I spent a lot of time with T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” both in my undergraduate and graduate academic pursuits. It is a poem about the dissolution of culture and society in the aftermath of the first world war, when jingoistic illusions of the security of the “Old World Order” gave way to far more sober outlooks on the world. The form of the poem — and the form of much of high modernist poetry and literature — reflects this existential uncertainty in its shapelessness, its jarringly trimmed lines alongside its sprawling stanzas, its resistance to all attempts at containment and order.
There are many interpretations of the final stanzas of Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” and most of them require a seemingly encyclopedic grasp on Western and non-Western literary traditions, so far-flung are its allusions. Some read its final, highly intertextual stanza as a fatalistic descent into madness and chaos, in which varied literary traditions jangle against one another discordantly, voices groping around in the dark, angling wildly and impotently at meaning:
I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
Amidst this pastiche of allusions, there is a moment of optimism (or at least I read it as such):
These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
I love this line and its startling promise. It is, both in what it says and how it says it — both in its import and in its very positioning in an otherwise whiplash-inducing string of allusions that send us ping-ponging through literature in pursuit of meaning — a literary life-raft amidst debris.
Perhaps because of the imagery used elsewhere in the poem, in this particular line, I imagine a soldier shouldering his weight against a crumbling edifice, shoveling sand and grit and detritus scattered across a desolate beach in order to stave off imminent collapse, and then heaving a deep sigh as he realizes he has successfully evaded destruction through his efforts. Only in this case, the flotsam and jetsam he uses are pieces of poetry, excerpts from books, bits of cultural phenomena gathered across the expanse of dozens of canons.
There are many reasons to read, but one of them is to make meaning out of the sensory and emotional overload of living. And here, T.S. Eliot is showing us that the discursive fragments of art he has collected can be used to “shore up” against the ruinousness of life. .
I think of this verse often when I come across a line in a book or a poem or a song that stops me in my tracks or reframes things for me, as one did just earlier this week, when I realized I had forgotten to be grateful for the normalcies of daily life amidst the footslog of caring for two small children. It made me pause and think about the other fragments I have shored against my own ruin, and wondered — what might yours be? What are the excerpts, quotes, lines, lyrics that steer you through life? (Please share in the comments!)
Here are a few fragments that I carry with me:
“Oh baby don’t you know that the
Time will do the talking
Years will do the walking
I’ll just find a comfy spot and wait it out.”
– Patty Griffin (more on these lyrics here)
“It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.”
–Mary Oliver, “Breakage” (more on this poem here)
“She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.”
-J.D. Salinger (more on this quote here)
“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.“
-Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese” (more on this poem here)
+These pink champagne coupes are absolutely adorable, and would look so chic displayed on a set of shelves.
+Loving this $40 Zimmerman-esque tunic dress.
+This puff-sleeved toddler blouse would look adorable under a pair of overalls.
+A super fun update on a classic terry robe, and I love the monogramming options. (Cute gift!)
+Have read amazing things about these bronzing drops. I’ve pretty much given up on self-tanner after one too many bad (stinky, orange) experiments with it, but I could be convinced to test this stuff given how much people LOVE it and love this brand more generally.
+This Staud dress is now 50% off in such a fun print!
+Swooning over this dress.
+I’ve frequently shared my love for this OXO formula dispenser, but this variation by Philips Avent may just one-up it as the dividers can be removed, transforming the dispenser into a snack cup when baby outgrows it! Smart. (However, the OXO is still best for diaper bag since it’s flatter).
+These are the best toothbrushes ever. My dentist insisted that soft bristles are best for teeth, and I love the shape of the handle on these brushes — makes it easier to get just the right angle.
+With micro, I’ve been really into “burpy bib” burp cloths — I love how they hang around the neck and can convert into bibs when need be. I usually get mine from Aden + Anais (the thickest, most absorbent!), but I loved the prints on this set and had to snag them.
+I’ve also been very into convertible pajamas that become “gowns” at nighttime — so, so much easier to change him quickly when I’m exhausted and bleary-eyed during his 3 a.m feed. I recently ordered a few extra from Kissy Kissy (love this print) and TBBC.
+Pippa Holt vibes for like 1/7th of the price.
+This floaty nightgown might pass as a “caftan” for the post-dinner/pre-bed hour or two when Mr. Magpie raises an eyebrow to pajamas…
+This scalloped pointelle sweater is so sweet! Love it in the gray, paired with white skinnies and smart loafers.