T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”: Portrait of a Desolate World

August 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

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poem reads,”In the swamp in secluded recesses,A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.Solitary the thrush,The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,Sings by himself a song.Song of the bleeding throat,Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,If thou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. http://world.std.com/~raparker/exploring/thewasteland/table/explore6.htmlEliot, T.S. The Wasteland and Other Poems. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1934.

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