The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot is the most influential poem of the 20th century. It first appeared in the magazine The Dial. Later on, having won that magazine’s poetry award for the year, it was published in a book form in 1922. Soon after its publication, the poem was subjected to exhaustive critical analysis and got a mixed reception. Some critics hailed it as a masterpiece that spoke for a generation of lost souls, while others denounced it for its allusiveness. The reader can find ample exegesis of almost every line of the poem, including translations of the phrases in half a dozen foreign languages. In this post, my concern is to discuss with you The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, its analysis and various aspects.
1.The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot: Introduction
Cleanth Brooks describes The Waste Land as a ‘highly condensed epic of the modern age’. The poem truly depicts life in London in the aftermath of the First World War. Eliot gives a vivid description of the ravages caused by the First World War. He has written The Waste Land in 433 lines and divided it into five sections. The poem is enormously complex, making great demands upon the readers. Still, the importance of its theme and the brilliance of its technique give it a high rank as one of the most significant works of modern literature.
Eliot has used several devices in The Waste Land to link the present with the past. He has used various myths and legends with the help of allusions, symbols, quotations and phrases. The poem is, in fact, a mixture of many styles like narrative, dramatic, lyric & allusive. Eliot gives his impressions about the modern people through a protagonist of the poem named Tiresias. He is a spectator of all the events occurring in the poem and a kind of all knowing universal person who belongs to the past as well as the present.
1.1 How does Eliot describe the ‘Physical Wasteland’ in his poem?
The Waste Land is a city inhabited by a civilization suffering from spiritual decay and degeneration. The poem opens with a picture of the world after World War I, a picture depicting the frustration and failure of modern society. The poet asks:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?
It is obvious that nothing can grow out of this barren civilization. The poet has given us a realistic picture of the spiritual and moral chaos and decay of European society. He brings about sharp contrasts between the past and the present through the employment of various myths and allusions. For instance, he gives us the deliberately rich description of the Renaissance (with its echoes of Anthony and the Cleopatra), set against the equally deliberately banal scene in a pub.
The poet uses the same technique in the third section as well. Here, he presents a rich contrast between the vulgar seduction of the typist by the ‘small house agents clerk’ and the glimpses of Elizabeth and Leicester sailing on Spenser’s ‘sweet Thames.’ The poet depicts that the old civilization with its values and conventions is dead and gone, leaving only a ‘heap of broken images’. Now nothing seems to grow out of this stony and barren wasteland. Its isolation, loneliness, machine-like routine, and materialism have made it an unreal city. The wilderness of the wasteland depicted is symbolic of the spiritual barrenness of the modern world.
All of this is seen by Tiresias who is a most important personage of the poem. Since he has experienced life both as a man and a woman, he can better understand and explain their feelings and unite all the characters in the poem. Eliot himself said that: “what Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.” He is, in fact, a string that unites all the five sections of the poem just like a variety of flowers in a garland. Eliot has used various ancient myths in the poem to reinforce the idea of regeneration through suffering and death.
1.2 What do the Five Sections of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land Correspond to?
T. S. Eliot has divided The Waste Land into five sections under the following titles:
(I) The Burial of the Dead, (II) A Game of Chess, (III) The fire Sermon, (IV) Death by water, and
(V) What the Thunder Said.
1.2.1 Section I: The Burial of the Dead
The first section, The Burial of the Dead, reveals the degeneration and rootlessness of the modern man and his civilization. The modern man has lost faith in moral spiritual values. He has indulged himself in sex, gambling and violence, which have dried up sources of his vitality. His rebirth is possible only through the revival of spiritual and moral values.
1.2.2 Section II: A Game of Chess
In the second section, A Game of Chess, the poet indicates the failure of sex-relationship in the modern world. Sex has become a mere act of entertainment and has lost its moral and social purpose. The poet shows that sex perversities, both in high and low life, have become a matter of mechanical routine. This perversion of sex has made modern life utterly unproductive and desolate.
1.2.3 Section III: The Fire Sermon
The third section, The Fire Sermon, shows that lust and rape are responsible for the decay of modern society. And this kind of degeneration prevails in all classes of modern society. The poet prays to God to save the modern civilization from lust and spiritual degeneration.
1.2.4 Section IV: Death by Water
In the fourth section, Death by Water, the poet has suggested the significance of water as a means of purification and rebirth. He has also made two associations there. The first one is from Shakespeare’s The Tempest while the other one is from the ancient Egyptian myth of the god of fertility. The death of Phlebas, the Greek sailor, throws light on the life of people of modern people who devote themselves to worldly pursuit and meet death. There is no rebirth for such people because their life is devoid of moral values.
1.2.5 Section V: What the Thunder Said
The fifth section, entitled What the Thunder Said, suggests that there is a need of effort for the realization of the spiritual goal. The poet gives his own personal impression here. He says that it is impossible to reform the whole world and wonders where the change should begin from. Then he says that he must start with himself. He prescribes three remedies to gain spiritual peace and bliss, and ends the poem on a note of hope.
