One Hundred Years in the Unreal City

Christian Prophecy in The Waste Land

“We dwell in the Unreal City,” writes Anthony Esolen. “We all dwell there. We have all been dulled and deadened by the unreal. But if God is real, then to turn away from God is to leap into unreality, and that is pretty much the definition of evil” (Sex and the Unreal City, 2020, 8). The phrase “unreal city” is not Professor Esolen’s coinage. It originates in T.  S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, first published a century ago, in October 1922. It immediately became a literary sensation because of its arrestingly innovative techniques and its grimly ironic vision of the modern world, and it remains the most famous and influential poem of the twentieth century. It is notoriously difficult to understand, and for many readers, since its initial publication down to our own time, its elusive discourse and apparently incoherent structure are simply an expression of disillusionment and disgust in the face of a sterile, meaningless world.

When a Christian reads Eliot’s landmark poem today, however, he is likely to marvel at how prescient the poet was in describing the decadence of Western society as it has degenerated in the course of the following century. Few readers saw this, however, until, six years after the publication of The Waste Land, Eliot announced that he was “a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion.” Not until then did critics begin to suspect—some with dismay—that the scriptural allusions and other Christian references in the poem might be something more than random fragments shorn of context and Christian meaning.

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R. V. Young is Professor of English Emeritus at North Carolina State University, and a former editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review. His Shakespeare & the Idea of Western Civilization is forthcoming in January from Catholic University of America Press. He and his wife are parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Dunedin, Florida. They have five grown children, 15 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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