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A Talk on ‘The Waste Land’ by Dr Ian Jones

“April is the cruellest month at least according to the poet T. S. Eliot - and most people in Kent would have agreed last Monday, as it was battered by gale force winds and incessant rain.  However, the weather was on cue for a rendition of part of the ‘The Waste Land’ from which the line was taken.  So, on final day of April, Wellesley House played host to a leading Eliot advocate - Dr Ian Jones.  Dr Ian Jones, a former University professor, has spent a considerable amount of time (over the last three years) directing the T S Eliot Reading Group on recitations of The Waste Land, as well as delivering a series of lectures, as a central part of the exhibition - Journeys with ‘The Waste Land’ - which has been running at the Turner Contemporary in Margate, over the last three months. 

Dr Ian Jones started his talk with an introduction on the origins of his own love of literature. He then continued with a brief biography of Eliot, along with an overview of the poem ‘The Waste Land’, uniting the two, by grounding them both, in historical context.    

Although born in the city of St Louis, in America, in 1888, Thomas Stearns Eliot came to Britain in 1914, on the eve of the First World War. Eventually, he settled in Britain, where he worked, married and lived until his death in Kensington, London, in 1965.  During his lifetime, Eliot wrote essays on numerous subjects, becoming a publisher and playwright, as well as a notable literary and social critic.  However, he is probably best-known for his experimentation with poetic form, metre and rhyme which helped shape his legacy as the most influential poet of the twentieth century.

So, while his poem, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (published in 1915) foreshadowed his radical departure from the restraints of conventional poetry, it was his epic ‘The Waste Land’ which helped propel him onto the international stage.  ‘The Waste Land’ was published in 1922, having been severely ‘pruned’ by Eliot’s mentor, Ezra Pound.  It was launched on an unsuspecting public, to instantly divide opinion.  The poem consists of a mishmash of voices, speaking a number of languages, distilling the essence of disillusionment sweeping the post-war world.  A zeitgeist of downward-spiralling anguish gripped nations, as populations grappled with the momentous losses inflicted by World War I. This angst was further exacerbated by the Spanish influenza pandemic, which infected approximately a third of the world’s population, adding tens of millions more, to an already horrendous death-toll. 

Eliot, himself, was not immune, and following a nervous breakdown, briefly took up residence at the Albermarle Hotel, in Cliftonville with his wife, Vivien.  Contrary to medical advice, Eliot continued to craft his poem, choosing the Nayland Rock Bus Shelter, to provide him with sanctuary, as he breathed in the restorative sea air, overlooking the Margate Sands. "On Margate Sands,” he wrote, “I can connect/Nothing with nothing.” However, as the poem nears its hundredth anniversary, in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

As Dr Ian Jones informed the children, Eliot’s embarked upon a radical departure from the poetic form, metre, rhyme and voice established by Romantic Movement poets.  They had formed their movement in response to the Industrial Revolution.  As a result their poetry was dominated by themes such as nature, using the classical civilisation of the Greeks and Romans as points of reference. Eliot’s poetic tone was different, it was new, vibrant and challenging, as interpreted so well by Dr Jones, as he launched into a reading of Part 1 – The Burial of the Dead. 

Eliot wrote that “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” So, it was interesting to observe the children’s reaction to Dr Jones’s delivery.  Distinctive voices emerged throughout, to take ownership of the written word.  Initially, the words tumbled from his lips to pervade the silence of the Hall.  Soon, his use of accented voices helped to construct characters, to add layers of depth to the recitation.  Dr Jones’s technique of moving towards his audience to engage children directly was effective, as it woke some from their reverie or moments of quiet reflection!  By varying volume and pace, he helped the children to fathom the nuance and shape the meaning.  Meanwhile, with the aid of a few props, such as Madame Sosostris’s “wicked pack of cards,” Dr Jones helped clarify meaning.  Throughout, he elicited a range of emotional responses, as he guided the children through a complex and disjointed narrative. 

In 1948, T. S. Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and received the Order of Merit for his work.  In 2018, Dr Ian Jones received enthusiastic applause from an appreciate audience.  Perhaps, the experience might encourage some to seek out other works created by Eliot, such as the poem he wrote for children called ‘Macavity – The Mystery Cat’; to listen to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical ‘Cats’ or even explore the remining parts of ‘The Waste Land’.  Many children commented on how they enjoyed the accented character portrayals and Dr Jones’s direct delivery, however one child’s voiced opinion caught my ear, through the tone he used, to express his ‘off the cuff’ comment, “Well sir, it was much better than I expected!”  Given the particular individual - this was high praise indeed!