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This article is taken from PN Review 141, Volume 28 Number 1, September - October 2001.

Sounding The Waste Land: T.S. Eliot's 1935 Recording Richard Swigg


'He sang it & chanted it, rhythmed it. It has great beauty & force of phrase: symmetry and tensity.' Virginia Woolf's diary shows the vividness Eliot brought to a private reading of The Waste Land in June 1922, even before it was published later that year. But, as many listeners will testify, the vocally alive Eliot that Woolf once heard no longer seems to be present in his one recording of The Waste Land that has achieved wide circulation and an unfortunate kind of authority. Made in July 1946 for the Library of Congress, and still published by the Library and HarperAudio, it is a recording notable, with a few exceptions, for its vocal lack of variety and a monotonous weary fatalism. Apart from a few outstanding moments - especially the 'nerves' dialogue in 'A Game of Chess', where Eliot breaks out from his usual slow tempo into a sudden, keen intensity - it would seem that he is now so distant from the rhythms and daring of his original creation that he can now only offer a hardened version of that suppleness. Where once he 'sang' and 'chanted', he now too often gives us mechanistic incantations.

All is very different, however, in a virtually unknown yet far more important recording that Eliot made at Columbia University in 1935.* Listening to this, one is immediately struck by the freshness of a reading that imposes no recitatory dulling from outside the verse's syntactic movement ...

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