A visual walking tour of T.S. Eliot’s London
A Journey with the Waste Land is an exhibition which will be staged by Turner Contemporary, Margate, as part of their 2018 programme. The first major exhibition to explore T.S. Eliot’s seminal poem and the first [possibly in the world] to be co-curated by a community. To open the 2016/17 season of meetings, a trip to London was suggested for our intrepid research group, permitting us to walk in the footsteps of Eliot’s London. Twenty-five places were made available and quickly filled (thank you @SE_Railway).
The walk was a tour of locations throughout the City of London, referenced in The Waste Land and other cited works of literature. Hosted by Tina Baxter from Footprints of London (details are at the foot of this article). After lunch, the plan was to head north on foot, taking in the Museum of London and finishing at the British Library.
Although researching the poem and conversations surrounding relevant works of art are from time-to-time, shall we say, deep and weighty? Every member of the group is also aware that The Waste Land has a reputation for being an especially challenging piece of work. One of the key aims of the project therefore, is accessibility. Providing a way in to the poem for those without a background in literature, art or research. Correspondingly, this summary of the research trip is intentionally light. Its purpose was also to experiment with pyschogeography: where locations can unleash insightful emotions and feelings, in the context of exploring works of art, literature and history.
We caught the Southeastern train to St. Pancras, picking up members of the group en route, before coalescing at Monument Tube Station for the walk.
T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, was published in 1922. For many, exploring its mystery revolves around how we feel about the poem, rather than unravelling the accompanying notes. Which Eliot himself admitted, would be rather less helpful than reading the cited texts.
In an extremely basic distillation: the poem examines the lack of potency and fertility in mythology (the wasteland), the fragmentation of mind and ideas, time and decay, transformation and the modern city. All via experimental structure, allusion and references to literary works from the ancient, to the modern (in 1922). Within the work, many themes are visited both directly and indirectly, including: war, water, women and religion. Walking between locations referenced in the poem, would allow us to connect The Waste Land with our own experience (and future memories), leading to greater visualisation and insight.
The walk is in chronological sequence, where some of the ideas and themes we discussed are mentioned. If you want to sample the entire T.S. Eliot walking experience, further dates are available on the Footprints of London website (see the final paragraphs for details).
‘The Great Fire’ shaped much of the surrounding architecture, due to the substantial rebuilding works necessary over the 50 years following its occurrence. Supervised by Sir Christopher Wren and Dr. Robert Hooke, this cataclysmic event caused the City to enter a phase of transformation. A recurring theme throughout The Waste Land.
Section III. The Fire Sermon is rich in reference to the parts of London Eliot was familiar with, on a day-to-day basis. It concludes with the Buddhist mantra: “Burning burning burning burning”.
The Monument to the Great Fire of London, is therefore a wholly appropriate starting point for our journey; to experience the London Eliot would have inhabited. From here it was but a short walk down Fish Street Hill and across Lower Thames Street to…
One of the first victims of The Great Fire of London, the church was rebuilt by Wren and completed in 1687. It’s mentioned by Eliot in The Waste Land, who adds a footnote that:
“The interior of St. Magnus-the-Martyr is to my mind one of the finest among Wren’s interiors.”
The church is also referenced by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist, with Nancy describing:
“… the tower of old Saint Saviour’s Church and the spire of Saint Magnus, so long the giant-warders of the ancient bridge, were visible in the gloom.”
One Eliot biographer, L. Gordon, explained Eliot’s changing perception of the church:
at first he enjoyed St Magnus-the-Martyr aesthetically for its “splendour”; later he appreciated its “utility” when he came there as a sinner.
St. Magnus-the-Martyr is perhaps best known in London for forming part of the entrance to ‘old’ London Bridge. The pathway under the tower still exists and required the former vestry to be moved, once a bridge widening scheme was undertaken in the early 1760s. These were the final years of the old bridge, which was replaced by John Rennie’s in 1831; the one Eliot would have known.
We headed south from the church to the banks of the river and the current London Bridge (opened in 1973), to consider the opening references to London in section I. The Burial of the Dead:
“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many.”
An allusion to Baudelaire’s poem, ‘The Seven Old Men’, “Swarming city, city full of dreams, where the ghost, in broad daylight, stops the passer-by.” Also later, in III. The Fire Sermon, Eliot makes reference to:
The White Tower is the original keep at the Tower of London. Our guide informed us there was a coal strike, during the period Eliot was sketching ideas for the poem. It was likely that the blanket of smog had lifted and unusually, he was able to see far enough down river to view the ancient palace.