2. The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot: Analysis
The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot is a historical landmark in English poetry and a basic document on contemporary society. It mirrors the post-war generation. The poet reveals the disillusionment caused by the First World War. He also shows his dissatisfaction with the so-called scientific achievements and industrial progress of Europe.
2.1. The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot: Analysis as a Social Document
The Waste Land a social document of Eliot’s times. It throws light on the living conditions, problems, and perplexities of people belonging to different sections of society in the modern world. In the poem, the poet doesn’t enamor the golden past nor does he sigh for the vanished glory of the past. He is neither an escapist nor a romanticist; rather, he is a stern realist. The allusions and myths are not there to celebrate the glorious past. On the contrary, they are there to show that mankind has always suffered on account of sin and moral laxity.
The Waste Land reflects the disillusionment and barrenness of the post-war generation. Various critics have remarked about the poems in different words. According to F. R. Leavis, The Waste Land shows “a rich disorganization”. He further comments that it is a ‘vision of desolation and spiritual drought’. I. A. Richards considers the poems as ‘the plight of the whole generation. While Cleanth Brooks calls it ‘a sigh for the vanished glory of the past.
2.1.1 Lack of Spiritual Significance and Perversion of Sex
The poem gives several glimpses of the lives of people who are lacking spiritual significance. Their life is dull, purposeless and lethargic. Even their sex life is mechanical and tedious. The poet clearly reveals that sex perversity is prevailing among all sections of society. In the modern world, sex has been perverted from its proper function and is utilized for animal pleasure and monetary benefits. It has led modern man towards decay, degeneration and disease. This has resulted in the erosion of moral values and hindered man’s spiritual progress.
2.1.2 Glimpses of All Sections of Modern Society
Eliot gives various instances of perversion of sex, rootlessness, and lack of spirituality prevailing in all sections of modern society. There is a German princess in the first section representing the aristocratic class. She is sensual, superficial and rootless. Her narration and experiences show that she is a representative of cosmopolitan society which is in search of physical enjoyment and recreation. The fashionable lady whose drawing room is mentioned with all its beauty and glamour in the second section is also a representative of elite class. She is over sensitive, sensual, mentally exhausted, and bored with her own life. Her lover, too, suffers from mental exhaustion and thinks that they’re ‘in a rat’s alley/Where the dead men lost their bones’. (L. 115-16: The Waste Land)
Among the males of the upper strata of society include the city executives, a rich merchant, and arch-duke. The city executives are having fun with the girls at the picnic spot near the river Thames. The rich merchant, Mr. Eugenides, represents the commercial section of the society and delights in homosexuality and perversity of sex.
Then there is a fortune teller, Madame Sosostris, who represents the middle class and entertains people with her tricks. While the lower class representatives are Lil, a typist girl, and the three daughters of river Thames. Lit is a woman whose husband has just returned from the army and wants to have a good time with her. She is tired of her life and tells her friend that her abortions have ruined her health. She feels broken both physically and mentally. The typist girl belongs to the working class and has a meaningless routine and mechanical sex relations. Then there is the song of the three daughters of Thames who lost their virginity at the hands of several people.
2.1.3 How does Eliot sum up Europe’s lack of spiritual significance?
Eliot sums up Europe’s lack of spiritual significance through the words of St. Augustine:
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
(L.307-308: The Waste Land)
These lines suggest that the whole of Europe is being destroyed by the fire of sexuality. The poet believes that the degeneration of the modern society is due to sex-perversion , and violation of the sanctity of sex and dignity of woman. He also believes that moral discipline and self-control are the remedies to overcome the fire of lust.
2.1.4 Loss of Faith, Moral Values, and Compassion
The Waste Land shows that in the modern world, Christian values, faith and compassion are no longer regarded as objects of life. Instead of God, people worship money. They go to the church merely as a matter of routine. Hypocrisy and flattery are at the core of modern society. Merit has lost its value. All this has resulted in general deterioration and decay of the standards of life:
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
(L. 382-384: The Waste Land)
The Waste Land shows that exploitation has become the characteristic of modern society. People have become selfish, egoistic, and unsympathetic. There is no sentiment of sympathy and compassion in modern society. People only think of their own interests and gains at the expense of others. Eliot mentions this in the last section of the poem:
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.
(L. 180-81: The Waste Land)
Here the poet says that people in the modern world are imprisoned in their own selves. They have lost the key to compassion and brotherhood. They are now merely the embodiment of selfishness.
2.2 Depiction of Disillusionment in The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot
A close analysis of the poem reveals that the First World War did not solve the problem of Europe. On the contrary, it resulted in the establishment of communism in Russia in October 1917 which shook the very foundations of European civilization. The communists killed lots of people and brought in a new system of government under Lenin. This kind of Godless organization affected the faith of many Christian nations. The secular democracy, commercial interests, mechanical and technological progress eroded man’s faith in religion, moral values, and self-development.
