T. S. Eliot's “The Waste Land” Turns 100: Film Screening and Student Creative Work

Students, scholars, and community will come together on Nov. 3 to celebrate the centennial of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. Born and raised in St. Louis, Eliot went on to become an international literary figure and Nobel Prize winner. One hundred years after the publication of his most famous poem, a new BBC documentary reveals the secret love story behind his poem of personal anguish and alienation.

The public is invited to a reception, display of creative work, and screening of “T. S. Eliot—Into The Waste Land” on Thursday, November 3, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Center for Missouri Studies, headquarters of the State Historical Society of Missouri, at 605 Elm Street in Columbia.

Director Susanna White, acclaimed for her film adaptations of Bleak House and Jane Eyre, tells the story of Eliot’s poem, drawing from his unpublished letters to Emily Hale, an American drama teacher. Artists and scholars explain the poem’s emotional origins and illuminate its obscurities, bringing this disturbing, epoch-setting poem to life for a new generation of readers. After its broadcast in England earlier this fall, critics described “Into The Waste Landas “a sensual treat for both newcomers and poetry experts” and “the place to go this week for beauty and cheer.”

Students at the University of Missouri have responded to Eliot’s poem in their own voices through poetry, stories, drama, and music. Their contributions will be on display during the reception.  

“After 100 years, we can understand Eliot’s poem far better than his early readers could,” said Frances Dickey, Eliot scholar and Associate Professor of English at Mizzou. “Beneath his difficult language lies the emotional life of a man who regretted his unhappy marriage and mourned the death of his father in St. Louis. Though Eliot traveled far from Missouri, he never forgot his childhood, writing that St. Louis and the Mississippi River ‘affected me more deeply than any other environment.’ Susanna White’s film and the creative work of our students help to re-establish the poet’s ties with Missouri.”

As well as filming in London, White shot scenes in St. Louis and along the Mississippi. In the documentary, artists including actress Fiona Shaw, composer Max Richter, and poet Daljit Nagra describe their encounters with The Waste Land. As an Indian immigrant, Nagra recalls his surprise at seeing the Sanskrit word “Shantih” in an English poem. Eliot’s biographer narrates the story of his relationship with Hale, drawing on the recently unsealed archive of letters that he wrote to her.

This event is co-sponsored by the Center for Missouri Studies and the Department of English, with support from the Davidson Fellowship and the Office of Undergraduate Research. Following a reception and display of student work, the film screening begins at 7 p.m. and runs for 80 minutes.