Under A Red Rock

Under A Red Red, Oil on board, 2018, by Christopher P Jones

Sometimes, as an artist, you are invited to explore unexpected subjects.

T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is the inspiration behind my latest painting (above), which I have titled Under A Red Rock. I was invited to make the work for a new exhibition based on the poem. Several lines in the poem permeated into my imagination and informed the painting:

– I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

– There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

– “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout?”

What was your initial reaction when reading T.S. Eliot’s, ‘The Waste Land’?

My initial reaction to the poem was excitement, since I’d never read it before. I found it both baffling and wild. It’s an extremely musical poem, with so many textures and rhythms. I found myself researching into T.S. Eliot’s life to try to understand where it came from.

How has the poem had an impact on your finished work?

So many individual lines stood out for me and permeated into my imagination. Having said that, I found it impossible to condense the poem into a single image. I suppose I connected with the poem more clearly on formal grounds at first, as a disruption of linear narratives and splintered forms.

I made several attempts at an abstract painting at first, but these didn’t do the poem justice. The work I eventually made is figurative, showing a person peering into blazing light. I had the sense that the poem is very much about looking at the modern world and shading one’s eyes from the terrible, sparkling glare of it.

What would you want audiences to take way with them after seeing such a unique exhibition like this?

The idea that different artworks can inform and overlap with each other, and no interpretation is ever final.

What are your thoughts on the exhibition and have you enjoyed the experience?

I’ve really enjoyed the experience, especially being invited to respond to a poem I’ve never read before. The idea of so many members of the LSA group all working from the same source inspiration is a very nice project to be involved in.

Finally, for you as an artist, what has made this exhibition so special?

When I saw the exhibition in full, I realised we had each contributed a small piece of a larger jigsaw. The biggest challenge for me to respond to such a complex poem with a single image, yet through the collection of all the artworks into a show, it felt like a collaboration.

In October 1922, the inaugural edition of London’s literary magazine The Criterion arrived on the shelves. Inside was a new poem by a little known American poet, T. S. Eliot, and the poem was The Waste Land. It went on to become one of the most influential poems ever written in English.

T. S. Eliot said of the writing process that “a poet must be deliberately lazy. One should write as little as one possibly can. I always try to make the whole business seem as unimportant as I can.”

The Criterion, October 1922

This injunction — to be a lazy poet —might act as a method for the reader too: way of approaching the poem that is by any measure a complex piece of writing.

Eliot was aware that there was no ideal avenue into a creative act, nor indeed an optimal template for the creative life. He occupied full-time employment for most of his life, at first with Lloyds Bank, then as editor and director at the newly established publishing house of Faber & Gwyer — which later became Faber & Faber. When he was asked if he’d preferred to have spent his days writing poetry instead, he said, “No, … it is very dangerous to give an optimal career for everybody. … I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me.”

The form and length of The Waste Land appears to contradict Eliot’s laissez-faire pretensions: An epic poem, there is no single voice that stabilizes the narrative, but an mix of conversation, quotations, description, tonal shifts, paraphrasing and colloquial speech. Lines from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, references to the bible, nursery rhymes, Wagner, Dante, even music hall. The Waste Land expresses the modern world in all its bruising, sparkling cacophony.

Just after the First World War, the political map of Europe was being radically re-drawn. There was the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Women’s right were on the move: in 1918, women in the UK over the age of 30 were given the vote, closely followed by the extension of voting rights for women in America. A deep sense that change brought about by the war could not leave the world unchanged — and yet a sense too that the traditions of a continent were persistent. In other words, it was meeting place of old and new.

Technological developments at this time caused great excitement, yet also huge concern. This was the era of new forms of media, of radio, cinema and photography, yet also the time when modern warfare with the mass production of weaponry reached a new, horrible apex. Artists and writers responded in apparently contradictory ways by finding forms of expression that captured the fragmentation of society.

T. S. Eliot began writing the poem in around 1919, and took three years to complete it. Eliot was a banker, and indeed spent most of his life in this singular career. Due to a bout of illness and depression, he took extended leave and traveled to Switzerland, where poem was completed. When George Seferis asked him how he wrote The Waste Land, Eliot answered: “I’d been sick and the doctors recommended rest. I went to Margate (he smiled), in November. There I wrote the first part. Then I went to Switzerland on vacation and finished the poem. It was double its present length. I sent it to [Ezra] Pound; he cut out half of it.”

T.S. Eliot in 1923, source

Eliot was working in the flux of Modernism, a contemporary of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring and James Joyce’s Ulysses. These radically experimental works offered a groundwork of non-traditional form, the disruption of linear narratives and the meeting of audience expectation.

The publication of The Waste Land in the first issue of The Criterion, a journal created and edited by Eliot himself, preceded both the book edition and the printing in the American magazine The Dial.

The poem asks of the reader to investigate how much narrative coherence they require. In a sense, he was asking, How much narrative coherence is there in the modern world around us? In 1945, he wrote, “A poet must take as his material his own language as it is actually spoken around him.”

Read the full poem here

Note: I am grateful to the TS Eliot Society (UK) for ensuring the accuracy of this article.

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