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The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot’s 'The Waste Land' is a five-part poem published in 1922. It is considered a cornerstone of English poetry in the modernist tradition and has been highly influential. The poem represents the development of a technique Eliot had used in earlier poems, in particular, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' (1915): the use of ‘dramatic monologue’. The poem is notoriously difficult to understand. 

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The Waste Land

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T.S. Eliot’s 'The Waste Land' is a five-part poem published in 1922. It is considered a cornerstone of English poetry in the modernist tradition and has been highly influential. The poem represents the development of a technique Eliot had used in earlier poems, in particular, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' (1915): the use of ‘dramatic monologue’. The poem is notoriously difficult to understand.

'The Waste Land' summary

'The Waste Land'
Published in:1922
Written by:T.S Eliot
Structure:Five Parts
Rhyme scheme:Free verse
Themes:The effects of WW1 on European civilisation.
Literary devices:Dramatic monologue
Imagery:The desert, water, European cities, rain.

'The Waste Land' background

In 'The Waste Land', Eliot uses the ‘voices’ of ordinary people, alongside heroes from myths and legends, and the great works of European literature and music. In the poem, we meet Madam Sosostris, a clairvoyant, Mr Eugenides a merchant from Smyrna, a female typist and her lover, a middle-class couple caught in a difficult marriage, a group of women in a pub, and a host of other characters.

Historical Context

The Victorian era had come to an abrupt end with the First World War. The stability which had appeared to dominate social life was found to be an illusion. In the place of tradition (social and aesthetic) came new uncertainties. The ideal of steady progression turned out to be empty. The technological advancements which were to bring improved living conditions and progress brought death and misery, as well as social isolation. Eliot's poem attempted to show that all that was left were fragments of the 'old'.

Literary Context

'The Waste land' is a poem in the Modernist tradition. In some ways, it can be said to have set the standard for the movement in poetry.

Modernism was a literary, philosophical and artistic movement which abandoned Victorian traditionalism. It aimed, across these disciplines, to start again, to do something new. In literature, it was associated with fresh poetic expressions, or new ways of writing, like Eliot's free verse or James Joyce's stream of consciousness monologues, like those found in his 1922 novel Ulysses.

'The Waste Land' was important because it signified a turn away from older and more established forms of poetry (those especially known as Romanticism and Victorianism), and dealt with the banal and negative aspects of human experience. The opening line of the poem sets the poem’s course, evoking earlier literary tradition, something which Eliot had done in 'Prufrock' (1915) and would continue to do in later poems like 'Four Quartets' (1943). The poem begins with the words ‘April is the cruellest month…’. This is an echo of the open line of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: (1387-1400) ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote…’.

Romanticism was a literary and artistic movement which emphasised the individual experience and the beauty of the natural world. It arose between the mid-18th to the mid 19th century.

Victorian poetry (Victorianism) was characterised by pessimism and the conflict between science and religion.

Eliot’s aim was to reimagine the literary canon, pulling together the fragments of culture left behind after WW1 into some kind of unity, and in doing so, to preserve Western civilisation. This overall aim is summarised in two of the last lines of the poem: the metaphorical 'fall' of London and the use of the poetic fragments of past tradition to recreate something new in 'The Waste Land':

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down. (Line 426)

And then, a few lines further down:

Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie

These fragments I have shored against my ruins. (Line 430–431)

Aside from the wide range of sources from the English literary canon, Eliot drew on two main external sources for the poem. These were the book From Ritual to Romance (1920) by Jessie Weston and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890). Apart from these, 'The Waste Land' contains many other sources, allusions and references to other works, both literary and musical. The poem was written shortly after WW1 and echoes of this traumatic period can be felt throughout the poem. Eliot wrote 'The Waste Land' because he wanted to explore British life in the post-war years.

Eliot had originally written a much longer version of the poem, but this was edited by Ezra Pound, who removed large chunks, including the first 54 lines. Because of Pound’s influence on the final version, the poem is dedicated to him. In the dedication, Eliot calls Pound ‘the better craftsman’ (Il Miglior Fabro).

'The Waste Land' went through a series of revisions. Originally, it was called ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’. The title was taken from Charles Dickens’ book Our Mutual Friend (1865). But in the end, Eliot went with the title we now know.

'The Waste Land' structure

The poem has five parts:

  1. The Burial of the Dead
  2. A Game of Chess
  3. The Fire Sermon
  4. Death by Water
  5. What the Thunder Said

Each of these parts is subdivided; each subsection is a study of one aspect of post-war England. 'The Waste Land' is written in free or open verse. There is no continuous rhyme scheme, although there are instances of rhyme, normally in couplets.

'The Waste Land' themes

Overall, it is difficult to say what 'The Waste Land' is about because it has multiple themes and offers multiple perspectives. It is about both decay and fertility; it is about mundane human existence and the effects of automation; it is about the city of London and Europe, as well as the mythical past; and it is about the hope of restoration.

The main themes of the poem are the shattering of Enlightenment rationalism. The themes are conveyed through the topography of the poem (the riverside, the desert, the city apartment, the foothills of the Himalayas) as well as in the characters who populate the poem, some real and some mythical or legendary. As for topography, along with places in and around London, there are references in the poem to several other important places, including Paris, Munich, Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, and Vienna. The final part of the poem is set in Northern India. These relate to the centres of European civilisation, philosophy and art, and to the spiritual sources of both western and eastern religions.

Enlightenment rationalism emphasised the use of logic in the pursuit of knowledge, rather than using the senses. It said that although knowledge comes through experience, it was necessary to use reason to experience.

