The Waste Land
The Allusions to Classic Works of Poetry in the Waste Land
In an effort to reestablish the tradition of the “intellectual poet” (“Metaphysical”), T. S. Eliot and the members of the imagist and early modernist schools employ a rather direct method: allusions to classic works of poetry. By incorporating references to texts that exemplify the “chaotic, irregular, fragmentary” (“Metaphysical”) style which mirrors one’s sensory experience of everyday life, Eliot adds both the historical context of the referenced work and the image conjured by the work itself to his own poetry. Pound, an imagist contemporary of Eliot, suggests that aspiring modernist poets “be influenced by as many great artists as [they] can” (Pound 95), a recommendation that Eliot appears to have interpreted through a multitude of allusions. These implied, passing references to the works of Dante, Ovid, and the great Greek epics interweave the context and content of the referenced works with Eliot’s own ideas to create a poem that revisits the literary glory of the past. This literary technique, however, can render a poem unapproachable and limit the poet’s experimental potential, leading Eliot’s contemporaries to search for alternate ways to present their poetic experiences. An opposing group of modernist poets, including Wallace Stevens, disagreed strongly with Eliot’s reliance on allusions and chose to focus on the synesthetic “brief words and sudden contrasts” (“Metaphysical”) characteristic of imagism. In “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Stevens experiments with style and meter to conjure images of the future rather than returning to the past.
In order to capture poetic experiences as accurately as possible, Eliot uses contradictory imagery that he supplements with allusions, a tool that conjures both the image referenced and the socio-historical context and literary value of the referenced work itself. The early modernist concept of imagery grew from the short-lived literary movement of imagism, which prized direct presentation of objects through the unexpected association of contrasting concepts. Hoping to abandon the Romantic descriptions wrought with similes and comparisons, Eliot begins The Waste Land with a depiction of April as the “cruellest month” (Waste Land 5), inverting spring’s connotations of rebirth. Throwing the reader into such an image, composed of diametrically opposed concepts, forces him or her to experience the complexity of this desolate April. Throughout The Waste Land, Eliot alludes to texts that he felt exemplified the “mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience” (“Metaphysical”), including one of the most frequently referenced works, Dante’s Divine Comedy. By quoting Cantos III and IV in lines 63-64, he not only borrows the original image – the overwhelming masses of dead souls shuffling resignedly to their fate – but he also contrasts the orderliness of Hell and the sense of destiny in Dante’s text as a whole to the image of absurd, desolate crowds shuffling aimlessly over London Bridge. Other allusions, such as the reference to Baudelaire in the line “hypocrite lecteur! –mon semblable, -mon frère!” (Waste Land 7) serve a less literal purpose, and are employed primarily for the context surrounding them. The actual meaning of the line does not add much to the poem, but the source – Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, a scandalous collection of poetry that criticized the heavy industrialization and listless human spirit through decadent, symbolist imagery – contributes its themes to Eliot’s poem without directly voicing them. Eliot compares this effect to Keats’s use of a nightingale as the central subject of his Ode: the bird “contains a number of feelings which have nothing particular to do with the nightingale, but which the nightingale…served to bring together” (“Tradition”). In addition, these allusions serve to place Eliot’s poem within the context of literary history by forcing the reader to recall the works of Ovid and Aenid when experiencing The Waste Land. According to Eliot, a poem does not become a part of literary history simply by being written, but must actively recall the classic works of the past to gain entrance; “it cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour” (“Tradition”) from the poet through heavy allusion.
The War and Male-female Relationships in the Waste Land by T. S. Eliot
Eliot’s The Waste Land is not a typical war poem. It does not offer the same simplicity and accessibility of wartime poets, and it does not necessarily offer the same view of themes and virtues of war poems, such as faith, duty, patriotism, and civilisation. However, Eliot does deal with the after effects of war, with the problems faced by those directly involved on the front lines and by those left behind at home, whose lives and personal traumas are sometimes neglected in study. This essay will look at the ways in which the war affected male-female relationships, focusing particularly on the way different experiences both psychologically and physically for each individual creates a distance between partners.
Female Sexuality and Torturing One’s Partner
In “A Game of Chess”, Eliot uses female sexuality to explore the post-war effects on society, and to communicate the physical desolation wrought on both men and women and the general sense of despair that blanketed the war-torn civilisation by looking into the state and obscurity of male-female relationships. Jean-Michel Rabaté concludes that “Eliot had taken the war as a pretext for a situation of exception that allowed him to get married quickly to a seductive and brilliant English woman. He would torture her (and himself) in words and deeds”, finding that “the war provided […] the possibility of torturing one’s partner in a couple.” Whether or not Eliot intentionally entered into his marriage with Vivien Haigh-Wood with the explicit objective of torturing either himself or his wife is debatable, though it is clear that the theme of torturing one’s partner or lover is a prevalent one in the poem.
Inability to Express Her Inner Self
This section of the poem showcases two separate scenes highlighting two differing kinds of women in society: the first scene observes a moment from the life of an upper-class woman while the second scene follows a conversation between lower-class women. The first woman, surrounded by “jewels”, “satin” and “vials of ivory and coloured glass” containing “her strange synthetic perfumes” is awaiting the arrival of or reunion with her husband, who can be read as a war veteran. Eliot invokes the story of Ovid’s Philomela, a woman who is raped by her sister’s husband, the king, who cuts out her tongue to ensure she does not speak about it. Philomela manages to tell her sister what has happened, and her sister avenges her by murdering the king’s son and feeding him to the king. The story summons up the idea that perhaps the woman is unable to express her true, internal self to the outer world. Though this scene is not sexual, the lack of sexuality shows the reader the difficulty of rekindling romantic intimacy with a partner after the experience of a war. It also offers the reader a look into the unerotic intimacy shared by a couple and the way in which war can destroy this kind of non-sexual, almost platonic side of male-female love. The connotations of Philomela’s story, however, prepares Eliot’s audience to face the brutality of sexual violence that comes up later again in the poem.
Inability to Communicate
It is not only the woman in this section that displays an inability to express or communicate her true self or thoughts. She implores her partner
Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak. What are you thinking of? What thinking? Think. I never know what you are thinking. Think. The woman’s desperation is clear: the blank verse of this first part becomes increasingly irregular in both length and meter, indicating a sense of disintegration. Her husband’s responses appear non-verbal, without quotation marks, to imply that the duo is incapable of communication. The husband’s replies echo earlier comments made by the speaker of the poem in “The Burial of the Dead”; when the woman asks him “Do / You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember / Nothing?” and further questions “Are you alive, or not?”, Eliot seems to draw connections to an earlier voice remembering a scene from their younger years: “I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.” This deterioration into nothingness, felt by not only the tortured soldier and the younger speaker but the wife, too, who is surrounded by luxuries and a partner safely returned home from war, who ostensibly ‘has it all’, exhibits the universal sense of fragmentation that has rendered society in an almost perpetual state of falling apart. Here, Rabaté’s idea of torturing one’s partner with words seems to ring true, though it is an unintended, unaware torture, an after effect of the war that leaves the couple unable to communicate and express themselves accurately and, in the process of attempting to find the right words, unknowingly end up tormenting one another.
The Distance Between Husband and Wife
There is another kind of torture reserved for male-female relationships in The Waste Land, observed in the sexual exploits in several instances to which the reader is privy. The second part of “A Game of Chess” follows the conversation between two women about the circumstances of their mutual friend, Lil. The speaker explains that Lil’s husband, Albert, is returning from war, and that it is time she ‘smartens’ up her appearance: “think of poor Albert, / He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time, / And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will.” The reader discovers that Lil used up the money that Albert gave her to get a new set of teeth on an abortion instead, after nearly dying in childbirth with her fifth child. According to Richard Badenhausen, “Of particular interest to [Eliot] is the manner in which domestic spaces are inhospitable to traumatised soldiers struggling to reconcile their wartime experiences with the very different demands of civilian life.” Whereas the previous couple of this section struggle to communicate efficiently, here the reader witnesses the effects war has on the sexual intimacy of a couple; Albert, who has been in the army for years, is entitled to a beautiful (or at least pleasant-looking) wife upon his return, according to the speaker. Yet Lil has waged a personal war against her own body after giving birth to five children, which has left her looking “antique”, and has been told that this is something to be “ashamed” of. She is compared to Hamlet’s Ophelia in the ending lines of the section, and the question of self-destruction shrouds Lil’s character. While it is true that traumatised soldiers often found it difficult adjusting to everyday life after the war, Eliot articulates the problems faced by the soldiers’ wives left behind, some of whom have gone years without seeing their husbands or partners. A study found that “dealing with the process of integration following the return of a soldier is equally or more stressful [for the family] than periods during the war/deployment”, noting various different stressors and citing Schuetz from ‘The Homecomer’: “The home to which [the soldier] returns is by no means the home he left or the home which he recalled and longed for during his absence.” The distance between husband and wife becomes something not only geographical but physical and emotional – Lil is expected to doll herself up and give herself to a man she hasn’t seen—or hardly known—in years. The Waste Land highlights the difficulties suffered not only by traumatised soldiers but also their wives; and it indicates that the abyss of lack of intimacy between the two as a direct result of war is something that causes catastrophic havoc on male-female relationships.
