Cubism and Multiplicity of Narration in The Waste Land

Categories: The Waste Land


The aim of this essay is to consider the multiplicity of narration in The Waste Land and its relationship in enrichment of content and meaning in the poem. There is an attempt to convey the Cubist traits and find concrete examples in the poem. This study will try to specify evidences for conformity of cubism and multiplicity of narration in the poem. While Eliot juxtaposed so many perspectives in seemingly set of disjointed images, there is “painful task of unifying .

., jarring and incompatible perspectives“ in The Waste Land. Like a cubist painting, there is a kind of variety of narration in unity through the poem. The usage of different languages and narrations in the poem helps to convey sense of the strain of modern living in modern waste land.


The Waste Land is like a cubistic painting. The cubist painters rejected the inherited concept that art should copy nature, or that they should adopt the traditional techniques of perspective, modeling, and foreshortening.

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They wanted instead to emphasize the two dimensionality of the canvas. So they reduced and fractured objects into geometric forms, and then realigned these forms within a relief-like space. They also used multiple or contrasting vantage points for narration of their story on canvas. The most conspicuous feature of cubist form is the abandonment of single perspective. The multiperspectivism in cubism suggests that the many appearances in the world are less true than the abstract design in which produced by their juxtaposition. Eliot dedicated an entire chapter of his doctoral thesis on the problem of solipsism.

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It is a problem raised by the fact that in any human experience of the world, the world is always experienced from an individual perspective or (in Bradley’s term) finite centre.

An individual’s mental life consists in a changing series of such finite centres, and there is no guarantee that his centres will harmonize with others or even with themselves. There is no guarantee that one’s experience or self will be understood by others. Communication of the inner life is always a courageous act of faith across a gulf of privacy and difference. Eliot himself said in his essay “Knowledge and Experience“ ( 1964 ) “the life of a soul does not consist in the contemplation of one consistent world but in the painful task of unifying ( to a greater or less extent ) jarring and incompatible ones , and passing , when possible , from two or more discordant viewpoints to a higher which shall somehow include and transmute them .” Therefore we see the terrifying problem of personal communication already expressed in Eliot’s works and also “the painful task of unifying .., jarring and incompatible perspectives“ to the fragmentation and synthesizing efforts of The Waste Land .


The original title for The Waste Land was “He do the police in different voices”. The line , comes from Charles Dickens’ novel Our Mutual Friend (1864_65). It is describe that widow Betty Higden, says of her adopted foundling son Sloppy ”You might not think it , but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the police in different voices.” As The Waste Land is composed of so many voices and narrations , this would help us to understand that , while there are many different voices and narrations in the poem , there is one central consciousness. We have a multiplicity of voices and narrations, male and female, young and old, in a variety of languages and styles. The shifts are unannounced, so that often we do not even know who is speaking.

But the unity of the poem emerges from the fact that these all merge into a single personality, something we might call the voice of the modern consciousness. The fact that this modern consciousness cannot settle into a fixed perception of things or even into a consistent language and narration helps to convey sense of the strain of modern living . In fact, what emerges from the poem as a principal concern is the inability of the modern consciousness either to see unity in the world outside or to bring to a disordered world any sense of inner integrity.

Part of this sense of the totality of the modern self adding up to a fractured variety emerges, not just from the shifting sense of the images and the multiplicity of narration , but also from the variety in the verse style. It's as if in the modern age, there cannot be a single authoritative way of expressing how one feels. There is not enough confidence in the forms of language itself. Just as the traditional community has become the unreal city, a vision of a modern inferno. So The Waste Land is abundant with multiplicity of narration in different language and set of seemingly disordered images.

The images in The Waste Land are supported by two distinct ways of narration. The lyric voice opening the poem uses metaphoric, often symbolic images and speaks in repetitive, stylized syntax. It has suggested on the one hand order and propriety, and on the other hand stasis. This voice speaks with authority and finality as it recurs in scenes throughout the poem where the vision of barrenness and revulsion from life is intensely clear and controlled. This voice contrasts with many voices speaking in metonymically rendered narrative scenes full of movement and change. These other voices resist categorization.

These voices rang from vivid characters such as Marie, the hyacinth girl, Stetson’s friend, Madame Sosostris, the nervous woman, the pub woman, Tiresias, and the Thames daughters, to the non-human voices of the nightingale, the cock, and the thunder. In the poem there is also a progress in debt of experience from the voice of Madame Sosostris, the fortuneteller with a bad cold, to the voice of God in the thunder. In the first part of The Waste Land, we have four voices: 1) 2) 3) 4) First voice: Marie, an aristocratic German recounting childhood. Second voice: Prophetic and acpocalyptic , recalling a more innocent past Third voice : Madame Sosostris , tarot reader Forth voice : Walker in surreal London , seeing Stetson , an old comrade

In the beginning of The Burial of the Dead we hear a "voice of propriety" that wishes to stop all new movement, change, or development. In The Burial of the Dead Eliot has examined the limitations of a purely romantic view of life. It makes life arid and unreal.

In the second part of The Waste Land, we have at least seven voices: 1) 2) 3) 4) 5) 6) 7) Initial narrator The nightingale The neurotic woman Her companion The gramophone The maid The bar keeper

The use of different narration in this kind of collage in A Game of Chess allows the poet to distance himself from any single statement. In this regards Louis Menand ( 1952 _ ) has mentioned that “ nothing in [the poem] can be said to point to the poet, since none of its stylistic features is continuous, and it has no phrases or images that cannot be suspected of—where they are not in fact identified as— belonging to someone else….. Eliot appears nowhere, but his fingerprints are on everything “(The Cambridge introduction to modernism, 2007, p.179). A Game of Chess seems to be thematically centered on a sterile vision of modern life. This vision is countered by the narrative animation of the scenes: the sensuous movement of objects in the boudoir, the hysterical woman’s insistent questioning, the playful mutation of Shakespeare to a “Shakespeherian Rag“, and the pub lady’s vivid chatter.