'The Waste Land' characters

There are two key characters in the poem who act as cyphers for the main themes. One of them is named and the other is only alluded to: Tiresias and the Fisher King.

Tiresius is a mythical Greek figure who could see into the future (a clairvoyant) and was also blind. He was changed into a woman for seven years (which is why Eliot refers to him as both blind and as having breasts). 'The Waste Land' is Eliot’s attempt to prophesy, like Tiresius, the downfall of his adopted country (Britain). Through Tiresius, the poem becomes a study of national decay.

The Fisher King comes from Arthurian legend. He is the guardian of the Holy grail and is wounded in the groin. He fishes in a small boat on a river. In the poem, Eliot has him doing exactly that, but on a canal:

While I was fishing in the dull canal

On a winter evening round behind the gashouse

Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck

And on the king my father’s death before him. (Line 189–192)

Because the Fisher King has been wounded in the groin, he is infertile. Eliot uses him as a metaphor for the infertility of the country after the war.

Eliot drew on other sources from literature, including Charles Baudelaire, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Ovid, and Homer, as well as from classical and popular music. In this way, the poem is both high and low-brow. All these sources come together to convey what the author has ‘seen’ (like Tiresias the blind clairvoyant). It is no accident that Eliot had originally used lines from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) as the epitaph of 'The Waste Land': ‘The horror, the horror’. As E.M. Forster said, ‘It is about the fertilizing waters that arrived too late. It is a poem of horror. The earth is barren, the sea salt, the fertilizing thunderstorm broke too late. And the horror is so intense that the poet has inhibition and is unable to state it openly.’ ¹

TS Eliot and 'The Waste Land'

The Waste Land is a bleak poem. Some have said that this is because it is the result of a nervous disorder which Eliot experienced. He took three months off to recover from it and headed to the sea at Margate in Kent to do so. He wrote some of the poem there, and there are some lines about it in the third section, ‘The Fire Sermon’. Eliot’s nervous disorder (he called it a nervous breakdown) can be felt in the lines:

On Margate Sands.

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect

Nothing. (Line 300–305)

There is a feeling of depression in these lines, which some have said is autobiographical.

Eliot’s marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood was difficult, especially because Vivienne suffered from depression. The strain of their marriage may have influenced the second part of the poem, A Game of Chess:

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”. (Line 111–114)

'The Waste Land' quotes

'The Waste Land' is full of memorable quotes. The opening lines are perhaps the most quoted:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain. (Line 1–4)

Other famous lines include:

In the mountains, there you feel free.

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter. (Line 17–18)

And:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,

And the dry stone no sound of water. (Line 19–20)

But perhaps the best-known line is:

I will show you fear in a handful of dust. (Line 30)

The meaning of these lines is debated and uncertain. In fact, to help the reader understand the poem, Eliot provided end notes. It is likely that these end notes are there to flesh out the poem because it was too short to publish on its own, or perhaps as a kind of intellectual game. Books have been written about the purpose of the end notes, as they are uncommon in poetry.

Along with the allusions and references to European cities, Eliot uses a variety of languages. There are sections or lines in German, Russian, French, and Sanskrit. There is even a section in Cockney. The purpose of these is uncertain, but it is possible that, like the poem, they are meant to disorient the reader.

Eliot used a poetic technique called the objective correlative, designed to enable the reader to feel what was meant rather than simply to read about it. There’s a good example of this in these lines:

If there were water

And no rock

If there were rock

And also water

And water

A spring

A pool among the rock

If there were the sound of water only

Not the cicada

And dry grass singing

But sound of water over a rock

Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees

Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop

But there is no water. (Line 346–358)

To describe the absence of water, Eliot describes water in several ways: the repetition of the word ‘water’, a reference to a songbird found near water, and the sound of water dripping. He ends with the words ‘But there is no water’. By using water imagery to describe the lack of water, Eliot evokes thirst or a longing for water in the reader. There is an ‘objective’ correlation between the words on the page and the feelings evoked by the words on the page.

The philosophy of 'The Waste Land'

Eliot's revolutionary poem says that life has fractured because of the war, technology, and the ensuing isolation of both. Modern life is a disaster, affecting social norms and traditions, communities, the landscape, and with no remedy in sight. There is a distant hope, but it does not materialise in the poem. It is the promise of rain, and of peace, symbolised by the spiritual statement at the end of the poem:

Shantih, shantih, shantih' (Line 433)

This is an incantation. It is not the realisation of peace, but the declaration that there should be peace and fertility in the land.

The Waste Land - Key takeaways

  • Eliot wrote 'The Waste Land' in Margate, where he was recovering from a nervous disorder.
  • 'The Waste Land' was published in 1922.
  • After WW1, Europe was in a state of destruction. 'The Waste Land' attempts to convey this.
  • The poem is structured into five parts, with each subsection a study of one aspect of post-war England.
  • The poem was influenced by the myths of The Fisher King, an Arthurian legend, and Tiresias, a figure from Greek mythology.

References

  1. E. M. Forster, T.S Eliot, Abinger Harvest, 1940

Frequently Asked Questions about The Waste Land

Eliot’s aim was to reimagine the literary canon, pulling together the fragments of culture left behind after WW1 into some kind of unity, and in doing so, to preserve Western civilisation. 

It is about both decay and fertility; it is about mundane human existence and the effects of automation; it is about the city of London and Europe, as well as the mythical past; and it is about the hope of restoration.

'The Waste Land' is so important because it was the start of a new way of writing poetry. It was unique because it abandoned Victorian poetic styles.  

'The Waste Land' represents Britain and Europe after the end of WW1. The 'wasteland' is a metaphor for social ruin and decay. 

This can be summarised as: everything has been ruined, but there is hope. 

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