Sexual Violence and Indifference
Sexual violence also plays a part in The Waste Land, specifically in “The Fire Sermon” section. Linking back to the Philomela invocation from “A Game of Chess”, this section of the poem sees Tiresias, the speaker, watch the rape of a woman by her lover. Badenhausen states that “one of the recurring features of The Waste Land is how often potentially charged emotional moments are accompanied by ‘indifference’” and Tiresias tells the reader that the young man’s “vanity […] makes a welcome of indifference.” This indifference can be traced to the letters Eliot received from Maurice Haigh-Wood, his brother-in-law, who spoke of the “complete indifference” of the men who had fought on the front lines and were exposed to the horrors that those at home could not imagine. Badenhausen explains that Eliot sought to publish Haigh-Wood’s letter so that the public could better understand why soldiers who had returned from war were so reluctant to speak of it. There is a Freudian undertone throughout the poem, particularly between the first couple in “A Game of Chess”, wherein the situation whereby a trauma victim is unable to express their trauma leads to shellshock. The indifference the young woman feels from the violent act parallels the indifference the soldiers felt upon returning home from war, like the unspeaking, shellshocked husband from “A Game of Chess”; both parties the victims of atrocities, both parties left with the thought: “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
Cyclicality and Repetition
At the same time, Eliot chose to include a reference to Elizabeth I in this section. Elizabeth and Leicester’s liaison is traditionally depicted as something of a romantic affair, which contradicts the earlier part of this section, whereby the typist has clearly become accustomed to a lack of romance, intimacy and love and has come to expect the detached violence that her lover brings. Eliot strips Elizabeth of her titles, of her royal connotations and nobility: Elizabeth and Leicester Beating oars The stern was formed A gilded shell Red and gold This technique allows her to become just another noun in the fragmented verse of this section of the poem, almost as if implying her vulnerability or at the very least nakedness, much like the violated typist. To compare the Virgin Queen with the rape of the young woman could suggest that war has ‘raped’ England, or even civilised English society, leaving it with an indifference to the matters of domestic trauma, fragmented and desolate in the aftershock of the war. On the other hand, it is possible to imagine that Eliot has used this comparison to highlight the absence of intimacy in couples after the war, even going so far as to twist Elizabeth’s romance into something dry and meaningless, lost at sea with their “beating oars.” This foreshadows Eliot’s “Death by Water” section, which incurs notions of cyclicality and repetition rather than burial and regrowth, thereby disrupting the process of mourning not only for lost loved ones but for the loss of what those loved ones were once able to provide with regards to intimacy, closeness and familiarity. This creates confusion and obstruction, placing an ocean of emotional distance between the first couple of “A Game of Chess”, Lil and Albert, the typist and her lover, and Elizabeth and England/Leicester. In this way, they are tortured the same way Phlebas the Phoenician is, rising and falling in the “whirlpool” of the sea, lost in the abyss of emotional separation.
The Listener to Trauma
This same section, “The Fire Sermon”, introduces the reader to Tiresias. Tiresias is a figure from Greek mythology, who “though blind […] can see” into the future. He is an “old man with wrinkled female breasts” and shares a relationship with those whose lives he narrates in the poem. In being the narrator of this section, “throbbing between two lives”, Tiresias carries the burden of the traumas the typist endures and can do nothing about it. Dori Laub asserts that “the listener to trauma comes to be a participant and co-owner of the traumatic event: through his very listening, he comes to partially experience trauma himself.” Despite the fact that he has “foresuffered all”, Tiresias is unable to share a genuine intimacy with the typist, as he himself has become a victim of her trauma. Freud’s theory of traumatic disassociation seems to be proved in Eliot’s version of Tiresias, who as the witness of extreme psychological traumas such as death, sexual violence and devastation on an immense scale means that he is directly suffering and cannot remove himself from the identity of a victim. His repetition of “I Tiresias” throughout this section of the poem seems to instil the idea of his inability to grasp onto his own identity, and slips into the lives of those he witnesses, blurring the identities between the real victim of trauma and Tiresias’s perceived traumatic experiences. Though the relationship between Tiresias and the typist is not a typical male-female relationship, Eliot has utilised this speaker in such a way as to further intensify the feeling of a lack of intimacy between the pair, as a direct result of the trauma they have experienced in their own ways.
This essay has looked at the ways in which war and its aftershock has brought havoc to the male-female relationships presented in The Waste Land. As I have mentioned, The Waste Land is not a typical war poem; it is not rooted in any particular event, though its conception will have been hastened by the First World War and its effects on Eliot himself. The Waste Land conceals the roots of its characters’ trauma, nor does it reveal any kind of redemptive aspect or sign of societal growth as a functioning civilisation; instead, Eliot pays close attention to those who have been left in suffering, who are trapped in suffering and will remain that way in his poem. The damage evident in the male-female relationships of the poem are equally a result of and cause of this suffering, much like the “torture” of “words and deeds” Eliot found himself in. The “debilitating emotional distance” in all of the male-female relationships of the poem is, in fact, each individual’s own personal waste land.
Anger at the Modern Society in the Waste Land by T.s. Eliot
In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot strongly criticizes western culture after World War 1 as superficial, disordered, and immoral. He longs for a return to a time when people lost themselves in the study of language and classic literature instead of slaughtering each other by the millions. Through his skillful use of a disconnected, disorganized structure (complete with numerous random scenes and slips into foreign languages) and intensely negative imagery, the reader experiences Eliot’s anger at a modern society that has lost its purity of yesteryear.
The structure of The Waste Land is free verse to the max-it sometimes rhymes for a couple lines and then abandons the effort, it jumps between various events and even descends into other languages to further amplify the confusion. For instance, the poem begins with some semblance of a rhyme scheme (breeding/mixing/stirring/covering/feeding, although these words are only related by their gerundive ending). Immediately afterwards, however, the rhymes abruptly end and for much of the poem, there is no poetic form and it seems as if Eliot is just writing his train of thought. On a larger scale, this train of thought manifests itself in the wide range of seemingly random scenes included in the poem. Throughout the verse, the reader witnesses Londoners walking on the Thames, some merchant asking Eliot “To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel” (213), a woman in an extravagant room complete with “satin cases poured in rich profusion” (85), and many other disconnected happenings. Most surprisingly, however, is Eliot’s willingness to occasionally abandon English for a few lines and descend into another tongue. In lines 31-34, for example, the poem inexplicably slips into german, as the narrator states “Frisch weht der Wind/Der-Heimat zu/Mein Irisch Kind/Wo weilest du?”. In line 76, Eliot again leaves English-this time for French, as he says “Hyprocrite lecteur!-mon semblable-mon frere!” Through this haphazard structure of indiscriminate events and foreign languages, Elliot forcibly conveys his distaste with modern culture-it seems to have no coherency and order. The moral disgust of such a horrible war made Eliot and many others frustrated and feeling like society had no direction or ethical standards. Remy Rhee articulates this perfectly in her thesis when she states “It is through its apparent confusion and chaos that the poem paints a picture of the disjointed and barren world” (Rhee 4). Pouneh Saeddi makes the same point when she argues that “Eliot expresses the loss of a universal understanding delineated in the fragmentation of language” (Saeddi 1). Eliot creates this confusion and chaos, this fragmentation of language, by employing such a free verse, “random” structure. The result is a clear illustration of the author’s view that post-war society has lost its commitment to morality, scholarship, and the common good and just can’t seem to return to its old, superior ways.
Eliot further conveys his resentment of modern culture through his explicitly negative imagery. He outlines “empty cisterns and exhausted wells” (384), “tumbled graves”, (387) and “damp gusts” (394). Also included in the numerous depressing images conjured up by Eliot are “hooded hordes swarming over endless plains” (369) and “the drowned Phoenician sailor’ (47). The author even goes into disgusting detail describing a rat, as “A rat crept softly through the vegetation/Dragging its slimy belly on the bank” (187-188). The effect of all this disheartening imagery is the message that Eliot is disheartened by the society in which he lives. The specific word choice that indicates vacancy, a lack of purpose (empty, endless, exhausted) shows how Eliot sees society-devoid of direction, meaningless, shallow. The frequent images of death (including a hanged person, a drowned person, even a dead tree) quite literally signify how terribly the author views the state of modern culture (as dead itself) and also its capacity to kill and destroy. Through his specific, unpleasant imagery, Eliot conveys that society is uncommitted to a higher purpose and lacks the values it always used to abide by.
