In 1922, T.S. Eliot penned his now-famous poem The Waste Land, so cutting-edge in modern poetry that Regis Martin, in fact, recently called Eliot the “high priest of modernist poetry.” But if you have your ear to the ground in the world of pop music, you may be surprised to hear echoes of his sentiments coming from the indie rock band Bastille.
What do the 1920s American-English intellectual and the 2014 hipster band have in common? In a word: ruins. It may seem strange to suggest a rising rock star has an artistic gift comparable to that of a highly honored poet. Yet, there seems to be a certain uncanny similarity between Eliot and Bastille when it comes to their sensitivity to social collapse.
Eliot’s Waste Land is an eerie, confusing conjunction of rich images and obscure references, so bogglingly complex that most editions are heavily annotated with explanations. Shakespeare and Spenser, snippets of German, hints of Hindu literature, images of springtime in Europe, disjointed fractions of Psalms, and ancient Greek references are peppered through the poem alongside vignettes of modern life and details like taxis, horoscopes on demand, and contraception. Some readers complain that Eliot is simply showing off his knowledge of both Western and Eastern art and literature, making it seem almost incomprehensible to any reader less erudite than a studied intellectual like Eliot himself.
But the poem performs a valuable post-mortem on a Western world that has lost sight of its God. The keyword is fragmentation; someone once compared reading The Waste Land to sticking Chartres Cathedral in a blender and trying to make sense of the shattered fragments. The fragmentation of civilization—both in the sense of brokenness and of the dangerous compartmentalization of modern living—bears only the bad fruit of purposelessness, aridity, and an oppressive sense of ennui.
Both The Waste Land and Eliot’s doubly-depressing Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock reveal a deep sense of nigh-hopeless frustration at the emptiness of modern life, and a meticulous focus on ordinary, prosaic details to heighten the sense of lost meaning. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” observes Prufrock glumly. The shots of the daily lives Eliot highlights are acutely depressing: after an evening of joyless sex, a typist’s lover leaves and she turns on music to drown out her thoughts.
Some snippets of The Waste Land demonstrate this fragmented picture of the living hell of the modern world:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images . . . . .
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. . . .
“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”. . . .
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”
. . . . The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess . . .
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins. . . .
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone. . . .
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
At the end of Eliot’s poem comes a hint of a happy ending, a salvation for these dead souls: an image of a king, a fisher king, emblematic of Christ, who brings fruitful rebirth and the chance to rebuild from the ruins: “Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?” Finally, the closing lines of the poem capture its purpose: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Witnessing the insidious destruction of the Western world in the hands of moral relativism, Eliot simply gathered up the pieces.
His insight was hardly shared by many of his contemporaries, but Eliot saw spiritual death eating away at the hearts of modern men like a rat at a corpse: cut off from the roots of faith and culture, they withered inside and sought all other remedies for their dryness—some cohesive force to hold together the broken fragments of their lives and give them meaning.
Since Eliot’s Waste Land dates from 1922, it is somewhat surprising to hear similar sentiments coming from the hipsters of today. The increasingly-popular British rock band “Bastille” can count a number of hits to their credit, including, “Flaws,” “Pompeii,” and “The Things We Lost In the Fire.” It is certainly a hopeful sign when a modern artist, writing what may be called poetry in its own way, shows enough artistic insight to notice some of the same things Eliot did.
Like Eliot, Bastille demonstrates an acute sensitivity to mundane and ordinary details and their cosmic importance to human life. In “The Things we Lost in the Fire,” which appears to recount the effects of a total and sudden loss of material possessions, the speaker focuses on the more personal, if commonplace, details that reflect a deeper loss:
Things we lost to the flames
Things we’ll never see again
All that we had amassed
Sits before us, shattered into ash. . . .
I sat and made a list of all the things that we had
Down the backs of table tops
Ticket stubs and your diaries.
I read them all one day
When loneliness came and you were away.
Oh, they told me nothing new,
But I loved to hear the words you used.
These are the things,
the things we lost,
the things we lost in the fire, fire, fire. . .
Similar thoughts can be found in Bastille’s “Pompeii.” Like Eliot’s Waste Land, “Pompeii” draws heavily on a foreign, ancient, and almost obscure reference, something that probably would not occur to most people when they sit down to write a pop song: an ancient tragedy, a city and it’s inhabitants suddenly reduced to a smoldering heap of fire and ash from Mt. Vesuvius.
The suggestive power of these images and their affinity to Eliot’s phrasing indicates that Bastille’s songwriter Dan Smith may be tapping into something more than merely hipster angst: a desperate sense of disappearing cultural and civilizational identity and an existential awareness of the brokenness that results from such a loss. A sense of fragmentation permeates their songs: Bastille can sense, as Eliot did, when the world is somehow falling apart, and their songs grope about searching for cohesion.
“Pompeii” exudes a particularly powerful sense of hopeless but ineffectual frustration at continuing communal disintegration, of abandonment and loneliness:
I was left to my own devices.
Many days fell away with nothing to show.
And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we loved.
Great clouds rolled over the hills bringing darkness from above. . . .
We were caught up and lost in all of our vices
In your pose as the dust settles around us
And the walls kept tumbling down
In the city that we loved.
In this wasteland, the speaker feels moral responsibility and the need to begin again: “Oh, where do we begin,” he sings, “The rubble, or our sins?” To have a sense of sin is actually a rather radical statement in the modern world. (As G. K. Chesterton once said, modernity’s response to the sin of, say, skinning a cat is to deny the existence of the cat.) After decades of expansive social engineering to justify, normalize, and even legalize sin, Bastille’s sense that we are sinful, that we actually have to take the blame for something and “begin” again afterward shows that no amount of social change can fully expunge a sense of man’s sinfulness from the human heart.
Still, Bastille’s reaction to the dire situation they face in “Pompeii” is almost desperate escapism: “But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all / and if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?” Even here, the speaker must admit the situation is grim, and doesn’t have an easy answer: “How am I going to be an optimist about this?” he asks, repeatedly.
Whatever Bastille’s inspiration or personal beliefs, their lyrics show hints of an authentic artistic insight which points to the same reality that Eliot outlined in The Waste Land. Like Eliot’s protagonists, they live in a postmodern problem, the Waste Land: a socially post-apocalyptic barrenness of cultural waste, things that have been lost in the fire of turbulent change, things which distance modern man further and further from what gives him meaning, his (Christian) roots.
But one thing, at least, very clearly distinguishes the psyche of the rock band from that of the 1920s intellectual:
Eliot knows the answers. Cultural renewal and rebirth from the Kingdom of Christ alone can heal the infectious wounds and deadened souls of the postmodern Western World.
But Bastille can only ask the questions, and eerily return to a sad and desolate refrain of fruitless search and denial: “How am I going to be an optimist about this? . . . If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?”