“The Waste Land is a love letter to Englishness” Simon Heffer

” … the chilling lines that come near the end of “Prufrock”:

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

to the memorable opening of The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

In “Prufrock”, there is a single stream of consciousness. In The Waste Land, even within its five separate sections, new voices in different tones intervene, each with its own consciousnesses. The themes of “Prufrock” are magnified here, perhaps with the despair in the ascendancy. But this poem is something else, something that is not usually commented upon: it is a manifestation of Eliot’s assumption of Englishness.

TS Eliot with his second wife Valerie in 1958
TS Eliot with his second wife Valerie in 1958 CREDIT: Daily Express /Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although American by birth, Eliot came from a family that had emigrated there from the village of East Coker in Somerset, which would later give its name to one of the Four Quartets. He had gone to Oxford in 1914 and on leaving had become a teacher, having married and decided to settle in England.

The process of his Anglicisation was almost comical; he was baptised into, and confirmed in, the Church of England, he got a job with Lloyd’s Bank, and in 1927 became a British subject. In The Waste Land, despite its quotations in German, its references to Italy and intonements in Sanskrit, Eliot drinks in the sights, sounds and idioms of early 20th-century England and puts them into verse.” The telegraph.

Comment: For me as well, the discovery of TS Eliot was a revelation, something like first reading “Dover Beach” or all of Hemingway, all of it. The mermaids did sing for me. pl


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4 Responses to “The Waste Land is a love letter to Englishness” Simon Heffer

  1. walrus says:

    My whole life is a testament to this:

    “ After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
    History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
    And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
    Guides us by vanities. Think now
    She gives when our attention is distracted
    And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
    That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
    What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
    In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
    Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
    Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
    Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
    Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
    Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
    These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.”


  2. akaPatience says:

    I’ve listened to this audio version on road trips, narrated by Sir Alec Guinness:


    • TTG says:

      I listened to that reading by Sir Alec Guinness. TS Eliot is not my cup of tea, but The Waste Land is certainly offers a magnificent and grand overview of what it means to be English… at least as much as I know of what it may mean to be English.

      I like Kipling. Certainly not as nuanced as TS Eliot, bit he speaks to me. Even more, I like the Canadian Robert Service, who also speaks to me. A lot of his stuff is also just good fun to hear.



  3. Fred says:

    Mermaids do not sing the song of the caged bird.

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