The Custom House
Venturing further downriver from London Bridge, we paused before ‘old’ Billingsgate Market and The Custom House. Fragmentation is a significant theme within the poem and the constructive act of drawing together elements to create a whole. The Custom House was designed by David Laing, but finished and improved by Robert Smirke (in 1827), after corners were cut during the initial build. It represents the continuation of a customs and excise presence on the site since the 13th Century. Geoffrey Chaucer was Comptroller of the Port of London (1374) and it’s his ‘Canterbury Tales’ which is alluded to in the opening line of The Waste Land.
“April is the cruellest month”
Chaucer opted for an opposing view:
“When that Aprille with his shoures soote” (sweet showers).
In addition Phlebas the Phoenician, noted merchant of a proud sea-trading nation, (extending the maritime theme) referenced in IV. Death by Water.
“ Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead”
Is a direct translation, or reflection to continue the water theme, of lines from Eliot’s earlier poem, Dans le Restaurant:
“ Phlébas, le Phénicien, pendant quinze jours noyé”
published two years earlier in 1920.
Crossing Lower Thames Street and heading north, we filed into a busy St. Dunstan-in-the-East (it was lunchtime, the sun was shining). A church constructed in the 12th century, the steeple was a later addition by Wren, after the Great Fire of London damaged much of the original structure. Unfortunately, but by no means unusually in the City of London, the church then suffered a direct hit during the Blitz of 1941 and it was decided not to rebuild. In 1967 the ruined church and grounds (with its still-intact Wren steeple) were designated a public garden, which opened in 1971.
Selected by the guide as a ‘Chapel Perilous’: a state of uncertain mind where one cannot be sure whether one is affected by supernatural interference, or one’s imagination. From Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, the term is referenced by Jessie Weston in her book ‘From Ritual to Romance’. Eliot cites Weston’s book as the place to unlock
“…a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem.”
Churchyard, St. Mary-at-Hill
A peaceful reflective spot, just a short distance from St. Dunstan-in-the-East, here we discussed I. The Burial of the Dead and specifically Madame Sosostris. A character originating from Aldous Huxley’s novel, Crome Yellow, published a year earlier than The Waste Land, in 1921.
The epigraph of the poem refers to the Cumaean Sybil, the ancient Roman oracle who guided heroes on their quests. According to myth, she was granted eternal life by Apollo, but not eternal youth, and she becomes a dried up crone in a cage, begging for death. Having established the decay of the oracular power the Sybil represents, Eliot introduces “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante” as a parody of the ancient myth, a contemporary mortal woman with a “bad cold,” who is the “wisest woman in Europe with a wicked pack of cards.”
— The Waste Land: An Annotative Essay by Carole Pierce
St. Mary-at-Hill’s entrance opens onto Lovat Lane, a cobbled medieval street, little changed since Chaucer’s time.
From here we flowed down King William Street to St. Mary Woolnoth. The first non-Wren church encountered on our expedition, it was designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor and completed in 1727.
“ And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.”
St Mary Woolnoth
St Mary Woolnoth is a church Eliot visited often when working in the City of London. The line:
“…With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.”
recorded a phenomenon referenced for its symbolic significance to the start of every working day.
He was employed by the ‘Colonial & Foreign’ department of Lloyds Bank in Lombard Street, over the road from St. Mary Woolnoth. The branch was later moved to another location in the City and the original building was demolished in 1927.
The church is also a site for one of the murders in Peter Ackroyd’s novel: Hawksmoor, which was significantly influenced by The Waste Land. A modern proponent of psychogeography, many of Ackroyd’s novels were conceived during meandering transits across London and peopled by characters unsure whether they are being influenced by supernatural forces, or their imagination (a further link to chapel perilous). Ackroyd is also a contemporary biographer of T.S. Eliot, neatly connecting the dots.
Queen Victoria Street
Several streets west, we stood on Queen Victoria Street before it joins the junction with the Bank of England, The Royal Exchange and Mansion House - epicentre of the City of London.
“This music crept by me upon the waters And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street.”
These lines from The Waste Land allude to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.
