And both are brilliant.