What people wanted from the Great War and what they have got from it are two entirely different experiences. This has, thus, resulted in the disconnected or disillusioned Waste Land. The war and subsequent events have led to dislocation among many European capitals. A number of refugees began to move all over Europe in search of food and shelter. The poem suggests that communism isn’t a solution to the problems of Europe. There is a dire need for new values that could save the decaying civilization. Thus, The Waste Land has depicted how the pre-war aesthetic fantasy was destroyed by the industrial and material power contained within the brutal reality of World War I.
2.3 Parallelism of Past and the Present
In The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot has made several references to the past in order to highlight the similarities of the problems of both the ages. He has also shown how the experiences of the past can help in finding solutions to the problems of the modern world.
Eliot has made references to the past through the utilization of symbols and allusions to various myths and legends. He wants the reader to understand the spiritual barrenness and paralysis of the modern world by comparing it with the similar conditions in the history of mankind. This is because the history of civilization contains several lessons for the whole of mankind. For instance, the stories of King Oedipus and King Fisher show that their land suffered from drought and barrenness due to sin and moral laxity.
One of the parallelisms mentioned in the poem shows that Cleopatra’s love was robust and intense. Her love involved her whole being and she was even ready to suffer for her love. Whereas, in today’s society, we see that the typist girl has no emotional involvement in the sexual act. She takes it as a mere routine act devoid of any feeling or attachment. This parallelism of past and the present makes the sterility and barrenness of modern civilization rather more vivid and poignant.
Eliot’s comparison of the present and the past is meant to underline the need of faith and mortality. He is primarily concerned with man’s spiritual condition and finds that the past has an edge over the present in this matter. His poem covers the history of mankind and analyses the similarities and differences between different epochs. It deals with the tragedy of man’s life—his struggle between good and evil—and how the tragedy can be averted if man becomes serious about his own destiny.
2.4 The Waste land by T. S. Eliot : Analysis of Structure
The structure of the poem plays a major part in enhancing its overall greatness. With the development of thought, the poem digs deeper and deeper into the ailments of the modern age. The five sections of the poem are like a symphony of five movements. The musical quality of The Waste Land has compelled I. A. Richards to remark about the poem as being a ‘music of ideas’. Moreover, at the core of the poem’s structure lies the concept of the law of nature i.e., birth-death-rebirth.
Eliot has made a skillful use of short and long lines. He has also modified conventional iambic meter according to the need of context. The rhyme scheme is not regular. Words and phrases are repeated to emphasize mental blankness and emptiness of life. The use of alliteration and onomatopoeia intensifies the musical effect of the poem.
The poem also contains different kinds of music. For instance, there is music of church clock mixed up with the gay tune of the mandoline played in the pub. Then there is the music of water—’Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop’(L. 357) — which is different from the music of the grass singing in the wing.
In the poem, there is also the shift in time and setting. For example, Eliot suddenly jumps from the Italian shore to the Queen Victoria Street in London. Moreover, all the quotations from Latin, French, Italian, and other writers are quite appropriate to the purpose of the poem. The clever use of allusions and symbols and various devices has rendered the poem with vitality and strength.
2.5 Theme of The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot: Analysis
The theme of The Waste Land is complex and composite. It deals with the diseases of contemporary society and evils lurking at the core of modern civilization. The poem contains a clear picture of the collapse of civilization. The civilization of the cities is rootless. The people there have no tradition. They are just masses from different sections and groups without any unifying culture of ideas. The tower of Eden’s Alexandria, Vienna, and London are falling. The only way to save urban civilization is through suffering, prayer, and sacrifice.
The Waste land highlights the social, cultural and moral decay of modern civilization due to the commercialization of life where everything is for sale. There is a question of profit and loss even in the matter of love. People have lost faith and moral values. They are suffering from various types of mental illnesses due to the worries, anxieties, and challenges of modern life. Thus, the theme of the poem is essentially the spiritual experience of man. At the core of the poem is the Christian doctrine of re-birth through prayer and suffering, thus evoking the theme of resurrection as well.
The last section of the poem, What the Thunder Said, contains the substance of Eliot’s thoughts. The poet suggests that rebirth of civilization is possible only through the revival of faith. He illustrates this point through the successful journey of the Knight who reached the Chapel Perilous. The story of the two pilgrims and Christ also illustrates how faith can lead to the success of mankind.
Besides, the poet also draws on ancient Indian history when northern India suffered from drought and famine. The people then prayed to Prajapati for help. The god answered their prayer and spoke three words—Da Da Da— through thunder. These words reveal the secret of modern man’s spiritual rebirth. The first Da means Datta (to give). It suggests that people must dedicate themselves to a worthwhile cause. The second Da means Dayadhvam (to sympathize). It suggests that people must sympathize with others. They must give up their ego and isolation and work for the good of the community. This alone can bring spiritual satisfaction. The third Da means Damyata (self-control). It shows that discipline of mind is necessary for spiritual achievement. Control over one’s desire leads to satisfaction and spiritual bliss.
The poem ends on a note of hope. The poet believes that all is not lost and there are still chances of the salvation of mankind. It is only possible if each individual begins looking after his own self-purification. At the end, the poet comes to the conclusion that he must start the process of self-purification from himself. He decides to follow the three principles of spiritual rebirth in his own life with a hope that it will lead to a better future.