The Waste Land serves as T.S. Eliot’s expression of his exasperation with modern culture/society. The author feels that before the war and all the killing, people were more virtuous and sophisticated-they had a purpose and cared about learning and being kind to others. By using such an aimless, disorderly structure and extremely gloomy imagery, Eliot expresses his view that in the 1920’s, after World War 1 ended, society lacks the morals and overall direction and purpose that was present in pre-war Europe.
“The Fire Sermon”: the Depiction of Detachment in the Waste Land
Detachment in terms of societies emotions from reality as manifested in the disconnect between sex and marriage and a different kind of disconnect between the London of the past and the London as represented in the poem.
Rough thesis: Through the shifting allusions and unidentified speakers present in “The Fire Sermon,” the motif of detachment reveals the detached nature of post-war London as T. S. Eliot sees it. Published in 1922, The Waste Land explores a London society in the years following the extensive devastation incurred during the First World War. With over two million soldiers killed or injured throughout the course of World War I, the population in Great Britain suffered greatly in terms of both the physical and the mental well-being of their citizens (Tate).
Particularly pervasive in British society after the war was a feeling of detachment – between soldiers and civilians, pre-war and post-war sentiments, and emotion and reality. In an essay describing a soldier’s return to the “stir of London” after the war, the disconnect between the soldier and his familiar yet somehow distant surroundings is described as “an abyss of dread” between the “old self and the man they see. A young officer brought this essay to the attention of T. S. Eliot in a letter, which Eliot subsequently sent to the editor of a magazine called The Nation. In the letter to Eliot, the anonymous soldier describes the apparent “complete indifference” with which men return from the frontlines. The author of the letter also maintains that this indifference is actually a “screen” made to shield the soldiers from the civilians that “cannot even approach comprehension” of what the soldiers have experienced. Eliot expresses this detachment encountered by society in London throughout The Waste Land, and particularly in “The Fire Sermon.”
The motif of detachment in “The Fire Sermon” becomes evident from the title alone, which references the Fire Sermon given by Buddha to a gathering of his followers. The essence of the sermon aimed to instruct the listeners to assume “an aversion for things tangible” (Buddha), advising detachment from the persuasion of the senses. The senses are described as all-consuming fires that can only be escaped through the disconnect of the mind from the passion of the senses. In direct contrast with the fiery imagery suggested by the title of this section of The Waste Land, the images in the first few lines fixate specifically on water. This juxtaposition again indicates a kind of detachment in the poem, which only intensifies as “The Fire Sermon” continues.
The symbol of the nymphs juxtaposed with the allusion to Prothalamion by Edmund Spenser emphasizes the emotional disconnect between sex and marriage as Eliot views it in post-war London society. The “departed” nymphs represent prostitutes that find clientele in “their friends, the loitering heirs” but the speaker encounters neither group as he sits by the river. While the absence of these characters from the area surrounding the Thames may be seen as indicative of a decent society that does not overtly engage in the practice of sex work, the more probable explanation is that the “nymphs” and the “heirs” are actually off together engaging in prostitution. Thus, the absence of these sexually deviant characters from the scene actually implies their activity in society.
An allusion to Edmund Spenser’s Prothalamion immediately follows this description of prostitution. Prothalamion was written to praise the institution of marriage (Prothalamion), so the placement of this allusion directly after the implied sex work reveals the emotional detachment in post-war society of sex from marriage. The explicit establishment of this detachment as taking place in London, specifically along the “Sweet Thames” reveals the omnipresent nature of the detachment as being inescapable. The ironic allusion to Prothalamion, a poem which extols marriage, in direct contrast to the portrayal of sex work, illustrates the disconnect that post-war London society has experienced that Eliot wishes to highlight throughout “The Fire Sermon.”
An ominous tone and disturbing imagery as the poem continues unveil the growing disconnect of London from a moral society to its transformation into a city of increasing degeneracy. In a letter to his cousin, Eleanor Hinkley, written in September of 1914, T. S. Eliot comments on the “moral earnestness” that he perceives in the population of Great Britain and in the populations of the other countries involved in the war. By the time The Waste Land is published in 1922, this display of morality and dignity appears to have wholly disintegrated into the depraved society depicted in the poem.
The ominous “cold blast” (185) at the back of the speaker contrasts with the setting of a summer night, constructing another image of detachment from reality. Then the disconcerting and “slimy” (188) rat enters the scene, representing the moral decay that society has undergone since the start of the war and the descent from “earnestness” (letter) into a nation detached from moral decency.
The allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest implies a more literal detachment between individuals and the society as a whole, focusing on the theme of isolation. In The Tempest, Prospero summons a storm to wreck his brother’s ship, evoking feelings of abandonment and isolation. This abandonment reflects the speaker’s loneliness as he sits “musing upon the king my brother’s wreck / and on the king my father’s death before me” – though he does have the rat to accompany him. The perpetuation of this watery imagery continues to contrast with the fiery symbolism that one might expect based on the title of this section, and this inconsistency serves to further emphasize the disconnect between expectation and reality. The speaker feels emotionally isolated from society and this disconnect invokes an image of physical isolation through the allusion to The Tempest. A feeling of hopelessness and emotional detachment from society thus permeates the poem as a result of the more literal image of isolation.
The depiction of casual gay sex in “The Fire Sermon” provides another example of the detachment of sex from the institution of marriage in a continued representation of moral depravity. A character by the name of Mr. Eugenides proposes to the speaker that they attend a “luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a weekend at the Metropole”, which were well-known hotspots for homosexual sex in and outside of London in the early twentieth century (Bayley). The use of the word “demotic”, meaning colloquial, in describing the language of Mr. Eugenides emphasizes his casual and indifferent attitude toward sex. This further separation of sex from marriage includes sex set in specific locations – the Cannon Street Hotel in London and the Metropole in Brighton – illustrating with precision that this indifference toward sex has permeated society.
In another possible reading of this section of “The Fire Sermon” depicting gay sex, and of The Waste Land as a whole, the poem laments the passing of a male lover of Eliot. This viewpoint was put forth by John Peter in an article published in a journal called Essays in Criticism, in which Peter maintains that the entire poem concerns a past gay relationship that Eliot had with a man named Jean Verdenal (Peter). While this interpretation of the poem may possess some evidence of authenticity, the overall theme and tone of the poem appear to be much more related to the post-war society’s emotional detachment from sex rather than a particular past sexual relationship of Eliot himself. Eliot decisively disputed Peter’s claims, even threatening to sue him for libel (Menand), which can be interpreted either as him trying to hide the truth from society or as protecting his reputation from the disgrace of false claims.
The poem suddenly pivots after the portrayal of the state of casual gay sex to an account of a sexual encounter between a man and a female typist as told by Tiresias, the blind prophet of Greek myth. The indifferent tone and vile imagery prevalent in the description of the encounter, which ends in the man raping the woman, serves to advance Eliot’s perspective of the emotional detachment and moral atrophy of London society. The man is described as an “expected guest”, but not one whose arrival elicits any feelings of excitement or hopeful anticipation, merely an indifferent expectation. The disturbing imagery of the man as a “young man carbuncular” creates an account of physical repulsiveness to be followed by a similar ugliness in his actions.
Despite his unappealing physical appearance and his opportunistic attitude in believing that “the time is now propitious” as “she is bored and tired” after her meal, the woman treats him with the ultimate apathy and does not reject his sexual advances even though they are “undesired”. The woman, unfeeling and detached from her emotions, must remain so in order to continue to function after this assault. Because his advances are unwanted, this scene clearly depicts a rape, and the man “makes a welcome of indifference” from the woman. This welcoming of apathy appears very sinister and the man’s abhorrent actions continue as he “bestows one final patronizing kiss”, but the indifferent tone of the woman remains as she looks in the mirror and thinks “‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over’”.
Even this thought, however, is only “half-formed”, revealing the extreme level of indifference at which this woman operates. The woman, so passive and emotionally detached from reality that she is “hardly aware of her departed lover”, is also detached from herself, as evident from her nonchalance as she looks in the mirror and thinks to herself. She then, “smoothes her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone”. This “automatic hand” is particularly upsetting and reveals her passive and detached state at its zenith. The apparent indifference and detachment with which the woman in this account endures a sexual assault exposes the extent to which morality the post-war society has deteriorated.
