T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is known for its kaleidoscopic and fragmented form, with the converging of different styles from different movements of poetry; the employment of a wide range of metaphorical devices (from allusions to the decidedly Christian quest for the Holy Grail, to references about ancient Greece, and more pagan origins – the diversity of allusions from different cultures only serves to raise the universality of the poem’s theme); and the wealth of convolutions of the poem as a whole, jumping from one scene to another in an abrupt and disconcerting lack of traditional cohesion.
There are rapid shifts not only in imagery and perspective, but also in setting, and in subject. And yet the poem is unified by its overall theme of despair – despair and futility in the midst and at the inevitable end of man’s search for peace and contentment. Man subjects himself to a baffled search for spiritual peace, when, in the end, he must be resigned that the search is, after all that time, futile, even never-ending.
It is this futility and despair that grounds the “fragments” of the poem, the so-called “bigger picture,” making it into that which the poem strives to attain.
A technique that Eliot employs is the deliberate “scattering” of connected passages that discuss one subject. As an exploration of the theme, he carries it further by “dissecting” the subject, offering hints and foreshadowing in earlier parts of the poem, then places the other divisions into a variation of sections.
Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, in their introductory essay “Name and Nature of Modernism” for Modernism, 1890-1930, encapsulates the fragmented form of the poem: “Modernist works frequently tend to be ordered, then, not on the sequence of historical time or the evolving sequence of character, from history or story, as in realism and naturalism; they tend to work spatially through layers of consciousness, working towards a logic of metaphor or form” (p.50).
The Modernist poem’s multiplicity in layers exploits the poetic form in that insights and epiphanies are not procured at face value, that the reader must take it upon himself to discover and explore the layers and exposition. Also, the collage-like quality of this Modernist poem tore through the traditional forms of poetry and poetics, in its audacious experimentation.
Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris in their introductory essay for Poems for the Millennium say, “A characteristic of modern art (and poetry) so defined . . . has been the questioning of art itself as a discrete and bounded category” (p.8). The poet and the poem continue to push at the boundaries, insisting that the boundaries should not even be existent – an intention that “The Wasteland” succeeds in carrying out.
Although the many convolutions and intricacies in “The Wasteland” evoke the initial impression of fragmentation, there are interlocking themes and content, if not passages reminiscent of others, found throughout the poem. Part of Eliot’s poetics is, underneath all the references from other fragments of literature and all levels of allusions, there are images that shall mirror another, and then another, though they may be as subtle as a single word in a line, through they may be scattered throughout the entire length of the poem.
One example of this resonance can be found in Eliot’s mention of drowning, or death by water. The “narrative” is prophesied near the beginning of the poem, lines 46 and 47 say, “Here, said she, / Is your card, the drowned Phoenician sailor,” followed with the ominous statement, “Fear death by water” in line 55, found in the same section. It is essential to note that among the ancient Mediterranean people, it was the Phoenicians who became known for expertise in sailing and navigation, mastering the rather challenging task of sailing against the wind, making headway little by little, by tacking back and forth (Black).
Eliot provides this information through a prophesy by one of the many characters in the poem, Madame Sosostris, a clairvoyant. This adds another dimension to the resonance of the passage because, as well as being part of a group of references, its very position as being the first the readers encounter in the poem provides and carries out its intention of foretelling the future.
Eliot then continues to explore this theme, in almost teasing narrative, throughout the poem. The next reference is found in part three, or The Fire Sermon. In line 220 – 221, the sailor is mentioned again in, “At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea.” Interestingly, this is imparted in the form of another prophecy of sorts – this time from the blind seer Tiresias.
This passage offers a kind of build-up by narrating the usual routine of a sailor in one of his less tragic days at work. The statement is an aside, a mere commentary at the larger picture painted by The Fire Sermon, although in its simplicity and subtlety, the passage succeeds in presenting that the Phoenician sailor is supposed to come home from a hard day (and night’s) work at the sea.
Which makes it all the more tragic, as these resonant images culminate, fittingly enough, in part four, titled Death by Water. Everything comes together in this part of the poem. The skilled yet unfortunate Phoenician sailor is named, Phlebas, and we witness his fate, that which has long been hinted at from different parts of the poem. Phlebas dies, “. . . a current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers (line 315).” And he dies, not for want of expertise in his profession, but by forgetting “. . . the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell / and the profit and loss (lines 313 to 314)” – readers get the impression that Phlebas was preoccupied, in reflection of matters known only to him.
In him readers behold another character of Eliot’s, who emulates a theme of the poem, that human beings are in a continuous search for some sort of peace or contentment, yet they must resign ourselves to a life of futility and despair. Death by Water concludes with a note, some words of caution, still reminding the reader of the Phoenician sailor’s skill, his promise, regardless of his tragic death: “O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
Aside from being a critique of traditional form and the very definition of art and poetry, the poem also became a critique of the current social condition. Published in the aftermath of World War I, which had been the most destructive war in history at that point, many believed that the poem was an “indictment of post-war European culture and as an expression of disillusionment in contemporary society, which Eliot believed to be culturally barren.”
Despair was the consensual mood of nations, and salvation seemed bleak at the time. “The Wasteland” encapsulated that consensus, that attitude, displaying one of the characteristic of Modernism, which “is the one art that responds to the scenario of our chaos” (Bradbury and McFarlane, 27). And the stylized fragmentation of the poem serves to thrust that aim further, form functioning to serve the subject matter.
“The Wasteland” as a Modernist poem employs daring experimentation of style, from sudden shifts in form and style and subject, to the division of narrative style and exposition. Passages reminiscent of each other are found throughout the poem, carrying with it the theme of the poem like an interconnection of veins throughout a human body. It is a critique of the times, and of the times before that had shaped the current situation. As Rothenberg and Joris state, “The most interesting works of poetry and art are those that question their own shapes and forms, and by implication the shapes and forms of whatever preceded them” (p. 11).
Black, Bob. “Borne by the Wind: The Lure and Lore of Sailing.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006. CD-ROM. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
Bradbury, Malcolm and James McFarlane. Modernism, 1890-1930. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1879.
Harmon, William. “T.S. Eliot.” Microsoft® Encarta® 2006. CD-ROM. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation, 2005.
Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003.
Rothenberg, Jerome and Pierre Joris, eds. Poems for the Millenium: the University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Cite this essay
Kaleidoscopic: An Analysis of “The Wasteland” by T.S. Eliot. (2017, Mar 18). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/kaleidoscopic-an-analysis-of-the-wasteland-by-t-s-eliot-essay