BBC Radio 4, 30 March 2012
I have an admission to make - in a long career writing about, teaching
and studying English Literature of all periods, I have never read The Waste Land in its entirety. So I approached
Radio 4's reading of the poem as something of an innocent.
I have to say that the programme could have been designed for people like me. The
reading was prefaced with introductory comments from Dr. Rowan Williams, the soon-to-be-retiring Archbishop of Canterbury,
poet Jackie Kay, Matthew Hollis and Sean O'Brien. They not only explained in detail why the poem appealed to them, but set
it in its context of production - as a piece produced immediately after the end of the First World War, it not only signalled
the onset of Modernism, but embodied some of the feelings of dislocation and/or alienation characteristic of the period.
Stylistically speaking, the poem's narrative might seem disjointed, but it is a work
in which there are many different voices, all competing for our attention, and employing a variety of discourses.
As I listened to Irons' and Atkins' reading, I realized that The Waste Land
could have been planned with radio in mind: it's a poem where the sound of words assumes as much, if not more importance
than the sense. Eliot has a masterly grasp of different dialects, tones and discourses from both high and popular
cultures: extracts from popular songs vie for our attention with references to classical mythology. More importantly,
the actors understood the value of silence: what is not said assumes as much significance as what is said.
Maybe it's not necessary to understand everything that Eliot is saying, but rather
to grasp the shifting moods, tones and (above all) the apparently limitless metres of the poem. Radio 4's reading amply
fulfilled these objectives.