by Lew Icarus Bede

The way I dealt with T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was to write a poem, equally desperate, in that same allusive style—with notes. That unpublished poem Cicadas’ Voices, written in the mid-1970s, though unsuccessful on so many levels, remains the most Eliotic poem I have ever seen; and it did at least help me understand and appreciate his work. Though I have come to look upon his style, perhaps as disparagingly as he looked upon John Milton’s style, I have been thankful of having looked at it from the inside out.

Wendy Cope, on the other hand, looked at his poem from the outside in in one of the funnest and funniest poems of the Postmodernist Period: “Wasteland Limericks.” Though small, twenty-five lines in all, it is a perfect example of her anti-rhetorical, minimalist mode. The poem pokes fun at Eliot’s pontifical style; which she does elsewhere as well, as in Poem Composed in Santa Barbara, where she turns Eliot’s couplet from “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,”

“In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo,”

back upon Eliot himself,

“The poets talk. They talk a lot.
They talk of T. S. Eliot.”

But the “Wasteland Limericks” take on more. The first one condenses “I. The Burial of the Dead” into postcard format.

“In April one seldom feels cheerful;”
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me—
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.”

In line 1, she takes Eliot’s demolition of Chaucer’s “Whan that April with his showres soote…” with his opening line, “April is the cruellest month…” and disarms it. Line 2 undercuts the section that ends with “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” The episode of the preposterous, yet simultaneously serious, Madame Sosostris is nicely tailored in the bland generality of line 3; while the desperate vision of the London crowds, “I had not thought death had undone so many,” is handled similarly in line 4. Line 5 shows Cope’s humor in full force with fine limerick kick, particularly good are the first two alliterative words, sans the subject I, and the rhyme “earful” to describe the concluding rantings of Part 1 of The Wasteland.

The second limerick deflates the second section: “II. A Game of Chess.”

“She sat on a mighty fine chair,
Sparks flew as she tidied her hair;
She asks many questions,
I make few suggestions—
Bad as Albert and Lil—what a pair!”

Lines 1 and 2 mock the ornate diction Eliot uses, and alludes to, from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. The disjointed conversation, an admixture of “Pintoresque” banalities with serious undertones, capsizes into the triviality of lines 3 and 4. Cope completes her literary shenanigans, “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME,” with the terse understatement of line 5.
Limerick III tackles “III. The Fire Sermon.”

“The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
Tiresias fancies a peep—
A typist is laid,
A record is played—
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.”

Eliot begins “The Fire Sermon” with various allusions, including those from Spencer and the ancient Hebrew Psalmist, contrasting, as he frequently does in The Wasteland, the tones of the two with his own depressive Modernism:

“By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.”

But that quiet brevity is exactly how Cope copes with Eliot’s inchoate opacity, albeit with her own self deprecating, Larkinesque humor. Note how the three, predominantly monosyllabic, subject-verb fragments of line 1 contrast with the rolling, rollicking anapests of line 2. Line 2, with the alliteration of the s and e sounds along with the slangy diction, neatly does the trick to take the tone to the ridiculous. The dimeters of lines 3 and 4 are made even more concise with single-syllable verbs right at the accents, while line 5 pulls the limerick together with trivial profundity.

Because of the brevity of “Part IV. Death by Water,” one can observe how Cope transforms Eliot’s eight lines of varied meters, which hover around the pentameter in an abcbdefe rhyme scheme.

“Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
________________A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell

He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
________________Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”

Here is what Wendy Cope does with it.

“A Phoenician named Phlebas forgot
About birds and his business—the lot,
Which is no surprise,
Since he’d met his demise
And been left in the ocean to rot.”

In line 1, she retains the alliterative f sound found in Eliot, but puts it in fine Limerick fashion. The phrase “the lot,” an afterthought in line 2 after the b alliteration, turns the serious into the absurd. Next she proceeds to downplay Eliot’s sea imagery, reminiscent of that found in “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and, in lines 3, 4, and 5, concludes with a “No, duh!” clause, using the late Victorian verse form to deflate the grand Eliotic posture.

