There is no question that fragmentation is an important motif throughout The Wasteland. The entire poem is an odorous potpourri of dialogue, images, scholarly ideas, foreign words, formal styles, and tones. The reader’s journey through this proverbial wasteland is a trying one, to say the least. Unless one is endowed with a depthless wealth of literary knowledge, Eliot’s cornucopia of allusions and overzealous use of juxtaposition may leave them in a state of utter confusion. Luckily, there is hope for the wearied reader.
At the close of his poem, Eliot presents his readers with a small offering: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”. This line, presented in the midst of seemingly nonsensical fragments, serves as a clue to Eliot’s intentions. Indeed, it is my belief that this line is the ultimate declaration of Eliot’s poetic project. Before I begin treating the aforementioned words as the magical key to unlocking The Wasteland, I believe it important to understand what they actually mean.
What is speaker really saying in this infamous passage? There are two important dimensions to the line, one slightly more obvious than the other. Firstly, the speaker has something to proffer—fragments. So then, why are fragments—these illusive, nonsensical pieces of nothingness— something worthy of being shored? Secondly, the speaker is implying that, even in the face of madness or ruin, it is still possible to create art.
Despite ruin, the speaker has a gift for the reader—fragments. So then, this leaves the reader with a burning question—why on earth are fragments something to be gifted? How can a fragment be seen as something of value, and what message was Eliot trying to convey to the reader through his use of these fragments? Firstly, Eliot used fragmentation in his poetry to demonstrate the chaotic, ruinous state of modern existence and to juxtapose a myriad of literary texts against one another.
In Eliot’s view, the collective psyche of humanity had been completely shattered by the devastations of World War I and the decay of the British Empire. By collaging bits and pieces of dialogue together within one sprawling poetic work, Eliot was able to paint a vivid picture of the brokenness of humanity and the modern world. By barraging us with an onslaught of sensory perceptions, Eliot throws the reader into a state of confusion. Indeed, the first stanza of The Wasteland illustrates the point quite nicely: April is the cruellest month, breeding.
Within the first seven lines of the poem, the reader is presented with a traditional, conventional poem that adheres to a set rhyme and meter. However, this feeling of normalcy doesn’t last long. Suddenly and without warning, the foreign, German words “Starnbergersee” and “Hofgarten” appear, robbing the reader of a sense of familiarity. Then, Eliot throws everything completely off-course in line twelve with the German phrase “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch. ” However, just as quickly as the poem dissolves into complete foreignness, it lurches back into the realm of convention.
The above lines revert to a previous pattern with the use of “And I… ”, “And down… ”, “And when…. ” This return to convention seemingly restores a sense of order. There is a definite ebb and flow in The Wasteland—Eliot juxtaposes conventional poetic form with unconventional poetic form Likewise, he uses utilizes both the German and the English language. After the first few stanzas of the poem, readers are bound to feel jolted and somewhat overwhelmed by Eliot’s avant-garde poetic approach.
Indeed, while reading The Wasteland, I myself am oftentimes overcome with the burning desire to scream heavenwards, “What on earth is going on here? ” When I’m not grappling with incomprehensible German words, my mind is being twisted with oxymoronic, juxtaposed imagery. Fertility is tangling with death, tulips spring from dead earth, and winter is presented as a source of warmth—none of these images make any sense at all! To further the confusion, there seems to be a considerable lack of clarity throughout these opening lines.
Despite my careful analysis, I am unable to draw a clear conclusion as to who is speaking and how many speakers are present! Not even twenty lines into the poem, and my psyche feels considerably damaged. However, I believe this—this damaged, broken feeling— is exactly what Eliot intended his readers to feel. Eliot takes his readers on a journey through the decay of the twentieth century. However, he doesn’t just tell them about it—he recreates the sensation within their minds. The meaning of the poem is not found in the words themselves—the meaning is found in the lack of apparent meaning.
One of the aims of this poem is to make the reader feel confusion, feel conflict, and feel brokenness and cynicism. Instead of focusing on what the fragmentation means, it is beneficial to simply focus on the idea of fragmentation itself. The fragments and the chaos are a demonstration of brokenness. Another application of fragmentation in The Wasteland is to teach readers the importance of literary history. Eliot held a great respect and reverence for myth and the Western literary canon. Indeed, his work is packed to the brim with quotations and scholarly exegeses.
Nearly every single line in The Wasteland echoes another academic work that is considered a canonical literary text. To illustrate just how dense The Wasteland can be, let us examine lines ninety-eight and ninety-nine from “A Game of Chess”: As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene 98 The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king 99 Just within these two lines, Eliot has referenced two important literary works. The words “sylvan scene” refer to Milton’s Paradise Lost, while the following line references Metamorphoses by Ovid.
As you can see, you cannot throw a stone within The Wasteland without hitting an allusion. Even though Eliot makes his poem almost impossible to digest, he does throw his readers a bone by providing them with long, explanatory footnotes. These footnotes were written as an attempt to explain his references and to encourage readers to educate themselves by delving deeper into his sources. Because these echoes and references are presented to the reader as fragments, the text is almost completely inaccessible upon first read.
Eliot very craftily provides readers with parts, rather than whole texts from the canon, forcing them to become active participants in the poem. If one is to truly understand what Eliot is saying, they must look to the canon! Another interesting technique employed by Eliot is his use of juxtaposition. Eliot takes fragments of literary and mythic traditions and mashes them up with scenes and sounds from modern life. As an example, let us examine the closing lines of the poem: London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down 426 Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina 427.
Eliot goes from referencing a popular children’s song in line 426—“London Bridge Is Falling Down”—to directly quoting The Divine Comedy in line 427. Line 428 mashes words from the ancient poem Pervigilium Veneris with the lines from nineteenth century Tennyson! So then, what is the point of this juxtaposition? It is my belief that Eliot was attempting to integrate the canon into contemporary poetry. He very careful inserted the most essential bits of the past into his modernist poem in an attempt at enlightening readers.
The end result is a poetic collage thatserves as both a reinterpretation of canonical texts and a historical context for his examination of society and humanity. William Carlos Williams referred to The Wasteland as “the great catastrophe”. While I find it grim and depressing, I do not believe that it is entirely devoid of hope. In fact, I read the line “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” as a consolation of sorts.