'The cruelest month' tour stars Eliot's 'Waste Land'

WORLD CLOSEUP

April 12, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- April is the cruelest month, and T. S. Eliot is its poet.

No disturbing lilacs yet breed out of the dead land of St. Paul's churchyard. But "Eliotics" bloom on the seasonal pilgrimage called "The Waste Land 1922," which winds through the ancient streets among the post-modern buildings of the City of London. The Square Mile, it's called, and it has long been the financial and banking center of London.

"T. S. Eliot made his working life here for many years," says Maire McQueeney, who leads about 30 Eliotic pilgrims through landmarks of "The Waste Land."

"I have had people come along thinking it was going to be an environmental tour," she says, "all about recycling."

But "The Waste Land" she explores is "the most influential poem in English in the 20th century.

"It's still being taught in schools today," Ms. McQueeney says brightly, "which is rather good going for any poem of its age."

"The Waste Land" remains a monument of modernism, as the critic Stephen Coote says, alongside James Joyce's "Ulysses," Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," and Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

Still, more people may know Eliot these days as the guy who supplied the inspiration for Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Cats" than as the creator of a pivotal English poem of the 20th century.

His recognition factor may rise but his reputation may not when the feature film "Tom and Viv" is released later this month with Willem Dafoe as Eliot and Miranda Richardson as Vivien Haigh-Wood, who became the first Mrs. Eliot.

"Tom and Viv" is an adaption of a 1984 play by Michael Hastings which questions Eliot's treatment of Vivien, who lived a life of neuroses and breakdown and who died in 1947 after a dozen years in an asylum.

"To me," Ms. McQueeney says, as she begins the tour, "if 'The Waste Land' is anything, it is a superb literary history of the City of London, the oldest populated part of London, settled by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago."

All of the City is in it, she says.

"The voices of not only the directors and the bankers, but also of the Cockneys, of the Londoners, of the builders, and I suppose for me that's why the poem succeeds over and over and over again because of the wholeness of the picture we get."

Ms. McQueeney threads her way to Lombard Street, where Eliot worked at the splendid marble Lloyd Bank Ltd. while he worked on "The Waste Land."

As was Eliot, Ms. McQueeney is an American. After marriage and motherhood, she's become a kind of literary tour guide, "an itinerant talker" about Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene and . . . Winnie the Pooh.

Although she has a rich knowledge of "The Waste Land," she eschews literary criticism.

"I read poetry for pleasure," she says. She's written and published a bit, too. She's also worked in the City, in the office of a paper company.

"And like many others, I heard 'The Waste Land' all around me as I walked on my lunch hour."

Ms. McQueeney brings us to Lower Thames Street to where Eliot describes in "The Waste Land" listening to a fishmonger play the mandolin in a public bar on his lunch hour.

"We find [remaining] on Lower Thames Street one pub, one public house," she says. "But the fishmen are gone."

On London Bridge, Ms. McQueeney observes that Eliot's work has probably been mined for more titles than that of any other 20th-century author.

"Spring seems to bring out the Eliotics in people," she says. "So from this time of the year on if you listen intently to BBC radio you hear bits of 'The Waste Land' come out."

The poetry of the Thames River flows through Eliot's poem, she says, and supplies much of the imagery. She recites: "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many."

Greenwich Reach, Isle of Dogs, St. Magnus the Martyr's inexplicable splendor, King William Street and the dead sound of 9 o'clock at St. Mary Woolnoth, and Ms. McQueeney's T. S. Eliot expedition is over.

You look for a place to have coffee on this chill Sunday afternoon before the lilacs have bloomed and in the wasteland of the City only McDonald's is open. April is the cruelest month.

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