On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
To Carthage then I came
there is a victorian pavilion in margate where ts eliot wrote the third section of his most famous poem, ‘the waste land’. it’s the sort of poem that seems to draw people to it, although it is also among the most complex and least understandable poems ever written. i was certainly taken in by it when i first read it during a high school british lit class i won’t say how many decades ago and have been trying to understand it since. i mostly still don’t.
my time in london has got me closer, for much of ‘the waste land’ is about life in london. like me, ts was a yank in london – a fact many seem not to realise about him – and lived long in this city; long enough to have absorbed the futile shuffle of city workers across blustering london bridge every morning and how, somehow, there is still beauty in that.
london also drove ts mad, as it will do any person who lives here long enough. he captures the sort of love-hate that every londoner feels at some point, almost alluringly referring to the city’s ‘violet hour’ just before vitriolic adjectives about ‘the human engine’ and the river thames ‘spewing’ oil and tar and drifting logs. like most londoners, ts loved this city, and yet he sometimes felt it was killing his soul.
margate is a seaside town on the southeast coast of england in kent, which had its heyday during the victorian era just before the turn of the 20th century. queen victoria thought open-air bathing and sea-salty oxygen were good for the health (which…obviously). until rather recently, margate was on a mostly downhill trajectory since that time.
ts went to margate in 1921 to recover from a ‘nervous breakdown’; as far as i can tell, this just means he just went a bit mad for awhile, and haven’t we all. when ts arrived there, it likely would’ve still been busy with cafe-goers, electric trams and swimmers polka-dotting its crescent beach. over the decades, these were replaced by gaming arcades, greggs and wetherspoons.
a friend of mine – a self-described london dilettante and the sort of person who can be relied upon to think up these kinds of odd and wonderful excursions – suggested a day out in margate recently, and we happily obliged, thinking first of the sea air and rumours of a revival of pubs, particularly the ‘micro’ variety, selling good ale and nothing else. yes please.
it wasn’t until i started reading about margate that i discovered the ts connection, in particular, the seaside pavilion where he sat writing ‘the fire sermon’ (drawing on saint augustine at some length) and looking at the sea. i expected to feel something special here, or at least see what ts saw when he penned such mighty and difficult-to-comprehend language.
the sun was dropping to the west and we were almost to running late for our train back to london when we paused at the pavilion, after a day on the ales following a rather random group of morris dancers around margate’s excellent selection of small pubs. the sky was an ethereal grey-blue of the sort where the colour is washed out by a brilliant, dusky almost-evening light. the sea was steely and shimmering, but calm.
inside, the pavilion has a bunch of fold-down, cinema-style seats facing the water, where i imagine ts must’ve sat during his long days recovering and writing. but that day, in one corner, stacks of stained cardboard boxes, used tesco bags, grubby blankets and empty bottles surrounded a small group of homeless people holding cans of cider and looking menacingly at anyone daring near their makeshift residence.
what of that. i am not sure. the pavilion was designated a grade II listed building by english heritage in 2009. because of that it still stands, and it is indeed magnificent with wide views out over the north sea. add a high salt breeze and it seems almost anyone would be penning poetry under its latticed gables. too, it would be easy to compare the state of things there now to ts’s uneasy state of mind as he embarked on writing ‘the waste land’s’ tumultuous part III – downtrodden and eroded by too many days in london (a condition most londoners will still report with semi-regularity today). but even that metaphor seems too forthcoming for such a work as ‘the waste land’.
what i can say is go to margate. drink some ales. if you are unafraid of the cold, have a swim.
look at the sea from ts’s vantage, and you will feel something – possibly inexplicable. i did.