Follow Harriet on Twitter
PJ Harvey Is Just One Love Song Among Many for T.S. Eliot
The Guardian tells us that pop music makers have one thing in common: T.S. Eliot?
Eliot would not have loved pop music but pop music loves Eliot. Ninety years after the publication of The Waste Land, he remains the lodestar poet for ambitious songwriters. They rummage through his masterpiece’s treasure chest of arresting phrases: the “violet hour” and “bodies naked on the low damp ground” quoted in the Sisters of Mercy’s Floorshow, “April is the cruellest month” kicking off Hot Chip’s Playboy or the “red sails” picked up by David Bowie on Lodger (Bowie told William Burroughs in 1974 that he’d “never read” Eliot but I suspect he got around to it).
Likewise 1915’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. “Like a patient etherized on a table” is paraphrased by avowed Eliot fan Win Butler in Arcade Fire’s We Used to Wait, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” became a song title for Chuck D, and “the Eternal Footman” crops up in Tori Amos’s Pretty Good Year. “Alfred J Prufrock would be proud of me,” declare Manic Street Preachers on My Guernica. And 1925’s The Hollow Men lends its name to songs by Faust, Gravenhurst and Cocteau Twins. And on it goes: Genesis, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Van Morrison, Rush, EMF, Crash Test Dummies, Okkervil River, the Clientele … “This music crept by me upon the waters.”
What’s really great is that writer Dorian Lynskey even gets into Eliot’s influence on Bob Dylan and our lady PJ Harvey:
Eliot’s influence extends across the whole of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which pieces together voices and images from multiple decades and countries, and collapses all that history into a single ongoing commentary on war and nationalism. You often can’t tell which lines Harvey wrote herself and which she took from existing sources; among other things The Waste Land’s collage technique is a licence to borrow without shame. One blogger has pointed out the similarity between On Battleship Hill (“Jagged mountains jutting out/ Cracked like teeth in a rotting mouth”) and The Waste Land (“Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit”). The critic Donald Childs believes Eliot was actually referring to Gallipoli (the home of Battleship Hill), where his close friend Jean Verdenal had been killed in action. During the campaign Australian soldiers sang the risque song about Mrs Porter that is quoted in III: The Fire Sermon. Did Harvey know all of this or is it just a case of The Waste Land’s world of echoes setting off accidental echoes of its own?
This process is apt considering The Waste Land includes allusions to show tunes, operas, folk ballads and ragtime songs among its linguistic flotsam and jetsam. In one example of cultural baton-passing Eliot took the refrain “goodnight ladies” from a 19th-century folk song and then Lou Reed took it from him.
As Radio 4’s recent broadcast of The Waste Land demonstrated, it’s a poem that wants to be listened to. The Fire Sermon in particular is full of noise: gramophones and mandolins, throbbing engines and pealing bells, “a clatter and a chatter”. Read it aloud and before you begin to thrash out what it might mean you can hear the music humming in the wires of the verse. . . .
We wrote about Polly Jean as wordsmith and Let England Shake when the album came out, too. Watch “On Battleship Hill” below.