The poem then shifts back to a description of London, and the industrial imagery coupled with an allusion to Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung display the degradation of London’s allure and a disconnect between its past and current state. “The river sweats”, no longer the “sweet Thames” as it was once represented. The visual similarity between the words sweet and sweat accentuates this change in characterization of the river from enticing to unsavory. The inclusion in the description of the Thames of “oil and tar” and “barges” illustrates the contamination and pollution that accompany industrialization. Then, with an allusion in the lines “Weialala leia / Wallala leialala” to Götterdämmerung, the decline of the river in terms of cleanliness and appeal becomes even more apparent. Götterdämmerung, an opera by Richard Wagner, describes women sitting by the Rhine and is saturated with beautiful imagery depicting the river (Götterdämmerung). The juxtaposition of the “oil and tar” with the implied beauty of the river in the past underscores the detachment of present-day London with a London of the past.
An unidentified speaker enters the poem and, with an informative tone and an allusion to Dante’s Purgatorio, reveals one possible means of achieving detachment from society – through loss of virtue. The speaker, in a matter-of-fact tone, conveys the message that “Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew / Undid me”. These lines directly parallel Dante’s Purgatorio, in which the speaker declares where she was born and where she was killed (Purgatorio). Thus, the connection between death and the undoing of virtue becomes evident, and the specificity of the neighborhoods in which her undoing took place situate this detachment from virtue explicitly in London. The speaker further discloses how she became undone, explaining that “By Richmond I raised my knees / Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe”. Richmond and Kew are both riverside districts in London, and with the description of the canoe, an even more definitive relationship appears between the river and the loss of the speaker’s virtue. The association of loss of virtue with specific areas in London indicates the same depraved society that Eliot portrays in the city throughout the poem and here reveals that the city itself can catalyze the detachment of its own citizens from moral decency. Allusions to St. Augustine’s Confessions and Buddha’s Fire Sermon conclude the motif of detachment in “The Fire Sermon” and reiterate the idea of detachment from the senses.
Exploring Death and Resurrection in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land is widely considered the most influential work of the twentieth century. Composed of five compelling parts, Eliot’s genius work forms an intricate collage of modern society. Many scholars view The Waste Land as Eliot expressing his fear and terror about the fate of humanity and culture. Modernists such as Eliot tend to focus on the decline of Western culture, and romanticize the beauty that their culture had once possessed. The world described in The Waste Land is full of human isolation and skepticism, similar to the everyday world Eliot lived in and observed post World War I. Though The Waste Land is centered on negative imagery and the overall theme of death, Eliot did not mean to have the work be without hope. Out of all of the negativity happening in society, The Waste Land Eliot focuses heavily on the theme of rebirth and resurrection.
In the aftermath and devastation of WWI, Eliot saw hope in society—because after death and desolation can only come rebirth and positivity. World War I was the turning point of the old world into the new world, the end of the Victorian Era, with its aftermath still effecting modern society today. In 1914 millions of people marched against each other in large groups, the way they usually marched in the Victorian era, but they were met by great devastation due to all of the advances in technology. What everyone thought was going to be a quick war dragged on for years. The modern advances in technology such as barbed wire, machine guns, submarines, chemical warfare, tanks, airplanes, and flamethrowers were things that armies had never seen, and had certainly never prepared for. The results of WWI were astounding; nearly a whole generation was killed off in battle, leaving those at home clinging to their mortality, and having to pick up the pieces of their broken existence. Eliot saw what WWI did to those around him, and how modern society was at its worst, in need of saving—a direct product of this is his genius work accurately chronicling the chaos of the times: The Waste Land.
In addition to the vast devastation from WWI, Eliot was also experiencing a devastation of sorts in his personal life. According to Fatima Falih Ahmed and Moayad Alshara Ahmad in their scholarly article, “Rejuvenation in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land” Eliot had come to a, “standstill in his writing career at this point. He was having a hard time thinking of things to write about and was afraid that he would never have another good idea again.” (Ahmad and Ahmed 164). So next to the impact and widespread death of WWI, Eliot had also experienced a death in him, inside his brain. In a sense writing The Waste Land was not only an act of catharsis for him, because of the rebirth and awakening of ideas and passions, and it also became a defining poem for his generation. Within The Waste Land rebirth and resurrection do not occur with ease, they can only come from hardships, negativity, and death—which the post WWI society was experiencing to the extreme. The post WWI world placed society in an era of, “depression, loss, and untimely death.” (Ahmad and Ahmed 160). Throughout the work there are numerous allusions to death and destruction such as the overall dead, waterless, and rocky terrain of the land unable of sparking growth or rebirth. Nearly everything in this poem is sad and dead, “The people miss things that have passed or ended. They are also indifferent to what happens to them. The images and seasons are dark, cruel, and desolate.” (161). Or one can look to the many desolate characters that lead terrible lives and meet an untimely demise, such as Phlebas the conceited Phoenician sailor, the tragic Philomel, or any of the nameless people described who are essentially dead inside and lead scandalous and passionless lives. However, death and life can be easily blurred—though death is negative and devastating from, “death can spring life, and life in turn necessitates death.” (162).
As explored by Archana Parashar in her scholarly article, “Reverberations of Environmental Crisis and its Relevance in Managing Sustainability: An Ecocritical Reading of T. S. Eliot’s the Waste Land” the wasteland which could be categorized as Europe and Modern civilization as a whole stands for the, “loss of morals, values, [and the] degradation of environment in the modern world.” (Parashar). On one hand The Waste Land becomes a, “reflection of individual hopelessness and despair but a panoramic view of the total spiritual downfall that has overtaken the modern world… it is expressionless, aggressive, and full of escapist resentment.” (Ahmad and Ahmed 160). An example of the spiritual downfall Eliot saw in his modern world would be that of Phlebas the Phoenician sailor. Phlebas was pridefilled, arrogant, and conceited and he is now dead floating alone at the bottom of the sea. Eliot uses Phlebas as a parable or cautionary tale to have one recall their own mortality, stating: “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” (Eliot, line 321). By killing off Phlebas from his modernist sins and rebirthing him to nature, Eliot humbles the character and gives him a new beginning.
Another important anecdote Eliot utilizes to illustrate the spiritual downfall of society and the necessary rebirth is the rape and transformation of the tragic Philomel. The rape of Philomel from Greek mythology and Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses was, “So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale/ Filled all the desert with inviolable voice/ And still she cried, and still the world pursues,/ ‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears.” (100-103). By juxtaposing this myth with what is happening in his modern society, Eliot provides a unique insight on the act of rebirth and creation. Herein the act of creation is unwanted by Philomel, but wanted and taken by the, “barbarous king” (99). Philomel can be seen as a symbol for the wasteland that Eliot envisions, the modern world; so to speak, it is full of potential but unable to create anything worthwhile, incapable of a substantial rebirth. The story of Philomel can be interpreted in the sense that what the modern world needs is a change and rebirth must be thrust upon it, whether they like it or not, it is what is necessary for survival and further creation. In addition, the anecdote can also be seen as a commentary on how sex is romance-less and skewed as a characteristic of modern society, and therefore nothing of value can be created from those actions.
Though the theme of rebirth and resurrection can be traced throughout all five section of The Waste Land, the first section “The Burial of the Dead” begins the poem with a clear image of the theme. The first couple lines of the poem are arguably the most memorable: April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. (1-4) Being the first few lines of the poem, Eliot initially establishes this theme of death, rebirth, and resurrection that is predominant throughout the rest of the poem. The month of April is usually seen as positive, hopeful, recreating, and life- giving, however, how Eliot forms it is an inversion on its usual connotation. Regeneration is, “painful, for it brings back reminders of a more fertile and happier past.” (Parashar). Meaning that everyone who is still alive post WWI have the shadows of their much happier pre WWI past looming over them—they have been living in desolation and despair for so long that they now solely live for the vanished glories of their past with no hope for the future. Thomas Michael LeCarner author of the scholarly article, “T.S. Eliot, Dharma Bum: Buddhist Lessons in The Waste Land” argues that April paradoxically being characterized as the cruel suggests, “that the process of rebirth and renewal is a source of pain and cruelty.” (LeCarner) therefore reaffirming the idea that modern society is stuck in their humdrum ways—incapable of rebirth. However, the spring rain indicated in the quote above also indicates a healing process, such as a rebuilding of society after it’s collapse from WWI. As well as the month of April, which would be categorized as the season of spring, Eliot also alludes to both winter and summer in the same stanza—all of the seasons except for fall. Herein the different seasons seem to be a symbol for the human condition.
