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T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” Essay

The poem I am choosing to examine is T.S, Eliot’s The Waste Land emerging from the Modernist poetic movement. The modern movement occurred after World War one (1914-1918). This war marked momentous changes on a global scale. Before 1914, English literature and it’s ideas were in many ways still harking back to the nineteenth century: after 1918 Modern begins to define the twentieth century. Among the influences of Modernism were the rapid developments both socially and technologically. Also new theories of physics and psychology from those such as Sigmund Freud were among the advances of that era that inspired modernist poets.

Some modernists were extremely pessimistic about modernity e.g. Eliot. They believed that with the urbanization of society and loss of culture that essentially the human identity has been lost and has not yet been fully recognized. Modernism is essentially post-Darwinian: it is a search to explain mankind’s place in the modern world where religion, social stability and ethics are all called into question. (1) The inner consciousness and different psychological states were called into question, and all traditional forms of poetry began to lose their place.

The ruins created across Europe as a result of the war enter the world of T.S. Eliot’s poetry. The first part of The Waste Land, “The Burial of the Dead,” presents the voice of a countess looking back on her pre-World War I youth as a lovelier, freer, more romantic time. Her voice is followed by a solemn description of present dryness when “the dead tree gives no shelter.” (3)The Wasteland is not a land literally laid waste by war. It does not mention the unemployment and economic crises of the late 1920s. Instead, the poem depicts a cultural and spiritual wasteland, a land populated by people who are, physically and emotionally, living a kind of death in the midst of their everyday lives.

What went out in post-war society was the Victorian concept of poetry i.e. the narrative and the smooth, rational expositions. In its place came a fragmented and imagistic style concerned with a stream of consciousness and a sense of fragmentation both of individuality and of such concepts such as space and time. This fragmentation can be identified in Eliot’s The Waste Land, which reads like a collection of fragments of poems; organized not as a narrative but as a collage. Eliot uses a numerous amount of characters in The Wasteland who move across a desolate landscape of fragmented images: A crowd flowed over London’s Bridge, so many I had not thought death had undone so many (61,62) Instead of the traditional lyrical rhythms and conventionally beautiful and “˜poetic’ images of pre war poets, Eliot uses images that shock and bewilder.

They are images are striking and obscure, drawn from a jarring urban rather than a harmonious rural life. (1) In “What the Thunder said” from The Waste Land it reads What is the city over the mountains Cracks and reforms Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna London Unreal (366) The theme of the disintegration of pastoral life is an important aspect of the modern movement. People were no longer living happy, rural life and by necessity they were moving into the cities. Economic situations of that time compelled people to work in industrially advancing cities abandoning the countryside.

This poetry is in no doubt quite difficult to read. Eliot explained his overall purpose himself: Any obscurity in the poem, on first readings, is due to the suppression of “˜links in the chain’, of explanatory and connecting matter, and not to incoherence, or love of cryptogram. The justification of such abbreviation of method is that the sequence of images coincides and concentrates into one intense impression of barbaric civilization.(1) The reader is expected to build up meanings from the fragment Eliot produces. He gives no direct connotations to explain these images. Fragments broken from a whole are all that twentieth-century civilization has to interpret the world.

The disharmony of modern society confused poets and they set out to discover the lost identity of society. This aspect can be identified in Eliot’s use of reference and allusion to other works of the past: Dante’s “Inferno”, Wagner’s operas, nursery rhymes, the Bible, Shakespeare, myth of the Holy Grail, Hindu scripture and many others. Eliot makes allusions to Dane’s “Inferno”: I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Philo M. Buck, in his “Directions in Contemporary Literature,” wrote of the “irrelevant waste and despair that knows not its emptiness” seen in The Waste Land, and he further pointed out that the purpose of Dante’s “Inferno” is to make unregenerate humanity see, “with no veil to obscure, the ugliness of sin. Evil must be stripped of all of its false allure and stand before the poet naked, grotesque, and unashamed, not that he may recoil at its horror and stand in judgement … but that he may suffer in mind and body the moral illness that is necessary before the discipline of Purgatory can be begun.”

Most of these allusions were used ironically to show the superficiality and ignorance of the present age and perhaps the impossibility of being original in the present day. (3) A somewhat cynical view of previous poetic styles and literary periods involving the romantic individual. As though the truth of the human identity had never been exposed or explored until now and that previously poets had been deluding themselves: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (431).

The entire poem was written in an unmistakable twentieth century post-war style that records the collapse in the values of Western civilization. The main examples of this are sterile, unloving sexual relationships, cultural confusion and spiritual desolation.

Eliot sees the fact that people are unable to bring together the different areas of their experience into a whole. Their social, sexual and religious experiences are fragmentary and not unified.

In essence a society or world of chaos and disunity is presented in The Wasteland mirroring the modernist viewpoint at that point in history.

Eliot epitomizes the modernist viewpoint of the 1920s and uses his poetry to express the spiritual doubt of that time. Eliot delves into the inner consciousness of the human psyche to reveal psychological states in contrast to the use of narrative in the Victorian period. A pessimistic outlook on the state of society is reflected in the fragmented style of the poem and the provocation to allow the reader to interpret the poem’s pieces themselves.

Selected Bibliography

(1) Carter, Ronald and John McRae. The Routledge History of Literature in English Britain and Ireland. Routledge, 1998. New Fetter Lane, London 1997. Pages 360-368 (2) The Waste Land 1922. http://eliotswasteland.tripod.com/ (3) (http://cityhonors.buffalo.k12.ny.us/city/rsrcs/eng/eli/elihea2.htm)

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