reading the waste land

This course is finished. Thanks to our lecturers, reader and audience for a fascinating afternoon on Eliot's challenging but intensely rewarding poem.

Sunday 11 June 2017, 14.00-18.00  
Price: £60.00 / £50.00 students and members of the T. S. Eliot Society (UK).
Venue: Stapleford Granary, Cambridge


T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922) is one of the monuments of modern English literature. But how do we make sense of this strange, fragmented piece of writing? How do we begin to read it – what were Eliot’s concerns when he was writing, just after the First World War ­– and how does the poem speak to us now? Two expert lecturers will open our eyes to this poem, helping us to understand some of its interests and its literary techniques, and showing us why The Waste Land can be so rewarding to read.

Michael Hrebeniak and Sarah Cain will provide some essential sign posts to guide us through the poem and to understand the context in which it was written. We also provide a rare opportunity to hear the poem read aloud in full by Cambridge scholar Robin Kirkpatrick, a superb reader.

Michael Hrebeniak will speak on 'The Epoch of Space: Eliot's Art of Assemblage'

Eliot's great poem strikes a paradox: a bid for conservative recovery inside a radical poetics. This lecture suggests ways of understanding his work in terms of collage, the major compositional principle of modernism. We'll consider the poem alongside corresponding movements in music and painting as an assemblage of shards and pieces that must be read through one another, a narrative tension between the linear, the dispersed and the side-by-side that generates fertility from waste. 

Further reading:
Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (1973)
Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air (1982)

Sarah Cain will speak on 'Early Contexts for Reading The Waste Land: Eliot’s Nervousness'

In late 1921, Eliot wrote to his brother, Henry Eliot: 'The great thing I am trying to learn is how to use all my energy without waste, to be calm when there is nothing to be gained by worry, and to concentrate without effort […] I realise that our family was never taught mental, any more than physical hygiene, and as a result we are a seedy lot’.

This lecture will explore some early twentieth-century contexts about ‘mental hygiene’ and illness surrounding Eliot’s early works, including contemporary medical and psychological discourses about neurasthenia, worry, anxiety, and bodily efficiency. Eliot himself wrote large parts of his early poems whilst undergoing treatment for neurasthenia (then understood as a form of acute stress caused by the pressures of modernity). How might these discourses inform or illuminate his early work?

Further reading
T. S. Eliot, Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917, ed. Christopher Ricks (1996)
Robert Crawford, Young Eliot: From St Louis to The Waste Land (2015)


An inspiring and accessible course for readers of all ages. 

Email us if you are a student or member of the T. S. Eliot Society and wish to pay the discounted price.:


T. S. Eliot Society website.
Recording of T. S. Eliot reading aloud The Waste Land.
Recording of Alex Guinness reading aloud The Waste Land.


Sarah Cain

Sarah Cain is a Lecturer and Director of Studies in English at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where she teaches a broad range of modern literature, with a special interest in T. S. Eliot. She has published on literature and science, on fact-checking in the New Yorker, and lectures widely, including at the T. S. Eliot Festival. 


Michael Hrebeniak

Michael Hrebeniak is Lecturer and Director of Studies in English at Wolfson College Cambridge. He worked previously as a journalist, musician and arts TV documentary producer. His interest in interdisciplinarity is reflected in his first book, Action Writing: Jack Kerouac's Wild Form, and he is currently finishing a film and monograph on the medieval Stourbridge Fair.