The Guardian view on TS Eliot’s modernism: between high and low culture | Editorial

The year 1922 represented a turning point for culture. It marked the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the creation of the BBC and the founding of a small production company by a young animator called Walt Disney. It was also when TS Eliot published his great, knotty poem The Waste Land, pushing modernism to the high ground of English language poetry. And the music hall artist Marie Lloyd was laid to rest in a funeral that is said to have attracted a bigger crowd than any since the Duke of Wellington’s 70 years earlier.

These last two events have more in common than mere chronology. Lloyd was a woman of the people, a singer of popular ballads, some wistful, some nudge and wink, whose death plunged Eliot into a state of histrionic mourning. She began her career as a teenager singing temperance songs in church and suffered the cruel irony that the last song she performed was about a woman – like her – who had ignored such warnings. Her death, wrote Eliot, was a significant moment in English history, due to her appeal to working-class audiences and “the extent to which she represented and expressed that part of the English nation which has perhaps the greatest vitality and interest.”

A century on, Eliot can seem an effete, politically unattractive character, who has held the academy in thrall with his wilful obscurity. But even The Waste Land breaches the boundaries between high and low culture. He was also the author of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, whose posthumous alliance with Andrew Lloyd Webber, through the musical Cats, has seen the publisher Faber through many a lean year. His lighter side has emerged as the vaults are cranked open on his often riotously vulgar private poetry, and the thousand love letters he penned over decades to his American college girlfriend, Emily Hale.

The Hale letters will be made public this autumn. The Waste Land celebrations, however, are being held not in the centenary month of October, but in April, which he famously declared “the cruellest month”. His connection with Lloyd will rightly be honored. “No other comedian succeeded so well in giving expression to the life of [her] audience, in raising it to a kind of art, ”he wrote.

The same could be said of Eliot himself. He lived through two world wars and has left monuments to both. But it’s often his less grandiose interventions that resonate. What better shorthand for today’s political slipperiness than Macavity: the Mystery Cat, with its repeated refrain that, when you reach the crime scene, “Macavity’s not there!” What more resonant comment on the defiance of aging baby boomers than “I grow old… I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”, from The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock?

“Of all the years in this dramatic decade, 1922 was the most turbulent,” says author Nick Rennison in his recent book on these 12 months. “It was a year which altered the map of the world.” How little things change a century later, as the old world strains against the new and society is being shaped by the trauma of war and pandemic.

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