This was the first book of poetry I ever bought. This exact edition. Wandering into Waterstones aged 14, my only previous experience with "adult" poetry being (because I was a moody teenage girl, and it's somewhat required of us) Sylvia Plath, I was initially attracted to "The Waste Land" because I thought it sounded dark and grand and apocalyptic. That, and because I was pretty sure Eliot wrote The Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats that I vaguely remembered reading as a child.
I was right on both counts. But it was hard going. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was difficult, but It took me four tries to get through the first section of "The Waste Land". I felt frustrated. I remember reading the whole poem through and simply saying "...What?" aloud to my room at three in the morning. But still, phrases leapt out at me: "A heap of broken images, where the sun beats...", "...I could not speak, and my eyes failed. I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing"... "Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison"... Although I didn't understand it, it was so beautiful that I had to keep reading, and gradually, meaning came. As I grew, so did my understanding of the poem, and my knowledge of the literature that Eliot slips into his work: when I first realised that "But at my back I always hear / the sound of horns and motors" was a reference to Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" I felt like an archaeologist discovering a link between two ancient cultures on opposite sides of the globe. The first time I spotted Hamlet in there it felt like coming home. And now, even though I can recite passages by heart and wrote my A-level coursework on "The Waste Land", I still find something new whenever I read it.
Eliot knows and understands human nature so well, but seems unable to fully commit himself to it. His poetry is full of the self-conscious awkwardness of the outsider, and the exasperation of one who looks polite society in all its sordid pride and feels cheapened. He is a champion of modernist poetry and the writer of an age.