T.S. Eliot and the Lay Reader by Ethel M. Stephenson

I only searched out this book because of the fact it’s referenced a few times in The Waste Land app for iPad (which comes recommended, incidentally). The book is a bit of an oddity, being published as it was, originally, in 1944. The copy I read was from 1946, and thus Stephenson is still reeling from the discoveries of Nazi concentration camps.

Coming, as it does, long before the 1971 publication of The Waste Land’s facsimile edition, there are a handful of occasions where theories are put forward that are either proved or disproved by that edition. It’s certainly not Stephenson’s fault, but it makes the work somewhat of a historical artefact in its own right.

Overall, though, this is a very accessible, and often rather fun book. As an example of the flowery but readable prose, here’s Stephenson on the What the Thunder Said of The Waste Land

With the consummate skill of the great artist, Eliot has taken us back to the scene of the crucifixion. We are listening to the clamour and the agony in stony places; we are standing in the frosty silence of our own gardens; we who were once whole and living are now dying as the Spring thunder rolls out its message: DAMYATA, DATTA, DAYADHVAM – “Subdue yourselves – Give – Be passionate”

I also appreciate the fact that she starts her section the The Waste Land by saying

A poet’s most famous work is not always his best poetry, but has frequently won its status in the public mind by the scope of it’s appeal.

The book isn’t exclusively about The Waste Land (although it’s certainly the main focus) and I often found Stephenson’s insights into some of the later works to be interesting. On Little Gidding, she says

Eliot is not tied by time, for him all history is also now.

Which is an important insight into the voice of The Four Quartets. This interaction between the almost god-like philosopher (at least, that’s how we like to think of ourselves) perspective, intertwined with the much more parochial, continues the experimentation with voice that Eliot pushed so heavily in The Waste Land. By this time in Eliot’s career, though, the voices are fewer and more distinguishable, if not exactly identified.

It’s a fun, short, read so find a copy in a library, or since it’s appears to be in the public domain just read it online.

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