Similar to how April was paradoxically categorized as desolate, Eliot’s description of winter is: “Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow,” (Eliot 5-6), his description of winter varies from the normal connotations of frigidness and misery. Winter seems to act comforting, the snow covers the painful memories of the past and generally speaking out of the death of winter comes spring and new life, in order for there to be, “healing and happiness, a pain must occur first.” (Ahmad and Ahmed 159). And then as a result of the pain and struggle of the other seasons comes summer. In the first stanza of The Waste Land out of all of the seasons summer seems to be the ideal, summer is, “the result of the pain and healing process that spring takes people through. Eliot is suggesting in his poem that the world can overcome difficulties and barrenness.” (163). Eliot does not include the season of fall because it is the result of the end of summer, the end of the happy and carefree days, to Eliot and The Waste Land fall is the most undesirable, it marks the beginning of a struggle, the beginning of hard times, possibly even death. Though society is in a standstill from the aftermath of WWI, Eliot does ultimately believe that there is hope for everyone to band together and make it through the tough times, which is optimistic for a modernist such as himself. The sense of hope Eliot emulates does not fix the modern sense of despair, but rather asks for an appeal for regeneration.
Throughout the poem, Eliot utilizes flowers as a symbol for the rebirth and resurrection of society. In the first section, “The Burial of the Dead” Eliot references flowers such as the lilacs and hyacinths, the lilacs come out of the “dead land” (Eliot 2) signifying that something good can still arise from a bad situation. Hyacinths are given to a female mystery speaker in the second stanza, from what seems to be an innocent affair of the heart, the speaker reminisces pleasant times, which went south: — Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could no Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, Looking into the heart of the light, the silence. (37-41) Considering the context of the poem and when it was written, one can imagine that WWI tore the female mystery speaker apart from her beloved, the pair was ripped away from each other and the speaker was forced to romanticize the hyacinths. To her, the hyacinths represent the world untouched by peril and war, and because hyacinths can always regrow, then maybe for her and for everyone that state of mind can eventually be reborn as well. In the fourth stanza of “The Burial of the Dead” another unnamed mystery speaker asks the morbid question: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/ Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” (71-72). Though morose, this gloomy set of questioning reinforces the need for regeneration, the necessity of death in order to create new life. The string of questions, like many of aspects of The Waste Land traces back to WWI, herein people are trying to look for answers for the essentially meaningless slaughter of the First World War. Throughout the poem, going hand in hand with the theme of rebirth and resurrection is water.
Eliot references water constantly; water can be traced through nearly every stanza in every part of the poem. Water imagery appears through cleansing rain, the “Sweet Thames” (176) that runs through the immoral and modern London, and nautical imagery. Eliot, “constantly uses the lack of water in connection with infertility, which conveys to us the sense that the modern world cannot produce anything new or beautiful.” (Ahmad and Ahmed). In Eliot’s made up world of the wasteland, there is a desperate need for water, the land is in a drought, which is an absence of water and therefore a symbol of death. There seems to be a repetition and juxtaposition of dryness and wetness: Here is no water but only rock Rock and no water… If there were water And no rock If there were rock And also water And water (Eliot 331-349) This quote, which is near the end of the poem, illustrates desperation for the lack of water, to the point where the speaker seems hysterical—this is a commentary on how terrible modern society is doing and how they so badly require rebirth. The, “world that Eliot portrays in his poem is supposed to be one in which faith in divinely ordered events and a rationally organized universe has been totally lost,” (Ahmad and Ahmed 160) which ultimately explains how desperate the speaker is for rebirth. Though lack of water is a major problem in the wasteland, Eliot also warns the readers about excess of water. In the third stanza, the famous clairvoyant Madame Sosostris warns the speaker to “Fear death by water,” (Eliot 55). The phrase “Death by Water” resurfaces again in part four of the poem, when Eliot tells the parable of Phlebas the Phoenician’s drowning. What Eliot is trying to say about water is that it is necessary for rebirth; however, an excess of water can be dangerous as well—excess has led to the downfall of modern society and it will not aid in fixing it.
The Waste Land is riddled with allusions to religion and knowledge concerning the topic of an afterlife and rebirth. Eliot’s poem is filled to the brim with, “literary, cultural, and artistic allusions from a variety of sources, including the Upanishads, Greek Mythology, the Bible, Chaucer, Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Leonardo Da Vinci.” (LeCarner). All of the knowledge and culture packed into The Waste Land is meant to give a modern society a rebirth of knowledge. Reading the long and intricate poem was not a simple task in 1922, and it is still not a simple task today. Herein at the peak of modernism, there was a literary shift— ambiguity takes center stage and narrators no longer explain every aspect of a work, people are now expected to dust off their brains and think for themselves, a rebirth of knowledge of sorts. In addition to a lack of knowledge, Eliot also observed that his modern society was experiencing a serve lack of faith. Blame it on WWI or all of technology and advancements of the modern age, but religion no longer had the same effect. People were questioning their existence, and no longer relying on religion to give them the answers they so desperately needed, life felt meaningless. As a result of the modern godless condition, Eliot interjected both Christian and Buddhist themes into The Waste Land. Buddhism fits in perfectly with the world of the wasteland because the religion believes the, “idea that life is fleeting and filled with suffering… [Which] is at the core of Buddhist thought.” (LeCarner). Eliot mainly references Buddhism and the idea of rebirth or reincarnation in the final section of the poem, “What the Thunder Said.” The last lines of the poem are a Buddhist mantra: “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.” (Eliot 432) which respectively mean give, show compassion, and control, and then “Shantih shantih shantih” (433) which means, “the peace which passeth all understanding.” (LeCarner). It is interesting that as Western culture begins to crash and burn, Eliot’s solution is to turn to Eastern culture in attempt to restore faith through an old religion, to undo the modernist sins.
Overall, Eliot’s poem functions as a, “didactic artistic representation of the Buddhist doctrine of samsara, an idea that views the world as transitory, overcome with lustful desires, and forever bound to a cycle of life, death, and rebirth.” (LeCarner). In addition to Buddhism, Eliot also references his own religion, Christianity. Barry Spurr, author of the article, “The Impact of T.S. Eliot’s Christianity on His Poetry” argues for all of the negativity in The Waste Land the, “poem is rich in Christian symbolism and, for the first time, there is at least the sense that the journey is not absolutely pointless, but, rather, a challenging experience.” (Spurr). Spurr views The Waste Land as a personal journey, one where if one can stay clear from sin they will be reborn or resurrected, similar to the miracle of Jesus Christ. Though the world in front of Eliot was fractured and in peril, unlike many other modernist writers, Eliot was able to see the good that could result from humanity. The, “sterile, modern-day human society waits in dire distress for a revival or regeneration that may never come.” (Ahmad and Ahmed 160) And that revival and regeneration just may have been Eliot’s masterpiece, The Waste Land. Throughout, the poem challenges the modern reader’s intelligence forcing them to branch out of their humdrum, devastating lives and seek knowledge and enlightenment of a higher class. By provoking thought and exhibiting hope in the themes of rebirth and resurrection, Eliot gave a special light to modern society through his timeless and transcending masterpiece: The Waste Land.
Critic Response of T. S. Eliot’s Poem, The Waste Land
The Waste Land is apparently a poem about World War I and its aftereffects on every aspect of life at the time – the title refers to Europe itself after the end of the war and the struggle to rebuild.. T.S Eliot himself seems to be critical of war and calls for peace with the famous closing line, “Shantih shantih shantih” which means “peace” in Sanskrit. Eliot was saying that since Europe had become so vapid and materialistic, it could not return to the dominance it had before the war. He was right – eventually North America and Asia rapidly became competitors to Europe. The poem was written during a dark time in Eliot’s life where he was committed to a mental hospital in Switzerland – the fragmented, wild nature of the poem definitely reflects this. Of course, this could be off the mark. The poem is obviously designed to be esoteric and hard to understand, but I suppose that also means it could be interpreted in many different ways. At first glance the poem doesn’t seem to really cover the death of European culture due to the war, but many aspects of the fragmented narrative point to this, like the ruined rivers, the death of the young Phlebas, and the thunder above the jungle. The poem is seen through the eyes of Tiresias, a mythological character who was said to be androgynous – Eliot provided a female perspective in a male dominated world.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was a writer and poet originally from Missouri, although he became a British citizen in 1927. He is known for poems like The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and Four Quartets, as well as plays such as The Cocktail Party and Murder in the Cathedral. He was born in St. Louis in 1888 and died in London in 1965 at the age of 76. He is typically seen as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. Although his body of work is comparatively small (when put up against other famous poems of the time) he is nonetheless viewed very highly, having received the Order of Merit (in the UK), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (in the US) and the Legion d’Honneur (in France). His style was somewhat satirical and critical, and you can feel undertones of self-deprecation and unhappiness in his work often.
Eliot discusses the decline of religious authority as well, and says that this has led people to become overall more belligerent and depressed. With the line “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” he reaffirms God’s power, and that we are all dust in comparison to him. The overall “rebirth” Eliot hints at Europe having to undergo is easily compared to the Christ mythos. References to Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are dotted across the verses. Religion was obviously important to Eliot, and he was hurt by its declining influence on the populace.
