The impact of The First World War on the poetry of W.B. Yeats and T.S Eliot

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

The First World War completely changed the world completely, in a way that nobody could have imagined, at the beginning of the 20th century. It was known as the Great War at that time since it was the biggest war and affected many people all around the world. The war ended in 1918, although people felt its impact for many years. Besides the negative effects of the war, some significant changes helped to improve and lead to a more quality life. For instance, the new technological advances transformed the way that people travelled, communicated all around the world and later the medical innovations helped to save many lives. Despite all of the positive impacts, new weapons and technologies were mainly used for destruction and killing. T. S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats and many of their contemporary poets deal with the effects of the war and the post-war, newly formed society in their works. The purpose of this essay is to survey how the First World War changed the whole picture of the world, people’s views on religion and their attitude towards Christianity and the perspective on man according to Yeats’ and Eliot’s poetry.

First of all, the whole world felt the effects of the Great War which brought drastic changes to the world. T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” was published soon after the war, in 1922, which is one of his most popular and well-known poems. In the first section of the poem, “The Burial of the Dead”, he wrote about the past in a more positive light, which reflects on how the world changed due to the war. The importance of family interactions and communication is in contrast with the present situation of the poet’s time when these things did not have much value. The speaker reads “much of the night”, that may refer to the escaping and trying to hide from reality. Moreover, he talks about the freedom that he experienced in the past: “In the mountains, there you feel free.” (Eliot, 5) W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” talks about the changing of the world in a different way. Yeats wrote: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Yeats,158). Chaos descended after the war, as he writes in this line of the poem: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” (Yeats,158). This centre is considered the base of the world. Not just the First World War, but also other tragic and tumultuous events that happened in Ireland, the home country of Yeats, had a great impact on the poet and inspired him to write the poem. For instance, the Easter Rising in Ireland, a rebellion that was brutally suppressed was the topic of Yeats’s earlier poem “Easter 1916”, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. (Snyder, no pag.). The Russian Revolution overthrew the long rule of the czars and was accompanied by its full share of chaos. (Snyder, no pag.) So, it is not that surprising that Yeats’s words convey the sense that the world is coming to an end. (Snyder, no pag.) Furthermore, Yeats believed that history and all the things that happen in the world were cyclical, so repeats itself. In his poem, “The Second Coming”, he demonstrates this idea with the metaphor: ‘gyre’ (Yeats, 158). Yeats claims that the gyre is ‘widening’ (Yeats, 158) so it is slowly getting further away from its root, the centre. This is the reason why ‘the falcon cannot hear the falconer’, so the world slowly losing its cooperation and harmony. Also, it changes and becomes different from how the world looked like in the past.

Secondly, the perspective on man is changed after the war, people felt lonely and totally isolated. So, many people were left in a state of chaos due to the war and the world was coming into a state of uncertainty. More violence happened in this war than any other war had seen in the past. Because of this, the foundations of modern civilization were destroyed and the war led to negative public sentiment. One of the main elements of the post-war poetry was the disillusionment and disenchantment. As stated by Richard Wheeler, “The Second Coming presents a vision of cultural destruction, or disintegration.” (Wheeler, 234) Before the war, many still believed that man was naturally and innately good but after the war people became disillusioned with this vision of man. Both Eliot and Yeats were sceptical about the goodness of man’s nature. According to Yeats, people considered immoral and sinful this is why not Christ will come to the world, but a “rough beast” (Yeats, 159). The title of Eliot’s poem is metaphorically a reference to the devastation caused by the First World War and symbolizes a world full of bad and evil people. Furthermore, “The Wasteland” suggests the spiritual death of the modern man. Also, the isolation of the modern man was an important element of post-war poetry, and a big problem in society, too. “Living nor dead, and I knew nothing / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.” (Eliot, 6) The speaker lost her sense to communicate with others and felt being an outsider. This sense of isolation and loneliness is the main element of this part of the poem. The isolation allows the person to precisely see the people around him and realise that everyone behaves like a zombie. The crowd “flowed over London Bridge” (Eliot, 7) and they do not care or interact with about one other, do not even look where they were going.

Thirdly, people’s views on religion generally changed and their attitude towards Christian beliefs after the First World War. Both Yeats and Eliot had doubts about religion. However, many different religious allusions appear in their poems. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” predicts the end of the religious era and Christianity. The title implies the return of Jesus Christ, as it was prophesied in the Bible, but it is actually referring to something else that Yeats expects to happen in the near future. He foresees terrible and catastrophic events that will come to the world. Instead of the traditional, religious prophecy, that Christ will come to Earth and redeem the people, Yeats imagined an antichrist who is “slouching towards Bethlehem” and takes over humanity. “A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun” (Yeats 159) suggests that something resembles a Sphinx will appear, but it is completely different from Jesus. This entire image is dissimilar to Christian tradition so it belongs to another civilization and tradition. Moreover, after the horrors of the war many people tended to believe in other, supernatural things rather than practicing the Christian religion. According to an article: People’s belief was widely shaped by the experience of the war. For some, the brutality and the futility of the lethal conflict destroyed any vestige of faith, while others found refuge in religion. (Shaw, 2014) In “The Burial of the Dead” a fortune teller and tarot card reader character, Madame Sosostris appears. This may suggest that people now believe in her rather than in the Christian religion. In addition, according to Yeats, there is an assumption that the whole traditional concept of religion will change. Yeats mentions words, like “sphinx” (159), “desert” (159) and “gaze” (159) in his poem which can refer to the pyramids of Giza in Egypt. With the birth of the sphinx-like creature, a new era and a different value system may begin. Consequently, there is a possibility that the plurality of gods, like in the Egyptian polytheistic religion, will replace a single God, like in the Christian religion. Because of this, the unity that one God made will disappear and the world will be fragmented, which reflects back to this sentence: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” (Yeats,158).

In conclusion, the cultural and civilizational effects of The First World War determined the picture of the 20th century. Modernist authors, like Yeats and Eliot, felt betrayed by the war, and became disillusioned with the picture of man, questioned their morals and religious beliefs. Titles like, “The Second Coming” and “The Wasteland” suggest a negative outcome of the events, and predict a dead and hopeless world. Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming” may allude to another war, which is actually happened some years later. There is a possibility that Yeats and Eliot predicted the coming of another great war, the Second World War. While people possibly believed that the worst is over, but the poets saw that the world changed into another direction and slowly decays. 

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