The Waste Land Project: Tristan und Isolde

tristain and isolde1

Opera * Richard Wagner * Love is the Real Villain Here * 1865


Full disclosure right up top: I don’t like opera. Actually, that’s far too mild of a statement. I cannot stand opera. I would rather be submerged in concrete and shot out of a cannon into brick wall rather than sit through four hours of unintelligible singing. Look, I get this is a personal failing. I don’t have the background or training to appreciate this kind of music. I am totally fine with this. What’s odd is that I enjoy the underlying music, for the most part. I quite like a nice symphony. I don’t understand the subtleties, and I couldn’t pick out one composer from another, but I like it. But you get a couple of people singing at each other with their superhuman voices and I just tune all the way out. It’s a case of being able to appreciate the existence of someone’s talent without enjoying it in the slightest. So! I cannot stand opera; now it’s time to talk about this opera.

It’s difficult to understate the influence of Wagner on the English Modernists. If you peruse biographies or articles about this period, it becomes clear that Wagner was enjoying something of a resurgence of interest among the English public. Why this is so, considering my active dislike of the genre, is beyond my ability to appreciate, but it was a thing. Everyone who fancied themselves cultured at one point or another went out to see some Wagner, including (and perhaps especially) writers. Some, like D.H. Lawrence, didn’t like it. Others, like T.S. Eliot, fuckin’ loved it. I’m not a musical scholar, so I cannot pretend to understand why what Wagner was doing musically was so divisive. From some cursory reading, it seems that the initial reactions to Tristan und Isolde were mixed at best. Some old school critics were real mad at what Wagner was doing. Not because of the subject matter, which I’ll get to in a moment, but because of his compositions. I do not live in a world where I can get mad at a particular chord, so all that’s rather beyond me. Due to my colossal ignorance on this, all I can do is focus on the libretto (or the words being sung).

tristain and isolde2

Man, no wonder this caused such a ruckus back in the day. Too hot for me, y’all.

The story, such as it is, is not complicated. This makes sense considering you basically have to piece it together via staging and pantomime since you can’t understand a damn word these people are singing. Ahem. Tristan, the dude, is a brave and valiant knight in service of King Mark, his bro. He is wounded in battle, and tended to by the most beautiful woman in the whole world, Isolde. Having won the battle, Tristan decides to take Isolde back to his king, so that King Mark might have a hot wife. This understandably doesn’t sit well with Isolde. Too bad for her she doesn’t exactly get a vote, so Tristan puts her on a boat and off they go. Uh-oh, though, Tristan and Isolde fall in love. The entire second act is just them mooning over each other. Then Tristan’s other bro gets jealous and rats him out to Mark. There’s a boring fight and Tristan gets away. In the third act there’s some lamenting, Isolde jumps a ship to come see her one true love, only to get there just as Tristan croak-boats. Then Mark shows up and is all “oh, I totally wasn’t trying to kill you, I totes wanted you guys to be happy, alas alas.” The end.

Look, if you’ve not figured it out by now, I have zero intention of ever watching and/or listening to this thing in its entirety. It’s four hours long! FOUR. That is entirely too many hours. In the interest of personal betterment, I did find a production on YouTube and I actually watched the first act. It was slow torture and I resent every minute of it. You know what’s not a particularly romantic language? German. It’s really hard to sell passionate love in German, which is why these are usually sung in Italian, yeah? Anyway, I found a translation of the libretto online and read that. The story is vaguely familiar territory thanks to some above-average undergraduate classes I took concerning medieval literature. As you might surmise from the title, this is based on the old courtly romance of Tristan and Isolde. They’re the tragic, star-cross’d lovers which people were being sad about long before Romeo and Juliet. There’s a textual history of this story dating back to the 12th century, but those stories are in debt to even older, usually orally transmitted legends with mysterious, unknown origins. Damn, I’m going to have to try and talk about medieval lit again.

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‘Sup? Do ya… like my harp? It’s whatever, I know, I’m not very good, but I’ve been working on this thing….