Eliot seemed to be depressed about the future and what it held for not just him, but everyone. Culture, intellect, dedication to religion, and more all-encompassing aspects of humanity were on the decline in his view. To him, Europe was becoming a surface level, uncultured mess with no dedication or progress being made. His comparison of Europe to a literal wasteland is scathing and heavily critical.
Womanhood in Wartime’s Wasteland
He’ll want to know what you done with the money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bare to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army for four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. (T S Eliot, The Waste Land, 38-39)
These lines from Eliot break several stereotypes many artists and authors use to represent women in WWI. Specifically, Eliot does not buy into woman’s sexual unfaithfulness, cosmopolitan lifestyle, or their wildness the way that some war authors do, and in fact often directly contradicts these ideals. In the above passage, men find themselves portrayed as the unfaithful ones in relationships, who leave their wives when they find themselves dissatisfied sexually or even with their wife’s appearance. Interestingly, this way of portraying men appears quite different from most descriptions of WWI relationships. Many authors often portray women as the unfaithful ones in this time period. When the men leave to fight in war, women get the unique opportunity to “run wild.” Many believe that women took the opportunity to become sexually promiscuous in wartime. Through Eliot’s poem, the reader learns that this idea of women’s behaviors does not always hold true. The poem breaks these stereotypes by turning the tables on the men, making them the ones with the opportunities to cheat and portraying them as prone to infidelity.
Similarly, the tone in this passage provides another way for the reader to notice the effect of war on women, not as a positive one, as some authors argue, but as bleak and despairing. First, the women speak in a heavy dialect, not making use of proper English, allowing the reader to associate them with a lower class. Also, the reader finds these women in a bar, at closing time, something the bartender’s interjection of “Hurry up please, it’s time,” refuses to let the reader forget. Their presence at a pub, so late at night, and their discussion of frank sexuality seem masculine, or at least not what one typically considers “lady-like.” It appears that Eliot believes that war de-feminizes women to some degree, and because of the absence of men in their lives, these women portray a sense of masculinity, perhaps as a way to make up for the male companionship they miss. This idea seems off to a reader, who sympathizes with the hopelessness the women feel.
Some propaganda in this period suggests that women experience little hardship and often lead lives of leisure during the wartime. Yet the women of this poem speak in somber tones, and discuss serious, painful subjects; certainly enjoying neither wartime nor it’s aftermath. They experience what many British citizens felt at this moment in history: a post-wartime sense of disillusionment. The war ended, yet big problems still exist throughout the country. Even the title of this poem, The Waste Land, plays on this idea. The country experienced bombings that destroyed the land, a generation of men was “lost” in battle, and those that returned, returned shattered. Eliot disagrees with the age-old idea that “war is glorious,” and he shows this through the disillusioned sense these women find in themselves, drinking in a bar, lacking the comforts of men.
Once more portraying the idea of the limited number of men, these two women discuss the willingness that other woman feel to meet soldier’s sexual desires. Eliot portrays men as desiring sex because of their somewhat forced celibacy in wartime. Albert, in particular, presumably endured the absence of sex for four years, and now wants to find his wife willing to meet his needs. The suggestion that the persona of the poem may “make a move” on her friend, Lil’s husband, hints toward the fact that many men did not return home because they died in battle, leaving single women desperate for companionship. This shortage of men resulted in a shortage of potential husbands for the women on the home front. The two women in the above passage discuss their friend Lil’s haggard appearance and her estrangement from her husband. The fact that others cannot bear to look at her also disproves the notion that during the war, women were fashionable, kept up their appearance, and were hygienically better off than the soldiers. This illustrates another way that Eliot hints on the masculine roles that women took on because of the war. That people cannot stand to lay eyes upon her proves that she is no longer a sexual object, or desirable by men. Her friends gossip about her appearance, proving her looks problematic to society. This again shows that women’s experience of the war as anything but glorious: it too was dirty, miserable, and hopeless.
As mentioned briefly before, the bartender continuously interjects into the conversation between the women with “hurry up its time.” This further portrays the idea of disillusionment. For a country that literally needs to start from the ground up, what should it do with the concept of time? For many soldiers, time ran out on the battlefield, and they found themselves left behind. For those in mourning over these losses, time seems cruel, just continuous moments that they endure without the departed. The reminder of time from the bartender represents a reminder of what the women have lost because of the war, and the bleakness of the future. These women try to ignore the constant reminders from the bar tender because they do not want to go back home to reminders of what they have lost. The bar represents a chance to escape for these women, not a place to go flirt with men and run wild. Again Eliot invalidates the idea of war as a fun sort of adventure for women.
These lines of Eliot’s The Waste Land serves to discredit believes that some hold in regards to women in WWI. Other authors portray them as uninvolved and unaffected by the war, yet Eliot shows they suffered in their own rights. Eliot’s women worry about finding and keeping a husband, having enough money to get by, and whether or not to trust their friends. They too suffered loss at the hands of war, and their futures look as bleak as those of males. This poem becomes an opportunity for the reader to see women of WWI in quite a contradictory light than they are often portrayed.
T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”: Portrait of a Desolate World
Upon completion of T.S. Eliot’s legendary poem, “The Wasteland”, one may experience mixed feelings about the poem as a whole. “The Wasteland” presents a distinct style using countless allusions; a method that previously had not been used to such extremes. The poem was written by Eliot to express his problems with society. It depicts modern society as being in the infertile part of the cycle. Throughout the poem, human beings are depicted as isolated, and sexual relations are sterile and thoughtless. Since most of Eliot’s allusions are not very well known to most readers, one must work through the notes that accompany the poem several times in order to better grasp its deeper meanings, but the general impressions of isolation, degeneration, and desolation are painfully apparent throughout each reading. The most prominent reasons for the dislike of the poem have been these constant allusions to other works, which further magnifies the complex nature of the poem. “The Wasteland” has been acclaimed as one of the most influential poems written in the 20th century and has been scrutinized and studied countless times since its publication. For the purpose of this analysis, the attention to allusion will be concentrated to part V of the poem entitled, “What the Thunder Said”. This is the finale of the poem and is quite important, in that it brings some closure to a very complex idea.The final section entitled, “What the Thunder Said”, begins with images of a journey over rough and desolate ground. The thunder is sterile; being unaccompanied by rain, but a mysterious sense of a compassionate spirit visits the traveler.”Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit/There is not even silence in the mountains/But dry sterile thunder without rain/There is not even solitude in the mountains (Lines 340-43)/…And dry grass singing/But sound of water over a rock/Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees (Lines 355-57).The reference to the “hermit-thrush” is believed to be derived from Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. One can infer that Eliot sang the song of the “bleeding throat” in terms of the problems that he encountered in society. An excerpt from Whitman’s poem reads,”In the swamp in secluded recesses,A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.Solitary the thrush,The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,Sings by himself a song.Song of the bleeding throat,Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,If thou wast not granted to sing thou wouldist surely die.)(Parker)Here, Whitman is making the point that a solitary creature who avoids culture sings “a song”, or in the case of Eliot, expresses him/her self somehow. Eliot, of course, expressed himself through written words and language in the form of poetry and stories. Whitman also makes the reference to this solitary creature, noting that “if thou wast not granted to sing, thou wouldist surely die.” Here Whitman is pointing out that without a “song to sing”, survival is not possible or, at least, is extremely limited. This is why Eliot alludes to this poem. He is, in essence, taking Whitman’s words and applying them to himself.The next, and perhaps most vital allusion of the last section of the poem takes place in lines 400-419. According to Eliot’s notes, these are references to “Brihadaranyaka Upanishad” which is the fable that refers to the meaning of the thunder. In these stories, the main power, or almighty god represented was called “Prajapati”. Prajapati created three races of gods, demons, and men. To each of these groups, he appointed three different realms for each one. The gods were given heaven, man was sent to the earth, and the demons were sent to the netherworld. Each of the races asked Prajapati for advice and wisdom from which they could live by. Prajapati agreed and offered wisdom to each race. To the gods (sura), he said “Damyata”, which means, “be restrained”. To mankind (nara), he said “Datta”, which means, “give”. To the demons (asura), he said “Dayadhvam”, which means, “be merciful”. And according to Indian legend, from that day on, when the thunder rumbles “DA-DA-DA”, his children know that the voice of Prajapati, the father, is calling to them; reminding them of the components that determine their true selves.”DA/Datta: what have we given /DA/Dayadhvam: I have heared the key/Turn in the door once and turn once only/…/DA/Damyata: The boat responded”(Eliot, p45).Here, Eliot is making allusion to the components of the true self according to Hindu lore. It is no coincidence that Eliot saved this allusion for the finale of his poem. He is, albeit indirectly, offering a moral story to the reader in an abstract way. Through this allusion, he is pointing to the triad of meanings, “be restrained, give, and be merciful”. Perhaps he is suggesting that the readers apply these traits to themselves, or perhaps Eliot is simply noting that these things are lacked in the society that he was a part of. From this point, the poem tails off with an unconventional compilation of quotations and allusions.”London Bridge is falling down falling down falling downPoi s’ascose nel foco che gli affinaQuando fiam uti chelidon–O swallow swallowLe Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolieThese fragments I have shored against my ruinsWhy then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. Shantih shantih shantih”(Eliot, p46)Here, each line is in direct relation with despair and anguish. Eliot is completing the poem by offering a variety of allusions from other works—specifically, these lines are from scenes of despair in those respective works. “London Bridge is falling down” is well known, as all children on the playgrounds sing it when they are young. Here, Eliot is using a basic reference of structural collapse of an entity, which can be interpreted in two specific ways. One way of viewing the reference to London Bridge is to simply look at it in terms of the other parts of the finale. As previously stated, each line represents some form of despair, anguish, or destruction, and perhaps Eliot simply wanted to add another reference that everyone could recognize. Another, and more probable explanation is that the London Bridge reference symbolizes the ending of the poem—a structural collapse consisting of abstract allusions. The next allusion, “Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina” refers to Dante’s work “Purgatorio, Canto XXVI”. When translated, the line reads, “then he hid himself in the fire that purifies them”(Parker). Here Eliot is applying another work to himself, since it is obvious that “The Wasteland” has a central theme of the need for purification and that Eliot is immersing himself in his work in order to offer his view of society and perhaps to offer advice for improvement. The next line in the finale, “Quando fiam uti chelidon…” is an allusion to the anonymous first century work entitled, “Pervigilium Veneris “(Parker). When translated from Latin, this line means, “When shall I become like the swallow?” This line is contained in this excerpt from “Pervigilium Veneris”:”She sings, I am mute. When will my spring come?When shall I become like the swallow, that I may cease to be voiceless?”(Parker)Obviously, Eliot is using this reference in an attempt to express his wish to be heard.The next of Eliot’s allusions is a very important one, as it further illustrates his disparity. “Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie” refers to Gerard de Nerval’s “El Desdichado”(Parker). The translation of this line is, “The Prince of Aquitaria whose tower has been torn down”. Here, too, is a reference to collapse and destruction. The reference is included in this excerpt from Nerval’s sonnet:”I am the dark man, the disconsolate widower, the prince of Aquitania whose tower has been torn down:My sole star is dead, — and my constellated luteBears the black sun of Melancholia”(Parker)The final two lines of “The Wasteland” are Eliot’s last attempt to be heard and to offer wisdom to society. He is basically referring back to the Hindu triad of restraint, generosity, and mercy—“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.” He completes his work with the words “Shantih shantih shantih”. This final reference to “Brihadaranyaka Upanishad” can be “feebly translated”, as Eliot calls it, as “The peace which passeth understanding”(Parker).T.S. Eliot believed that the modern society was without a vital sense of togetherness and spirituality. In the final piece of his poem “The Wasteland”, he is alluding to the elements that society was lacking and needed to regain. The entire poem is a journey through a series of conversations and scenes that lead through a wasteland. The reader of the poem travels through the “wasteland” seemingly without hope but learns a valuable lesson at the end of the journey. Eliot applied the triad of “self-restraint, giving, and compassion” to himself and also offered it to the reader at the end of a long journey through a desolate world and a disillusioned society.BibliographyParker, Richard A. “Exploring the Wasteland”. September, 1997. , T.S. The Wasteland and Other Poems. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1934.
Modernist Experimentation in The Waste Land
Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is perhaps a prime example of the experimentation in poetic technique occurring during the period encompassing the Modernist movement. Loathed and adored by critics and students alike, the complexities of technique, language (or languages), subject matter and the sheer length of the work have contributed to the poem’s status as a definitive example of “Modernist” writing. Along with Pound, Williams, Woolf and Joyce as well as countless others, Eliot’s work clearly illustrates the Modernist idea of portraying objects and situations as they are, and not as they appear, without explanation and using techniques previously rubbished or indeed, previously untried, such as the almost prose-like contents of the poem, and reliance on cultural consciousness to bring about understanding of the meaning of poetry written in a stream of consciousness style. “The Waste Land” exemplifies experimentation with style and structure not necessarily purely for its own sake but as a genuine step towards advancing a genre which for centuries had been bound within self imposed restraints of meter and accepted poetic constructs.The poem is composed in 5 sections. This in itself is not a startling new invention, but the differences between each section exhibit perhaps the most basic of the “new” techniques Eliot employs. The change of narrative voice and of scene in each of the parts is confusing, strange, complex, difficult to follow and groundbreaking. The confusion is further compounded by changes in narrative voice, and in places scene, in the midst of a section, even, occasionally, in the middle of a line. In the very first stanza the reader is left unclear as to who is speaking to whom. We are presented with several alternatives; Marie is talking, describing a conversation in the past; Eliot is addressing the reader in the last line; Eliot is describing in the third person a conversation between Marie and himself. This last option seems plausible in that Eliot claimed to have met and talked with the Marie in question, the Countess Marie von Wallersee-Larish of Austria, and yet each of the other interpretations still makes sense in the context of stream of consciousness. Eliot leaves the situation open to interpretation, and this idea runs throughout the poem.In a way, therefore, Eliot issues a challenge to every reader, not to understand what he is writing, but to interpret and scavenge what they can for themselves. This was a key concept in modernism. Instead of spoon-feeding his readers verse detailing his thoughts, Eliot cuts out the middleman, as it were, and instead merely lays his thoughts upon a banqueting table and invites the reader to help themselves. It is precisely this lack of clarity which makes the poem simultaneously fascinating and repelling to readers. In this way there is something of a car crash aesthetic to his work. Whilst the language is beautiful, new and complex, it holds within its structure and even its word order a sense of horror and dread for anyone wishing for an easy read. Eliot makes the reader work for every shred of understanding, and it is this technique which inspires such obsessive passion for “The Waste Land”, and such dedicated hatred for it.Until the draft versions of The Waste Land were published in 1968, critical interpretation of the poem was restricted to believing the poem to be a view of society, or a view from within society, in post-Great War Britain, a bleak analysis of the future of that society and a pessimistic view of life, love and art in such a climate. Whilst this interpretation is certainly still relevant, since 1968 examinations of the poem as an entirely autobiographical work have also become accepted. It would seem that the first interpretation of the poem is far more relevant to the modernist context with which this essay is concerned, yet the later analysis must still be addressed as it is certainly a pressing issue as to just how much of The Waste Land is applicable only to Eliot’s life. This notion in itself is intrinsic to the modernist techniques Eliot is using – the use of personal impressions and perceptions to convey a message or to simply exist in their own right.However, as an observation of society verging on the voyeuristic, at times it would appear that Eliot is bent on illustrating the new and confusing nature of modernity. He calls into question society’s class, moral values and sexual behaviour, as well as addressing gender conflict and differences throughout, a theme he claims in the notes to unify using the hermaphroditic figure of Tiresias in III. The poem links these attributes to one another and presents scenarios where they are demonstrated, for example in the lines 139-172. Eliot depicts a pub scene, opened with a discussion of an abortion (illustrating morality and sexual attitudes between the sexes) run through with suggestions of infidelity (gender conflict, sexuality and morality) and pointed references to sex. Here then, is a barbed satirical portrait of the “lower classes”, just one microcosm Eliot uses to build up a picture, perhaps a criticism, of society as a whole. The intrusion of a capitalised voice during the pub scene is without doubt a new technique. As usual, no explanation for its source or purpose is offered – it is left to the reader. It serves as both the voice of the landlord, the voice of time and/or death, or the voice of a returning husband waiting for his wife to “perform her duty”.There is another vignette at 215-256 in The Fire Sermon, observed by none other than Tiresias himself, whose entrance at almost exactly halfway through the poem is surely no accident, given his significance to the unification of the poem. The sexual nature of this vignette is used to expose weakness in the middle “white-collar” classes, of whom T.S. Eliot was a member – he certainly associates himself with the ‘hooded horde’. This particular section is uncomfortable in its close observance and the scathing tone of Tiresias’ narrative.Eliot’s sense of unease concerning the “modern” world is apparent throughout from the tone of the poem. Modernism allowed him to use juxtaposition to extremes – from the very first he sets the tone of the poem with “April is the cruellest month.” April is springtime, a time of birth and renewal in the natural world, but here, in this Waste Land, it is recognised as being the source of suffering in that once born into the world, the fate of all creatures is to suffer and die. This morbidity is created and maintained by similar topsy-turvy images, all of which were previously impossible to justify in old poetic forms and techniques.And yet throughout the confusion and the conflicting descriptions and narrative styles, the poem remains quite obviously one work, and each part relies upon all the others to fulfill its purpose. Without one section, the poem would not make sense. Eliot achieves this using references to other sections throughout the poem, and uses the same adjectives time and again in different contexts to achieve a subconscious effect upon the reader. This manipulation of the subconscious was certainly a modern idea. The modernist movement was sometimes closely associated with psychological research conducted entirely separately from, but of interest to, the writers involved. The fact that psychology is another field of study altogether virtually guarantees that awareness of this level of manipulation in poetry was unheard of, and yet it is neither clumsy nor obvious to a casual reader. Using such a new idea to hold together the very fabric of the poem not only rises to the challenge of “doing something new” but also inherently communicates a sense of newness and weirdness to the poem, which manages to achieve its aim of holding the poem together as a cohesive whole. This is somewhat of a new twist on an old technique, an extension of traditional technique such as repetition or alliteration – an abuse, an evolution of poetic technique for the new age.The poem also wallows in a geographic structure. There is a sense of place throughout the poem, a sense of weird, twisted, changing and unfamiliar terrain, perfectly recreating the uncertainty of a changing, modern world. The desolate landscape frames society’s downfall as depicted, and the poem takes a journey structure which unifies the poem and allows for the scene changes Eliot uses. This use of connections makes the poem structurally strong and helps it hang together under scrutiny, even as a back up to the internal referencing mentioned earlier.The most remarkable thing about “The Waste Land”, and the cause of most of the apprehension regarding this particular poem, is the frequency and complexity of its allusions. Although poets and novelists alike had been using classical references to associate their poetry with a “golden age” or simply to make a point, especially during the neo-classical obsession of Romantic and Victorian poets, never before had such a range of influences, sources and significance been used to such bewildering effect. This use of allusion is key to the debate over the intention of the poem. Such is the obscurity and personal nature of some of the associations that many have been led to believe the poem could be purely autobiographical. Although the poem is packed with classical allusions it takes from Eastern and central European cultures just as easily, many of the confusing, perhaps seemingly unnecessary parts are closely linked to Eliot’s own life (mentions of Margate or the sea refer, it would appear, to Eliot’s time spent recovering from mental illness in Margate.) Even using Eliot’s notes to “decode” the poem is unlikely to be successful, given that although he was asked to supply the notes, it is hard to glean the depth of the reference’s meaning merely from an attribution to a certain book or religion. It feels like the need to understand can never be fully satisfied without reading every book Eliot ever read, as well as those in the notes, and this is the key to the frustration many readers feel whilst reading “The Waste Land”, and yet is also the key to maintaining the poem’s air of elusiveness, and in effect, the key to its modernity, and its place in a modernist canon.Perhaps “The Waste Land’s” intrigue is rooted in the struggle apparent within its lines, that of a poet grappling with new ideas and ideals, and yet producing a poem which flows and takes on a life of its own seemingly effortlessly. There are points in the poem where Eliot seems perhaps to have dispensed with technique, and indeed sense altogether, by introducing references and notions so obscure and personal as to have rid himself of the need for a reader, and yet it is the inclusion of such painstakingly researched references which also invites us to conclude that every word in the poem is there because it is supposed to be, and is not the result of a wandering mind or pen.
Eastern Tradition as Eliot’s Route to Salvation in The Wasteland
T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land begins with a latin epigraph that refers to the story of the prophetess to Apollo, Sibyl of Cumae. Apollo wanted to take the prophetess as his lover and offered her anything she wanted in return. Sibyl asked to live as long as there were grains in a handful of dust but still refused to be Apollo’s lover after he granted that wish. She soon realized that she had been granted eternal life and not eternal youth and to her dismay got older and, older as the world stayed young around her. The prophetess choosing eternal life on earth is symbolic of the western tradition of defining yourself through your earthly legacy. The first world war then destroys western culture and society and, turns it into the barren waste land that Eliot describes. The Latin epigraph in The Waste Land represents the deterioration of western culture because of its beliefs in a dead tradition. The poem shifts to an eastern tradition because of its values in truth, compassion and, ethical practice being the possible solution to healing western culture.
The Wasteland begins with The Burial of the Dead, which symbolizes the death of a traditional western religion by presenting knowledge through the absence of a physical god and, in the void of a handful of dust. The first 19 lines depict a story of an aristocratic german woman recalling the nostalgia of her childhood in contrast to the, “Dull roots with spring rain”(4) that symbolize the fruitless state of her current life despite the regenerative rain of spring. April is the cruelest month to her because, a time that was once symbolic of the resurrection of Jesus and, the salvation of humanity, now symbolizes death and hopelessness. “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,/ You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images…”(20-22) This speaker now questions western religion in itself and, raises doubt in believing in what we have been told is God but, have not experienced ourselves. The speaker is questioning what is to be gained through following this god we do not actually know of. I think they relate western religion to ‘stony rubbish’ because, western religion offers the same illusion of solidity that a stone may but, offers nothing of actual substance. They then go on to say, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”(30) This relates directly to the latin epigraph of Sibyl and her void of a meaningless long life. Western tradition ends in a feeling of void, despite what you have acquired, because of its beliefs in meaninglessness.
Eliot ends this hopeless western epic with an offer of a solution through an alternative understanding in values. This solution comes in, “…a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust/ Bringing rain.”(394-5) This rain comes as a relief to the barren wasteland and in the next lines we are taken to the shores of the improvised Ganga, where its limp leafs finally feel rain too. The speaker then expresses the three duties and values of Eastern Hindu tradition: Datta, Dayadhyam and, Damyata. Datta, in Hindu means “give” and the speaker asks us what we have given and in reflection of the poem we realize that we have only given destruction in return of the dead culture we live in. This was illustrated perfectly in the first section of the poem, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden/ Has it begun to sprout?… Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?”(70-72) I thought this symbolized the unnecessary death cause by the war and how victory, a feeling of accomplishment and warmth, was replaced with the cold feeling of death and loss. We are given the last two duties of Hinduism; Dayadhyam and, Damyata which mean “compassion” and “self-control”. They both lead to the peace that passes understanding or Shantih which the poem ends with. The western tradition offers no values of compassion or self-control and instead promotes a “key to salvation” view of faith, “I have heard the key/ Turn in the door once and turn once only/ We think of the key, each in his prison/ Thinking of the key”(412-14) Everyone is striving to do what they believe is best by god to gain the ‘key’ to salvation but, their prayers ring on dead ears, leaving them in a prison of their own closed mind.
Eastern tradition promotes giving, compassion and, self-control because it believes that everyone is one with each other and therefore, should share and help in each others struggles. This is a concept alien to a western tradition that values gain through destruction or even Utilitarianism. This is the same concept Eliot wanted the reader to take away from the introduction of Hindu verse towards the end of a hopeless poem. At the end of A Fire Sermon there are chants in western tradition and eastern tradition. Western tradition’s dependency on god for salvation is shown, “O Lord Thou pluckest me out/ O Lord Thou pluckest,”(309-10) and garners no response while eastern tradition basks in the purifying fire as from a sermon by Buddha about nirvana. Eliot does not want every reader to suddenly convert to a eastern tradition but, for every reader to include these concepts in their bag of broken images as a hope of gaining understanding to achieve “Shantih”. The poem finishes with the image of the Fisher king experiencing peace through the three duties of Hinduism. There is no certain answer but the reader is told the kind is setting his lands in order which can be taken as a metaphor of his life. He tells the reader, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins/ Why they [might]Ile fit you.”(431-2) Here does he tell the reader that he has found value in the duties and that they might be our solution to? Theres a fleck of doubt on this solution with the quick elude to Hieronymo, which through it’s story symbolizes that the deepest truth will ring silent in the worlds ear (western society) because it rejects those values. Though this does not leave the play hopeless because Hieronymo still strove to revive his tradition, despite the worlds view, because it was still truth. The first four sections of a poem are symbolic of western tradition’s death through foundations in an empty faith. The reader is shown and reminded that our self-motivated wars have destroyed the god we believe in.
Eliot offers us an alternative way of understanding and, chooses Eastern traditional values because the self-salvation value held so highly in western tradition is what killed it. Eastern religions of Buddhism and Hinduism both stress: On giving back, having compassion for others and, self-control as the only way to salvation. This is important because although the bottom line is still self salvation, your salvation is derived through actively contributing to your environment and instead of following another persons path, we create our own, which in turn gives us the meaning we are searching for in our void of a handful of dust.
Eliot, T. S. “The Waste Land” and Other Poems. Dover Publications, 1998. pg 31-42