T. S. ELIOT (1888-1965) stayed on Margate sands in 1921, recuperating from “neurasthenia”. The nervous collapse that drove him there was as much due to his impetuous marriage as to a visit by his widowed mother and sister the previous summer. Harvard and Merton College, Oxford, had ill prepared the Mid-Western American for the humdrum existence of life in Lloyds Bank, albeit in the foreign section of the City branch.
On Sunday 6 November 1921, he wrote to Sydney Schiff, an indifferent British novelist writing under the nom de plume Stephen Hudson, who was 20 years his senior and a patron of arts: “I have done a rough draft of Part III, but do not know whether it will do.”
Schiff and his wife had befriended the Eliots, Tom and Viv, and would have known of the personal struggle that the poet faced in trying to make sense of a project that he first envisaged before the outbreak of the First World War, and on which he concentrated in the aftermath of his father’s death in 1919: his long poem The Waste Land.
Eliot had done this “while sitting in a shelter on the front” at Nayland Rock. Tellingly, despite the morass that was his marriage, he added that he “must wait for Vivien’s opinions as to whether it is printable”. Not everybody has been convinced that it is a literary masterpiece.
In a well-worn anecdote, which has a mischievous sense of truth about it, the late Queen-Empress recalled an evening at Windsor Castle, arranged by Osbert Sitwell as part of a series for the amusement of the royal family during the War: “We had this rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem — I think it was called The Desert — and first the girls got the giggles, and then I did, and then even the King.”
If you have heard Eliot reading his own work, you will have sympathy.
Leeds Museums and Galleries/Bridgeman ImagesThe Shore (1923) by Paul Nash (1889-1946), on loan from Leeds Art Gallery
Over the past 30 months, Professor Mike Tooby (Bath Spa University) has worked alongside a group of local self-selected volunteers to choose art that might be seen to respond to fragmentary elements in Eliot’s Symbolist poem.
Some are almost illustrative, such as Carey Young’s inevitable photographs of morning commuters traversing London Bridge (Lines Made by Walking of 2003), or the Edward Hopper Night Windows (MOMA, New York), in which a single woman “at the violet hour” is glimpsed through a window, sorting out her things before going to bed.
Others take the poem itself apart: the Norwegian Vibeke Tandberg (b.1967) cut up a copy of the poem in 2007 and then made three dozen collages, assembling word groups, such as all the numbers that occur in the poem, or the 40 occurrences of “you”, 66 of “of”, and 20 of “what”, and so on.
Other links are more refreshingly oblique. Turner’s The Golden Bough, first exhibited in 1834, appears silent, whereas R. B. Kitaj’s vigorous If Not, Not of 1975-76, with the gates to Auschwitz still standing in a landscape wrecked perhaps by a hurricane or man-made conflict, confronts the outrage of destruction.
Cy Twombly’s Quattro Stagioni (1993-95), seen beyond Henrik Håkansson’s installation A Tree Divided (Fraxinus excelsior) (2017), and Graham Sutherland’s enigmatic U Shaped Form with Blue Sky (1976) show two mature artists at their best.
The Dean and Chapter at Canterbury have loaned part of a 12th-century illuminated bifolium of St Augustine’s writing, which so influenced Eliot; and Paul Nash’s translucent 1923 painting The Shore nicely balances the triptych of Paula Rego’s chalk Abortion Sketches of 1998.
“Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’” is at Turner Contemporary, Rendezvous, Margate, Kent, until 7 May. Phone 01843 233000.
Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland
If Not, Not (1975-76) by R. B. Kitaj (1932-2007)