This music crept by me upon the waters, Allaying both their fury and my passion, with its sweet air. The Tempest — William Shakespeare.
Eliot is likely relating his walk to work and being followed by ‘music originating from the water’, The Strand being named after the medieval word for shoreline. The music, he feels, is actively pursuing him and his guilty soul, in contrast to the soothing role of music in Shakespeare’s verse.
St. Augustine, Watling Street
Situated before the splendour of St. Paul’s Cathedral (@StPaulsCathedral), St. Augustine, Watling Street was destroyed in The Great Fire of London, rebuilt, then destroyed again during The Blitz. The remains of the tower were restored and later incorporated into St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir School in 1967.
Named after St Augustine of Hippo, whose confessions, along with the ‘wasteland’ from Weston’s ‘From Ritual to Romance’, are likely to form the inspirational sources for the poem’s title.
“I sank away from Thee, and I wandered, O my God, too much astray from Thee my stay, in these days of my youth, and I became to myself a barren land.”
The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Book II.
The Museum of London
As a natural extension of our journey north to the British Library, we stopped at The Museum of London (@MuseumofLondon), London Wall. It’s important to mention, for psychogeographical purposes, that the day we picked for our journey was the warmest [in September] since 1911; with the mercury rising to 33°C in the capital (91.4°F in old money). For many, including myself, the cafe was the first port of call.
Suitably refreshed, most of the group decided to browse the suggested gallery: Modern London 1850s-1940s: People’s City and consider Eliot’s contemporary London. A reminder that inter-war Britain, was a time of emerging modernism and a desire to embrace change, innovation and the future.
Before leaving the Museum of London, we assembled outside; then took a quick headcount, to check no one had wandered off.
Unfortunately, some poor fool had.
(Sorry ‘bout that.)
The final leg of the journey took us through The Barbican Centre, towards the nearest Tube to whisk us on to St. Pancras and The British Library. The Barbican is named after a fortified tower or outpost, referring to the Roman fort and walls which originally stood on this spot. The humble beginnings from which the City of London grew. Sections of these original walls can still be found on the estate.
This route also required the navigation of several aerial walkways, followed by a handful of busy roads.
Fortunately we’d been prepped about the roads earlier in the day, ensuring we didn’t mistakenly wander into any traffic.
The British Library
Our final stop was to see two items of particular interest. Firstly the tapestry of R.B Kitaj’s work: ‘If Not Not’. Significant because a loan of the original oil painting has been secured for The Waste Land Exhibition 2018, one of the first works in our shortlist to be given the green light. T.S. Eliot appears in the bottom-left of the tapestry, wearing a hearing aid. Kitaj’s painting was developed in direct response to The Waste Land.
The second item was a letter in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, from T.S. Eliot to a friend, reporting his dissatisfaction with London life and the ongoing struggles he was having with a new poem. A poem that would be published several months later, as The Waste Land.
The library also contains a facsimile of one of the poem’s drafts, with annotations by its editor Ezra Pound, a significant contributor to the work’s final form. Eliot’s published dedication to Pound was:
il miglior fabbro
‘The better craftsman.” A quote from Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’, with Ezra Pound, substituting the original poet, Arnault Daniel.
Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood is also considered to be a significant influence on the finished work. Hers is an especially tragic tale; Eliot’s sister-in-law, Theresa, said of their relationship:
“Vivienne ruined Tom as a man, but she made him as a poet.”
Thanks to the @britishlibrary, for their professionalism, tolerance of our exceptionally-loud-whispering and patient reminder that we were actually in a library.
St. Pancras Station
A short stroll past the fuming, static traffic on Euston Road returned us to St. Pancras Station (@StPancrasInt).
Thanks to Trish Scott and Mike Tooby for suggesting and arranging the trip. Also, a special thank you to Southeastern (@SE_Railway) for their support. Plus the generous provision of travel to and from St. Pancras Station and for being helpful, professional and efficient along the way.
A Journey With the Wasteland details can be found on the website. If you’re interested in discovering more, or would like to contribute, please visit and enquire.
The Waste Land Exhibition will be on display at Turner Contemporary from 2018. Turner Contemporary are also on Twitter, so you can keep up-to-date with developments till then: @TCMargate
Thanks to Tina Baxter @footprintsldn for devising and conducting the walking tour.
Shantih shantih shantih
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All photos: P.Seery ©