In a poem referencing the grandeur of the civilisations such as Carthage and Alexandria, readers of T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) might — at first — be surprised by his inclusion of Margate as a setting for part of the piece:
On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken fingernails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
T.S Eliot spent some time in Margate in 1921, recuperating from something we’d today understand as a nervous breakdown or a period of severe psychological stress. At the time, he was working for Lloyds Bank in London, dealing with the pressures of a difficult marriage and of trying to write a follow up to his incredibly successful poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915). In a letter from November 1921, Eliot writes:
“I have done a rough draft of part III [of The Waste Land], but do not know whether it will do, and must wait for Vivien’s opinion as to whether it is printable. I have done this while sitting in a shelter on the front — as I am out all day except when taking rest.”
It’s hard to imagine that such an important work of English Literature was penned in an inauspicious Margate shelter, but the structure has since been listed for its literary importance.
The fragmentary ‘stream of consciousness’ style of The Waste Land makes it deliberately difficult to pin down exactly what the poem is about, but the sense of dislocation and despair in the poem is tangible:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
In a 2009 article for The Guardian, Stephen Moss drew a tongue in cheek comparison with some of the hopelessness expressed in Eliot’s poem and the physical reality of twenty-first century Margate. The past eighty years have not been kind to the British seaside town in general, and Margate has suffered more than some. Five years ago, the seafront offered little more than the dereliction of the Dreamland arcade, the dystopian-horror-scene of the Arlington House tower-block, and row after row of bleakly boarded up shops.
The Waste Land was a hugely successful poem upon publication in 1922, and is largely regarded as one of the most important works of English Literature, marking the period of High Modernism which was revolutionary in literature and the arts. In April 2011, Margate’s fortunes began to improve too, with the opening of the Turner Contemporary art gallery. Since then, countless new businesses have opened, the Dreamland site is being rebuilt and Margate Old Town boasts an array of independent galleries, kitsch coffee shops and vintage treasure-troves. Long may this recuperation and regeneration continue, but let’s not forget that some of the most significant things happen in the inauspicious and overlooked places.
- You can read an annotated version of The Waste Land here: http://eliotswasteland.tripod.com/
- You can read more about the regeneration of Margate here:
- Canterbury Christ Church University is running a project about the British Seaside here: http://www.canterbury.ac.uk/Research/Centres/ICVWW/Victorian-women-at-the-seaside.aspx
By Victoria Adams, PhD Candidate in English Literature, exploring how the typewriter, printing press and other print technologies impacted the novel between 1890 & 1940. In her spare time she rescues, restores and prints with all kinds of letterpress printing platens, blogging about this at frostinmay.wordpress.com. You can find her on Twitter as @kentpterodactyl.
Department of English and Language Studies, Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent.