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 Recurring Image of Water in the Waste Land
In addition to being a famous poet, T.S Eliot was also a social critic. Eliot used one of his most famous poems, “The Waste Land,” as a medium to critique western culture. Throughout his poem, Eliot illustrates the decline of western culture, which spurred as a direct result of the devastation caused by World War I. Eliot paints the picture of a postwar society in which there is an overwhelming abundance of a lack of connection and understanding by the people of society to the world around them. Eliot contrasts the “dead” postwar society to the flourishing, lively society that existed before the war. Throughout the poem, water, or a lack of water, is seen as a recurring image. Eliot uses the ambiguity in the properties of water to highlight his criticism of the western culture and their misunderstanding of the capabilities that water bestows.
The Lack of Water
The lack of water in “The Waste Land” helps portray the desolation and infertility that has befallen the wasteland. The presence of water represents life, while a lack of water represents a lack of life. The imagery of water is first seen in the poem in the fourth line. The “dull roots with spring rain” (5) teaches that while spring rain comes to bring new life, nothing new will grow out of the land because of the dull roots. Later, in the twenty-fourth line, the concept of the desolation of the land is furthered through the mentioning of “the dry stone no sound of water” (5). In this line, Eliot uses the imagery of water to show the lack of a spiritual connection and life in the western society. The lack of water represents the idea that life is slipping away. Eliot explains that those who are suffering from a lack of life and spiritual connection, an intangible achievement, can only receive partial solace through the shadow of the red rock, a tangible, yet much lesser achievement. Those seeking solace from the desolation can only find a degree of it through the dark shade that hides the despairs of society. The desolation and infertility caused by a lack of water is best seen between line three hundred and thirty one and line three hundred and forty one:
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain month of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains (16).
These lines hammer home the concept that modern society lacks the ability to create anything new due to a lack of water. Eliot stresses that those who are looking to better western culture see water as the cure to their problems. However, later on in the poem, Eliot also warns that water, when its capabilities are misunderstood, may not be the ultimate saving factor that western culture believes it to be.
Too Much Water
Although “The Waste Land” is set in the desert, where water is often lacking, the presence of water plays a prominent role in the poem. The use of water in a desert setting teaches that, while a lack of water can be deadly, too much water can also be deadly. Through Madame Sosostris’s tarot cards, Eliot presents some of the dangers that are created through the presence of water. In line forty-seven, we learn of the “drowned Phoenician Sailor” (6). In this line, Eliot shows us that too much water can lead to drowning and thus death. The following line, “those are pearls that were his eyes” (6), adds onto the idea of drowning from too much water. Eyes can be described as “windows into the soul” and, therefore, because the sailor’s eyes have turned into pearls, the soul has also become desolate. Therefore, Eliot teaches us that both that a lack of water and too much water can cut off a persons soul and spirituality. In line fifty-five, again through the tarot cards, Eliot warns to “fear death by water” (7). Here, Eliot is reminding us that not only can a lack of water cause death, but also too much water can cause death, as seen by the prediction of the Phoenician Sailor. Madame Sosostris’s warning to fear death by water is not heeded to, and in line three hundred and twelve Phlebas the sailor drowns.
Eliot uses water to symbolize both life and death. Eliot uses imagery of water to teach of both the life giving capabilities and life taking capabilities. Throughout his poem Eliot highlights the ambiguity in the properties of water. Just like water itself isn’t always clear, the capabilities that water possesses are also not always apparent. Eliot stresses the fact that western culture’s problem is that they doesn’t understand this concept. While water can represent life, relief, cleanliness, and solace, too much water is just like a lack of water, and therefore can lead to death. Water’s uncertainty proves a need for preparedness and caution, without which it bestows inherent danger. Therefore, while it may seem that the problem to western culture is the lack of water, Eliot teaches us that the cure is not so simple, as having water can be just as dangerous as not having it. Eliot shows how the lack of water represents the infertility and the desolation of society. However, Eliot also shows that the water that is so coveted to restore western culture has the same life taking capabilities as a lack of water. Through the death of Phlebas by the water, and the failure to heed to the warning of death by water, Eliot highlights western society’s lack of understanding of the properties of water. While Eliot stresses that water is the key to fixing the wasteland, he also stresses the need for caution with water and the need for the right amount of water in order to avoid infertility and desolation.
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.
Images of Death in the Wasteland by T. S Eliot
The Wasteland by T. S Eliot is a significant work of English poetry, published in 1922. The poem is regarded as the epic of the modern age. It’s a long ballad consist of four hundred forty lines in 5 parts. The poem depicts modern crisis and situation after first world war. There is hardly any connection among stanzas, each part of The Wasteland shows different ideas and crisis of first world war on human civilization. It contains great deal of thoughts. This is the poem that predefines what poetry is. Its structure and content has the freshness. The poem is full of different images such as flowers, water, sea, garden but the most prominent image in The Wasteland is the image of death. On an epic scale allusion, sterile and dead images are the most occurring images in the poem.
From the epigraph of the poem the image of death can be seen, it clearly suggests the life in the modern waste land is a living death or life in death, like the life of Sibyl. She was the beloved of Apollo who gifted her the attribute of immortality, but without internal youth. The effect was she grew old and ached for death.
The poem depicts the problems of emptiness and barrenness. Imagination is deadened. There is hardly any sign of any positive possibility. The opening section of the Wasteland Land is entitled The Burial of the Dead which refers to the burial of the dead fertility god, the burial service for the dead performed by the Christian church.
The very first part of the poem The Burial of the Dead already indicates the main topic of the whole section, which is full of images of death. All images are chiefly concerned with the death of nature and death of a human being. Eliot presents that life in contemporary world is a life in death. Man has lost faith in spiritual values. There is a sense of decay and decomposition.
The picture of dead nature, which can’t recover after the winter, is reached out in the following scene through the appalling image of ‘the stony rubbish”, where the plants can’t develop. The concept of sterility is a crucial part of Eliot’s symbolism. Regarding nature, it is viewed as failure to bring the hover of seasons into move. Sterility is figuratively communicated through dryness while ripeness is related with water.
Eliot deliberately making it poetry difficult. In the poem “The Burial of the Dead” it depicts an “Unreal City” where the narrator meets a man he used to know and asks him:
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout?”
Burying a corpse for it to come back to life leads to the idea of rebirth, but it does so by coming back to the first symbols in the poem, the reversal of life and death.
The state of nature of seasons is broken, there’s no expectation of rebirth of nature.” The dead man gives no answer; that intensifies the emptiness and hopelessness of the situation. The speaker, who is alive, is able to see the ghosts of the dead and speak to them. The ghosts which flowed up the Unreal City are alive and dead at the same time. Eliot is presenting a vision of contemporary life. The city is unreal because it is cut from both natural and spiritual sources of life. Each individual exists in loneliness. The crowds moving over London Bridge are the spiritually dead citizens of the waste land going their daily round of dull routine. Loss of faith has always resulted in sterility and spiritual death-life in death. They do not live, they merely exist, as do dead things.
Store of death pictures is seen obviously all through the lyric. According to a critic humans are to be contrasted with so much things as a stick, a canal, a pipe. And no more, theirs is a real existence in death, an existence of complete latency and lack of care. That is the reason winter is welcome to them and April is the cruelest of months, for it helps them to remember the stirrings of life. The poem presents the gloomy and traumatic picture of the contemporary human generation affected by the consequences of world war I. Social spiritual vacuum due to world war I. Eliot’s Waste Land is a volatile poem, beyond the epic boundary of the poem there is an epic degeneration which cannot be handled.
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.
Today’s Environmental ‘Waste Land’: Eliot’s Prediction of the Current Ecological Crisis
There is no denying it—our world is on the brink of a severe environmental crisis. Critical issues like pollution, global warming, overpopulation, natural resource depletion, waste disposal, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and urban sprawl need to be resolved, or else our earth will no longer be a sustainable environment for the population to live. In her five-part essay “The Waste Land as an Ecocritique,” Gabrielle McIntire presents us with a new interpretation of The Waste Land, showing us that it is an eco-poem that not only describes the desolate, polluted, and urbanized postwar environment of 1922, but also functions as a memorial for all that has been lost and destroyed, and lastly, sounds a warning about impending environmental disaster. It seems far-fetched that a little less than a century ago, a poet would have predicted the ecological crisis that we face today. However, as we view The Waste Land through Gabrielle McIntire’s eyes, obvious parallels of environmental crises emerge between the ‘waste land’ of postwar 1922 and the ‘waste land’ of today.
One of the most common features of the landscapes and cityscapes that Eliot presents in The Waste Land is the presence of pollution and waste. We can take the title to have both a literal and figurative meaning, as we are meant to imagine a barren, bleak, postwar land. Through the poem, Eliot fills that land with pollutants, smog, and trash that mar the once natural scenery. Powerful, pollution-filled images in this poem are often in accordance with descriptions of a river, specifically the Thames. Eliot writes “the river sweats/Oil and tar,” (266-7) and describes a scene while someone was “fishing on the dull canal/On a winter evening round behind the gashouse” (189-90). Not only are the images of the water dirty and “dull”, the fishing scene is also neither serene nor picturesque—a once natural setting has been turned industrial and unnatural by the “gashouse”. In her essay, McIntire affirms, “seeking sustenance in a place constructed for industrial and commercial transit, near to a ‘gashouse’—a site of manufacturing for modern petroleum fuel—will only lead the speaker to find polluted fare.” (181) The point is driven across even further when the speaker complains that “at my back from time to time I hear/The sound of horns and motors” (196-7). The effects of industrialization constantly pollute the serenity of nature. Even as Eliot addresses the river as “Sweet Thames” (176, 183-4), it’s actually characterized by its lack of pollution: The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends Or other testimony of summer nights (177-79) As McIntire notes, “Eliot’s portrait of the river remains marred by the garbage that is missing,” (180) and it comes as a surprise to the reader to see the river without all that waste, contrasting with the dirty, polluted river that “sweats/ Oil and tar” later on. This is a moment that highlights the lens with which many people view nature today. It is almost surprising these days to see a landscape that is not marred by pollution, waste, or an industrial structure of some sort. Living in Philadelphia, I walk by the Schuylkill River almost every day and nonchalantly watch the endless bottles, plastic bags, and other debris float slowly through the filthy water. Eliot has, a century earlier, foreshadowed a now commonplace view and expectation of pollution and waste in previously natural settings.
In addition to pollution and waste, another important aspect, specifically within the cityscapes in The Waste Land, are the impacts of urbanization, industrialization, and population growth. Eliot paints pictures of cities on the verge of apocalyptic collapse: What is the city over the mountains Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna London Unreal (371-6) These cities are collapsing, and as Eliot is suggesting, presumably because of the “crowds of people” (56) filling cities to a point of literal explosion. “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,” (62) Eliot writes, followed up later with almost an entranced, eerie chanting of the lyrics, “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down” (426). Eliot clearly sees these cities, growing in population and industrialization, as a threat to humanity, which, as we understand now, is an entirely legitimate theory. The dangers that urbanization and overpopulation pose to our world today are huge: urban growth means greater poverty, the concentrated energy usage within these growing urban areas lead to greater air pollution, and the massive urban development means significant deforestation and loss of animal populations.
Somehow, Eliot also seemed to pick up on the threat of deforestation and loss of biodiversity in The Waste Land as well. He repeats the line; “the nymphs are departed,” (175, 179) suggesting that these Greek mythological nature spirits have disappeared because their habitats—usually rivers and woods—have either been contaminated or have just completely vanished. The larger idea that the natural has been lost to all human senses is expressed as “The wind/ Crosses the brown land, unheard” (174-5). This desolate, barren scene suggests a complete lack of nature—not a tree, a plant, or a leaf even in sight. Eliot even more specifically refers to deforestation when that same dirty river sweating “oil and tar” carries “drifting logs” (274), implying the exact process of deforestation is occurring, as the logs float down the already polluted river. There is also something to be said for the logs being in that river, among the other waste—it implies that not only are trees being cut down, but their wood is being thrown into the river with the other garbage, and not even being used for something useful.
Since the early 20th century ecological crisis that Eliot addresses in his poem, deforestation has become an increasingly important issue—it’s gotten to the point that an estimated 18 million acres of forest are lost each year, and the environmental consequences are huge. One of the most dramatic impacts of deforestation is the loss of habitat for millions of species, yet another thing that Eliot addressed in The Waste Land. This warning about the loss of biodiversity is never explicitly suggested, however, a pattern emerges when examining the different contexts in which animals are mentioned in the poem. Throughout The Waste Land, we encounter multiple rats (115, 186, 195), a “cricket” (23), a “Dog” (74), a “nightingale” (100), “gulls” (313), “cicada” (353), a “hermit-thrush” (356), “bats” (379), a “cock” (391), a “spider” (407), and a “swallow” (428). For the most part undomesticated, these animals are all linked to the different polluted, degraded, and decaying sites in the poem. To cite a few examples, the “cricket” is mentioned as it gives “no relief” (23) to the barren landscape that is described as “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,/ And the dead tree gives no shelter” (23-4). The “’Dog’” emerges in a warning to stay away from the “’corpse you planted last year in your garden’” (71), while the “nightingale” is perched in “the desert”—both animals in contexts that are associated with lifelessness. The pattern continues with the “gulls” placed with “Phlebas the Phoenician,” (312) a sailor who was “a fortnight dead,” (312) and the “cicada” and the “hermit-thrush” who are mentioned amongst the mad-sounding lament craving water: If only there were the sound of water only Not the cicada And dry grass singing But sound of water over a rock Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop But there is no water (352-8) Furthermore, the “cock” that “stood on the rooftree” (391) is placed—in addition to the “cicada” and the “hermit-thrush—in a decidedly lifeless environment: Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home. It has no windows, and the door swings, Dry bones can harm no one. (387-90) This “chapel” and graveyard that the “cock” is inexorably connected to is, just like the previously cited water lamentation, barren and connected death. The list of the surrounding that all these animals are tied to goes on, but this pattern of connecting them to dying environments implies that Eliot believed this biodiversity to be endangered in the future, which, yet again, he predicted correctly. Today, we face serious effects of biodiversity loss, which immensely impact ecosystems, greatly increase our food supply’s vulnerability to pests and disease, and decrease our supply of fresh water.
The decreasing supply of water in addition to other important resources is yet another environmental barrier that we are facing today. The fact is that the global population is at 7.2 billion and rapidly growing, while at the current demand, our resources are only good for 2 billion people. We are not using Earth’s resources in a sustainable way, and we already see the global affects of that craving for those depleted resources. This issue of resource depletion, yet again, is paralleled through warnings within The Waste Land. This poem is replete with landscapes that are desperately in need of resources. Water is a main concern throughout every part of the poem, and the desert-scape comes up frequently in Eliot’s writing, beginning in the second stanza as a setting is described as “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,/ And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,/And the dry stone no sound of water” (22-4). The warning “Fear death by water” (55) initially brings to mind drowning, but we must remember that one can die from lack of water as well—the are both death by water. The entire fifth section of The Waste Land, ‘What the Thunder Said’ centers around on the desperate need for water. The “thunder of spring” (327), which promises water in rainfall, is heard “over distant mountains” (327) implying that the water is far away and unreachable, however much one might need it. This section contains an actual description of this metaphorical ‘waste land,’ establishing that “Here is no water but only rock/ Rock and no water and the sandy road” (331-2). The dryness, dehydration, and need for water contained within the words reach almost a breaking point in the crazed, repetitive, stream-of-consciousness beg for water, cited earlier in accordance with the “cicada” and “hermit-thrush” that are mentioned in the lament. It is not just people (presumably the speaker) who need water, but the land and the plants and animals also can’t seem to satisfy that basic need, as Eliot talks about “the limp leaves” (395) that “Waited for rain,” (396) and jumping back to the beginning, we see the “dead land” (2) and “dull roots” (4). Literally and figuratively, the environments in The Waste Land desperately need water, as the inhabitants within this ‘wasted’ land crave the fundamentals for survival. In our current global state, we are not quite there yet, but based on the unsustainable way that we use our resources, Eliot’s harsh descriptions of these dry, barren lands could legitimately be what we will be facing in fifty to one hundred years.
Looking at The Waste Land from an ecological standpoint, the future seems grim. Eliot has predicted so many environmental crises that are affecting our world today, and painted such desolate pictures that it’s hard not to just sink into the inevitability of our dying world. However, as Gabrielle McIntire so simply put it in her essay, “such warnings contain hope” (McIntire 191). Though The Waste Land serves as a warning for the impending ecological deterioration because of human pollution, waste, urban development, and all of its negative effects, the poem is also not without hope. It contains brief respites from the degradation and desolation, and though initially the final lines of the poem are convoluted and confusing, if we look into the meaning, “Shantih Shantih Shantih” (433) translates from Sanskrit into “’the Peace which passeth understanding’” (McIntire 190). Eliot more or less tells us that his poem has provided us with the first piece—understanding—by sharing these warnings of the ecological degradation of our world and the deleterious effects that we, as humans, are having on the environment. However, he tells us, now that we have that understanding, we can have peace. Through this poem, we are shown our missteps and our tribulations in our relationship with nature, but in the end, we are given the opportunity to right the wrongs that were done.
Eliot, T. S. The Waste Land; A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. Print.
McIntire, Gabrielle. “The Waste Land as an Ecocritique.” The Cambridge Companion to The Waste Land. New York: Cambridge UP, 2015. 176-90. Print.
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.