Arts & Culture

Atkins, Dennehy to perform poems of T.S. Eliot

4 min read

One of Harvard’s most famous alums celebrated onstage

In the first lines of “The Waste Land,” a touchstone of modernist poetry from 1922, T.S. Eliot offers an ambiguous view of the very month we are in:

April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.

On the contrary, April is a fine month. This Friday (April 3) brings to Harvard “The Waste Land and Other Poems,” a dramatic reading of work by one of the University’s most famous literary progeny.

The event features actors Dame Eileen Atkins and Brian Dennehy.

Eliot’s words “cut into our consciousness with the sharpness of a diamond,” said British novelist Josephine Hart, quoting the Nobel Prize committee that tapped Eliot for that honor in 1948.

“The mind is really changed by listening to Eliot,” she added, during a trans-Atlantic conversation this week from her London home.

Hart, a self-described “Irish word child,” is the author of the bestselling “Damage” and other novels. For several years she has produced a monthly Poetry Hour at the British Library. Famous actors — Judi Dench, Joseph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons, and others — do the readings for free.

In 1987, in London’s West End, she produced “Let Us Go Then, You and I,” a program of Eliot’s work that ran for six weeks. (Atkins is a veteran of that event.)

And just a few months ago, during an Eliot festival at the Donmar Warehouse in London, Hart directed two performances of the poet’s verse.

At one performance, attended by Eliot’s widow, was Sir Ronald Cohen M.B.A. ’69. “He was so stunned,” Hart recalled, “that he said: This must come to Harvard.”

Cohen had just read the Arts Task Force report, said Stephen Greenblatt, Cogan University Professor of the Humanities, who chaired the group that released the document late last year.

“He very generously and enthusiastically and adroitly realized the event he had seen in London would be a perfect way to help fulfill one of the goals of the task force,” said Greenblatt, “which is to heighten the presence of performance and the making of art on campus.”

And what better campus for an Eliot reading, said Hart, who loved “the idea of going to Harvard, where his mind was changed.”

Eliot earned an A.B. at Harvard in 1909, and a master’s degree the next year. In 1916, from London, he mailed in his doctoral dissertation in philosophy. It was accepted, but Eliot never appeared in Cambridge to defend it.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Eliot encountered the book that changed his life. Arthur Symons’ “The Symbolist Movement in Literature” introduced him to Rimbaud, Verlaine, and other poets at the leading edge of literary modernism.

Thanks to those influences, said Hart, we now have “the fiercely internal persona we get with Eliot.”

Poetry has special power when read aloud, she said, calling verse an art form that is “a trinity of sound and sense and sensibility.”

Greenblatt agreed, recalling what poet Robert Pinsky says of verse — that it is “a column of air that comes up from your body,” meant to be a physical experience for both the poet and listener.

Hart’s friend, poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, told her about reading Eliot’s “Four Quartets” while he was a student at Queen’s University in Belfast.

“He knew he was reading a masterpiece,” said Hart, but on the page alone “it seemed distant. There wasn’t the visceral connection that is really the essence of what happens when you are confronted with art.”

Then a stage actor visited Queens, and spoke the poem. “What had been opaque on the page,” she said, “was now hypnotic read aloud.”

‘The Waste Land and Other Poems,’ a dramatic reading by actors Dame Eileen Atkins and Brian Dennehy, will be at 5 p.m. Friday (April 3) at the New College Theatre, 10-12 Holyoke St., with introductions by British novelist Josephine Hart. Tickets, free through the Harvard Box Office, are no longer available. But there will be a waiting line at the event. The reading is sponsored by Harvard’s Department of English, the Office for the Arts at Harvard, and the Office of the President and Provost.