In the third part of the poem, The Fire Sermon, we are introduced to Tiresias as Eliot himself introduced him: Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a 'character', is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem (Eliot’s note).

All through the poem we hear one voice, the persona of Tiresias who assumes the various characters in the poem. Tiresias is not a definite character with definite views on life, but an anonymous carrier of a state of mind. In the poem, scenes and dialogues are so arranged to express state of mind. It is through Tiresias that we have been conscious of The Waste Land. In the fourth part, Death by Water, Madame Sosostris is overcome because there occurs what we had been told to fear: “a death by water”. There is a sense of peace in such annihilation, but the death does not end The Waste Land. We are also shown a Christ-like figure post-resurrection. It is the first explicit sign within the poem that intimates an occurrence of resurrection and redemption. It is also points to the reader’s own mortality.

The last part of the poem, What the Thunder Said, returns to a barren waste and an inhuman landscape where repetition suggests a pointless circularity. This section is made up of textual fragments from Dante, Elizabethan drama, a sacred Hindu text and children’s song. What the Thunder Said directly appeals to Eastern philosophy, specifically, Hinduism. The variety of voices and narrations in this part, speaking in different languages and different tones, indicates a world rich with possibility as well as confusion, with salvation as well as loss. The ending is deeply improper, not respecting boundaries between poems, between cultures, or between voices.

The passionate and paradoxical desire to end desires leads only to the continuation of life in all its variousness, confusions, tragedies, and improper desires. The proliferation of perspectives obvious in cubism is basic to Eliot’s poetry. Here we have mentioned the examples in The Waste Land that are similar to the cubist painting: The female portrait at the center of “ The Waste Land “ is a cubist portrait , comprehending facets of clairvoyante and Cleopatra , a nervous contemporary women at her dressing table , a pub gossip , and many others. We see different characters and different narrations by diffrent moods and temperament but totally all these characters shape a single one , “ Tiresias “ .

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, Had a bad cold, nevertheless Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe. ( lines 43_45 ) , The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, Glowed on the marble, where the glass Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines From which a golden Cupidon peeped out (Another hid his eyes behind his wing) Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra Reflecting light upon the table as The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it . ( lines 77_84 ) , When Lil's husband got demobbed, I said I didn't mince my words, I said to her myself, HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME Now Albert's coming back, make yourself a bit smart . ( lines 139_142 )

Eliot presents many broken perspectives on many cities in and out of time. The juxtaposition of these many partial fleeting perspectives leads to the formation of an abstract city (Unreal city) in the poem. For instance, in the Unreal City passage which concludes the first part of poem , lines 60-76 , Eliot begins by alluding to Baudelaire’s “ Les sept Vieillards “, moves on to the Infreno (“ I had not thought death had undone so many “ ), then to hour of Christ’s crucifixion ( “ a dead sound on the final stroke of nine “), to the Punic Wars (“ You who were with me in the ships at Mylae “), to Webster’s White Devil (“ Oh keep the Dog far hence that’s friend to men “), and finally back to Baudelaire’s preface to the Fleurs du Mal (“ You ! hypocrite lecteur!_mon semblable,_mon frere! “).

All these references are folded into what begins as a naturalistic description of the City of London but then becomes an increasingly horrific city of dreams. Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. Flowed up the hill and down King William Street, To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine. There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying "Stetson! "You who were with me in the ships at Mylae! "That corpse you planted last year in your garden, "Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? "Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed? "Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men, "Or with his nails he'll dig it up again! "You! hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable, - mon frere!" (lines 60_76) , Unreal City Under the brown fog of a winter noon Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants C.i.f. London: documents at sight, Asked me in demotic French To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel Followed by a weekend at the Metropole. (lines 207_214) , What is the city over the mountains Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air Falling towers Jerusalem Athens Alexandria Vienna London Unreal ( lines 372_377 )

The main sign in the poem to show us cubist’s vein is the central and most important personage in the poem, Tiresias. Eliot thus suggests that all the many voices and narrations in the poem may be aspects of two voices, those of one man and one woman, or indeed of a single voice, that of Tiresias, the man who was changed into a woman and back into a man, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, who foresaw the destruction of Thebes, according to Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, and who was visited by Odysseus in the underworld in book eleven of the Odyssey. The central role of Tiresias suggests that the various voices of the poem can be understood as a sort of chorus, with each part being spoken by representatives of one sex or the other.

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea ( lines 218_221 )

Eliot brings the chaos of the modern civilization into his narrative structure, but he also shows a ray of hope to come out of the decay. The protagonist of the poem, Tiersias is a soothsayer from Greek legend, who narrates to the readers the situation of The Waste Land.

Eliot forces multiperspectivism upon his readers. He juxtaposes many perspectives of the same idea or object by so many characters and multiplicity of narration. It let us to be aware of the limits of every perspective and of the desirability of moving from one perspective to another and, finally, of comprehending many perspectives at once. Eliot thus came to insist on an ideal of “variety in unity“ and as he mentioned in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture ( 1948 ) “ the variety is as essential as the unity “. For Eliot, difference of perspective is not only necessary given our different sociohistorical situations, but its productive tension can provide for richer understanding and wider experience. The variety of voices and narrations, speaking in different languages, and different tones, indicates a world rich with possibility as well as confusion, with salvation as well as loss.


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Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Cubism and Multiplicity of Narration in The Waste Land essay
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