Geographies of space: Mapping and reading the cityscape

Spencer Morrison*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


T. S. Eliot first toured London with the help of a Baedeker travel guide (London and Its Environs, published in 1908); in a letter of April 26, 1911 he describes “produc[ing] a map” (likely his Baedeker's) before “an austere Englishman” while charting his route. A decade later, ensconced in London as an (arguably) austere resident, and in the process of composing The Waste Land, Eliot voices in The Dial his exhilaration at taking in Igor Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps: “[the music] did seem to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life.” Evoking a putative primitivism (“the rhythm of the steppes,” “barbaric”) in the clangor of urban modernity, Stravinsky's music acts for Eliot as an alternative Baedeker, indexing urban experience in a form more textured than tourist guides or city maps that present abstract networks of streets and buildings. Such an awareness of mapping's pliability as a representational mode – an awareness that mapping can be carried out not only by government administrators but also by citizens who conjure their own personal orderings of city space – infuses The Waste Land, where, near the poem's end, the speaker asks, “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” This question announces the possibility of a future spatial order that repairs the present's fragmentation, with the phrase “set … in order” enunciating an impulse not just cartographic but governmental. Yet the interrogative form in which this possibility arises also subtly undercuts governmental mapping: The word “Shall” casts doubt upon the ethics and viability of the project of spatial ordering. The Waste Land, often read as “the text of urban disaffection in modernist poetry par excellence,” both embodies and questions new ways of ordering, mapping, and artistically governing urban experience, meditating on the prospects for new spatial orders commensurate to the material upheavals of modern city life. Just as Ezra Pound, revising Shelley, claimed that poets should be considered acknowledged legislators, The Waste Land casts attention on the very processes of urban ordering and governing that it artistically enacts, grounding its reflections on modernity in London's built form, material infrastructure, and urban administration.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to the Waste Land
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9781107279612
ISBN (Print)9781107050679
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2015
Externally publishedYes


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