Medieval literature is tricky for most English students. Most of us come from a place of reading and analysis, trying to make connections between the text and how we view the world. This is all well and good, because for the most part literature reflects some aspect of a shared human experience. Even if the experience is foreign to us, good books enable us to find some kind of common ground. This is how a classroom of California teenagers can read Things Fall Apart and empathize with the plight of a tribal elder watching his world disintegrate thanks to colonialism. Medieval lit doesn’t really work in the same way, because the people writing things down back then didn’t have the same motives as more modern authors. Therefore, to really understand what the point of the writing is, a deeper understanding of the history which produced the texts is absolutely necessary. There’s almost no such thing as an ahistorical reading of a medieval text. Studying medieval literature is almost more of a historical endeavor than a literary one.

I bring this up because the legend of Tristan and Isolde is just that: a legend. There are tenuous connections between this and the Arthur legends, since they all come from the same set of islands. In the first millennia on the British Isles, most of what we would think about as literature was oral in nature. The epic songs of heroes doing cool shit, like in Beowulf, were passed down generationally in the various tribes. Sometimes, again like with Beowulf, these things were written down, but that’s extremely rare, since the only people writing things down were Church clerics, and they were generally busy with The Bible. Also, they only wrote in Latin. The reason a text like Beowulf is so fascinating is because it was written in the vernacular, which simply was not done at the time, by an intellectually curious monk who scribbled the singing of the commoners in the margins of his Bible. This kind of thing is rare nearly to the point of being unique. When something like the story of Tristan and Isolde is finally written down, it’s usually way, way, way after the fact.

tristain and isolde3

Now, just imagine she’s singing at this corpse for half an hour. Fun!

Since what we think of as “medieval” takes up such a vast chunk of time, it’s helpful to think about the medieval era in multiple stages. When Tristan and Isolde was first being bantered around, a pretty straightforward tale of a tragic love triangle, it could have been any number of things. It could have been a bawdy tale of cuckoldry, or a weepy soap opera, or whatever. Nobody was writing that stuff down in the year 400, and those who transmitted the story orally liked to freestyle. Eventually, though, more than just monks and clerics learned how to read and write. These stories were passed around for centuries, but eventually they started getting written down. Of course, the actual content of the stories have been purple-monkey-dishwashered into all kinds of different things in the interim. Come the 12th century, in France, these old stories started getting folded into the new hotness, courtly romances. My knowledge of French medievalism is nearly non-existent, so I’m going to stop while I’m ahead, but suffice to say the Tristan and Isolde Wagner was working with come from this tradition.

T.S. Eliot was highly concerned with the long, canonical tradition of English literature, so it makes sense that he was attracted to Wagner’s production of Tristan and Isolde. After all, the story was probably one of the first instances of literature to come from his (adopted) home. More importantly, being the story of a futile, tragic love affair, the bleakness of the story fits right in the larger context of The Waste Land. Wagner, himself way into grim, dreary German philosophy, was a good fit for the Modernists. If human nature is doomed to repeat its predilection toward tragedy, then we might as well embrace it. Tristan and Isolde have been tragically falling in illicit love and dying because of it for centuries, therefore nothing happening in The Waste Land was exactly new. Here’s how Wager looks in the poem:

There is shadow under this red rock,

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Frisch weht der Wind

                Der Heimat zu

                Mein Irisch Kind

                Wo weilest du?

“You gave me Hyacinths first a year ago;

“They call me the hyacinth girl.”

— Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth


Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,

Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Oed’ und leer das Meer.


The italicized bits are the references to Wagner, because Eliot wasn’t in the business of translating things for your feeble, English-speaking mind. The first phrase is a sailor’s song from the beginning of the opera: “Fresh blows the wind to the homeland. My Irish child where are you dwelling?” The second reference is from act three of Tristan und Isolde and is simply “Waste and empty the sea.” The sailor’s song comes hard after one of the most potent lines in the poem (or frankly, all of Modernism) so it’s easy to overlook. It’s a tonal shift from the intense couple of verses leading into the quote, and resets the pace of the reading. Eliot is constantly making things difficult for the reader. Suddenly it’s poetic German evoking fresh wind and yearning. Of course it doesn’t take long to end back up with waste and emptiness, that’s rather the overarching theme of the piece. This instance of Wagner, specifically Wagner’s imagining of a medieval story, only serves to reinforce that the waste and emptiness are and always have been integral to human existence. That, and Eliot really liked the opera, so he wanted to give it a shout-out.

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