Her last and best limerick addresses “V. What the Thunder Said.”

“No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes
From the Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.
I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

Line 1 succinctly lists overstated, obvious, adjective-noun phrases. In line 2, “a shower of quotes” is funny, because that is exactly what Eliot rains down upon us. The alliteration and rhymes in lines 3 and 4 are a coup, while line 5 neatly reminds us that the poem doesn’t end there, but continues with Eliot’s pedantry. Overall, Wendy Cope provides some comic relief, if only briefly, for those of us who have gone through Eliot’s nightmarish vision; and she does it in her own modest and unaffected style.



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5 Responses

  1. Sally Cook

    L. I. Bede
    Took the lead —
    Wendy’s good.

    Thanks for an interesting analysis of:

    Who just bores me.
    I stand with Dickinson,

    • Lew Icarus Bede

      1. What I admire about Dickinson and Eliot are their deeply serious attitudes (tinged, of course, with humour). They both understood Poetry’s dreadful depths.

      2. I can understand how one can be bored with Eliot, in the same way one can be bored with Aristotle, Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Euler, Einstein, etc. All writers of all disciplines, even if they establish new outlooks, are monotonous; because the World is so vast, we ever hear other voices.

      3. Why I admire Dickinson is she intensified the language, and managed to do so through the ballad. Her voice, like Eliot’s, is remarkable, if limited.

      4. Why I admire Eliot is he faced ancient and Elizabethan poetry and drama, while simultaneously contributing to literary criticism.

  2. Samej Eideewt

    1. “Eliotic” LOL A new (for me) adjective! Perfect!
    2. These days, Eliot has been reduced to a modernist cliche but he was quite original and “cutting edge” when “Wasteland” first appeared. Indeed, I believe he captured the meaningless, existential angst of post WW2 Europe quite effectively, and in a way that may not have been possible using “traditional” or classical verse. In a similar way, Munch’s “The Scream” (1895) and Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937) were able to brutally (and successfully) express contemporaneous cultural/social/political feelings/thoughts utilizing equally new forms of expression in the visual arts.
    3. I would classify Eliot’s poetry (some of which is excellent and some of which is obscure to the point of suffering from an abject failure to communicate) under the heading: “Arcane Pretentiousness.” (which for some people might be considered a compliment and for the rest of us, probably not.)
    4. Wendy Copes’ limericks are hilarious.
    5. I enjoyed the essay.

    • Lew Icarus Bede

      1. In the direction Eliot (and Pound) took English poetry in “The Wasteland”, their cutting edge originality remains in that cinematic, compressed style that so many Modernists were exploring. But, of all the Modernists, I believe Eliot understood tradition most deeply, and the classic style most clearly, even if he could not achieve the latter himself.

      2. But who, of our contemporaries here in the New Millennium, understand either (tradition and the classic style) as well?

      3. In the same way that Michael Lind’s “The Alamo” is a delightfully flawed, Postmodernist gem in the epic genre, Wendy Cope’s “Wasteland Limericks” is a delightful Postmodernist bauble. Amongst the typical works of Larkin, Lowell, and others, I would place an excerpt from the first and the latter complete in a Postmodernist (1950-2000) English poetry anthology.

      4. I am slightly heartened this microessay of a decade ago has had its first comments (from Ms. Cook, and Mr. Eideewt), when no editor from a decade ago thought it worthy of comment, and, unlike Mr. Mantyk, would not publish it.

  3. B. S. Eliud Acrewe

    The give and take of yesteryear in literary crit
    is vanishing alongside of the principles of lit.
    These days one cannot stomach controversy very much;
    it is enough to just ignore. Such works one dare not touch.
    Perhaps what’s missing from our present situation is
    we lack the stamina to fight, our patience has worn thin.
    We lack the knowledge and the energy to move on forth;
    we lack the strength to enter in upon the present course.
    We lack the willingness to give and keep on giving more;
    but we do not lack poverty of spirit. No, we’re poor.


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