Jeremy Irons Reads Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

The existence of this recording has restored my faith in the Internet – and, quite possibly, in humanity itself. (Sorry. I haven’t decided exactly how much hyperbole to use.)

Thanks to BBC Radio 4 and, I am happy to present T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” featuring Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins. (The recording has some introductory material that attempts to set Eliot’s work in appropriate historical context; the recitation itself begins around the 16-minute mark).

Jeremy Irons Reads T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Fantastic stuff, that. And not just because I’d happily listen to Scar reading the proverbial phonebook. It’s fantastic because it reminds me of the only thing that helped Eliot make an ounce of sense to me.

A few years after I’d read “The Waste Land” for the first time, one of my former college professors gave a lecture on Eliot and his poetry, and did more for my understanding of Eliot in an hour and a half than countless months exhausted on its dense references and allusions could ever have done. (Only Hegel’s “Phenomenology of the Mind” left me feeling more clueless than “The Waste Land” after a first read.)

This seismic shift came from the simple fact that he did not begin his lecture by “setting the appropriate historical context” for the poems, or by wading directly into their exhaustive dissection. He simply recited them — wonderfully and with an obvious appreciation (even affection) for them as words instead of just ideas. And I felt like I was hearing them for the first time. (I still vividly remember his recitation of the opening stanzas of “What the Thunder Said.” They didn’t just “say” dry; they sounded dry. By reading them silently to myself, I’d skipped that “hearing” step entirely.)

Hearing his works recited was a sea change for me. And while I’d stop just short of saying I understand as well Eliot (or my professor) might wish — and by “just short,” I mean “miles and miles and miles from comprehension” — my ability to understand and appreciate them increased exponentially. Irons’ voice bolsters that even further.

Bonus: The man himself reads his “Four Quartets.”

Double Bonus: This is a completely different “Waste Land,” but fascinating in its own right.

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • Ben Milton

    Here are performances of The Waste Land by Fiona Shaw and Alec Guinness. Shaw’s rendition is truly awe-inspiring.

    • Joseph Susanka

      Thanks, Ben. That’s fantastic! Can’t wait to give it a more thorough listen. (The only versions of Shaw’s recitation I’d been able to find up until now were severely shortened clips. This is just the ticket.)

      Another friend passed along this wonderful TouchPress app. I think I just found out where my Christmas iTunes $$ will be going once I get home tonight. (It’s got the Guinness and Shaw, as well.)

  • Melanie B

    Oh yes. If you have an iPad the Waste Land app is truly worth the price. My husband just gave me his old iPad and I am loving watching Shaw’s performance. The Waste Land is already one of my favorite poems, but Shaw makes it come to life. I almost felt like I was encountering it for the first time.

    • Joseph Susanka

      Consider it done, Melanie. Cannot wait to get home and give it a whirl!

  • Manny

    I have to disagree with those who approve the Shaw reading. Fiona Shaw reads it as a passage out of a dramatic play, totally obliterating the rhythm of the poetry. She over dramatizes the lines as if she were trying to stand on a stage and needed to reach the last person in the last aisle. I didn’t like it. The Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins reading is magnificent, not only keeping the poetry of the lines but subtle and insightful.

  • Manny

    I gave you a hat tip at my blog with a link here for this BBC reading.

    I too couldn’t decide on how much hyperbole to use. This is truly an amazing reading. By the way i figured out how to save it to my computer. Just right click and a save option comes up.

    • Joseph Susanka

      I’m comfortable with a lot of hyperbole, Manny. It is a spectacular rendition.