The College Syllabi That Shaped ‘The Waste Land’

Indeed, the famous eclecticism of “The Waste Land,” which incorporates quotations from multiple languages and literatures, can be seen as a tribute to the educational philosophy that governed Harvard during Eliot’s time there…

Yet as Crawford shows in the impressively researched Young Eliot, the “melange of topics” that Eliot explored in college “mightily enriched his poetry.” Eliot’s studies with the philosopher George Santayana planted the seeds of the idea that later emerged in his criticism as the “objective correlative”—the notion that poetic images function as a formula to evoke an emotion. In the recently founded Comparative Literature department, Eliot studied with scholars who “encouraged people…to connect literary works through anthropology to supposedly primitive rituals.” This would become a major technique of “The Waste Land,” which uses the Grail legend, as interpreted by scholars like James Frazer and Jessie Weston, as a structuring myth.

Crawford even manages to track down the moments when Eliot first discovered images and individual words he would later employ in his verse. As a junior, for instance, he took a class on the Roman novel that included Petronius’s Satyricon; years later, the novel’s image of an undying Sibyl appeared in the epigraph of “The Waste Land.” In Eliot’s own annotated copy of the novel, which Crawford examines, the poet glossed the Latin word for mushrooms, tubere in the text—a word that returns in “The Waste Land,” where he writes of winter “Feeding/a little life on dried tubers.” There is something thrilling about the way Crawford locates such moments in time and space, showing how a poem as mysterious and complex as “The Waste Land” draws on something as familiar as a college syllabus.

Adam Kirsch writing in Harvard Magazine about how T.S. Eliot’s time at Harvard shaped his life and career.

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