“The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot

Modernist literature is characterized by the rejection of 19th-century traditions, including their consensus between author and reader, and the conventions of realism and traditional meters in works of poetry and literature.  Applied in retrospect, Modernism is a general term that describes a wide-range of experimental trends in literature, and other arts, during the early 20th century.  Modernists conducted various experiments in literature, which includes disrupting the conventional chronological order, and using characters’ stream of consciousness to displace their thoughts. They would also replace traditional exposition with compilations of fragmented images and convoluted allusions. There was a small influential group of American and British poets that implemented a doctrine and poetic practice known as Imagism, which rejected 19th-century poetry due to its excessive verbiage.  It called to keep language free of excessive verbosity and have new clarity and exactness.  Imagism also strove to cultivate directness, building their poems around a single image.  Modernists most often use New Criticism as their literary theory of choice.  They concentrate on the work of art as an object itself and subject it to close reading and analysis.  Modernists regard a poem as an independent and self-sufficient verbal object.  They analyze the meanings and interactions of words, figures of speech, and symbols, and not the historical influence of a poetic work.

One of the most famous modernist poems is T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  A long work divided into five sections, it takes on the degraded mess that he considered modern culture to be, particularly after the first World War had ravaged Europe.  It draws on a broad range of cultural references to depict a modern world that is in ruins, yet somehow it can create fragmented images that are deeply meaningful.  T.S. Eliot’s poetry attempts to bring together the intellectual, the aesthetic, and the emotional in a way that honors the past and acknowledges the present cohesively.  The title character of the poem, Prufrock is solitary, overly intellectual, and utterly incapable of expressing himself to the outside world, which makes him a perfect example of a prototypical modern man.  Europe lost an entire generation of young men to the war.  The aftereffects of World War I challenged the ideas of masculine identity, which caused many artists to question the romantic literary ideals of poetry.   “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” reflects how many men felt emasculated as they returned home from World War I to find women empowered by their new role in the workforce.  T.S. Eliot saw his society as wounded and helpless.  “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” demonstrates the indecisiveness of the speaker as he wonders whether to eat a piece of fruit, make a radical change, or if he has the fortitude to keep on living.  When he is unable to make a decision, Prufrock watches women meander around, and admires their beauty.  T.S. Eliot modernizes the poetic form by removing the implied listeners and focusing on Prufrock’s isolation.

Modernist writers attempted to capture their dramatically changed world in their work, displaying its fractured state with the use of fragments.  “The Waste Land” brings together examples of different elements of literary traditions with scenes from the modern world. The effect of this combination is a reinterpretation of the literary texts and a historical context for T.S. Eliot’s examination of society.  Fragmentation is used throughout “The Waste Land” to demonstrate the turbulence of modern society and to compare different literary texts to each other.  Collaging pieces of dialogue, images, scholarly ideas, foreign words, formal styles, and tones within one poem was a way for T.S. Eliot to represent humanity’s damage and the society that surrounds it. Nearly all of the lines in “The Waste Land” use pieces of an academic work or literary text; it became necessary to have long footnotes in an attempt to explain the references.  Using these fragments, T.S. Eliot tries to highlight popular themes and images in literary tradition.

T.S. Eliot was interested in the divide between high and low society, like most modernist writers, which he symbolized using music. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot merged these two sectors of society with the use of lyrics from an opera by Richard Wagner and songs from pubs and American ragtime music. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is essentially a song itself, with certain lines being repeated. The poem ends with the song of mermaids luring humans to their deaths by drowning.  This ending is a scene that echoes Odysseus’s interactions with the Sirens in the Odyssey. Music then becomes another way in which Eliot references books from past literary traditions. T.S. Eliot uses lyrics as a chorus, echoing the action of the poem, much as the chorus functions in Greek tragedies.

The major theme of “The Waste Land”, center around T.S. Eliot’s reading of two major texts, Jessie Weston’s “From Ritual to Romance” and Sir James Frazier’s “The Golden Bough,” both using the myths of the Fisher King.  The story of the Fisher King, a character wounded in the genitals and whose lack of potency is the cause of his country becoming a wasteland.  The Fisher King is a central character in T.S.  Eliot’s poem.  While writing “The Waste Land,” he drew from many of the ideas from these works for his symbols and images.  T.S. Eliot saw the Fisher King as a symbol of humanity, robbed of its sexual potency in the modern world.  The legends say, heal the Fisher King, and the land will regain its fertility.  T.S. Eliot picks up on the figure of the Fisher King legend’s wasteland as an appropriate description of the state of modern society.  In T.S. Eliot’s world, there is no way to heal the Fisher King.

Throughout the examination of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” it is evident the poem stands on the modernist ideas of its time.  Modernist literature rejects the conventions of the 19th-century, including their consensus between author and reader, and the use of realism and traditional meters in works of poetry and literature.  Applied in retrospect, Modernism is a general term that describes a wide-range of experimental trends in literature, and other arts, during the early 20th century.  Modernists, T.S. Eliot, included, used various new ideas in their written works, including changing the traditional chronological order, and displaying a characters’ thoughts through the stream of consciousness.  Writers would also use fragmented images and complicated allusions instead of traditional exposition. There was a small group of poets that created a doctrine and poetic practice known as Imagism, rejecting 19th-century poetry due to its excessive wordiness.  Imagism called to remove excessive verbosity from language to bring a new clarity and exactness to the works.  This movement also strove to cultivate directness and build poems around a single image.  T.S. Eliot was able to use each of these distinct features throughout his poem, “The Waste Land.”  Each of the five titled sections focuses on a unique idea and uses fragments to create a single image.  Even the poem as a whole only truly creates one image, which is the wasteland that World War I created.


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