The 17th century Church of St Magnus-the-Martyr stands near the site of the old London Bridge over the River Thames in the city’s financial district. It’s a glorious, stunning building, created by Sir Christopher Wren on the site of an earlier church destroyed by the 1666 Great Fire of London.
The church is said to be one of the most expensive rebuilding efforts of the time, and it has many admirers, including an American from St Louis Missouri who settled in London, worked in a bank nearby and eventually became a British citizen. That American was TS Eliot, one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, indeed of all time.
Eliot would come to the church to think and pray, thinking often about the terrible state of the world he lived in after the First World War. Exactly 100 years ago, in April 1922, Eliot published the long and complex poem, The Waste Land, which made his literary reputation. What is remarkable is how so many of the themes of that great piece of literature have strong echoes today.
Last weekend I was part of a group of writers, musicians, scholars and others celebrating the 100th anniversary of Eliot’s great work in this and other churches nearby with live audiences. We discussed not just poetry but the state of the world now and how similar it is to the concerns Eliot had a 100 years ago.
The key theme of Eliot’s great poem is fragmentation, a 1920s world in which it was difficult to make sense of all the things which were happening around him – a "waste land" of post-war debris and ruins. Eliot wrote the poem in an England exhausted by the First World War and also enduring a pandemic, the Spanish flu.
Another war was continuing in the east of Europe involving Russia – the aftermath of the Russian revolution. Yet another war had just ended in Ireland. There was famine, economic dislocation and disrupted harvests. There were great social changes. In a world in which so many men had been killed in the war, women’s rights and what we now would call gender issues were part of a "culture war". Women’s fashions in dress were changing profoundly from Edwardian England to the "Roaring Twenties," and by 1928 after a long struggle British women achieved the right to vote.
All this came as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was itself fragmenting. In 1922 the UK lost 22 per cent of its land mass when the 26 counties of the Irish Republic broke away, leaving us with a Northern Ireland question unsolved even in 2022. Many of these themes and others – especially fragmentation – are part of our world right now.
The prospect of Scottish independence or Northern Ireland joining the Irish Republic, for example, could mean yet another reformation of the UK. Our own pandemic, the coronavirus, is still with us. The Spanish flu of T S Eliot’s time even had its own "fake news" – it was not Spanish at all. Spain was not part of the First World War and had no wartime censorship, so it was the first nation to report the pandemic, but the flu probably originated in the US. For Britain, too, there is another echo of 1922.
Throughout British history there has always been a tension between the UK’s relationship with the continent of Europe and its relationship with the British empire. The empire was where money was to be made. Europe was where the existential threat of wars were fought.
Repeatedly in British history, including in Eliot’s time, governments hoped that Europe could simply be ignored and Britain could focus elsewhere. It led to policies known as "splendid isolation" from Europe and in the 1930s to appeasement of Germany. Nowadays the British government has withdrawn from the EU in favour of what it calls, vaguely, Global Britain.
The catch, of course, is that British disengagement from Europe never works for long. We have just seen significant re-engagement including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent visit to the Ukrainian capital Kyiv amid fears of a wider European war in our own century. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
TS Eliot was not a prophet. But his poetry touches on the great themes of our lives today. How do we make sense of a world of fragments, of division and disagreements? How do we cope with changes beyond our control?
The Waste Land – the clue is in the title – surveys a difficult and divided world, but it ends with optimism about the human spirit. We have great differences between us, different cultures, different beliefs, fragmented in so many ways, but the poem concludes with words from Hindu scriptures meaning "Give" "Compassion" and "Self-control". In 2022 as in 1922 we can be obsessed with what divides us, with conflict and misery, but we also need to remember the goodness which unites us. The poem ends with the word "Shantih". That is Sanskrit for "peace". Let us hope.